Three things to watch: Miami Heat renew rivalry with New York Knicks


We won’t get P.J. Brown picking up Charlie Ward and tossing him around. We’re not going to get Jeff Van Gundy clinging to Alonzo Mourning’s leg. We’re not going to get roundball rock intros.

Still, there will be echoes of the 1990s Sunday when the Knicks and Heat tip off Game 1 of their second-round series. We should see as grinding, defensive a series as there will be in the 2020s, a series where scores may regularly be below 100. This is old school, with Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau trying to slow down his former star Jimmy Butler, plus two franchises that genuinely hate each other. This is going to be fun.

Here are three things to watch that will decide this showdown between the Miami Heat and New York Knicks.

1) Can Julius Randle play? How mobile is he?

While he is officially “questionable” for Game 1, the Knicks are not going to tell us anything real about Randle’s status until they absolutely have to. And even then, don’t bet on the truth. What we know as of this writing are two things:

• Randle did not go through a full practice on Friday, he did some shooting, some lifting and some pool cardio. Thibodeau said of Randle, “We’re not going to put him in harm’s way.”

• The Knicks will not advance without a strong series from Randle… unless RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley and others step up in his place.

Randle put up 43 in one regular season game against the Heat including hitting an insane game-winning 3.

Randle is a tough matchup for Miami, and New York needs him. Randle’s mindset is that he will be out there if he can walk, and even if he misses the first game or two he will play in this series. The questions are how effectively, will he play when he does step on the court, and can the Knicks depth fill in the gaps? Jalen Brunson will get his, but if Randle isn’t dropping 43 then Barrett, Quickley and others need to step up.

Oh, and Jalen Brunson. But at this point, isn’t it almost a given that he is going to be spectacular? We’ve just come to expect it.

2) Can Playoff Jimmy Butler do it again?

Jimmy Butler was the MVP of the first round. It wasn’t even close. He averaged 37.6 points, 4.8 assists and 1.8 steals a game and went through an elite perimeter defender in Jrue Holiday like he wasn’t there. Butler dropped 56 points in Game 4, and when his team needed a bucket to force overtime in Game 5 there was Butler again.

The task of stopping Playoff Butler now falls to Quentin Grimes and Josh Hart, but expect them to bring a lot of help and throw different looks at Butler. The Knicks did a respectable job on Butler in the regular season, but Butler has a couple of gears he saves for the biggest moments.

Look for more doubles and traps to get the ball out of Butler’s hands than Budenholzer and the Bucks used. The strategy is simple — make anyone else on the Heat beat you. Without Tyler Herro (broken hand), Miami’s shot creation outside Butler is limited.

Another question is can the Heat as a team keep shooting like this? They were the lowest-scoring team in the NBA during the regular season (109.5 points per game) and struggled from 3 (34.4% as a team, 27th in the league). Then against the Bucks they shot 45% from 3-point range and Butler knocked down 12 3s on his own. Can Miami keep hitting those shots in Madison Square Garden? They will need to in this series.

3) Bam Adebayo vs. Mitchell Robinson

Mitchell Robinson was the surprise star of the first round, outplaying the Cavaliers’ frontline of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. Robinson was a force of nature last series.

This is a tougher matchup stylistically — watch out for a big Bam Adebayo series.

Robinson was a force defensively against the Cavaliers because he could help off Allen and not pay a price against a non-shooter. Adebayo can hit 12- to 15-footers, the kinds of shots the Knicks dared Allen to take. Either Robinson has to stick with Adebayo and open up driving lanes, or we could see a big series for Bam.

The Knicks beat the Cavaliers because of Brunson and owning the paint. The second part of that equation remains key, but the Heat present new challenges.

Prediction: Knicks in 7. This is a toss-up of a series. I know Jimmy Butler and Jalen Brunson will be spectacular, but I’m less convinced that Miami will get the same kind of series out of Gabe Vincent, Caleb Martin, Duncan Robinson and the other role players. If that group proves me wrong, Miami wins. I just trust the Knicks’ depth a little more.

Spoestra’s biggest Heat adjustment for Game 2? Play with more ‘toughness and resolve’


DENVER — The days between NBA Finals are filled with talk of adjustments. After an ugly Game 1, much of that falls on the Heat — what can Erik Spoelstra draw up to get Jimmy Butler better lanes to attack? How must the Heat adjust their defense on Nikola Jokick?

Spoelstra sees it a little differently.

“Scheme is not going to save us,” he said.

His point is straightforward, the team’s best adjustment is simply to play better. More effort, more resolve. The trio of Max Strus, Caleb Martin and Duncan Robinson must do better than 2-of-23 from 3. The Heat can’t settle for jumpers like they did in Game 1, they have to attack the rim and draw some fouls, getting to the line (the Heat had just two free throws in Game 1). Their halfcourt defensive decisions have to be sharper. Those are not scheme-related things.

The Heat saw some of that in the second half, but Spoelstra made it clear the better last 24 minutes (particularly the last 12) was more about effort than the adjustments they made (such as playing more Haywood Highsmith and putting him on Jokić for a while).

“I never point to the scheme. Scheme is not going to save us,” Spoelstra said. “It’s going to be the toughness and resolve, collective resolve. That’s us at our finest, when we rally around each other and commit to doing incredibly tough things. That’s what our group loves to do more than anything, to compete, to get out there and do things that people think can’t be done.

“The efforts made that work in the second half, but we’re proving that we can do that with our man defense, too.”

Among the things many people don’t think can be done is the Heat coming back in this series. But Spoelstra is right, proving people wrong is what the Heat have done all playoffs.


Phoenix Suns reportedly to hire Frank Vogel as new head coach


Frank Vogel won a title coaching two stars — LeBron James and Anthony Davis — in Los Angeles.

Now he will get the chance to coach two more stars with title aspirations, Kevin Durant and Devin Booker in Phoenix. The Suns are finalizing a deal to make Vogel their new head coach, according to multiple reports. This is reportedly a five-year, $31 million deal.

New Suns owner Mat Ishbia — who took over in early February and immediately pushed for the Durant trade — reportedly has been the man at the helm of basketball operations since his arrival, making this primarily his choice. Doc Rivers and Suns assistant Kevin Young also were in the mix for the job.

Vogel may not be the sexiest hire on the board — and it’s fair to ask how much of an upgrade he is over Monty Williams — but it is a solid one. The Suns can win with.

Vogel is a defense-first coach who has had success in both Indiana — where he led the Paul George Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals twice — as well as with LeBron’s Lakers (Vogel struggled in Orlando, but that was more about the roster than coaching).

Vogel is a good coach for superstars because he is relatively egoless, low-key, and a strong communicator — this is not a big personality with a hard-line attitude. Instead, he works to get buy-in from his guys and gives his stars plenty of freedom on the offensive end. Durant and Booker will have their say in what the offense looks like, but Vogel will demand defensive accountability.

There is a “good chance” Kevin Young — the top assistant under Monty Williams who had the endorsement of Devin Booker for the head coaching job — will stay on as Vogel’s lead assistant, reports John Gambadoro, the well-connected host on 98.7 FM radio in Phoenix. If true, that be a coup for the Suns, who would keep a player favorite coach to be more of an offensive coordinator. It is also possible that Young and other assistant coaches (such as Jarrett Jack) will follow Williams to Detroit, where he was just hired (on a massive deal).

Nick Nurse doesn’t ‘vibrate on the frequency of the past,’ talks winning with 76ers, Harden


In his first day on the job, Nick Nurse didn’t shy away from the hard topics and high expectations — he embraced them.

Nurse is the new 76ers head coach — and Doc Rivers is out — because the team was bounced in the second round. Again. Nurse said at his introductory press conference that he doesn’t see the way past this is to ignore the problem (from NBC Sports Philadelphia).

“We’re going to hit that head-on,” he said… “We know we’re judged on how we play in the playoffs. It was the same in Toronto. We hadn’t played that well (in the playoffs) and certain players hadn’t played that well, and all those kinds of things. So the reality is that’s the truth. I would imagine that from Day 1, we’re going to talk about that and we’re going to try to attack that. We’re going to have to face it and we’re going to have to rise to it.”

Nurse stuck with that theme through multiple questions about the past and what he will do differently. Nurse talked about the players being open-minded to trying new things, some of which may not work, but the goal is to get a lot of different things on the table.

He also talked about this 76ers team being championship-level and not getting hung up on that past.

“My first thought on that is this team could be playing tonight (in the Finals), along with some others in the Eastern Conference that wish they were getting ready to throw the ball up tonight… And as far as the rest of it, I look at it this way: I don’t really vibrate on the frequency of the past. To me, when we get a chance to start and dig into this thing a little bit, it’s going to be only focused on what we’re trying to do going forward. … Whatever’s happened for the last however many years doesn’t matter to me.”

The other big question in the room is the future of potential free agent James Harden.

Harden has a $35.6 million player option for next season he is widely expected to opt out of, making him a free agent. While rumors of a Harden reunion in Houston run rampant across the league, the 76ers want to bring him back and Nurse said his sales pitch is winning.

“Listen, I think that winning is always the sell,” he said. “Can we be good enough to win it all? That’s got to be a goal of his. And if it is, then he should stay here and play for us, because I think there’s a possibility of that.”

Whatever the roster looks like around MVP Joel Embiid, the 76ers should be title contenders. Nurse has to start laying the groundwork this summer, but his ultimate tests will come next May, not before.

Silver: Ja Morant investigation results, possible suspension to come down after Finals

Dallas Mavericks v Memphis Grizzlies
Justin Ford/Getty Images

DENVER — The NBA has nearly concluded its investigation into the latest incident of Ja Morant apparently waiving a gun on social media, however, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the league plans to “park” the report and any announcement of a possible punishment until after the NBA Finals, so as not to distract from the games.

“We’ve uncovered a fair amount of additional information, I think, since I was first asked about the situation,” Silver said in a press conference before Game 1 of the NBA Finals. “I will say we probably could have brought it to a head now, but we made the decision, and I believe the Players Association agrees with us, that it would be unfair to these players and these teams in the middle of the series to announce the results of that investigation.

“Given that we’re, of course, in the offseason, he has now been suspended by the Memphis Grizzlies indefinitely, so nothing would have changed anyway in the next few weeks. It seemed better to park that at the moment, at least any public announcement, and my sense now is that shortly after the conclusion of the Finals we will announce the outcome of that investigation.”

That statement hints at a long suspension for Morant — Silver believes the announcement will be big enough news to draw headlines over the NBA Finals. That only happens if it’s something significant. Silver would not divulge any potential punishment, but the expectation in league circles is for him to come down much harder on Morant this time. While Morant did not break any laws, this is a serious image issue for the NBA (one that reverberates through decades of the league).

The Grizzlies suspended Morant after he appeared to flash a handgun on friend Davonte Pack’s Instagram account. Morant has since released a statement taking responsibility for his actions, but otherwise staying out of the spotlight.

That came months after Morant was suspended eight games after another video of him flashing a gun in a Denver area club was posted on Instagram Live.

After that first incident, Morant spent time away from the team to seek counseling, and he met with Silver about what had happened. Morant admitted after the No. 2 seed Grizzlies were eliminated in the first round by the Lakers his actions were part of the distractions that threw off the Grizzlies.

Silver was asked if he had come down harder on Morant after the first incident — his suspension was seen as player-friendly — if things would have been different.

“I’ve thought about that, and Joe Dumars [VP of basketball operations with the NBA], who is here, was in the room with me when we met with Ja, and he’s known Ja longer than I have, Silver said. “For me at the time, an eight-game suspension seemed very serious, and the conversation we had, and Tamika Tremaglio from the Players Association was there, as well, felt heartfelt and serious. But I think he understood that it wasn’t about his words. It was going to be about his future conduct.

“I guess in hindsight, I don’t know. If it had been a 12-game suspension instead of an eight-game suspension, would that have mattered?”

Morant lost about $669,000 in salary with the last suspension, although the real hit was his missing games and the team stumbling after this incident, giving voters a reason to keep him off an All-NBA team — that cost him $39 million on his contract extension that kicks in next season (he is not eligible for the Rose Rule max).