SAN ANTONIO — The Spurs got the best of both worlds — an up-tempo game and 15 points out of Tim Duncan rolling to the rim — and that got them a 54-49 lead over the Heat at the half of Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
It was a tightly contested half, but the Spurs at home are just executing at a level the Heat have not had to face coming out of the Eastern Conference. Their passing was crisp and it led to 50% shooting overall for the Spurs — plus they were 7-of-14 from three. Manu Ginobili has 11 for the Spurs, Tony Parker 10.
Miami has 13 points from LeBron James on 5-of-9 shooting, a dozen points from Dwyane Wade, 10 each for Chris Bosh and Ray Allen.
It’s a myth that the Spurs want to play slow and the Heat fast, over the course of the season it was the opposite (Spurs one of 10 fastest, Heat one of five slowest) and in what had to be a good sign the first half was played at the Spurs pace.
Miami went small from the opening tip, staring Rashard Lewis at the four and Bosh at center. Gregg Popovich stayed, big, with Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan as the front line, although Boris Diaw came off the bench for 17 minutes and we are going to see a lot of him (maybe starting the second half).
Miami raced out to 7-2 lead thanks to Bosh hitting his first two shots, but Spurs settled down and came back quickly, leading to a tight first quarter.
What kept the Spurs ahead was Ginobili, who went 3-3 from beyond the arc early, which electrified the AT&T Center. Heat’s defense not as consistent this playoffs but this level of Spurs ball movement and shooting would expose anyone.
If the Heat are going to win Game 1 in a very warm AT&T Center (conditioning will be an issue for players, it’s hot in here and not in a Nelly way) they are going to need LeBron James to be the best player on the planet. Because at home the Spurs will be the Spurs and that has been a force at home.
LeBron James wanted back on the court. He saw the glimpses of what this current roster can do when healthy and focused — the same glimpses that have Laker exceptionalism running strong in Los Angeles — and he sees a West without a dominant team. Together those things mean opportunity.
LeBron could have shut it down when he felt something pop in his foot last month, admitting that two doctors told him to get surgery. However, the “LeBron James of foot doctors” told him he could be back this season — and he made that return Sunday. Still, LeBron admitted he could need off-season surgery.
“I don’t know. Right now, I don’t need it, so we’ll see what happens. I’ll probably get another MRI at the end of the season and go from there. But if I end up having to get surgery after the season, you guys won’t know. I don’t talk to you guys in the offseason, and by the time next season starts, I’ll be fine. I’ll be ready to go.”
As for what motivated him to get back on the court this season and not shut it down.
“Now we sitting at a chance to be able to… to hell with the play-in, we actually can be a top-[six] seed. That definitely changed my mindset on me coming back and trying to be a part of this, obviously, so — well, I don’t really want to say changed my mindset, it just enhanced what I was trying to do as far as my workouts, as far as my treatment and everything”
The Lakers sit tied for 9/10 in the West, one game below .500. While LeBron can say, “to hell with the play-in,” his Lakers would need help from the Clippers or Warriors to climb into the top six even though they are only 1.5 games back (time is short for L.A., if the Warriors or Clippers go 4-3 the rest of the way, the Lakers need to go 6-2 over their last eight). Los Angeles also is just a game up on Dallas for the 11 seed, and if the losses pile up they could fall out of the play-in completely.
With LeBron back, missing the play-in is unlikely. But having him back (and eventually a healthy D'Angelo Russell, who was out Sunday with a hip issue) also is no guarantee of wins — the Lakers still need peak Anthony Davis to compete. When he has a solid game of 15 points, nine rebounds and five assists (as he did Sunday), they lose. The Lakers need bubble Davis every night, or even if they make the postseason it will be short-lived.
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This was unexpected, especially after crew chief Kevin Scott said after the game last night: “Doncic was assessed a technical foul for his use of profanity directed at the officials in protest to a no-call that was correctly judged in postgame video review.”
The NBA league office reviewed the incident (as it does with all technicals) and rescinded what would have been Luka Doncic’s 16th technical.
That 16th technical would have triggered an automatic one game suspension. With it rescinded, Dončić is clear to play Monday night when the Mavericks take on the Pacers.
Sunday night in Charlotte, Dončić was given a technical when he didn’t get a call on a leaning baseline jumper and said something to the nearby official.
This incident comes days after Dončić was fined $35,000 for making a money gesture towards a referee in frustration after a Mavericks loss.
Through all this the Mavericks have lost four straight, 7-of-9, and have slid back to 11th in the West, outside even the play-in. Their team is disintegrating and if they don’t pick up some wins fast they have less than two weeks until they are on summer vacation.
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Recently Joel Embiid said,” ‘If I win MVP, good. If I don’t, it’s fine with me.” Today’s news plays right into that narrative.
Embiid has been playing through calf tightness for a few games now — he only played a half against the Bulls last Wednesday — but still putting up numbers (46 points against the Warriors, 28 and 10 against the Suns). However, there had been some concern in the organization about not pushing things and making sure Embiid is healthy for the playoffs. Which is why they will rest him on Monday night, short-circuiting an MVP-race showdown against Nikola Jokić and the Nuggets. Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN broke the news and John Clarke of NBC Sports Philadelphia has confirmed it.
Embiid did go through part of the 76ers’ shootaround this morning. The decision was made after that point.
Undoubtedly this will spark the load management discussion around the league again, and Embiid is going to take heat for this — but this is a situation where the team’s medical staff made the call, likely over Embiid’s objection.
From the 76ers perspective what matters is having Embiid healthy during the playoffs — they are going nowhere without him — and there is no reason to take undue risks with the team all but locked into the No. 3 seed in the East.
James Harden is still expected to make his return to action Monday from a three-game absence.
But it robs fans — including those who bought tickets in Denver — of one of the great showdowns in the league, and one of the more anticipated games of the season’s final weeks. The NBA has to find a way to balance player health with having their best players on the court for the biggest games. Keep telling fans the regular season doesn’t matter and they will start treating it like that.
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Joel Embiid is the MVP betting favorite — -160 at our partner PointsBet — heading into Monday’s showdown with the reigning two-time MVP Nikola Jokić (+180 at PointsBet).
Embiid campaigned for the MVP award the past couple of years but came up second to Jokić. This season, Embiid is not stressing about it. Or at least trying not to stress about it. Here is what Embiid told Shams Charania of The Athletic.
What matters — it’s just about winning, winning, winning. I’ve been focused on that. We’ve been doing that. Whatever happens, happens. If I win MVP, good. If I don’t, it’s fine with me.
Why hasn’t Embiid won the MVP? Outside of Jokić also being deserving and the complaints of Antetokounmpo and others that the criteria for the award are constantly changing (which suggests there are criteria for the award, but there are none officially), Embiid thinks it’s because he is not well-liked.
People always thought that I was crazy when I said this — I really believe that I’m not well-liked. And it’s cool with me, that’s fine. I’ll be the bad guy. I like being the a–hole anyway. I like being the underdog. So that’s fine with me. My thing is … when I leave the game, I want to make sure that they say: No one was stopping him offensively and defensively, and he was a monster.
There’s no doubt he will leave the game remembered as one of the great 76ers and a “monster” on both ends when healthy. However, resume matters with legacy and an MVP award helps with that. Just not as much as being the best player on a championship team, something more difficult to pull off because it requires a lot of help (it’s up for debate whether Embiid has the help he needs around him to win it all, and if they can stay healthy enough to make that run).
This season the MVP race is a tight three-way contest between Embiid, Jokić and Giannis Antetokounmpo (+450 at PointsBet). There are legitimate cases to be made for each member of this trio. However, with the Sixers surging (and the Nuggets stumbling a little), things may break his way this season.
Another dominant performance against Jokić with just a couple of weeks left in the season would stick in voters’ minds and help his cause.
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