Morning shootaround — May 1

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Heat needs Johnson to step up | All about team for Lillard | Raptors face pain, Pacers all gain | Cavs’ Griffin: Expectations, not chemistry, was challenge

No. 1: Heat needs Johnson to step up — As dynamic as Miami’s Dwyane Wade was in Game 6 against the Charlotte Hornets Friday and as durable as he’s been this season, a matinee tipoff time for Game 7 down in South Florida (1 ET, ABC) isn’t the most ideal scenario for the Heat’s 34-year-old leader. That short turnaround time had Ethan J. Skolnick of the Miami Herald casting about for the likeliest teammates to step up into a 1-A role Sunday, and after considering the likes of Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, Luol Deng and a couple others, Skolnick settled on:

The other guy is Joe Johnson.

The 15-year veteran has had mixed success, with Everest highs and deathly Valleys.
It didn’t start well. He was 5 for 17 for 16 points in the Hawks’ 34-point loss to a much better Boston team in the 2008 first round.

“They killed us,” Johnson said. “But that’s the year they won the championship.”

But then, in 2009, the Hawks and Wade’s Heat went the distance, and Johnson actually had the better finish: He made 10 of 19 shots for 27 points, while also recording five rebounds, four assists and five steals in an easy win.

“That was a pretty good one, because I struggled that whole series,” Johnson said. “And I probably had my best game in that Game 7.”

In 2010, Johnson had just eight points on 4-of-14 shooting in Atlanta’s rout of Milwaukee in Game 7 of the first round. And then, in 2013 against the Deng-less Bulls, he went 2 of 14 and scored just six points in Game 7, as his Nets lost at home by six.

In the first round in 2014, he made plenty of big plays to push the Nets past the Raptors, in a Game 7 on the road: 26 points on 11-of-25 shooting.

“That was probably the most special, because it was on the road, hostile environment,” Johnson said. “And man, down the stretch, we were huge. It was the loudest place I’ve ever played in. I couldn’t [bleeping] hear myself breathe, think or nothing. That was probably the best one.”

No better basketball feeling than ending somebody’s season.

“Knowing that one team has to go home,” Johnson said. “So for us, to have a Game 7 on our home floor, I think we’ll take that.”

The Heat took him in this season, after his buyout from Brooklyn. He’s had a decent series — averaging 11 points while shooting 49 percent from the field, including 47 percent from long range. But Miami needs more than efficiency to advance.

It needs more impact.

The Heat may not get his best Game 7, better than what he gave against Miami in 2009.

But his best performance of the series?

With the start time, this seems the right time for that.

Bonus coverage: He isn’t expected to be in the building Sunday, but here is the Charlotte Observer’s story on “Purple Shirt Guy,” who played such a goofy intrusive role in Game 6.

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 No. 2: All about team for Lillard — Damian Lillard coincidentally grew up not far from where he and his Portland Trail Blazers teammates will labor through their first two games against the Golden State Warriors this week in the teams’ Western Conference semifinal series. But it’s not so much the geography that matters – Lillard grew up in Oakland’s Brookfield Village neighborhood about three miles away from Oracle Arena – as it is his personal history there. Lillard was raised to keep things tight, family and friends, and it’s an approach he has taken to building the sense of team that has worked so well for the Blazers this season, writes Jason Quick of CSNNW.com:
[Lillard] is intent about making this about the Trail Blazers, not himself, even though he will once again be the focal point of the opponent’s defense and the player who teammates and fans look to for extraordinary performances.
Before the playoffs started, he repeatedly answered questions about himself by interjecting his teammates, or using pronouns like “we” and “us.”
It was by instinct, he says, which stems from his days in Brookfield, growing up around cousins. That upbringing brought a closeness and an understanding that you look out for each other and you take care of each other.
“If someone was going to the store, they were coming back with juice for everybody,’’ Lillard said. “Chips for everybody. Even when we had altercations in the park: if one person was involved in something, it was all of us.’’
They would play baseball in the tennis courts against each other, and if outsiders inquired about playing, the ground rules were simple: Field your own team because the Lillard clan doesn’t split up.
“It has always been like that,’’ Lillard said. “It’s the group I’m around, me and my people … this is who I care about. It’s never going to be one person above the group.’’
With the Blazers, Lillard has exercised that mantra throughout the season. In November and December, as the team scuffled through close losses and erratic play, the easy thing would have been to make it more about himself, and try to rescue the team with heroic play.
But instead of chasing highlights and padding his statistics, he spent stretches of games deferring to C.J. McCollum, looking to Al-Farouq Aminu in the corner for a three, and probing Mason Plumlee’s on-court intelligence and savvy. He championed for Allen Crabbe to shoot more, and he encouraged Maurice Harkless to stay engaged when he fell out of the playing rotation.
McCollum emerged as the NBA’s Most Improved Player, Aminu an unabashed three-point shooter, and Plumlee a game-changing playmaker at center. Crabbe has become a bench stalwart who will command a big pay raise this summer, Gerald Henderson a veteran who happily accepts his bench role, and Ed Davis a guy who cleans up everybody’s messes.
“Ultimately, how we got to this point is because of the growth of this team,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “Up and down the roster everybody got better- but you have to allow that – and I think Dame’s approach allowed the other players to improve.

That didn’t take away from his desire to win and wanting to do all he could to win games, but I think he understood how important it was to have a team around him.’’

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No. 3:  Raptors face pain, Pacers all gain — When we get a Game 7 at the championship round, either conference or league, we’re usually seeing two closely matched opponents with relatively equal claims on the title or outcome they’re seeking. When Game 7 comes early in any playoff bracket, though, it isn’t necessarily a showdown of equals. Unless it’s a too-close-to-call clash of No. 4 vs. No. 5 seeds, any other combo represents an opportunity for one team and a potential problem for the other. The lower seed, such as the Indiana Pacers in their Game 7 against Toronto Sunday night at Air Canada Centre (8 ET, TNT), is grateful to have survived this long. The higher seed, meanwhile, was expected to finish its business more swiftly, which explains why the Raptors are feeling pressure. Gregg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star looked at the dueling dynamics in this No. 2 vs. No. 7 clincher:

This series has been so bizarre, momentum so elusive, that anything could happen in Game 7. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that the Raptors remember who they are – the No. 2 seed who won 56 games and finished just one game behind Cleveland for first in the Eastern Conference – and pry their own fingers off their necks.

That’s the story in Toronto. The story here? The Pacers have overachieved by moving within one game of a near statistical impossibility. Since 1999, including the second-seeded Spurs’ four-game sweep of No. 7 Memphis out West this year, No. 7 seeds have gone 1-34 in seven-game series against No. 2s.

Let’s discuss this: By forcing a Game 7, the two most important people in the Indiana locker room have legitimized themselves.

Let’s start with Paul George, a top-10 NBA talent who has played this series with a ferocity that has been as consistent as it has been spectacular. Prone to disappearing late in games in the regular season, and for whole games when the mood strikes, George has been the best player on the floor in every game this series, even Game 4, when he scored a modest 19 points but manhandled DeMar DeRozan into 4-of-15 shooting and eight points.

George is averaging 27.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists. He is producing not merely like the All-Star he is, but like the MVP he could be someday. And he has been even better on defense, doing the following to DeRozan, the No. 9 scorer in the NBA:

The other Pacer to take an obvious step forward this postseason is coach Frank Vogel, who has been the target of criticism – some legitimate, given the team’s large number of narrow losses, but most of it unfair given its roster.

Vogel’s reputation for defensive acumen has been reinforced by a series in which the Pacers have held the Raptors five percentage points below their regular-season shooting – from 45.1 percent to 40.1 percent in this series – while turning a Raptors strength (1.43-to-1 ratio of assists to turnovers) into a weakness (1.05-to-1 in this series)

Vogel’s job security was debated locally after the Game 5 loss – the nays had it – but the Pacers’ response to Game 6, and forcing Game 7 in a No. 2-vs.-7 series, should end that.

The Pacers are not above pointing out that history. They are partly in the Raptors’ head as it is. Might as well go all the way.

“It’s pressure on both teams to come out with a win,” Paul George was saying after Game 6, “but yeah, it’s added pressure on them. Being at home and their troubles getting out of the first round.”

Admitted DeRozan: “It means everything for us to advance. The season would be a failure if we don’t make it out of this first round.”

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No. 4: Cavs’ Griffin: Expectations, not chemistry, was challenge –It is no easy task to grind through NBA training camp, followed by an 82-game regular season, all for the opportunity to survive three rounds, get to The Finals and then, finally, to win two more games than you did a year ago. That championship-or-bust ambition to the 2015-16 season for the Cleveland Cavaliers was going to produce some inevitable dips along the way, and general manager David Griffin confirmed that when he talked with Marla Ridenour of the Akron Beacon Journal about this season of expectations:

“I think expectation was very difficult for us,” Griffin said. “People talked about our team like we were a major disappointment and we were a wire-to-wire leader in the Eastern Conference. I think it got to be very heavy here because for some reason what we were doing wasn’t enough. I think it’s because of the success of Golden State and San Antonio — they were on such a record-setting pace and we weren’t doing that. I think for some reason we became a little bit beleaguered.”

The Cavs’ internal strife was a subject of discussion on ESPN’s The Sports Reporters before the sweep of the Detroit Pistons in the first round of the playoffs, with the consensus that the Cavs are old, slow and a team with bad chemistry.

While Griffin disputes the latter tag, he doesn’t believe the players heard the criticism.

“I don’t think our guys felt anything relative to the negativity around them,” Griffin said. “The weight of expectation was not something we dealt with well. We never had chemistry issues, which I thought was classic, frankly.”

That presumption was heightened by a series of [LeBron] James tweets in early March that left observers wondering if the two-time NBA champion with the Miami Heat was trying to get through to his Cavs teammates.

“It’s this simple. U can’t accomplish the dream if everyone isn’t dreaming the same thing everyday. Nightmares follow,” he said on March 6.

“The ultimate level of chemistry is when you know what I’m thinking without saying a word and we execute it. Visa Versa,” he wrote on March 5.

“It’s ok to know you’ve made a mistake. Cause we all do at times. Just be ready to live with whatever that comes with it and be with … those who will protect you at all cost!” he tweeted on March 1.

No one knows what the messages mean.

“The tweets, well, everybody is like, ‘LeBron’s being passive-aggressive.’ LeBron James isn’t passive-aggressive, he’s aggressive-aggressive,” Griffin said. “You know exactly where he stands as a teammate and a leader. Nobody on our team thought those tweets were directed at him. Nobody on our team took that in a negative way. But because the world at large isn’t in our locker room, they think, well, that would really bother them. I don’t care what you think if you’re not in that room.

“LeBron enjoys and thrives in controversy and he really is comfortable in that space. I think he’s always going to parry with the media. I think he’s going to enjoy that throughout his career. It had no bearing on our locker room.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: You might not think you need to know anything else about San Antonio’s beatdown of Oklahoma City in Game 1 of their series Saturday night. But you can find some strong analysis and fine sportwriting here, here and here. … Meanwhile, as if Thunder fans weren’t forlorn enough over the opener’s outcome, they can ponder what it might mean to Kevin Durant‘s long- or short-term presence with their favorite team. … Hall of Fame center Patrick Ewing, now an assistant coach in Charlotte, reportedly will be interviewed this week for the head coaching vacancy in Sacramento. … LeBron James makes a couple of good points when questioning the usefulness of the NBA’s “last two minutes” reports on officials. That tool for transparency might be sending the wrong message, James says. … Carmelo Anthony might want to stifle his superstar-privilege and butt out of the New York Knicks’ search for a new head coach, according to Marc Berman of the New York Post. … Metta World Peace steps up to promote a documentary on mental illness and its effect on fellow Queens, N.Y., product Chamique Holdsclaw.

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