ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Miami Heat

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Last season: A fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals resulted in disappointment, as the Heat were steamrolled by the Spurs in five games. The ease with which Miami was dispatched was troubling, so much so that LeBron James re-signing — something most believed to be a foregone conclusion — was suddenly thrown into question. And as the team scrambled to show a willingness to improve by signing guys like Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger in the early days of free agency, the underwhelming nature of those additions ultimately saw James expedite his plan to return home to Cleveland to once again play for the Cavaliers.

Signature highlight from last season: It was tempting to go with the pair of alley-ops Dwyane Wade and LeBron James connected on in the Christmas Day win over the Lakers, because the way the two consistently got out on the break like this for easy buckets in transition during their four years together was about as signature as it gets. But with a nod to the upcoming season where James won’t be present, it felt fitting to go with Wade’s drive and dish to Chris Bosh for a game-winning three against the Blazers — a contest in which James sat out due to injury.

Key offseason moves:

Keys to the Heat season:

Life after LeBron: Having the game’s best player on the roster definitely has its advantages, and it isn’t something anyone in the Heat organization would choose to change about the last four seasons. But now that James has moved on, everything is immediately different on both ends of the floor. The continuity in place with Wade and Bosh being the team’s leaders, and with the highly competent Erik Spoelstra on the sidelines should ease the transition to a certain extent. But Miami will need to reinvent itself from an Xs and Os standpoint, and just how quickly the players get acclimated to those changes will largely determine their success, especially in the early parts of the upcoming season.

The health of Dwyane Wade: Wade was on a strict maintenance program last season to keep his knee from flaring up during the playoffs as it did the year prior, and that left him a gametime decision most nights. It was part of the reason he was limited to participating in just 54 regular season contests, and for the Heat to be successful in the post-LeBron era, they’re going to need a lot more than that out of Wade — not only in terms of minutes played, but also in terms of increased production. The good news for Heat fans is that Wade is planning on doing exactly that, but it’ll be interesting to see how he holds up while pushing himself to play more than he has in any of his previous three seasons.

The return of CB4: Chris Bosh is a perennial All-Star, but since coming to Miami, his numbers have dipped due to having to change his role, while sacrificing personal levels of production for the greater good of the franchise. Thankfully for the Heat, he has proven to be capable of doing so much more. In his final season in Toronto, Bosh averaged a career-high 24 points and 10.8 rebounds, and was unquestionably the team’s best player every single night. Bosh may have to return to his Raptors form for Miami to achieve postseason success, especially in light of Wade’s recent injury history — and he may be more ready than ever to do so.

Why you should watch: Wade and Bosh are still All-Star caliber players, and the addition of another one in Deng should make the Heat consistently competitive most nights. Spoelstra is one of the game’s top coaches at the professional level, and you can bet that he’s relishing the chance to lead his team to success in spite of the loss of Lebron James.

Prediction: With LeBron out of the picture, there are no longer championship expectations placed on this Miami team, which should be a weight off of their collective shoulders. The Heat can be in an underdog role for the first time in a long time, and there’s still more than enough talent in place to make a run at the postseason.

Miami is definitely a playoff team in the East, but is probably not deep enough to claw itself into one of the three top spots in the standings. A ceiling of fourth place in the conference feels about right, with an opportunity to surprise someone in the first (and possibly second) round of the playoffs if Wade, Bosh and Spoelstra find a way to have things clicking by the time the regular season is finished.

Russell Westbrook outduels Damian Lillard, Thunder pick up win to get back in series

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Russell Westbrook called his play in Game 2 “unacceptable.”

It was more than acceptable in Game 3. He had 33 points and 11 assists and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Portland Trail Blazers 120-108 on Friday night to cut their series deficit to 2-1.

Paul George added 22 points, Jerami Grant had 18 and Dennis Schroder 17 for the Thunder. They will host Game 4 on Sunday night.

Damian Lillard scored 32 points, but he had just three in the fourth quarter after scoring 25 in the third.

C.J. McCollum had 21 and Enes Kanter added 19.

Oklahoma City closed the second quarter on a 10-1 run to take a 49-39 lead. Lillard was held to four points on 2 -or-6 shooting and the Trail Blazers shot 37.5% in the half.

George hit a 3-pointer, was fouled and made the free throw in the opening minutes of the second half to push Oklahoma City’s lead to 55-43. Westbrook backed down Lillard, hit a bank shot and was fouled. Westbrook brought out his “rock the baby” celebration, then made the free throw to put Oklahoma City up by 15.

Lillard scored 23 points the rest of the quarter to help cut Oklahoma City’s lead to 86-82 at the end of the period. McCollum hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at 89 early in the fourth.

Oklahoma City regained control, then kept it. Westbrook’s jumper with just over two minutes remaining put the Thunder up 10.

 

Celtics beat Pacers 104-96 to take 3-0 series lead

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Jaylen Brown scored 23 points and Kyrie Irving added 19 to help the Boston Celtics beat the Indiana Pacers 104-96 on Friday night for a 3-0 lead in the first-round series.

The Celtics can close out the Eastern Conference series Sunday in Indianapolis.

Irving also had 10 assists and five rebounds.

Tyreke Evans matched his career playoff high with 19 points for the Pacers. Bojan Bogdanovic had 15, not enough to prevent Indiana from losing its sixth straight to Boston in the regular season and playoff.

Indiana desperately needed a win to avoid facing its second sweep in three years, but Boston started fast and closed it with a 10-4 spurt late in the fourth quarter.

And once again, Boston’s defense turned the game by allowing just 12 points in the third quarter.

It’s been that kind of series for Indiana, which erased a 15-point first half deficit to take a 61-59 halftime lead. Myles Turner opened the third with a 3-pointer to make it a five-point game.

But Boston charged back with eight straight points to retake the lead, closed the quarter on a 9-2 run to make it 80-73 and pulled away late.

The Celtics took control quickly by going 8 of 10 on 3s in the first quarter to build a 37-22 lead.

Evans finally got the Pacers righted with 12 second-quarter points including bookend 3s to start and finish the 17-3 spurt that allowed Indiana to tie it at 52. The Pacers closed the half on a 9-2 run to take the lead.

 

Pascal Siakam scores 30, leads Raptors past Magic for 2-1 series lead

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The Toronto Raptors think Pascal Siakam should be selected the NBA’s Most Improved Player.

He was their MVP on Friday night.

And the East’s No. 2 seed has the home-court edge back again.

Siakam had 30 points and 11 rebounds, hitting a floater with 1:33 left to help snuff out a big Orlando rally and the Raptors held off the Magic 98-93 to take a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference first-round series.

“He’s unbelievable,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “He’s the most improved basketball player in the NBA this year and he’s only going to get better.”

Siakam was 13 for 20 from the floor and the Raptors held Orlando to 36% shooting.

“It’s just taking what a defense gives us and going with it,” Siakam said.

Kawhi Leonard — battling illness this week — had 16 points and 10 rebounds. Danny Green had 13 points and Lowry finished with 12 points and 10 assists, plus ran down a huge offensive rebound with about 15 seconds left to extend a critical possession and spoil Orlando’s first home playoff game since 2012.

“It was really what I thought it was going to be tonight,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “I really thought this was going to be a tough atmosphere to play in.”

Terrence Ross led Orlando with 24 points, and Nikola Vucevic shook off a slow start to finish with 22 points and 14 rebounds.

Game 4 is Sunday night in Orlando.

“Our turnovers hurt us again,” Vucevic said, lamenting Orlando’s 16 giveaways. “We had too many of those. Empty possessions for us and against a team like that you can’t have that.”

The Raptors trailed 61-60 midway through the third after a brief Orlando spurt, then went on a 16-0 run over the next four minutes to take the lead for good. Siakam and Green were both 3 for 3 during the run, the Magic missed 10 consecutive shots over a span of 6 1/2 minutes and had to play uphill the rest of the way.

That being said, they went down swinging.

Lowry’s 3-pointer with 7:48 left gave Toronto its biggest lead at 86-69. The Magic came flying back, and Ross’ 3-pointer with 41 seconds left got Orlando to 96-93.

Leonard was short with a jumper on the next possession — but the Magic couldn’t control the rebound, Lowry ran it down and Leonard made a pair of free throws with 12.9 seconds remaining to clinch the win.

“Critical,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said.

Orlando, which finished the regular season by winning 13 of its final 14 home games, was 13 of 44 from 3-point range.

Toronto scored the first 10 points — the last five by Siakam, who was a problem from the outset for the Magic — and led by as many as 11 in the first half. The Magic got within 48-45 at the break after Ross beat the clock from midcourt at the buzzer.

The Magic got the lead twice in the second half, once by one point, the other by two points. And both leads lasted exactly 15 seconds, getting taken away on 3-pointers by Siakam and Green.

And now it’s up to Orlando to regroup, the same way Toronto did after dropping Game 1.

“It’s 2-1,” Clifford said. “It’s not like it’s 3-0. It’s 2-1…. Handling disappointment is a huge part of NBA basketball and it’s a bigger part of playoff basketball.”

Watch Orlando’s Terrence Ross drain halfcourt buzzer beater just before half

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Back on their home court, the Orlando Magic are hanging right with the Toronto Raptors in Game 3 of the 1-1 series.

This helped.

It looked like the Magic would go into halftime down by at least six, and then Terrence Ross did this.

Ross’ name came up a lot just before the trade deadline when other teams thought the Magic would decide to tank and move on from their players who could bring back assets to help the rebuild. The Magic were 10 games below .500 and four games out of the eight seed. Orlando decided instead to push for the postseason, and they made their first playoffs since the Dwight Howard era, climbing all the way to the seven seed. That would not have happened without Ross.

Now they are making the most of their opportunity.