Posts Tagged ‘Dwyane Wade’

Reversal of fortune for Heat down stretch


VIDEO: Wade gets a tough shot to drop in a losing effort

So this is what the post-LeBron James verdict looks like for the Heat: A losing record in a powderpuff conference, Dwyane Wade‘s brain trying to overcompensate for his body, a costly loss Saturday at home to Toronto and another day or two before their absence from the playoffs becomes official.

Yes, this is a rather steep drop from four straight trips to the NBA Finals and two championships and lots of bubbly being uncorked at LIV, the South Beach playpen for a franchise that owned the NBA since 2010. There will be no celebrating the 2014-15 season, one in which the Heat hoped for the best but was served with a worst-case scenario come true.

An injury to Chris Bosh and the LeBron defection will cause Miami to become the first NBA Finalist to miss the playoffs since the 2004-05 Lakers, and this will also be the first Erik Spoelstra-coached team to hit the golf course early. Well, you could understand. No team could survive the loss of two-thirds of a Big Three and expect to live happily thereafter. Although Wade was brilliant at times, especially after healing from a nagging hamstring issue, the Heat couldn’t overcome all the losses or a chance to avoid a losing season.

A critic could nit-pick and say Miami shouldn’t made a stronger stand in the East, where the Celtics (!) could make the playoffs. Remember, not only did Miami have Wade, but Bosh made the All-Star team before a blood clot was found on his lung and ended his season. Plus, Miami stumbled upon the discovery of the year in center Hassan Whiteside and also traded for Goran Dragic at the deadline.

Yet: Miami got too much inconsistency from Luol Deng and Dragic has been a mild disappointment. Here’s all you need to know: Miami leaned on Michael Beasley down the stretch. Seriously.

And now, the question becomes: How long will this non-playoff stretch last for the Heat? Assuming they get good health form their key players, the easy answer to that is: Not for long. They’ll have Wade, Bosh and Dragic (if he re-signs as expected) next season, and if Whiteside doesn’t suddenly turn into a pumpkin, then they’ll have a double-double center as well. In the East, that’s a team worth 44 wins.

It would be dangerous to underestimate Pat Riley and Micky Arison, especially with the free agent class of 2016 coming soon. LeBron isn’t walking in that door again, but eventually, someone else will.

Morning shootaround — April 3


VIDEO: Highlights from games played April 2

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Miami’s playoff hopes hitting late snag | Knicks GM: Team won’t target only big-name free agents | Report: Rondo high on Lakers’ free-agent wish list

No. 1: Playoff hopes fading for aching Heat — The race for the No. 8 playoff spot in the Eastern Conference remains a tightly contested one, with the Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets and (to a lesser degree) Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers all within striking distance of it. The Heat’s loss last night in Cleveland moved it into a tie with Brooklyn for the spot, but that status may be short-lived. Bleacher Report’s Ethan Skolnick reports on how Dwyane Wade‘s injury, coupled with Miami’s already banged-up roster, may spell doom for the Heat’s playoff hopes:

Facing a prospect of four rather bland first-round matchups in the Eastern Conference postseason, it’s been understandable to crave a late-April collision between Cleveland and Miami, not simply for the soap opera potential, but also for the chance of a competitive series, considering that Wade and the Heat handled the Cavaliers twice at home in the regular season.

Thursday’s shellacking made that series less likely, pushing the Heat a half-game behind seventh-seeded Brooklyn—the spot that would draw certain-to-be-second-seeded Cleveland—and into a tie with eighth-seeded Boston, with Charlotte and Indiana still lurking close behind. But it did more than that. It also showed why such a series, even if it occurred, would likely be a letdown, for however little time it lasted.

The Heat’s only real chance to reach the playoffs, and compete once there, is a dynamic, dashing Dwyane Wade, which is why it made little sense for Wade to play Thursday night. Not when his left knee was clearly bugging him throughout much of Tuesday’s loss to the Spurs; not with beating the rested Cavaliers an extreme longshot; and not with such a critical stretch of schedule—a back-to-back against the Pistons and Pacers, followed a day later by a home game against the Hornets—coming up. That was true even prior to Wade, along with Udonis Haslem, missing Thursday’s shootaround with the flu. The tactical play, even if not the popular one, would have been to sit out until Saturday, when Wade’s presence would have given the Heat a significant edge against the Pistons.

The unfortunate truth for Miami is that they are now at risk of heading down from here. Wade said he would spend Friday, after arriving in Detroit, getting treatment as he always does. But his Instagram post, in which he said he prayed he could join the team on the court on this road trip—which finishes Sunday in Indianapolis—wasn’t especially encouraging.

“The goal has just been get healthy, get it going,” Luol Deng said. “We had our struggles early in the year, we made the trade (for Dragic) and then C.B. went down. Just guys been in and out. It’s been a very, not making excuses or anything, but in terms of consistency, it’s really been difficult for everybody.”

That’s where the Heat are, with seven games left.

Dealing with a very bad hand.

Hardly looking like a threat to Cleveland, or anyone else. Hardly looking like a team that can salvage the Eastern Conference’s first round as half of a showcase series.

“Can’t keep everybody healthy,” Mario Chalmers said.

“That type of year,” Deng said.

“The story of the season,” Wade said. “It continues.”

If he can’t play this weekend, it probably won’t continue much longer.


VIDEO: LeBron James and the Cavs breeze past the Heat

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LeBron would welcome Cavs-Heat series


VIDEO: LeBron James wouldn’t shy away from a Cavs-Heat playoff series

Regardless of where he ranks on your 2015 MVP ballot, LeBron James remains the NBA’s best all-around player and the prism through whom most league storylines shine. He has earned the privilege of being the name above the title, a spokesman on par with Kobe Bryant and legendary players before them.

Since James already wears multiple hats – perennial MVP candidate for the Cavaliers, ubiquitous corporate pitchman, powerful VP voice in the NBA players union, alleged Cavs “coach” (and David Blatt ventriloquist) and suspected Cleveland GM for the roster moves he presumably has signed off on since his return in July – it seems reasonable he could add one more: NBA postseason schedule-maker.

Depending on your media outlet of choice, James’ comments about potentially facing the Miami Heat in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs might seem self-serving or heavy in the sort of drama of which he’s occasionally been accused. After all, the two franchises never have met in such circumstances, and never have had more criss-crossing storylines till now.

Heading toward the Miami-Cleveland game Thursday night at Quicken Loans Arena (8 ET, TNT), James naturally was asked about the prospect of facing in a best-of-seven series the team he led to four straight NBA Finals and two championships in 2012 and 2013. The fact that the Cavs currently are No. 2 in the East while Miami is No. 7, which makes the match-up possible, was rendered a mere contributing factor once James’ preferences and will were tapped.

As noted by longtime Heat reporter Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, James said he welcomed a head-to-head meeting with good pal Dwyane Wade for several reasons.

“You look at the standings, you see who’s two-seven. If we continue to do well, we’ll probably face the seven seed and we’ll see what happens then,” James said at the Cavaliers’ practice facility in advance of Thursday’s nationally televised game against the Heat, with the teams entering with those seedings. “But it’d be good for the fans, for sure. And it will be good for me and D-Wade, just being two guys that love to compete.”

“I mean just to go against a champion, a competitor like himself and that franchise,” James said of what Heat-Cavs in the playoffs would mean. “Obviously I’m not there yet, but I am kind of in playoff mentality.

“But as far as my opponent, I’m not there yet, obviously, because I lock down on what I need to do.”

While James has the liberty to discuss potential playoff matchups, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Thursday he has more immediate concerns.

“It’s easier for those guys to say,” he said of the Cavaliers discussing potential playoff opponents. “We’re not there. I’ll take any of those guys.”

But Spoelstra acknowledged that just about every game these past five seasons at Quicken Loans Arena has been unique, whether it has been alongside James or as an opponent.

“It always will feel a little different,” he said. “It’s great competition.”

Left unsaid was the understanding that James would be in a no-win situation, playing with the higher seed against the team he left in free agency just as abruptly (if less emotionally) as he did Cleveland back in 2010. Whether he or Blatt calls Cleveland’s plays on the floor, whether actual GM David Griffin  transactions above NBA D-League-grade by James or not, the all-NBA forward would get some of the credit but a whole lot of blame if a jilted underdog Heat team were to upset the Cavs or even win two or three games.

James was right, though, that it would be a series with plenty of back story and intrigue, assuming both clubs were healthy and ready to play at their best.

Speaking of which, there’s no truth to the rumor that James also has taken on medical duties for the Cavs. This update on Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love was info straight out of the trainers room, via the media relations office, on tonight’s game:

Hawks rest their case with Schroder

One of the benefits of clinching a playoff spot before April is sitting key people. In that sense, the Hawks earned the right by virtue of claiming best record in the East days ago.

And now, there’s perhaps a chance we won’t see Dennis Schroder for the rest of the season. Not that the German point guard is an injury case — his left toe damaged the other night against the Bucks was diagnosed as sprained — but it’s just another reason for the Hawks to play it safe here in the season’s final two weeks.

While the Hawks played their usual starting five tonight against the Pistons, none were scheduled to play 30-plus minutes. From now until mid-April, expect to see lots of Mike Muscala, Kent Bazemore and Shelvin Mack.

Other teams aren’t so lucky, especially those chasing playoff spots. For example: You think Miami would love to give Dwyane Wade a break? Well, not if they want to get the No. 7 or 8 seed in the East. With three teams chasing those spots, the Heat can’t afford to give Wade’s chronically-sore body a rest here down the stretch. Same goes for David West and the Pacers, Russell Westbrook and OKC (although that might change in a week) and a few other teams.

Still, the “rest” controversy is here to stay. Weeks after the lottery-bound Nuggets sat three players, the Kings gave DeMarcus Cousins a night off.

 

Morning shootaround — March 28


VIDEO: All the highlights from Friday night

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Hawks clinch Eastern Conference | Mavericks lose Ellis | What’s next for Thunder, Durant? | Shaq would have stayed in Orlando

No. 1: Hawks clinch Eastern Conference — Coming into this season, the Atlanta Hawks were dealing with an underwhelming free agency period, a GM on an indefinite leave of absence, and an ownership group that wanted to sell the franchise. And then the season started, which the Hawks used as a terrific reminder that all the off the court noise ends there, and what really matters is the results on the floor. Friday night, with a win over the Miami Heat, the Hawks moved to 55-17 on the season and clinched the Eastern Conference championship. Yet despite the incredible season and improbable title, as Jeff Schultz writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Hawks acted like it was no big deal …

The Hawks clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs Friday night and they acted as if they had just beaten Milwaukee on a Tuesday in November.

That’s probably a good thing.

“Maybe we’ll do a little, ‘Hip-hip, hooray’ on the plane,” Kyle Korver said.

“I mean, it’s great,” Paul Millsap said. “But we really haven’t been focusing on it. We’ve got bigger goals ahead. We haven’t been looking at the scoreboard or looking at other teams. We’ve been looking at ourselves, trying to get ourselves right.”

The Hawks (55-17), playing the best defense they had in a few weeks, led Miami by 18 points at halftime (55-37) and cruised to a 99-86 win over the remains of the Heat.

Miami isn’t the same team without LeBron James (Cleveland) and Chris Bosh (injured), and with Dwyane Wade seemingly playing on one leg. The Heat’s bandwagon fan base, which used to fill Philips Arena, also appears to have shrunk, or at least morphed into Cleveland fans. Funny how that works.

But the Hawks’ win, combined with Cleveland’s loss to Brooklyn, officially clinched the East, even if it was a bit anti-climactic. It almost seemed fitting that when coach Mike Budenholzer walked into the locker room minutes after the game to tell his players that the Cavaliers had lost, half of the team was in the showers.

“Bud found out, came in and there were only like five guys in here,” Korver said. “He was like, ‘Good accomplishment, we won the East.’”

***

No. 2: Mavericks lose Ellis — The Dallas Mavericks have made several changes this season — trading for Rajon Rondo, signing Amar’e Stoudemire — and despite the growing pains involved they have managed to remain in the playoff picture. But a calf injury last night to Monta Ellis not only got Mark Cuban fired up on Twitter, but without Ellis on the floor, as Tim McMahon writes for ESPNDallas.com, the Mavericks offense was a “hot mess” …

The Dallas offense didn’t exactly look healthy without its leading scorer. The Mavs scored a grand total of 22 points in the final 18:43 without Ellis, finishing with their second-lowest point total of the season.

Of course, the Mavs didn’t quite light it up in the first half with a healthy Ellis, either. Dallas scored only 41 points in the first half, shooting 38.6 percent from the floor. But the Mavs closed the first half with a 10-2 run, capped by Ellis speeding through the Spurs for a coast-to-coast layup, and opened the second half with a 13-4 spurt to slash the Spurs’ lead to four.

Then Ellis limped off the floor with 6:43 remaining in the third quarter, a little bit after he got kneed in the calf while defending Manu Ginobili, and took the life out of the Mavs’ offense with him. Dallas didn’t score for the next 3:03 and managed only 15 points in the fourth quarter.

Forwards Dirk Nowitzki and Chandler Parsons failed to pick up the slack with Ellis out. They both failed to score in double figures, combining for only 16 points, none of which came in the fourth quarter.

Was that hot mess a preview of the Mavs’ offense minus Ellis?

“We’ll find out,” Mavs owner Mark Cuban said before correcting himself. “Hopefully, we won’t have to find out.”

The Mavs will know more about Ellis’ status on Saturday, but his streak of playing in 237 consecutive games is certainly in jeopardy. The Mavs’ next game is Sunday night in Indiana.

“We just have to wait and see what the doctors say and how he feels tomorrow,” Nowitzki said. “Hopefully, he will be OK. We all know he plays injured and sick and he is always there for his team.”

It could be painful to watch the Mavs without their best creator by far, but it also might be in everyone’s best interest if Ellis misses some time. The Mavs have no hope of making a playoff run if Ellis isn’t at his best.

Ellis’ toughness can’t be questioned. He has proven repeatedly that he’ll fight through pain and play through injuries. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, particularly with the playoffs weeks away.

Ellis refused to even consider missing any games after straining his left hip two games before the All-Star break. The injury bothered Ellis for weeks, a major factor in an extended slump he finally busted out of with his 38-point performance in Tuesday’s home win over the Spurs.

“Our trainers will evaluate the situation, and we’ll communicate with him,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t see us putting him out there if he’s not feeling good. You can’t underestimate his ability to bounce back from things. He’s a fighter, he loves to compete and he hates missing games. That said, we aren’t going to put him in harm’s way.”

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No. 3: What’s next for Thunder, Durant? — The Oklahoma City Thunder have had bad luck with injuries, but even as Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka have missed time the last few seasons, Kevin Durant was able to carry the load, logging heavy minutes and scoring hundreds of points. But after winning the MVP a season ago, this season Durant hasn’t been able to shake the injury bug, and after having two surgeries on his right foot since the summer, the Thunder announced yesterday that Durant will need a third surgery on that right foot that will keep him out four to six months. The bone graft procedure Durant is in for should give Durant his best shot yet at fixing his troublesome right foot. And with free agency for Durant looming in the summer of 2016, as Royce Young writes at Daily Thunder, there are plenty of questions left to answer …

The big question I’m seeing a lot is, “Did Durant come back too quickly?”

The answer is, yeah, probably, in hindsight. But also what you have to understand is the team is in constant consultation with specialists about this. And sometimes, things don’t go as anticipated. It’s not like they were just saying, “I don’t care, get Durant back out there before we lose more games.”

In these situations, it makes everyone feel better to assign blame. Point a finger at someone, lash out, yell, gripe, whatever. And in truth, it probably is someone’s fault in there. Maybe it’s Durant’s. Maybe it’s Sam Presti’s. Maybe it’s the medical team. Maybe it’s your fault, ever think of that?

What’s necessary to keep in mind, though, is no one was being irresponsible here. If Durant did return earlier than he should of, it’s only because he was cleared to do so. The team and Durant can only operate off of what they’re being told, and up until literally a week and a half ago, this thing was healing the way it was supposed to. The thought was that the screwhead had created a severe bone bruise from the constant rubbing, and Durant just couldn’t shake it off without significant time off. That’s what everyone thought. I was told by someone that’s pretty close to it all that he was going to play against the Celtics two weeks ago. That’s how unexpected this turn of events became.

Durant practiced on that Saturday before, doing some 3-on-3, then he played 1-on-1 in Dallas on Monday. And after that, he walked out of the arena with a severe limp, and pretty deflated. It wasn’t improving the way it was supposed to with the increased activity and at that point, the writing was really on the wall.

It doesn’t look good that Durant has had three surgeries on his foot. One is plenty. One is supposed to do the job. With what happened last season with Russell Westbrook, there’s good reason to wonder what’s going on. But I’d look at it this way: The Thunder’s conservative approach opens the door for them to get egg on their face. They didn’t mess around with Westbrook, taking a chance to let him play on a swollen knee. They pulled the plug, and made the decision to scope and deal with the consequences and fallout.

And then they did it again. They knew there would be skeptics and critics, questioning what the hell they were doing. But instead of delaying for the offseason to address it, they prioritized the long-term health of Westbrook and made the decision with only that in mind.

I’d say it worked out pretty well for them, and Westbrook.

The Thunder could’ve taken a different measure here with Durant. They could’ve rested him the next few weeks, then put him back on the practice floor and tried to ease him back on the floor for the postseason. That option was absolutely on the table.

But in collaboration with literally three of the top foot and ankle specialists in the world, the consensus was to go ahead and take the steps to end Durant’s season and do the bone graft. Instead of risking anything in his future, they’re going to just take advantage of the coming offseason which should let him completely heal, and then start over next season.

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No. 4: Shaq would have stayed in OrlandoShaquille O’Neal began his pro career with the Orlando Magic, and he lasted four seasons before leaving Orlando in bitter circumstances and signing with the Los Angeles Lakers. But time heals all wounds, or at least it does in the Magic Kingdom, and last night the Magic welcomed Shaq back and inducted him into the Orlando Magic Hall of Fame. In his remarks during the festivities, as Josh Robbins writes in the Orlando Sentinel, Shaq said if he could do it over again, he would have played out his seven-year contract in Orlando and handled things differently …

Flanked by Penny Hardaway, Horace Grant, Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott, the mammoth center led Orlando to the 1995 NBA Finals, where the Magic lost to Hakeem Olajuwon‘s Houston Rockets in four games.

The next year, the Magic fell to Michael Jordan‘s Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals in four games.

O’Neal never played for the Magic again.

The Magic initially made him a low offer, and the Lakers swooped in with a $121 million offer and the lure of Hollywood.

The Magic eventually offered O’Neal a deal that eclipsed the Lakers’ offer, but it was too late. Restricted free agency didn’t exist in those days, so the Magic were powerless to prevent O’Neal from leaving.

And he left.

“We came back later and beat the Lakers’ offer at the closing minutes,” said Magic co-founder and Magic Hall of Famer Pat Williams. “But, emotionally, Shaq was gone.”

O’Neal was 24-years-old when he spurned the Magic in favor of the Lakers.

“It was all business,” O’Neal said. “Do I regret it? I never fully answered. I regret it sometimes. This is where I started, where I should’ve stayed. I actually wish that they [had] made it a law that whoever drafted you, you’ve got to stay there your whole career. No trades. No nothing. No free agency. No anything like that. Do I regret it? I regret it only because the DeVos family, they deserve a couple [of NBA titles].”

As it turned out, he didn’t finally win a title with the Lakers until 2000 — four years after he left the Magic.

“I just wish I would’ve had more patience,” O’Neal revealed. “It was all about I wanted to be protected from the bashing. What I mean by that [is] I wanted to win then. Even when I got there [to L.A.], I still got bashed and it still took four years to win. But I was very impatient. I was very young, and I thought that if I go there with those guys out there, that I could win right away. And that wasn’t the case.

“So now that I’m older now, I wish as a youngster, I wish I had had more patience.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Former Jazz player and announcer Hot Rod Hundley has died at 80 … Warriors big man Draymond Green has launched a line of t-shirts poking fun at Clippers coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers … The Rockets got Dwight Howard back from injury and now lose big man Donatas Motiejunas for a few weeks with a back injury … The Heat hope to get Hassan Whiteside back by the playoffs … The Nets have signed Earl Clark to a 10-day contract

Morning shootaround — March 27


VIDEO: Highlights from game played on March 26

NEWS OF THE MORNING

James Harden makes MVP case | Pacers clinging to playoff hopes | Crawford says he’ll be back | Amar’e to stick with Dallas?

No. 1: James Harden makes MVP case With the season nearing an end, the MVP talk around the MVP race is heading up. Stephen Curry? Russell Westbrook? LeBron James? Anthony Davis? Or what about in Houston, where James Harden has been perhaps the best offensive player in the NBA this season? USA Today‘s Sam Amick caught up with Harden, who made his case for why he deserves your MVP vote…

“I think if you look at what I’ve been doing all year, only missing one game all year because of the situation (with seemingly-endless injuries to teammates), basically having to carry a load all year, being consistent from the first game of the season,” Harden said. “That should show it right there. But like I said, (the focus is) for me to go out there and continue doing what I’m doing, being consistent, is all I can do.”

And getting to the free throw line at an unmatched rate. Harden — who has converted on 86.6% of free throw attempts — is on pace to lead the league in free throw attempts for the second time in three seasons (10.1 per game). Last season’s leader in that category was the Thunder’s reigning MVP, Kevin Durant (9.9).

“I’m enjoying the whole process of these last (few) games, just trying to win games,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been doing since Dwight has been out. I don’t really keep track of the other (MVP candidates) or what they’re doing. Obviously everybody knows that Russ is going on a triple-double rally. He’s playing extremely well and they’re fighting for the eighth spot. But all those guys you named (Curry, Westbrook, James, Davis and Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers) are very good players, or very talented players. For me, I just focus on what I can control and going out there and doing the best I can do every single right.”

In trying to explain his own MVP-caliber campaign, Harden said his comfort level in the not-so-new surroundings have been key. It’s his third season in Houston, where he came via trade in October 2012 and has progressively found his way as a leader ever since.

“All I needed was time,” he said of the Houston experience. “All I needed was to know what I had around me. And now that I know it, I’m comfortable with it and I can be a great leader. I think that’s probably one of the reasons I’m so successful is that I’m comfortable. I think if you’re comfortable in any situation, and you know what’s going on and you know what you’re going to get, you’re going to be successful.

“It’s about having a good time, about enjoying it, enjoying the grind. If you’re not having fun, you’re probably not doing good.”

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Morning Shootaround — March 23


VIDEO: Highlights from games played March 22

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Spurs run clinic on Hawks | Thunder rely on defense (Westbrook) for latest win | Carlisle: We don’t play hard all the time

No. 1: Spurs run clinic on Hawks — The teacher schooled the master Sunday at Philips Arena. Everyone saw it. There was no doubt which system ruled the day. The original pace-and-space kings from San Antonio owned the floor against the imprint version that has led the Atlanta Hawks to outlandish success this season. The Spurs rolled to their third straight win by running a clinic on the Hawks. Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News has more:

It was billed as a battle of the Spurs vs. Spurs East, aka the Atlanta Hawks.

Instead, the Spurs ran a clinic on the team that has raced to the top of the Eastern Conference by emulating the Spurs, scoring a 114-95 beatdown to complete a 2-0 season sweep.

Mike Budenholzer, the longtime Gregg Popovich assistant who has incorporated his former boss’ approach since becoming Atlanta’s head coach in 2013, didn’t stick around to watch the destruction, thrown out after getting two technical fouls in the third period.

The win was the third straight for the Spurs, 44-25 and sixth in the Western Conference.

Kawhi Leonard was three assists shy of what would have been the first triple-double of his career, getting 20 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in just 31 minutes and 41 seconds, his presence hardly necessary in the final period of a start-to-finish domination by the Spurs.

Beneficiary of Leonard’s slickest assist of the game — a half court bounce pass that produced a layin — center Tiago Splitter recorded a season-high 23 points. It was the second time in the last two games Splitter scored a season-high.

Ball movement again keyed an efficient Spurs offense. They had 30 assists on 46 baskets and shot 56.1 percent.

The Spurs will go down as the only team in the league the Hawks have not beaten this season. But just as important on this lone trip to Atlanta for Popovich was a chance to catch up with his good friend and TNT’s very own Craig Sager:

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Morning Shootaround — March 21


VIDEO: Highlights of the games played March 20

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Westbrook lifts Thunder in aftermath of Durant news | LeBron leads Cavaliers to playoff spot on rough night | Clippers making their move in the Western Conference playoff chase

No. 1: Westbrook lifts Thunder in aftermath of Durant news — It’s truly Russell Westbrook‘s team now in Oklahoma City. Kevin Durant is out indefinitely with no reasonable expectation that he will return this season, whether the Thunder make the playoffs or not. Whatever the circumstance, Westbrook is bringing the energy and effort needed to lead the charge for Scott Brooks‘ team, just as he did Friday night in the Thunder’s takedown of the Eastern Conference leading Atlanta Hawks. Love him or hate him, right now the underdog is on top after collecting his ninth triple double and pushing the Thunder up the ladder in the chase for the 8th and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Anthony Slater of the Oklahoman explains:

The Thunder’s already wavering title hopes took a potentially fatal blow on Friday morning with the latest Kevin Durant injury setback.

But by late Friday night, Russell Westbrook and a patched together lineup had already reminded the basketball world that — while a championship run is now hard to fathom — high-level hoops entertainment will remain for the next month-plus in Oklahoma City.

The East-leading Atlanta Hawks came to town, packing a potent offense to feast on the Thunder’s slumping defense. Void of Serge Ibaka to clean up mistakes, OKC struggled on that end again.

But as has been common of late, even without double-double machine Enes Kanter on this night, the Thunder went all mid-2000s Phoenix Suns and succeeded in outscoring a scoring machine. The final: Thunder 123, Hawks 115.

“It was like an ABA game out there,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks joked.

With the win, OKC became only the fourth NBA team to ever go from nine games under .500 to nine games over in the same season.

And Westbrook, again, was at the center of it all, finishing with 36 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds for his ninth triple-double of the season.

Instead of an emotional letdown after the latest Durant news, the Thunder came out energized and angry, jumping on the Hawks in the opening minutes. Westbrook had seven of his 14 assists in the first quarter. OKC, at one point, held an early nine-point lead.

But after the Hawks weathered that early storm, OKC’s faulty defense sprung leaks and Atlanta started splashing jumpers from all over the floor. On this night, reserve big man Pero Antic played the role of random dude to roast the Thunder’s perimeter defense, going off for 18 points in 12 first half minutes.

The Hawks led 68-61 at halftime. With two minutes left in the third quarter, that lead had ballooned to 12. Shorthanded, it looked like the Thunder would come up short, fittingly capping an emotionally tough day for the franchise.

But then Anthony Morrow got hot and the tone of the game changed.

With 7:54 left in the fourth quarter, Morrow splashed in his third three of the night, cutting the Hawks lead to four. It was the sixth consecutive game Morrow has hit at least three 3s, one of the hotter stretches of his storied shooting career.

But he was just getting started. Over the next four minutes of game action, Morrow drilled three more 3s, the crowd noise rising and the Thunder’s momentum building with each splash.

“I’ve never experienced (a playoff atmosphere),” Morrow said. “But (Westbrook) said that was close to it.”


VIDEO: Russell Westbrook lifted the Thunder on the night they found out Kevin Durant’s season could be over 

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Morning shootaround — March 19


VIDEO: Highlights of the games played March 18

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Wade, Heat rising fast | Warriors pass big test vs. Hawks | Noah trying to remain optimistic about role, minutes

No. 1: Wade feeling great in Miami — Many may have figured the Miami Heat would fade from the Eastern Conference playoff picture once All-Star forward Chris Bosh was lost for the season due to blood clots on his lungs. But in the 13 games since that news came down, Miami has gone 8-5, which includes last night’s thrilling home win over the Portland Trail Blazers. That win — and much of Miami’s success of late — came courtesy of a fourth-quarter scoring surge by Dwyane Wade, who told ESPN.com’s Chris Wallace that he’s feeling better than ever:

Dwyane Wade credits improved health and a recent change in his workout routine as the driving forces behind his recent surge in production amid the Miami Heat’s push to make the playoffs.

“This is the best I’ve felt in years right now,” Wade said Wednesday. “You question it. And you try not to question it, like ‘Why? Why couldn’t I feel like this the last two years?’ But it is what it is. I’m feeling like this now, when I need it individually to (carry) more of a load to help this team.”

The quiet moment of reflection for Wade came as he sat in his locker after he scored 32 points to help rally the Heat late in a 108-104 victory against the Portland Trail Blazers. It was the seventh consecutive game Wade has scored at least 25 points, marking his longest such streak since eight in a row in 2010.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said the team’s strategy has been simplified in recent weeks as Wade started to regain his form after dealing with three separate hamstring injuries before the All-Star break.

Wade has averaged 29.1 points and shot 53 percent from the field over the last seven games.

“He understands the moment right now,” Spoelstra said of his expectations for Wade. “We don’t have to talk about it. It’s, ‘Here’s the ball. Make a play for the team.’ Quite frankly in the fourth quarter, the best offense really was to get the ball to Dwyane and let him create some kind of action.”

With LeBron James back in Cleveland and Bosh sidelined for the rest of the season to recover from blood clots in his lungs, the bulk of the leadership and production has shifted to Wade. An 11-time All-Star in his 12th season, Wade said he recently started his workout routine a few hours earlier than normal on game nights and has been spending more time on the court with assistant coach and former NBA forward Juwan Howard to simulate the bigger defenders he faces on switches.

But the ultimate source of Wade’s success is his health. He reached toward the side of his locker Wednesday night and knocked against the wooden frame, having played in 14 of the past 15 games. Wade leads the league in fourth-quarter scoring after adding 15 of his 32 in the final period Wednesday, including the Heat’s final eight points of the game.

“It feels good, man,” said Wade, who is averaging 21.8 points, 5.2 assists and 3.7 rebounds in 49 games. “I’ve taken a lot of criticism and I’ve worked very hard on my body to get to the point where I know, fourth quarter, it shows. That means a lot to me. When everyone is tired, I go up a notch. And for an old guy, that’s not bad at all to have that extra level to go to.”


VIDEO: Dwyane Wade knows he must drive Miami’s playoff push 

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Morning Shootaround — March 16


VIDEO: Highlights from games played March 15

NEWS OF THE MORNING

LeBron questionable for second return to Miami | Thunder get big win vs. Bulls | Garnett hosts his Brooklyn friends

No. 1: LeBron questionable for second return to Miami — That emotional return to Miami the first time around for LeBron James might not have a second act. The Cleveland Cavaliers’ superstar is questionable for tonight’s game after taking an awkward fall on his right leg in Sunday’s win over Orlando. The Cavaliers have Kyrie Irving to carry the load if LeBron cannot go. But as NBA.com’s John Schuhmann points out, the Cavs are just 2-9 without LeBron this season and have been outscored by 7.9 points per 100 possessions with him off the floor. But missing another game in this particular season wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for James. Joe Vardon of the Plain Dealer explains:

James has already missed a career-high 11 games this season due to injury. Additionally, both he and the Cavaliers have expressed a desire to rest James for some games leading up to the playoffs in April.

But a rematch with the Heat in Miami, where James won two titles in four years and where he was received warmly when the Cavs played there Christmas Day, was not one James planned to skip.

James’ first game in Miami this season was emotional for him and included a video tribute and standing ovation from the home fans.

He cut a video testimonial for Bleacher Report about the emotions of playing against former teammates Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers, and others.

On Sunday night, James agreed the next South Beach visit would have a much different feel.

It’d be really different if he didn’t play.

“For me to be able to just finish the game, you know, the way I fell, the way I took that fall, it just goes to my training, the way I approach the game off the floor,” James said. “That time I was able to stay on the floor with my teammates.”

James scored four points and dished out three assists while playing 10 of 12 minutes in the fourth quarter.

It’s also worth noting that James’ best, most athletic dunk was in the final period, when he reached the ball high above the rim as he glided past defenders and crushed it with his right hand with 5:31 left.


VIDEO: LeBron James talks about how he’s feeling after the Cavs’ win in Orlando

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