MIAMI – However far the Miami Heat go in defending their championship and chasing down another one, they will take a piece of the Chicago Bulls with them.
Probably some blood spatter too.
If the Heat players don’t look back at some point in the next month and appreciate, reflect and build upon what it was they got from that undermanned Chicago team, they won’t just be ingrates. They’ll be ingrates gone fishin’.
A niggling bad habit of the Heat at various times this season showed itself again in all its unnerving glory in the middle two quartersof Game 5 Wednesday at AmericanAirlines Arena.
What started out as a cool and stylish South Beach club party got spoiled by a bunch of Chicago guys hogging the bar stools and throwing peanut shells on the floor. The Bulls outscored Miami 56-39 in those middle 24 minutes and … wait, that doesn’t quite capture what went on.
Try this instead: After digging themselves a 22-4 hole midway through the first quarter, the Bulls beat the Heat the rest of the night 87-72. Left for dead early, they sat up as surely as Michael Myers, spooking Miami with thoughts of what might have been.
“You give a team like this life, anything can happen,” said forward Chris Bosh. “It’s kind of like watching a horror movie or something, and it happens in slow-motion. You go to Chicago [for a Game 6], their crowd is waking back up again, they’re excited again and now you’re in a dogfight. They come back and win that game, now anything can happen in a Game 7.”
Anything nearly happened in Game 5.
Let’s face it, on talent and depth, the Bulls who ended this season would have been, over 82 games, a lottery team. No Derrick Rose, who went wire-to-wire in his knee surgery rehab, but no Luol Deng or Kirk Hinrich over the final two weeks, either. Chicago still had All-Star center Joakim Noah and forward Carlos Boozer, but the remaining collection of role players and reserves were asked to do a little too much.
And still it worked. Oh, not overall. But often enough through Game 1, for stretches in Game 3 and over the final 41 minutes of Game 5 to grab the Heat’s attention. (more…)
ORLANDO – One of the unintended benefits of a team plowing through week after week of a 27-game (and counting) win streak is the collective strain it puts on not just a team’s superstars, but also it’s supporting cast.
And in the case of the Miami Heat, that would be, as All-Star forward Chris Bosh coined it, “the best supporting cast in the business.” Bosh was, of course, speaking about the cast surrounding reigning MVP LeBron James, a group headlined by Dwyane Wade and himself.
But those three superstars have the added benefit of leaning on what has developed into the best cast of veteran, high basketball IQ specailists in the business. From stalwarts like Udonis Haslem, Ray Allen and Shane Batter to Mike Miller and Chris “Birdman” Andersen to Norris Cole and occasionally James Jones or even Joel Anthony, the Heat found ways to tap into their resources at the right time throughout this streak.
It’s a delicate balance, knowing who to go to, and when. But it’s a luxury that Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and his staff have cultivated for the past three seasons. And for a team that will need every player to defend their title, this streak and the finish of this regular season could prove to be crucial in ensuring the reserves are ready for that grind.
“They are gaining more and more confidence,” Spoelstra said. “They really are. It doesn’t really matter which group we have out there. They take it to heart that they want to put together good minutes on the scoreboard. Those guys are just stepping up and giving us good minutes.”
Great minutes, actually, in spurts.
Cole scored a season-high 15 points and led seven scorers off the bench in Sunday’s win over Charlotte, the first of two straight games the Heat played without Wade, who sat out with a sore right knee. Cole (3-for-4), Allen (4-for-5) and Battier (2-for-5) lit it up from distance as the Heat used an 11-for-13 barrage from 3-point range to subdue the Bobcats.
Miller started in place of Wade Sunday and played 22 minutes in the win over the Bobcats. That’s the exact same number of minutes he played in the 10 games before that, and looked comfortable doing it. He started again Monday night against Orlando, making three of his six shots from the floor in 20 minutes against the Magic.
He attempted a total of four shots in those 10 games prior to his Bobcats start, but didn’t hesitate Sunday night, uncorking a couple of 3-pointers in the opening minutes of that game.
“My view was to just fill in,” Miller said. “But you can’t be shy. My motto is to let it fly. That helps our team, when our shooters are aggressive it opens up lanes for everybody else.”
Cole, Andersen and ex-Magic All-Star Rashard Lewis (11 points, courtesy of a 3-for-5 shooting effort from long-range) provided the boost the Heat needed to get win No. 27, outscoring the Magic reserves 42-15. The Heat are 26-1 this season when its reserves outscore the opposition’s.
“It’s just knowing your role and knowing what’s needed,” Battier said. “It’s the way we’ve worked all season long and right now it’s the perfect complement to what we’re doing offensively. Our main goal on offense is to create space to allow our best guys the room they need to operate. The only way to do that is to put shooters around them. So when we get the open looks, we have to make shots. It all has to work together.”
Making sure the bench was ready was of critical importance for Spoelstra, though he wouldn’t have forced the issue down the stretch of the regular season. Not with the type of veterans the Heat have.
“They’ve already had a body of work,” he said. “They’ve been called upon at times this year, and they are keeping themselves ready. The most important thing is all the work they’ve been doing behind the scenes. You could whither away on the sidelines by not playing if you didn’t have the right attitude. But our guys come in every single day. They do their conditioning and they also stay in it mentally. They do it every day.”
You win 27 straight games and everybody has to bring it — the superstars and the “best supporting cast in the business.”
Any doubts that this is LeBron James‘ NBA and the other players currently are just participating in it should have been shelved last weekend. No, not by what the reigning Most Valuable Player and runaway favorite again for the 2012-13 award (sorry, Charles) did in the All-Star Game on Sunday, though his 19 points, five assists and three 3-pointers in 30 minutes weren’t shabby.
James made his greater impact the day before, when he led the discussion – some have referred to it as part interrogation, part rallying cry – of fellow union members at which National Basketball Players Association Billy Hunter was relieved of his duties.
Insiders marveled immediately at how forceful both the Miami Heat supertar and Brooklyn Nets veteran Jerry Stackhouse were, among the 35-40 players in the hotel meeting room, in vetting the recent investigation into Hunter’s nepotism and conflicts of interest and in moving the group toward a cleaner, more player-driven organization.
The vote of team player reps to oust Hunter was unanimous, 24-0 (not all teams were represented). The reconfigured executive committee, several of whom stood behind union president Derek Fisher when the outcome was announced, featured a handful of new members (including Stackhouse) along with some holdovers.
But it wouldn’t have gotten to that point in the span of a couple of hours, if not for James and Stackhouse challenging the business audit conducted by law firm Paul, Weiss, then challenging their peers to take the union back.
“It’s a misperception that we try to fight, that this was the first meeting LeBron has attended or this was the first time LeBron said something,” said Miami teammate James Jones, the NBPA’s secretary-treasurer. “LeBron’s always talking about how we can improve our game and the issues surrounding our game. Because he’s one of this league’s brightest faces and brightest stars.”
Star power matters in situations like this, not just when national media is focused on a lockout and collective-bargaining talks. James and other big names such as Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce made their presence in Manhattan known in the fall of 2011, when the NBA was shut down and sliced from 82 games to 66 in 2011-12 before an agreement was reached.
But dealing with internal strife matters, too, as does the reorganization and the strides that can be made during times of labor peace. It’s not just for the 10th or 12th men on NBA rosters (Chris Paul was the only perennial All-Star on the exec committee.)
“I want to be educated,” James told NBA.com late Thursday night, after the Heat’s drubbing of the Bulls in Chicago. “Not only so I’m educated individually but so I can relate to my teammates and my teammates can relate it to their friends in the league. So we all can be more knowledgeable about it and not be caught off guard – that’s what happened. Everybody asks about [the Hunter crisis] and when you don’t have an answer, that doesn’t look good.”
If others were impressed with him, James said he was impressed with Stackhouse, 38 and 18 years into an NBA career that might not continue beyond this spring. The Nets swingman wasn’t just vocal – he accepted a VP spot on the union board. Stackhouse also was working the visitors dressing room at Barclays Center Friday, along with NBPA attorney Ron Klempner, talking with members of the Houston Rockets.
“That shows a lot,” James said of Stackhouse’s commitment. “He’s almost finished with his career and it’s not about him. It’s about the collective.”
Fisher and the other players took no questions from reporters last week after reading a statement of less than three minutes announcing Hunter’s dismissal. But Jones said the 8-0 vote against Fisher last spring, seeking his resignation, was set aside at the meeting when the case against Hunter was made clear to those players in attendance. “What happened in the past is in the past,” Jones said. “Derek is our president and we’re all behind him.”
The Heat reserve also said that it wasn’t true that most NBA players are ignorant of or disinterested in union business until trouble looms. “It’s not like we’re trying to keep 20,000 members involved,” Jones said. “We’ve got about 450 . It’s a misconception that they’re not involved.”
Still, many critics have cited Fisher and others for allowing Hunter’s questionable decisions – hiring family members, directing NBPA investments, paying certain improper expenses and the limited oversight of his contract extension – to occur on their watch. Even Fisher said after the meeting, “Going forward, we’ll no longer be divided, misled, misinformed. This is our union and we’re taking it back.”
That, James said, was his motivation last weekend.
Hunter, 70, is expected to mount a legal challenge, pending the results of criminal investigations into the matter. Or he may simply seek a settlement of the $10.5 million he says is still owed to him. The union might turn to an executive search firm to find a replacement for Hunter, unless Klempner seeks the position permanently and is a consensus choice.
“We haven’t got to that point yet,” James said. “We cleaned our house with the firing of Billy, releasing him. Right now we are getting things in order. But we are not going to take a step back. We’re going to push forward and make sure we have more of an emphasis on the players.
“We feel like that’s something that should be done – the players’ voices mean something. In the past, it wasn’t the players that we heard so much.”
And there’s no better time, with relative labor peace until at least 2017.
“Yeah, that’s why you get started now,” James said. “So at least you have a plan by the time it’s time to talk again.”
HOUSTON – Calling it “a day of change,” Derek Fisher told a roomful of reporters that the National Basketball Players Association had voted unanimously to terminate the employment of Billy Hunter, the union’s executive director since 1996.
That’s how Fisher, the union president, opened his statement. Moments later – and there weren’t many of those in the brief-statement, no-questions news conference that lasted fewer than three minutes – Fisher added: “We do not doubt that this process will possibly continue in an ugly way.”
Apparently, a day of change doesn’t happen overnight.
A group of NBA players estimated to number somewhere between 35 to 50 – All-Stars, participants in assorted weekend events, team player representatives and other interested union members – gathered Saturday afternoon to hear specifics in the NBPA’s dispute with Hunter and ultimately decide his fate. The roll-call included Miami’s LeBron James, New York’s Tyson Chandler, Chicago’s Joakim Noah, Minnesota’s Kevin Love, the L.A. Lakers’ Steve Blake, Houston’s Chandler Parsons and Cleveland’s Daniel Gibson, among the many.
Battle lines were drawn three weeks ago when an independent business review commissioned by the players was released, citing Hunter for nepotism and conflicts of interest and raising questions about the validity of his most recent contract extension. Hunter countered by saying that none of the incidents reported – including hiring two of his daughters or directing union financial business to an investment firm that employs his son – rose to the level of criminal conduct, though he swiftly instituted “reforms” against such activity. He also maintained that his contract – which pays Hunter an annual salary of about $3 million, with an estimated $10.5 million still due him – did receive proper oversight, per NBPA by-laws.
Friction between Hunter and Fisher sparked during and after the 2011 NBA lockout. The in-fighting led to a unanimous vote by what then was an eight-member executive committee of players seeking Fisher’s resignation. But with report last month from law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, a newly configured committee voted 5-0 to place Hunter on paid leave of absence.
By announcing Hunter’s dismissal without fielding questions, there was no explanation offered for how an 8-0 committee vote against Fisher got turned around so thoroughly. Or what the veteran NBA guard’s future holds in relation to his union role. Or whether a broader vote by the general membership would be held or needed.
Up at the podium Saturday, Fisher said simply that he would continue as president. San Antonio forward Matt Bonner will serve as vice president and Miami’s James Jones continues as secretary-treasurer.
Brooklyn’s Jerry Stackhouse – who had been urging an NBPA housecleaning that would sweep out Hunter and Fisher – is the first vice president-elect. Chris Paul, Roger Mason Jr., Andre Iguodala, Stephan Curry and Willie Green will serves as vice presidents on the new executive committee.
Fisher’s brief statement did not provide a specific reason for Hunter’s termination or comment on the validity of his contract. Instead, Fisher said: We want to make it clear that we are here to serve only the best interests of the players. No threats, no lies, no distractions will stop us from serving our membership.”
Fisher alluded to “three ongoing government investigations pending” into Hunter’s business practices, including the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York. Some outsiders had speculated that the players might keep Hunter on his paid leave of absence while waiting for those investigations to be completed, perhaps in the hope they would provide “cause” for his firing.
But a union source told NBA.com that bringing the situation to a head now, rather than waiting, would be more helpful to the NBPA if the two sides opt to reach some settlement.
The 70-year-old Hunter, who had held his post since 1996, had wanted to participate in the players’ annual meeting at All-Star Weekend to provide his side of the story but he was told by the union he would not be permitted to attend. Instead, he put his rebuttal on a website, challenging the union’s position on him and handling of the matter.
But Fisher and his peers, as they stood at the front of a mostly empty banquet hall, seemed eager at least for the sounds of closure. “Going forward,” he said, “we’ll no longer be divided, misled, misinformed. This is our union and we’re taking it back.”
MIAMI – The Oklahoma City Thunder were in control of Game 3 of the 2012 Finals. Kevin Durant (four fouls) and Russell Westbrook (too much dribbling) went to the bench with just over five minutes to go in the third quarter, but Derek Fisher‘s four-point play put the Thunder up 64-54 with 4:33 left in the period.
A minute later, OKC was still up nine, surviving without their two best players on the floor. And then things fell apart.
On the next Miami Heat possession, the Thunder played a zone defense for the first time in the series. That, in itself, wasn’t the problem. The Heat took some time to figure out what they were doing.
Then, with eight seconds on the shot clock, LeBron James took a dribble toward the basket from the right wing. Serge Ibaka stopped James from getting into the paint and James fed the ball to Shane Battier in the near corner. As Battier released a shot, Ibaka flew into him, a reverse cross body-block of sorts.
Both guys hit the floor, referee Joey Crawford whistled Ibaka for the foul, and Battier headed to the line for three free throw attempts.
Battier made all three freebies and the Oklahoma City lead was down to six. Then Thabo Sefolosha took an awful shot (from the left wing with his toes on the 3-point line and with 10 seconds on the shot clock) that missed everything.
OKLAHOMA CITY – When you’re paying your top three players about $48 million a year, your roster is not going to have a lot of depth. Such is the issue with the Miami Heat.
In Game 7 of the conference finals, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra got away with basically playing just six guys. That was enough to outlast the similarly shallow Boston Celtics.
But the Oklahoma City Thunder are not the Celtics in any shape, form or fashion. They’re younger, faster and deeper. And in Game 1 of The Finals, a 105-94 Thunder victory, Spoelstra couldn’t get away with playing such a short rotation.
Off the bench, the Heat got 34 minutes from Chris Bosh, 10 minutes from Mike Miller, and two minutes from Joel Anthony. Norris Cole and James Jones, who have each been in and out of the rotation in this postseason, did not play. The Heat said afterward that Jones was unavailable because of a migraine.
The lack of depth appeared to play a part in the Heat’s demise on Tuesday. After outscoring the Thunder 29-22 in the first quarter, Miami trended down. The second quarter was even. Oklahoma City won the third quarter by eight and the fourth quarter by 10, as the Heat seemingly ran out of gas.
CHICAGO – More than any of their NBA peers, the nine members of the National Basketball Players Association’s executive committee gave the most – in time and effort – toward salvaging this post-lockout season. Everyone dealt with the uncertainty and inactivity of the elongated offseason prior to, finally, this hectic 2011-12 schedule. It’s just that the NBPA exec committee dealt with it in coats and ties, in hotel ballrooms, from morning to night (and sometimes on to morning again), enduring all the rhetoric that took most of five months before it distilled into true negotiating .
Too bad they’re not enjoying it more.
Washington’s Maurice Evans, one of the union VPs, had a rare upbeat night against the Bulls Monday at United Center. He scored 14 points in 26:28 off the bench to help the Wizards bag a road victory, 87-84, over the team with the NBA’s best record. It was just his 19th appearance of the season (his third over the past four weeks) and only the second time he has scored in double figures.
But it has been that way for Evans, a journeyman on a team committed to a) young players and b) lottery position. He has averaged 3.4 points and 11.4 minutes when he has participated, down from 9.7 and 27.4 in 2010-11.
He has company among the union brass. NBPA president Derek Fisher, of course, was traded from his beloved Lakers, then cut loose by Houston before landing nicely with Oklahoma City. Fisher’s stats are off a bit too: 5.5 ppg, 24.4 mpg now, 6.8 and 28.0 then.
With the ancient Celtics having recently exposed the Magic’s lack of heart — not once but twice! — the Bulls and the Heat are currently the only viable contenders to rule the Eastern Conference. Sunday’s game in Miami provides a wonderful opportunity for Chicago to chill the Heat’s championship pretensions.
Meanwhile, the home standing Heat have the opportunity to prevent the Bulls from even dreaming that they can compete on equal terms with the holdover conference champs. Again, in this compacted and bizarre season, every game has an enhanced and disproportional importance.
HOW THE BULLS CAN WIN:Derrick Rose has become the most potent point guard in the NBA. Although his unselfishness and considerable ball-time result in his being one of the league’s leading assist-makers, Rose is really the Bulls’ go-to scorer. That’s because his shooting stroke has greatly improved, he’s nearly as strong as a power-forward, and his quickness and speed are otherworldly. Indeed, where other players are celebrated for the quickness of their first-step, Rose accelerates as he approaches the rim — making his second- and third-steps incredibly unique. Also, players necessarily lose a half-beat when they resort to some kind of crossover dribble, but Rose’s changes-of-direction likewise amp up his quickness. And with Dwayne Wade not at 100 percent, none of Miami’s backcourtsmen can contain Rose.
Kobe Bryant is aching to show that he, and not LeBron James, is the game’s most dominant player in tonight’s game in Miami (8 ET, TNT). And that he can lead the Lakers to another championship without being somewhat overshadowed by Phil Jackson and the triangle offense.
Meanwhile, LeBron wants to prove that he is indeed capable of excelling in clutch situations in big-time games. If this does come to pass (and shoot, and defend), then Miami can stake its claim as overwhelming favorites to win the last game of the season. And with Dwyane Wade unavailable, LBJ will enjoy twice as much ball-time as will Kobe.
HOW THE LAKERS CAN WIN: Matt Barnes provides scrappy, ball-sniping defense against LeBron. As a change of pace, Metta World Peace can defend LBJ with a belligerent physicality. Throw in some judicious double-teams, and James just might be a mite discombobulated.
* Pau Gasol’s long-armed defense will trouble Chris Bosh. When Bosh receives the ball on the right side of the court, his jumper is significantly more accurate and, from there, he also looks to drive right along the baseline. This is when and where he should be two-timed. No such measures need to taken when he sets up on the left side of the court. Also, Gasol can outreach Bosh’s defense in the low-post.
* Since Joel Anthony is no threat to score, Andrew Bynum can ignore him on the defensive end and devote himself to protecting the rim. On the downhill end of the court, Bynum is simply too big and strong for even Anthony’s energetic defense to be effective.