NBA Finals Game 5 preview, Heat at Spurs: Miami tries to put River Walk party on hold

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SAN ANTONIO — The Miami Heat were relaxed.

The day after a Game 4 loss that left them bewildered Ray Allen spent the day on a bike ride, going 14 miles or so from his Coral Gables home, picking up some lunch along the way, just getting outside and clearing his head. The rest of the Heat did something similar, whatever it was it was not basketball. Friday they took a day off.

Miami is down 3-1, on the brink of elimination at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs heading into Sunday night’s Game 5, but when they showed up in San Antonio Saturday afternoon they were surprisingly relaxed and confident.

Last year they faced two elimination games in the Finals against the Spurs, yet won them both. This year it will take three in a series that feels different after San Antonio won the last two games convincingly. But the Heat acted like a team that has been through plenty of adversity and been to four straight Finals. They acted like they have been there before.

That means either they have found their groove, their energy that they can bring for 48 minutes this time, that they are ready to fight for this series.

Or they are resigned to their fate.

“Why not us?” LeBron James asked. “History is broken all the time. And obviously we know we’re against the greatest of odds. No team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals, but there was a point where no team came back from a 2-0… There was a point where no team came back from a 31 deficit in the Western Conference Finals, and then Phoenix did it. One of our teammates was on that team, James Jones….

“So history is made to be broken, and why not me be a part of it? That would be great.”

“What we talked about is we’re not so entitled or jaded that we’re above having to fight for it, and that’s what it is right now,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said.

As it has been throughout this series, the questions for Miami in Game 5 at the defensive end — their pressure and rotations have not been able to keep up with the Spurs ball movement.

“Regardless (of how we played the pick-and-roll) it felt like we were a step slow on all our rotations, closing out to the three point, the low man getting to the big on the rolls,” Rashard Lewis said. “We was just always late, they were a step faster.”

Even when Miami did make the right rotations it didn’t matter — San Antonio shot 64.7 percent on contested shots in Game 4, 61.5 percent in Game 3 (stats via the NBA’s player tracking SportsVU cameras). San Antonio just is not missing.

One thing Miami is counting on to come back is a regression to the mean — San Antonio can’t keep shooting like this, can they? No, not over a long stretch of games they couldn’t, but that’s also not what the Spurs need. They just need one more.

Miami’s problem is after 13 games between these teams since the start of last year’s Finals the Spurs have grown accustomed to and comfortable with the Heat defense — Miami tries to use their athleticism to overwhelm, force turnovers and rushed shots. The Spurs have seen it — and they saw the same tactics from Dallas and Oklahoma City these playoffs — and it doesn’t faze them anymore. Plus, an older, banged-up Miami team doesn’t dial up the same pressure it did the past couple playoffs.

In the face of that pressure the Spurs no longer lose their offensive balance and unpredictability — all five guys are live, all five guys are a threat on every play.

“Everybody’s dangerous on our team,” Boris Diaw explained. “Everybody can score at any time. It’s not like a pattern, like some times you do scouting on a team and you say ‘Who’s the head of the snake, who’s the guy who’s going to score?’ You keep them from scoring and you’re going to win the game. With us it’s a little bit different, anybody can score on any given night. You saw that during the whole regular season. One night Patty Mills is the leading scorer on our team, some times it’s Danny (Green), sometimes it’s Tony (Parker), sometimes it’s Manu (Ginobili), sometime’s it’s Tim (Duncan). It can be anyone.”

Tony Parker leads the Spurs in scoring in the Finals averaging 18.5 points a game on 50.9 percent shooting — those are not gaudy numbers. The Spurs have talent — Tim Duncan is arguably the greatest power forward ever to play the game, Kawhi Leonard is a Finals MVP favorite exploding on the scene, Manu Ginobili just keeps making plays — but they all put their ego aside for the team.

When you asked Miami players what they need to do differently you got variations of their standard answer — we just need to do what we do better. We likely will see some rotation changes — Ray Allen started the second half of Game 4 and expect he starts Game 5, we also could see some Shane Battier — but the fact is Miami’s depth is limited. Plus guys they count on to step up, Mario Chalmers and Chris Andersen in particular, have not. That’s not even mentioning Dwyane Wade aging before our eyes and Chris Bosh needing to be more aggressive when he gets his chances. It’s pretty much been LeBron James against the world, and no team ever won the Larry O’Brien trophy that way. Just like no team has ever come from 3-1 down in the Finals to win.

“But you can’t start thinking about two games ahead, three games ahead, all of that,” Spoelstra said on Saturday. “It’s just about tomorrow.”

If the Heat don’t there will be a parade down the River Walk just a few tomorrows after that.

LaMelo Ball reportedly wants to play for New York Knicks

LaMelo Ball Knicks
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Ultimately, LaMelo Ball does not control where he plays basketball next season. On Aug. 25 the ping pong balls will determine the NBA’s draft order, then on Oct. 16 a team will select Ball and he will have to play in that city (or sit out all organized basketball for a year so he can re-enter the draft, which will not help his stock).

New York is reportedly high on Ball. It turns out, LaMelo Ball wants to play for the Knicks — shocking, I know — reports Ian Begley of SNY.TV.

As teams do their homework on players in the draft, there’s been a consistent theme about LaMelo Ball: multiple teams believe Ball and those in his circle prefer that he lands in New York. (Those teams have picks projected later in the first round than the Knicks, for what it’s worth.)

LaMelo’s father LaVar has said as much, very loudly, but nobody takes what he says terribly seriously. Plus, again, ultimately LaVar and LaMelo do not control the process. The ping pong balls and picks will fall where they may.

LaMelo is considered a likely top-five pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. The Knicks have a 37.2% chance of landing a top-four pick, where they have a shot at selecting Ball. They also have a 50.4% chance of selecting seventh or eighth, when he is likely off the board (and whether Ball is worth trading up for is up for debate… at best).

NBC’s own Rob Dauster has said LaMelo Ball has the highest upside of any player in the 2020 NBA Draft. The potential for stardom, especially in the modern game, is there. He’s a 6’7″ guard with impressive handles and elite court vision, which combine to make him dangerous initiating the pick-and-roll. Ball’s supporters see a ceiling of a Trae Young, All-Star level of offensive impact for Ball.

Whether Ball can reach that ceiling is another question entirely. He lacks a consistent shot, especially from deep — he shot 37.5% overall and 25% from three in Australia.  In addition, his decision making needs work, his defense is unimpressive (and he seems disinterested), and there are lingering questions about his work ethic.

Ball is the classic high risk/high reward player — maybe he can be developed into an elite star, but his floor is also pretty low.

Knicks fans can debate amongst themselves if LaMelo Ball is the kind of player they need, but New York is where he wants to be.

NBA gets coronavirus test results quickly, unlike much of nation. Should they?

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The NBA’s entire bubble restart plan is built on testing — upon arrival in Orlando, players are quarantined in their rooms until they pass two coronavirus tests 24 hours apart, then they will be tested daily. Commissioner Adam Silver was clear during the planning of the league’s restart that if the league were taking coronavirus tests away from hot spots and people who needed them, then there would be no restart. The league took its PR hit on that back in March when teams were tested while people wondering if they had COVID-19 struggled to get tests. It came off as preferential treatment.

Silver has nothing to fear on this front, tests appear widely available nationwide.

Getting the results for those tests, however, is a different story — nationally, labs are overwhelmed with the increase in testing.

The NBA is getting its test results back from a lab within a day (or two at most), while much of the nation is waiting a week or longer for those same results.

Is that the same ethical issue for the NBA as not taking tests away from people? NBC’s own Tom Haberstroh dove into the issue, noting the NBA has moved away from Quest Diagnostics as its testing partner in Florida and is now using BioReference Laboratories, sources told Haberstroh.

The shift away from Quest is notable considering that on Monday, Quest Diagnostics issued a worrisome press release. Quest stated a recent surge in demand for coronavirus testing had caused delays in processing, with 4-6 day average turnarounds on COVID-19 tests for populations that do not fall into their “Priority 1” group. That group includes “hospital patients, pre-operative patients in acute care settings and symptomatic healthcare workers.” Average turnarounds for Priority 1 would be one day, the lab company said.

It’s difficult to see how the NBA and its personnel would be considered Priority 1 in the Quest designation. Being put in the normal population group, with 4-6 day turnarounds, would lead to significant delays and could jeopardize the league’s entire testing operation.

The good news for the NBA is that BioReference Laboratories (if that is who the NBA uses, nothing is official)  is turning tests around in about a day for the league (and Major League Soccer, which also has a restart campus on the Walt Disney World property). But it’s not that way for everyone.

BioReference is experiencing serious delays with the general public. As of Thursday morning, patients attempting to access test results on the BioReference website would be met with an alert that reads: “If you are looking for your COVID-19 PCR (swab) results please note that these may not be available in the patient portal for up to 5-7 days after collection. As always, we appreciate your business and thank you for your patience during this unprecedented time.”

To be clear: The NBA has not announced its testing partner in Florida, and it’s not officially known if the NBA is being put in “priority one” groups ahead of the general public for results. We don’t know for sure what system the NBA has in place.

What we know is what we see: Players had to pass two tests 24 hours apart to be done with quarantine, to practice, and be free to roam the campus the NBA set up on the Disney property. The first teams to arrive are practicing just 48 hours after they arrived. Meaning the NBA is getting fast test turnarounds.

It raises an ethical and moral question about preferential treatment. While the NBA is big business and there is a desire to have NBA games return, the league should not be put ahead of anyone else who is looking to get tested. Sure, the NBA and it’s players’ union have agreed to be part of a Yale University’s SalivaDirect test study, but that alone should not bump NBA players to the front of the testing line ahead of the general public.

Haberstroh has medical ethicists saying the same thing, but the real judge will be the public and the PR backlash. This could be another black eye for the league. We, as a nation, have always prioritized sport as entertainment, giving it a lofty status in our culture. But with people’s health on the line, that feeling may be very different for a lot of people.

 

 

Nets reportedly sign Donta Hall for restart games in Orlando

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Donta Hall went undrafted out of Alabama last June, then made the most of the opportunities he was given. The 6’9″ big man tore up the G League for the Grand Rapids Drive, averaging 15.4 points a game on 66.9% shooting, plus gabbing 10.6 rebounds a night. It was good enough to get him a call up to the Pistons and getting in four games for them.

Now he’s going to play in the NBA restart for the Brooklyn Nets, a story broken by Marc Stein of the New York Times.

The shorthanded Nets are without big men DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince, and Nicolas Claxton (Jarrett Allen was the only center on the roster). Donta Hall will get the chance to impress the Nets — and other teams — and try to earn a contract for next season (he will be a free agent when the Nets are eliminated).

Hall is a tremendous athlete, he’s bouncy and long (7’5″ wingspan). If his skills develop, he has a role in the NBA.

The Nets were hit hard by injuries and had to make substitute signings such as Jamal Crawford and Michael Beasley. Here is what the final Nets roster looks like in Orlando.

After four months off, first NBA teams practice in restart bubble

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Nikola Vucevic had to raise his voice a bit to answer a question. He had just walked off the court after the first Orlando Magic practice of the restart, and some of his teammates remained on the floor while engaged in a loud and enthusiastic shooting contest.

After four months, basketball was truly back.

Full-scale practices inside the NBA bubble at the Disney complex started Thursday, with the Magic — the first team to get into the campus earlier this week — becoming the first team formally back on the floor. By the close of business Thursday, all 22 teams participating in the restart were to be checked into their hotel and beginning their isolation from the rest of the world for what will be several weeks at least. And by Saturday, all teams should have practiced at least once.

“It’s great to be back after four months,” Vucevic said. “We all missed it.”

The last eight teams were coming in Thursday, the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers among them. Lakers forward LeBron James lamented saying farewell to his family, and 76ers forward Joel Embiid — who raised some eyebrows earlier this week when he said he was “not a big fan of the idea” of restarting the season in a bubble — showed up for his team’s flight in what appeared to be a full hazmat suit.

“Just left the crib to head to the bubble. … Hated to leave the (hashtag)JamesGang,” James posted on Twitter.

Another last-day arrival at the Disney campus was the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors, who boarded buses for the two-hour drive from Naples, Florida — they’ve been there for about two weeks, training at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers — for the trip to the bubble. The buses were specially wrapped for the occasion, with the Raptors’ logo and the words “Black Lives Matter” displayed on the sides.

Brooklyn, Utah, Washington and Phoenix all were down to practice Thursday, along with the Magic. Denver was originally scheduled to, then pushed back its opening session to Friday. By Saturday, practices will be constant — 22 teams working out at various times in a window spanning 13 1/2 hours and spread out across seven different facilities.

Exhibition games begin July 22. Games restart again for real on July 30.

“It just felt good to be back on the floor,” said Brooklyn interim coach Jacque Vaughn, who took over for Kenny Atkinson less than a week before the March 11 suspension of the season because of the coronavirus. “I think that was the most exciting thing. We got a little conditioning underneath us. Didn’t go too hard after the quarantine, wanted to get guys to just run up and down a little bit and feel the ball again.”

Teams, for the most part, had to wait two days after arriving before they could get on the practice floor.

Many players have passed the time with video games; Miami center Meyers Leonard, with the Heat not practicing for the first time until Friday, has been giving fans glimpses of everything from his gaming setup to his room service order for his first dinner at Disney — replete with lobster bisque, a burger, chicken strips and some Coors Light to wash it all down.

The food has been a big talking point so far, especially after a handful of players turned to social media to share what got portrayed as less-than-superb meals during the brief quarantine period.

“For the most part, everything has been pretty good in my opinion,” Nets guard Joe Harris said. “They’ve done a good job taking care of us and making sure to accommodate us in every area as much as possible.”

Learning the campus has been another key for the first few days, and that process likely will continue for a while since teams will be using all sorts of different facilities while getting back into the practice routine.

“We have to make the best out of it,” Vucevic said. “You know, this is our job. We’re going to try to make the best out of it. I really think the NBA did the best they could to know make this as good as they can for us. And once we start playing, you’re not going to be thinking about the little things.”