Associated Press

Playoff Preview: Five question to answer in Miami Heat vs. Toronto Raptors

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The last of the four second round — or, conference semi-finals if you prefer — will tip off Tuesday with two teams that had to go seven games in the first round. That means mentally tired players who had little time to prep for Game 1 — expect some sloppy play at points. Here are five things to watch that could decide the series.

1) With a series win that led to a sigh of relief throughout Canada, will the Raptors play more free and loose? Toronto was tight in its first round series, and it was obvious to everyone. Never was that more evident than the final seven minutes of Game 7, when the Raptors had a 16-point lead and got conservative with a time-killing “prevent offense” that almost squandered the entire lead and the game. Toronto hung on thanks to some slashing Kyle Lowry layups and some Pacers turnovers, but you could see how the pressure got to this team.

If the Raptors play anywhere near that tight in the next round, they are toast. Miami showed in the first round they have guys who know how to close out games — Dwyane Wade leads that charge, but those guys are up and down the roster. Miami will not wilt late in games; we don’t know if that is true of Toronto.

2) Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will have more room to operate, what will they do with it? After having Paul George (on DeRozan) and George Hill (on Lowry) draped all over them last series, the slower Heat defenders in the starting lineup will mean more room for the Raptors guards to operate. Wade, Goran Dragic, and Joe Johnson are not great defenders, the question is can the Raptors take advantage of that extra space? DeRozan will attack as he did in Game 7 against the Pacers, but he needs to be more efficient (he needed 32 shots to get 30 points in that final game). Lowry hasn’t been his All-Star level self for the last month of the season, whether due to a bad elbow (which has been drained) or something else we don’t know about. Whatever the reason, Toronto needs All-Star Lowry to win this series — and Miami did a good job making Kemba Walker work for his shots and be inefficient last round.

Two things to watch from Miami. First, how quickly will coach Erik Spoelstra go to Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson off the bench — those rookies are the best perimeter defenders the Heat have (along with Luol Deng, who will get time on DeRozan). Spoelstra will lean on them heavily in this series. Probably more and more each game. The second thing to watch is rim protection, which leads us to….

3) Can Hassan Whiteside stay out of foul trouble and on the floor protecting the rim? Lowry isn’t afraid to shoot the three and will make teams pay that give him space beyond the arc, but the core of his game is to drive and create. DeMar DeRozan avoids the three like he tries to avoid eating too much poutine in season — he wants to drive and attack. That is what the entire Raptors offense is based around.

Which is why Hassan Whiteside and his shot blocking is crucial to Miami’s chances this round — if Lowry and DeRozan drive and get shots erased or altered by Whiteside, an essential part of the Toronto attack becomes far less efficient. The challenge for Whiteside will be staying out of foul trouble — not only can DeRozan draw fouls with the best of them, but also the Raptors will post up Jonas Valanciunas and have him go at Whiteside, looking to tack on some fouls. If Whiteside can stay on the court it is a huge boost for Miami.

4) Conversely, how is Toronto going to protect the paint? Miami’s season took off after the All-Star break when Spoelstra’s hand was forced by the Chris Bosh injury and he went small with Luol Deng at the four. The result was an aggressive, attacking Heat team that gets a lot of points in the paint off drives (and in transition). When Charlotte was able to slow the pace and protect the paint with a big lineup that forced Miami to shoot jumpers, Miami struggled. Valanciunas gives the Raptors quality offense and a big body inside, but he’s not a rim protector. Miami is going to attack and the Raptors need to limit the Heat’s efficiency.

One way to do that may be more Bismack Biyombo off the bench.

5) How are Raptors going to defend Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic? The match-ups for Raptors’ coach Dwane Casey are not ideal. Expect Lowry to matchup on Dragic for much of the series, which may not go well for Miami defensively. But the bigger challenge is DeRozan needs to guard Wade, Johnson, or Deng (who had a strong offensive first round) — Miami can attack wherever he plays. Toronto’s guards also are smaller and we could see a lot of Heat post ups this series.

Prediction: Miami in six. This is not a prediction I feel strongly about, I’d say it’s about 60 percent this and 40 percent Toronto in seven — the Raptors have a real chance in this series. But I think the matcheups favor Miami slightly, Miami was the better team after the All-Star break with a better defense, and the Heat are the team I trust to close out tight games.

L.A. Lakers will stay big, start Dwight Howard at center

Dwight Howard start
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
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While it is easy to say the Lakers’ best lineups have Anthony Davis at center, the numbers say the Lakers are best playing big with another player at center and Davis at the four.

That’s how the Lakers will start the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat on Wednesday — and Dwight Howard gets the call, the team announced.

This start was expected, especially after how well Dwight Howard played in the Denver series against Nikola Jokic.

It creates an interesting defensive choice for Erik Spoelstra and the Heat: Do they start Bam Adebayo on Davis and have Jae Crowder on Howard, or reverse that. Adebayo is an All-Defensive Team player who may be the best one-on-one matchup in the league for Davis,  but does Spoelstra want to risk early foul trouble for his star center, and would it wear Adebayo down to have to work so hard on both ends. Expect Crowder to start on Davis and Adebayo to get the key minutes later in the game.

The challenge for the Lakers: Howard fouls a lot.

“Probably fouling,” Laker coach Frank Vogel said when asked what was at the top of the team scouting report for the Heat. “I think they are great at getting to the free throw line. If we can play with discipline, not give them opportunities to shoot free throws, set their defense, that will help us win games, because they are great at getting to the free throw line.”

Howard can’t mess that plan up for Los Angeles. But he’s going to get the chance.

 

Two men charged with taking over NBA player’s social media accounts, selling info

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — A Louisiana man and a Florida man allegedly gained access to professional athletes’ social media accounts and either sold the information or used it to extort payments, according to federal criminal complaints released Wednesday.

Trevontae Washington and Ronnie Magrehbi each face wire fraud conspiracy and computer fraud conspiracy counts filed by the U.S. attorney’s office in New Jersey.

The 21-year-old Washington, of Thibodaux, Louisiana, allegedly obtained usernames and passwords for multiple NFL and NBA players and sold access to the information.

Magrehbi, 20, of Orlando, Florida, allegedly obtained an NFL player’s email and Instagram account information and extorted money by publishing explicit photos of the player and threatening to publish more.

Washington and Magrehbi were scheduled to make initial court appearances Wednesday in their respective states. They were not alleged to have worked together on the scams.

Their alleged victims included two NFL players and one NBA player, all of whom lived in New Jersey at the time of the alleged crimes.

According to the complaint, Washington used a “phishing” scam — requesting login information purportedly for a legitimate purpose — to gain access to the accounts of one NFL player in 2018 and locked the player out of the accounts.

Washington also took over the accounts of at least two other players, and acknowledged to investigators after his arrest last year that he had sold access to players’ accounts for between $500 and $1,000 each, the complaint alleged.

Magrehbi also used phishing to take over the social media accounts of an NFL player living in New Jersey in 2018 who eventually paid him $500, according to the complaint.

A few days later, explicit images of the player were posted to his Twitter and Instagram accounts and he was asked for an additional $2,500 to prevent the publishing of additional photos, the complaint alleged. The request came from a prepaid cellphone linked to Magrehbi, according to the complaint.

Court personnel for the Eastern District of Louisiana didn’t provide information on an attorney representing Washington. A message was left Wednesday at the Middle District of Florida seeking attorney information for Magrehbi.

Wire fraud conspiracy is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Computer fraud conspiracy has a five-year maximum sentence.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis have two of top three selling jerseys during bubble

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The Los Angeles Lakers have the biggest, most popular brand of any NBA franchise. LeBron James is the biggest brand of any active NBA player, nationally and globally.

Combine them and it sells a lot of jerseys.

LeBron sold more jerseys during the NBA restart in Orlando than any other player, the NBA announced Wednesday, hours before LeBron and his Lakers tipped off in the NBA Finals. LeBron’s teammate, Anthony Davis, was third on the list. Here is the list released by the NBA.

Top 15 Most Popular NBA Jerseys

1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
2. Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks
3. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
6. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
7. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
8. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
9. Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers
10. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
11. Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
12. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets
13. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets
14. Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets
15. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

A few notes of interest:

• The sixth and seventh best selling jerseys were players who did not suit up in the bubble, Curry and Durant.
• Rookie Ja Morant sold the 15th most jerseys, making his first appearance on this list, while Zion Williamson did not make the top 15.
• Second is the highest Luka Doncic has ever finished on this list, his spectacular play in the bubble helped spike his popularity.
• These results are based on NBAStore.com sales from July 30 through Sept. 28.

Top 10 Most Popular Team Merchandise

1. Los Angeles Lakers
2. Boston Celtics
3. Chicago Bulls
4. Miami Heat
5. Golden State Warriors
6. Toronto Raptors
7. Dallas Mavericks
8. Milwaukee Bucks
9. Portland Trail Blazers
10. Denver Nuggets

Lakers have historically easy path to championship*

Lakers star LeBron James
Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images
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By the 2018 NBA Finals, LeBron James was feeling the stress of facing the mighty Warriors again. LeBron and the Cavaliers toppled a 73-win Golden State in 2016… only for the Warriors to add Kevin Durant. Golden State beat Cleveland in the 2017 Finals and was on the way to repeating. The too-often overlooked aspect of LeBron’s 3-6 NBA Finals record: His competition on that level has been EXCELLENT.

Not so much this year.

At least on paper.

The fifth-seeded Heat are among the lowest lowest seeds ever to reach the NBA Finals. Miami (44-29) outscored opponents by just 2.9 points per game in regular-season/seeding games. That’s the lowest margin for a Finals team in the last 20 years outside the 2018 Cavs (+0.9).

And it’s not as if that’s just an East-West issue. The Lakers’ road through the Western Conference looked remarkably similar to LeBron’s challenge while he dominated the East for eight years – i.e., not that imposing.

Los Angeles’ postseason opponents’ margins per game during the regular season/seeding games:

  • Trail Blazers: -1.1
  • Rockets: +3.0
  • Nuggets: +2.1
  • Heat: +2.9

Not including themselves, the Lakers avoided the top five teams! The Bucks (+10.1), Celtics (+6.4), Clippers (+6.4), Raptors (+6.3) and Mavericks (+4.9) all had better margins per game than Houston.

Still, at the very minimum, the Lakers must win four series to win a title. In the NBA’s early days, that was just two.

The 1957 Celtics won the championship by beating the Syracuse Nationals (-1.4) and St. Louis Hawks (-0.1). That’s all it took!

Even for dominant teams, each additional series is an opportunity for something to go wrong. So, the Lakers have it tougher than many prior champions. It’s difficult to compare across eras, anyway.

But since the NBA adopted a 16-team postseason in 1984, this is an incredibly soft-looking run.

The Lakers’ playoff opponents have an average margin of +1.7, which would be second-lowest for a championship team in this format. The 1987 Lakers’ opponents had an average margin of just +1.0.

Simply averaging opponents’ margins probably isn’t the best method, though. What does it matter whether a championship team faces a team barely over .500 or a team with a losing record in the first round? An eventual champion usually easily dispatches either. The more significant differences in opponent quality come in later rounds.

So, I created Postseason Strength of Schedule Score (PSSS) for title teams since 1984.

For each championship team, I multiplied the margin of their top opponent by four, the margin of their second-best opponent by three, the margin of their third-best opponent by two and the margin of their worst opponent by one then added the totals. (There is room to quibble with the ratios. I chose this for simplicity.)

The higher the PSSS, the more difficult the schedule.

The 2020 Lakers would have the lowest PSSS (23.7), narrowly behind the 1987 Lakers (23.9) but way below everyone else:

For what it’s worth, the Heat would have the highest PSSS (72.8), topping the 1995 Rockets (68.9):

The big asterisk over this entire discussion: It’s impossible to assess a team’s overall level at the exact time of a playoff series. True in a normal year, it’s especially difficult this year with a long layoff and bubble weirdness.

Yes, the Heat outscored opponents by just 2.9 points per game in the regular season/seeding games. How much does that have to do with Miami’s current ability, though? The Heat have looked awesome in the playoffs.

Maybe they’re particularly resilient in a way that helps in the bubble. Maybe young players like Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro have developed far beyond where they were in the regular season, which ended more than half a year ago. Maybe in-season acquisitions Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala lifted Miami after the Heat built most of their regular-season record.

There are infinite reasons Miami might not be the team suggested by its regular-season/seeding-game record.

Ditto Portland (which got back Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins and developed momentum while winning the play-in), Houston (which looked gassed when the regular season was halted) and Denver (which, honestly, might have gotten worse with Will Barton hurt and so many players recovering from coronavirus).

That said, regular-season success tends to be a strong predictor of postseason success. There’s still something to the Lakers’ playoff competition.

The Lakers would’ve been lauded for beating the Clippers and Bucks. So, shouldn’t the Lakers get more credit for beating the teams that beat the Clippers (Nuggets) and Bucks (Heat)?

There’s certainly an argument to be had. But it’s also plausible that, even though Denver and Miami won each series, the Clippers and Bucks were still better teams overall. Milwaukee had matchup issues with the Heat that wouldn’t have necessarily manifested against the Lakers. Though the Nuggets deserve credit for winning, if the teams played again fresh – even knowing the results of the series that happened – the Clippers would be favored. The Clippers definitely had a higher ceiling, and maybe they would’ve come together during a longer playoff run.

Or maybe they would’ve gotten even sicker of each other.

It’s impossible to know. All we can say: The Lakers beat the teams in front of them. That’s a great accomplishment. They have prevailed where other favorites have faltered. Every NBA title is hard to win.

Some are harder than others, though.