NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: With or without LeBron, Heat need to beware of the Pacers — LeBron James might not play in tonight’s rematch between the Heat and Indiana Pacers thanks to that sore ankle he injured Monday night. But Linda Robertson of the Miami Herald is convinced that the Heat need to be on red alert with or without James against this upstart Pacers team that has designs on the Heat’s crown. And since they are the only two teams in the Eastern Conference that are legitimate title contenders, every single time they meet this season will serve as a referendum, of sorts, on both teams:
Heat players rolled their eyes. Asked when he circled the date of the matchup on his calendar, Chris Bosh deadpanned, “Yesterday.”
“What is a rivalry these days?” James said, dismissing the notion that Heat-Pacers qualified as one. He was the King ignoring the serfs as they girded for revolution.
Perhaps Heat players are taking the jaded, realistic view. Who cares about December hothouse flowers? The Heat blooms in June.
Phase One of the long NBA season is for warming up and preserving body parts, not peaking, according to the two-time defending champs. Part of the problem with a league in desperate need of tinkering is the soullessness of so many games. The schedule starts to look like a vast wasteland with mediocre teams plodding from one inconclusive skirmish to another. Realignment and relegation deserve study if the NBA wants to awake.
In the meantime, we have Heat-Pacers II, to be followed by Heat-Pacers III on March 26, Heat-Pacers IV on April 11 and presumably Heat-Pacers Apocalypse in the Eastern Conference finals.
So the Heat better pay attention. As coach Erik Spoelstra is fond of saying, championship habits are ingrained during the regular season. Heat players, who beat the Pacers in seven games in last year’s playoffs, have a right to act superior, but the Pacers won’t be any worse for wear by stockpiling confidence. While the Heat conserves energy, the Pacers hone their ability to exploit Miami’s flaws — skills that will come in handy in five months.
Roy Hibbert is perfecting how to become a 7-2, 300-pound thorn in the Heat’s side.
The center dominated the paint in Indy and made a season-high 10 baskets — almost all from close range as the Heat failed to prevent him from catching post passes. David West added 17 points, nine rebounds and four assists.
The Heat has no answer for their size and muscle. The Greg Oden Project continues, in secret, with no sign that the big man’s knees will be ready anytime soon. If and when he does return — and Hibbert said he’s looking forward to it — Oden has to make up for a lot of lost time. He hasn’t played in a regular-season game in more than four years.
Paul George is making the most of valuable on-the-job training against Miami. The emerging superstar had a harried first half against the Heat’s double teams last week, but he figured out how to unlock himself and sank three crucial three-pointers, finishing with 17 points.
James was the unselfish distributor with his balanced contribution of 17 points, 14 rebounds and six assists, plus feverish defense of George, but if James’ ankle will cooperate, he needs to be a more aggressive scorer Wednesday. At Indy, he made only 3 of 11 field goals in Miami’s anemic second, third and fourth quarters.
… Miami believes it can make do without a center — and has two titles to prove it. But the rebounding bugaboo almost doomed the Heat against Indiana last year and again against San Antonio in the NBA Finals. Even against Utah on Monday, Miami gave up 17 second-chance points in the first half.
“It’s always a point of emphasis for us,” Bosh said. “It keeps teams in it against us.”
No. 2: Big Shot Lillard? Nah! Silent assassin mows owns Cleveland — Damian Lillard is developing a reputation around the league in just his second season as one of the true big shot artists in the game. He drained his second game-winner of the week Tuesday night in Cleveland, outdueling All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving in the process. Uncle Drew met up with the “Silent Assassin” Tuesday night and the ending was even better than the show that preceded it, writes Joe Freeman of The Oregonian. The Trail Blazers’ Houdini act makes for spectacular visuals that even the King approves of:
After Damian Lillard bludgeoned the Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday night, swishing a game-winning three-pointer before the final buzzer to carry the red-hot Trail Blazers to another victory, the superlatives flowed as free and effortless as a shot off Lillard’s right fingertips.“Cold blooded,” Cleveland’s Dion Waiters said of the game-winner.“Incredible,” Joel Freeland said of the dominant individual performance.“He’s like a silent assassin on the court,” Earl Watson said of Lillard. “He’s deadly when he shoots the ball.”Lillard was certainly a last-second marksman for the Blazers on Tuesday, calmly and confidently nailing a 30-foot step-back three with 0.4 seconds left to lift them to a 119-116 victory over the Cavaliers before 15,689 at Quicken Loans Arena. It was thesecond consecutive game-winner for Lillard — who hit a fadeaway jumper to beat the Detroit Pistons Sunday — and provided another remarkable moment in a season that continues to amaze.“It’s crazy that we’re pulling off wins like this,” Freeland said of the Blazers, who possess the NBA’s best record at 22-4.
… Afterward, in another muted celebration, Lillard coolly flexed, flashed a menacing glare and bumped chests with Aldridge as teammates gathered around.“There is nothing to break down,” coach Terry Stotts said, when asked to dissect the winning play. “Damian had it going … he had a special night. I thought it was appropriate that he finished it like that.”
No. 3: Henry investment produces solid returns for Lakers — Kobe Bryant‘s return to action was a foregone conclusion for the Los Angeles Lakers and in turn the men who toiled in his place during his absence. But that sliver of opportunity provided one-time Memphis Grizzlies lottery pick Xavier Henry with the opening he needed to prove himself to the Lakers and the rest of the league. It was an investment that has delivered solid returns for the Lakers, writes Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. It’s an investment that has worked out well for all involved:
Keeping faith When he set foot in this city nearly 3½ years ago, Xavier Henry was considered a highly touted draft prospect that could help the Memphis Grizzlies toward a deep playoff push.
Henry, whom Memphis selected with the 12th overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, never did that. A right knee injury sidelined him for 35 games his rookie season. The Grizzlies then traded Henry the following year to New Orleans, where overlapping injuries buried him on the depth chart. “I was just faithful to God and stayed true to the Bible,” Henry said. “I perservered through it. I’ve been doing that so far in my career. It hasn’t been easy,”
The Lakers signed Henry to a one-year deal this offseason with a partially guaranteed contract worth $884,293, and the move became a good investment.
Henry only posted five points on 2 of 8 shooting in the Lakers’ win Tuesday against Memphis. But he has averaged a career-high 9.8 points on 44 percent shooting in 20.1 minutes per game. He has also shown marked improvement from November (6.8 points on 37.9 percent shooting) to December (13.9 points on 50 percent shooting).
“I’m trying to solidify myself and have a great career,” Henry said. “But it doesn’t happen in a day. I can’t have too many highs or lows. It’s about pushing through the whole season.”
No. 4: Next few days critical for Woodson — Time out controversies, mixed up injury updates and eroding confidence in the locker room and front office, could things get any worse for Knicks coach Mike Woodson? Well, if you let Frank Isola of the New York Daily News tell it, these next few days are critical for Woodson and the prospect of him holding on to his job through Christmas. Fall apart against the Milwaukee Bucks tonight and … well, that lump of coal will arrive a few days early:
According to a source, [Amar’e] Stoudemire “flipped out” when he learned of Woodson’s medical update and quickly took to Twitter to inform the fans ‘IM NOT INJURED.” He also said that his body and knees “feel great!” Of course, Stoudemire didn’t make the trip to Milwaukee, so Woodson isn’t entirely wrong. The Knicks don’t play again until Saturday, so technically Stoudemire is out for “a while.”
Now, whether Woodson is still coaching the Knicks by Saturday is anyone’s guess. [Knicks owner Jim] Dolan is the X factor, of course. Anything and everything is possible. If he woke up in October believing the Knicks were championship-ready, he could just as easily decide tomorrow that Allan Houston or Herb Williams should lead the team for the remainder of the season.
But Dolan likes Woodson and may be willing to give him a chance to salvage the season now that Tyson Chandler is expected back from a broken leg. Chandler’s presence is huge in so many areas but he’s also limited. He’s not a big scorer and he’s injury-prone.
The whole roster is injury-prone despite the Dolan narrative that only Jason Kidd, Kurt Thomas, Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace were medical risks who all had to go. Kenyon Martin has an abdominal strain and is expected to be out two weeks. Pablo Prigioni is also out two weeks with a broken big toe. Raymond Felton, strained hamstring, two weeks.
(Do you get the feeling that the medical staff is under fire and instead of giving a four-week prognosis is now listing everyone at two weeks?) In Dolan’s defense, he only claimed this roster was built for the playoffs. He never promised it would get there.
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Warriors finally get Andre Iguodala back in the lineup and at just the right time … Forget the analytics when it comes to Russell Westbrook, numbers just don’t do him justice … Underrated point guard Ty Lawson is the key to the Nuggets’ season and future … Celtics and Sixers ready to battle it out for Rockets big man Omer Asik?
ICYMI(s) Of The Night: You owe it yourself to take one more look at the work Damian Lillard put in against the Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday night, young fella is a BEAST …