Lethargic Cavaliers Face Steeper Struggles Than LeBron James’ Heat in 2010-11

WASHINGTON D.C. — The past is prelude, and that can sometimes serve as comfort. It’s given the Cleveland Cavaliers a cushion. It’s been the primary reason that much of the national media, which mauled the Miami Heat for their sluggish start to the 2010-11 season, have been preaching patience as this latest so-called superteam stumbles out of the starting gate.

That, however, can become a crutch, an assumption that everything will be all right, merely because in a somewhat similar circumstance, it has been once before. That assumption is dangerous, since it may also be wrong.

LeBron James doesn’t believe that any outcomes are assumed, certainly not without the work, and yet even he has commonly drawn upon comparisons to the adversity he experienced four years earlier. He did so again Friday morning, when asked how he balances perspective about the process with his desire for more immediate success.

“It’s my biggest test,” he said. “My patience isn’t… I have a low tolerance for things of this nature. So it’s something I’m working on as well. Which I knew from the beginning that was going to be my biggest test, to see how much patience I got with the process. What helps me out is I’ve been through it before. But at the same, I’m a winner, and I want to win, and I want to win now. It’s not tomorrow, it’s not down the line, I want to win now. So it’s a fine line for me. But I understand what we’re enduring right now.” 

Later, in a 91-78 loss to the currently clearly superior Washington Wizards, a national television audience got a better sense of exactly what that is, and it’s not exactly, what James has gone through before. The Cavaliers are enduring the effects of a lack of cohesion, and an absence of confidence in each other. And, at this point, it’s officially more concerning than anything that long-ago Heat team went through.

For starters, that team actually started 7-4, not 5-6 as the Cavaliers have, even though everyone only remembers that Miami slipped to 9-8 on a deflating night in Dallas. That Miami team had three blowout victories in its first five games. This Cavaliers squad has had just one, in its eighth contest, against Atlanta. That Miami team didn’t lose for a third time by double digits until its 41st outing, on Jan. 13, even though it was without two of its top five projected players, Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem, for most of that time. This Cavaliers squad, which has lost one rotation guy (Matthew Dellavedova) has already lost by 19, 13 and nine, with only a Dion Waiters garbage-time jumper saving it from a double-digit defeat against Denver.

That Miami team didn’t look as lethargic, and its players didn’t look like they loathed each other, as this team and these players appear to at times. Things were messy, for sure, especially as the three established stars, adjusting to redefined roles, tripped over one another, but that never seemed to be from a lack of earnest effort.

Which brings us to Friday.

When these Cavaliers brought all their worst basketball behavior.

“Obviously, right now, we’re struggling, and we’re a little bit in the dark,” coach David Blatt said. “And we got to find our way out.”

Blatt spoke of how the defense, which has been an issue, was good enougheven though John Wall (28 points, six rebounds, seven assists) repeatedly torched Kyrie Irvingbut how the offense, which had produced point totals of 110, 118, 122 and 127 during a recent four-game winning streak, had gone awry. He referred to “irresponsible play with the ball,” including several fast-break situations where the Cavaliers couldn’t even get a shot (“not high-level basketball”). He bemoaned the tendency for the ball and bodies to stop moving after the denial of the first offensive action.

“That’s not what we’ve been doing,” Blatt said. “We’ve got to get back to doing what we were doing.”

Certainly, they won’t win anything significant by doing many of the things they did Fridayand yet, some of the errors are expected by now.

Such as Dion Waiters, part of a bench that shot a combined 3-for-16, taking three dribbles and a stepback 20-footer without ever looking at James to his right. Such as Waiters going 1-on-4 on one break, and later getting rejected by Kevin Seraphin, rather than noticing that Irving or Marion were running with him.

Such as Shawn Marion making a lazy pass, and Irving making an equally lazy run to the ball, which led to a Wall steal and dunk. Such as Kevin Love getting only eight shots, so ignored at times that he sometimes forced the action, even in transition opportunities, once wildly hooking one shot off the backboard and later plowing into Bradley Beal.

Such as Irving jamming up the half-court offense by dribbling and dribbling and dribbling some more, never getting the ball to anyone else before jacking up a contested corner jumper.

Such as James shooting under 50 percent for the eighth time in 11 games this season.

He was more efficient when he shot dirty and disappointed looks. He wasn’t the only one to sigh and slump his shouldersLove looked absolutely exasperated at times, especially on a second-quarter play when he was calling for the correct running of a play, and then the ball, only to watch Tristan Thompson bulldoze the lane for an offensive foul.

Still, the Cavaliers will take their cues from James, who has been more careful with his body language in recent years, taking that as one of the primary lessons from veteran mentors, most notably Ray Allen. But James couldn’t hide it Friday. He strolled back on one possession. After another transition miss, he hardly budged at all. He took a standstill three. In those moments, he didn’t appear to be soothed much by memories of how everything worked itself out in Miami. His admitted low tolerance for “things of this nature” seemed to be trumping his understanding of the need for patience with the process.

Blatt sat him for the final 1:24, with a game against red-hot Toronto on tap for Saturday in Cleveland. But he only cooled slightly by the time he met with the media. He said he could not explain the team’s lack of energy. He couldn’t think of a single lineup that had shown cohesiveness. He said they all needed to work on their body language, starting with himself.

“Right now, I’m frustrated,” James said. “Tomorrow I’ll be OK. It’s part of the competitive nature of who I am. It’s going to be a challenge, I knew that. I’m frustrated obviously right now, but tomorrow’s a new day. … We have some work to do.”

Then he spent the next 10 minutes facing his locker, sometimes shaking his head, sometimes pressing a towel to it, sometimes extending his arms across the top shelf, all while rarely looking up.

Maybe things will look up soon.

But he will need to look for different answers than he found in Miami.

This is a decidedly different situation.

In Miami, he had a coach who had NBA experiencetwo playoff seasons as the head manwith the organization’s full commitment. Pat Riley’s unconditional support gave that coach an opportunity the space to find his footing, even in the face of intense media pressure. And a 9-8 start turned into a 21-1 stretch.

Will Blatt, who acknowledged that some of his European teams have started slow, get the backing he needs to make his way? And to make his team believe in him?

In Miami, James had proven championship partners, starting with Dwyane Wade, to help him chart the course, players who ultimately were more concerned with collective goals, even if those ambitions came at an individual cost.

Does he have those here? Can Irving be one? Or Love another? Or is that too much to expect of two guys who, in nine combined seasons, have never made the playoffs? Can they, and their teammates, table all their losing habits?

In Miami, James had teammates who made it a mission to get him the ball in the proper spots, so he could lift his percentages, and by extension, the group as well.

Will he start getting those quality shots, consistently, here?

“Guys got to be willing to pass the ball ahead, to make good cuts, to set good screens, to move hard to their spots, to read overplays and use press release, and cut and backcut again, and keep moving,” Blatt said. “I told you, a week, 10 days ago, we were scoring the heck out of the ball. It’s not a different group.”

No, it’s not different from the Cleveland group that recently won four straight.

But it’s different than those Miami teams.

All of them. Even the first one. Even 2010-11. Even 9-8. Some of the frustration may be the same, but the solutions won’t be. There won’t truly be comfort until James finds a few of those.

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Cavs ‘need’ early struggles, already improving

LeBron James says the Cavaliers are playing better now. But that congeal

      
 

 

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Cavs ‘need’ these early struggles

LeBron James says the Cavaliers are playing better now. But that congeal

      
 

 

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Cavaliers’ Offense Showing Progress, Not Perfection After Early Struggles

DENVER — It’s only one game. 

In fact, it’s only one game against the hapless Denver Nuggets, a struggling but deep team that entered its Friday night contest with the Cleveland Cavaliers ranked No. 20 in defensive rating, allowing 106.9 points per 100 possessions. 

But during the 110-101 victory, a game that only had a single-digit margin of victory after a furious fourth-quarter rally by the Nuggets in a sold-out Pepsi Center, the Cavaliers offense showed not just signs of life but indications of dominance.

More so than during any of its first four games, Cleveland made it clear that David Blatt’s movement-heavy schemes had the potential to confuse and overwhelm opponents on a nightly basis. 

Leading into the outing, the biggest storyline seemed to center around ball movement or lack thereof. The Cavs were coming off a disappointing loss to the Utah Jazz, one in which their passing bottomed out as they only managed to generate six assists as a team. Kyrie Irving was at the epicenter of the criticism, thanks to scoring 34 points and recording a goose egg in the assist column.

Speaking of assists, the Cavs “rank last in points created by assists,” according to Devin Kharpertian of TheBrooklynGame.com:

“Not as of yet, no,” Blatt said before the game when he was asked if his offense was running in the manner he desires.

His answer might be different now. 

Against the Nuggets, the ball moved crisply. Cleveland swung the rock from side to side, probing the defense and then showcasing some brilliant passes from all areas of the half-court sets. Some of James’ skip passes in particular let to audible gasps and deservedly so.

The Cavaliers managed to isolate Kevin Love against mismatches, draw an extra defender and hit the open man—whether it took one or two passes to get the ball there. The end result was a stellar 25 dimes on 40 made shots from the field. 

In Utah, the first half was definitely not the style of basketball we want to play,” LeBron James explained after the game drew to a conclusion.

“I think from the third quarter on, six quarters straight, we’ve played basketball the way we want to play. We want to get the ball moving, we want them to feel like we’re in a rhythm, both offensively and defensively. It [the Utah game] didn’t start off too well, but it ended on the up.”

It’s hard to disagree with the four-time MVP’s assessment of his team’s performance. The highlight dunks the Cavs produced were nice, but it was more impressive to see Blatt’s offense come to life. There were enough excellently run sets to mitigate the negative feelings surrounding a 1-3 start and breathe some terror into opponents who are coming up on the schedule. 

We stressed it [ball and player movement] today at shootaround. It was a concerted effort coming off a six-assist performance in Utah, so we just stressed it from the beginning,” James, who was feeling far more cordial than he was at an intense media appearance at the team’s pregame shootaround, espoused. It’s funny what a performance that shows off everything you worked on can do to a mindframe.

“Let’s get the ball moving from side to side and get the best shot. Not a good shot. The best shot. And whoever’s the recipient of a good pass at the end, hopefully he can knock it down. We put guys in position to make shots, and it resulted in us having 25 assists on 40 field goals. That’s a pretty good ratio.”

As a frightening note for upcoming opponents, the Cavaliers could have racked up far more offensive production, which James touched on after his team’s second victory of a season that’s very much still in its infancy. 

“You’ve got to make shots first of all to have assists. I think when the ball is moving, it’s just the karma of the game—guys make shots. And even some of the shots that we didn’t make.

“Mike Miller had three threes that he didn’t make, and the ball was just hopping and popping around. It’s just the good karma of the game. You move the ball around early, you get guys feeling the ball, touching the ball, and everyone feels comfortable, and it results in having seven guys in double figures.”

Cleveland may have boasted the services of seven double-digit scorers—all five starters, plus Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson off the bench—but James and Love both struggled to knock down some of their open looks.

The former’s jumper looked flat at times, leading to a 1-of-5 outing from beyond the arc and an 8-of-18 performance from the field, largely boosted by a dominant fourth-quarter run. The latter connected on just six of his 16 attempts, misfiring on all five of his deep looks. 

The offense most assuredly showed signs of life, but they were still only signs. The consistency wasn’t quite there yet, as the star players—and Waiters—sometimes allowed the offense to devolve into ball-stopping isolation sets. 

We got stagnant a few times, including myself,” James admitted. “I played a little one-on-one basketball, and I don’t want to get too happy with that. We want to still move the ball.”

Blatt, speaking to the assembled reporters after his team’s victorious performance, shared those sentiments.

No. 1, we’re going to get better as we begin to use our offense more properly and as we begin to recognize the benefit of not holding the ball and not playing simply for isolations and for specific situations. There’s a time for equal-opportunity offense, and there’s a time for target-player offense, and I thought overall we did a pretty good job managing those talents today.”

While James was his typical dominant—though not quite MVP—self, recording a strong double-double with 18 points, seven boards and 11 dimes, it was Irving who showed the most improvement when it came to using the offense properly. But it wasn’t him making too many changes to his game.

Instead, he spent his 39 minutes on the floor taking what the offense gave him. 

I was just letting the game come to me,” the young point guard said. “If I saw a shot, I was going to shoot it. But most importantly, we had a great shootaround today. We were well-prepared—not that we weren’t in the past.”

Irving was one of many players who bought into the system on Friday night at the end of a difficult road trip. He was a willing distributor and a confident scorer, while LeBron was perfectly comfortable serving as a de facto point guard in Matthew Dellavedova’s injury-related absence.

Perhaps most importantly, Waiters accepted—and thrived in—his role as a bench player, though Blatt refused to acknowledge him as such, instead referring to him as a “second starter.”

Doing what’s in the best interest of the team was a key theme in the locker room, a sentiment echoed by James, Waiters and Irving. In fact, the starting floor general continues to claim that this is the closest team he’s been on, and it’s starting to show. 

Nonetheless, it can get better.

Just imagine when the Big Three start to fire on all cylinders and James puts together the performance we all know he’s capable of throughout an entire game, not just one half. Think about when role players are hitting even more of their open looks and the defense remains focused throughout all 48 minutes. Ponder the results of increased comfort in Blatt’s complicated offense. 

As good as the ball movement looked at times, there was still that occasional stagnation. James didn’t operate out of the pinch post as much as he should, and players driving to the basket didn’t always keep their heads up to look for open shooters on the perimeter. Plus, Blatt has yet to unveil a James-Love pick-and-pop set that’s sure to give opponents fits. 

I hope so. I believe so,” Irving said after he was asked if this was the type of excellent and ideal performance his team could produce. “I believe we can play even better games.”

After an outing that showcased just how threatening this Cleveland offense can be for prolonged stretches, one that should quell the critics who were chomping at the bit after the team’s 1-3 start, that’s probably not what the rest of the league would like to hear. It’s only one game, but sometimes that’s all it takes to change a narrative and kick off a stream of steady improvement. 

 

Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com. All quotes were obtained firsthand.

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Charlotte Hornets: Offense struggles out of the gate

All across the sporting world, offense is becoming the driving force behind victories.  Whether it is the high-flying college football offenses (looking at you Pac-12 and Big 12) or the ever increasing importance of the 3 point shot in the NBA, offense has become “King”.  The Charlotte Hornets struggled on offense last season, and through three games this season things have not gotten much better.  Last season, Charlotte finished 23rd in PPG, 25th in team FG%, and 23rd in team 3-point%. The offseason was filled with transactions that aimed to bolster the offense, but so far, these changes have yet to provide significant results.
Charlotte sits at 1-2, with losses against Memphis and the New York Knicks.  The lone win (in OT) came against the lowly Bucks, who only won 15 games last season.  I’ll quickly break down each game and provide some thoughts on ways to improve the offense.
Charlotte Hornets vs. Milwaukee Bucks
This game was MUCH closer than it should have been, and the Hornets offense is the

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DeMarcus Cousins’ Inclusion on Team USA Proves He’s Grown from Past Struggles

DeMarcus Cousins made huge strides during the 2013-14 season. The center set new career highs in scoring average, rebounds per game, field-goal percentage, player efficiency rating, offensive rating, defensive rating and win shares. 

However, anyone who watched Cousins during his first three years in the league knew that type of production was well within his grasp. The real questions surrounding the 24-year-old related to his maturity on and off the court. 

Yet his inclusion on Team USA for the 2014 FIBA World Cup shows that he’s also overcoming many of the issues with his attitude. 

 

The 2012 USA Select Team Debacle

Cousins’ inclusion on Team USA for the FIBA World Cup would be an accomplishment in any scenario. Only the league’s elite players make the squad, and getting the recognition shows people have taken notice of how good he’s become.

Yet it’s even more noteworthy when looking back at the center’s first introduction to USA Basketball and the embarrassment he caused during workouts with the 2012 USA Select team. 

Cousins was invited to participate with the team in an effort to help prepare the senior squad prior to the 2012 Olympics. Needless to say, it did not go smoothly. 

Cousins was a disruption during practices, incessantly fouling the other players. 

That spurred USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo to question Cousins’ maturity while speaking with reporters:

Show respect to players, and you get respect back. He needs to mature as a person, as a player if he’s going to have an outstanding NBA career. So before there’s discussion about him being part of our program, he has a lot of building to do…

He has a lot of growing up to do.

Even though Colangelo‘s words were disappointing to hear, what he said wasn’t all that shocking. That was the prevailing wisdom surrounding Cousins.

He was just another gifted player who wasn’t doing the things he needed to do to maximize his potential.

 

Making Strides During the 2013-14 Season

The story with Cousins began to hit an upswing during the 2013-14 season.

Of course, a big component to it was his improvement on the court. Instead of being a talented player who had yet to tap into his potential, Cousins’ production started to match that of a player with his talents.

Among centers, Cousins was first in scoring, second in field-goal attempts per game, fourth in rebounds, third in assists, first in steals and second in double-doubles. In short, he became potentially the league’s best center and certainly one of its top two or three. 

But he also improved upon his maturity and started to become more of a leader for the Kings

As head coach Michael Malone told Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee, he was happy with the growth Cousins showed during the season, especially following an ejection in February:

We’ve talked about DeMarcus Cousins the player, but let’s talk about DeMarcus Cousins the person, the leader on and off the court. People have to remember he’s still a young kid. He’s 23 years old. He’s growing into his leadership role. It’s not something where he’s “Boom, I’ve arrived, I’m your leader” and know he’ll be able to excel in that role right away. What I saw was a young man making a very concerted effort to become a better leader, a better teammate, bring positive energy. After he got thrown out of the Houston game (in February) and served that one-game suspension, that’s when I really noticed it – leaving the referees alone, being supportive and patting his teammates on the backside, leading this team to wins.

As the coach noted, Cousins is evolving as a leader. And while that evolution is a constant process, it’s also not something that occurs with the snap of a finger. 

 

Carrying It into the Offseason

Cousins has carried that maturation process into the offseason. He’s putting in the work to become a better leader for the Kings. Part of that was evident in the time leading up to the Las Vegas Summer League, when the Kings held a voluntary minicamp.

Since attending the camp was optional, Cousins could have continued to work on his own. Yet the 24-year-old made the decision to work out with the Kings and provide an example to the younger players who were slated to participate in the summer league.

As Malone told Jones, he was pleased with this development:

I give DeMarcus a ton of credit. We had a voluntary minicamp in the middle of June, and as the leader of the team, he was there every day. So I’ve never had a problem with getting DeMarcus in the gym, working hard, setting the tone, leading by example.

And the fact that he went through practice last night, came in today and will be here again tonight just shows his commitment, his willingness to set the tone and establish a relationship with our new player in Nik (Stauskas) and continue to work with Ben (McLemore) and Ray (McCallum). He is constantly developing as a person, as a player, and I love the direction he’s headed in.

The center has also kept it going during his time trying out for the national team leading up to the World Cup. He showed up at the practices with a much better attitude than the one he displayed in 2012, and people with USA Basketball have taken notice.

One person in particular who’s been impressed is Mike Krzyzewski, who’s coaching the U.S. squad in the World Cup and was around when things went awry with the Select team a couple years ago.

“All the coaches were really pleased with DeMarcus and how he played,” said Krzyzewski during a media teleconference. “His attitude [has been] tremendous. He wouldn’t keep coming back to be a part of this and be on a U.S. Team if it didn’t mean something to him. We recognized that even before he started practice – the fact he was there, committed and ready to go in good shape.” (per NBA.com)

Now the right people are taking notice of Cousins’ development. He’s still not a finished product, but he’s headed in the right direction.

 

Going Forward

Cousins needs to keep this going, both the improvements he’s made on the court and the adjustments he’s made to his attitude. 

But it wouldn‘t be wise to bet against him doing just that. As The Sacramento Bee’s Ailene Voisin points out, few would’ve thought we’d be sitting here today with Cousins a member of the USA team.

Talk about a miraculous recovery. Two years ago, when Cousins was among the invitees who scrimmaged against the 2012 Olympians at the training camp in Las Vegas, USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo practically chased him out of the gym. The gambling crowd would have gone broke betting on the guy. The young center was characterized as too aggressive, too physical, too generous with the elbows, too chatty with the referees.

Yet if Cousins flunked his original audition, he stubbornly returned for a refresher course in 2013. He re-enrolled again these past several weeks, and finally, for the first time in his pro career, he aced the test. If he were still in school, everyone would be looking up to the 6-foot-11, 270-pound kid with the gold star pasted on his forehead.

The next step in that evolution is helping the Kings get back to the postseason. It’s good that he’s become of the league’s best centers. It’s great that he’s making strides as the leader Sacramento needs. But he won’t get the full recognition he deserves until it leads to better results on the court.

“The only way he’s going to get what he wants is for this team to win and to win consistently,” Malone said. “When we can become a team that can win and be a playoff contender, then he’ll be an All-Star, because he has that type of talent.”

Like everything else, that also won’t happen overnight, especially in a stacked Western Conference. But he’s already come this far. Who’s to say he won’t continue the maturation process?

If Cousins has shown anything over the past couple years, it’s that we shouldn’t bet against him.

 

What do you think about Cousins’ development? Let me know on Twitter @SimRisso

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Thunder’s struggles continue on West Coast road trip

Hard to be hopeful when you lose to the last-place Lakers.
Hard to feel good about anything from an Oklahoma City Thunder perspective after giving up 114 to the Lakers and 128 to Phoenix on this two-game road trip.
Coach Scott Brooks said his team is in a “Defensive Valley,” but that actually sort of sounds peaceful. The Thunder are in a defensive rut, a situation so bad Jodie Meeks scored a career-high 42 on Sunday after allowing a career-high 41 points on Thursday.
That’s not a valley. That’s a hole.
A top-five defensive team the past three seasons, Oklahoma City has lost its way and is 3-5 since the All-Star break.
But there’s more than one way. The Thunder can certainly get out of this situation. They have the players, experience and enough recent success.
They also have the knowledge that …
1. Houston is on deck
Yeah, sounds weird, considering the Rockets are 8-2 in their last 10 games, they have won four in a row, have James Harden and Dwight Howard, who is playing his best ba

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Miami Heat Back in San Antonio, with Finals Struggles Seeming ‘A Long Time Ago’

SAN ANTONIO—The honking wasn’t heard Wednesday night.

These days, that’s merely a memory in the city known for its lasting recollections—a memory nearly nine months old, of vehicles circling the streets surrounding the Alamo, passengers waving flags, drivers honking horns.

There was certainly reason to celebrate on June 16, 2013.

The Spurs had just handled the Miami Heat in Game 5 to take a 3-2 lead in the NBA Finals. They had done so by baiting LeBron James into missing 14 of 22 shots. They had done so with balanced offense, five starters scoring at least 16 points, three with at least 24. They had done so in convincing enough style that it appeared Danny Green would be the Finals MVP and they would cement themselves as the team of this era, with a fifth championship since Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan came together.

They seemed likely to close it out in Miami, and start planning a parade on these very same streets.

The parade would occur elsewhere.

Thursday, the Miami Heat return to San Antonio for the first time since they stole Game 6, and seized Game 7 to win their second straight NBA championship. They return as contenders for another crown, but so do the hosts, with each team sitting in second place in their respective conferences.

“It was a long time ago, man,” Chris Bosh said of the Finals. “It seems like a long time ago, a lot’s happened. I think it’s still fresh in everybody’s mind. But you know what, that’s what elite level basketball’s about, facing situations that you don’t want to be in, and having to capitalize, come through, and do whatever you have to do to make it happen.”

Both teams are still making things happen.

Miami is 43-15, even with Dwyane Wade sitting for 15 games, and even with the rest of the team generally pulling back into second gear against the NBA’s second tier.

San Antonio, even more remarkably, is 44-16, in spite of being shorter on wings than a sports bar after Monday Night Football, due to a spate of injuries.

And so, here we are again.

With so much less at stake…for now.

And while the Pacers, Thunder, Clippers and perhaps even the Rockets could stake a claim to supremacy in the spring, it should surprise no one if these two squads square off again for rings. And that would be a rather appropriate encore, after they played one of the odder, and closer, series in NBA Finals history, with three tight games, four blowouts, and the Spurs actually outscoring the Heat overall, if only by a 97.7 to 97.0 average.

All that ultimately mattered, of course, was 4-3 in Miami’s favor.

And yet, after Game 5, that outcome seemed unlikely.

“That series was out of control,”  Bosh said. “Nobody had an upper hand on that series until the last minute of Game 7. It was very stressful. It was very, very stressful. I was glad it was over as soon as it was.”

After Game 5, however, the Heat weren’t ready for anything to end. The series’ middle three games, all in San Antonio, had defied logic: San Antonio won by 36, Miami won by 16, and San Antonio won by 10, though that last margin was misleading—the Spurs led by 13 after one, and never looked back.

After it was over, the Heat tried not to look back either.

The flight?

Udonis Haslem said, while “we never felt we had it under control,” the Heat “liked our chances going home. No matter what the series is, a chance to finish out any series at home, we love our chances. Obviously our backs were against the wall, but if we could pick any situation, that’s the one we’d pick.”

As Bosh put it, “You’re at a point where you know what has to happen.”

Even so, there was so much that needed to happen in Miami for the Heat to successfully defend their title. That included the Bosh rebound, and Ray Allen 3-pointer, to tie Game 6. That included the Mario Chalmers 3-pointer to close the third quarter, and then the strong finish, to secure the championship in Game 7.

If Miami hadn’t pulled it off, much likely would be different today. Pat Riley has acknowledged that, if the team had come up short, he might have tinkered with the roster significantly more than he did, which might have even meant trading Bosh elsewhere. The Spurs? Well, there would have been more dynasty talk, considering this would have been a fifth championship since 1999.

What happened after the Heat left San Antonio will remain part of NBA lore, so long as the league exists. Allen, for instance, always would have had a place in history, due to his career record for 3-pointers. But, even for all his late-game heroics, he didn’t have a signature moment until he sank that shot from the corner in Game 6. He has spoken of using that moment as a touchstone to talk about his career, an example of his preparation paying off.

Over the summer, Allen received congratulations from all corners of the country.

But did he hear from anyone in San Antonio?

“Why would you ask that?” Allen said, smiling. “No. No. I would think I would have expected to either.”

What does he expect Thursday night, when he enters the game as a sub, the shooter that broke a city’s heart?

“I mean, I don’t know,” Allen said. “It will be interesting. I know we are the villain obviously in any building we go to. But I do have to say that the time we spent in San Antonio, the people there, as much as they wanted their team to win, they were real gracious hosts. There wasn’t a lot of hatred and violence spewed when we were walking the streets. They were very kind-hearted and good and they appreciated the competition. So I always appreciated playing there.”

Even if Game 5 didn’t feel so good.

Allen scored 21 that night, to lead a rally that fell well short. The Heat loss led to all that honking, before the team headed into the sky, to the East, out of state, into the prospect of two elimination games.

“I actually didn’t look ahead and worry about it,” Allen said. “It was my third Finals, so I really didn’t place any worry and nervousness on the situation. Because it was like, you got to get to a point where a team has to really beat you on (your) floor. I just said, ‘You get home and you take care of business. This is a situation not to panic.’ “

He did everything but—and especially when it mattered most, legacies on the line, his feet just behind it.

In the end, he and the Heat narrowly avoided the heartache he experienced in 2010 as a member of the Celtics.

“That situation, when you lose Game 7, that was probably one of the most gut-wrenching feelings that I’ve ever had in my career,” Allen said. “I was in a hotel in L.A. We left the next morning. I think I watched five movies that night. I went to bed at like eight in the morning. Couldn’t sleep. That’s why I started wearing this elbow pad. I probably should have had my elbow checked out but it split, and I hit the ground and I was bleeding, and my bed was bloody. I was just in misery. Even throughout the summer, you don’t forget it. So I wouldn’t imagine they felt any different.”

No, the Spurs didn’t.

Neither did their fans.

Which is why a win tonight over Miami would mean more than most.

Even if you still may not hear any honking.

 

Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report.

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Illinois Basketball: Why the Future Looks Bright Despite Current Struggles

It’s been a tough year for fans of Illinois Fighting Illini basketball as they have watched their team plummet to the bottom of the Big Ten standings after a promising start.

With only one returning senior, five freshmen and two transfers on the roster, not much was expected out of the Illini this year. However, after a start that saw them go 11-2 in non-conference and 2-0 in the Big Ten, it appeared that maybe this team could prove everyone wrong.

People were starting to believe that despite the lack of superior talent and depth, they could grind out wins purely on heart and desire.

Instead the team proceeded to lose 10 of their next 12 games, which includes an eight game losing streak, the longest in 40 years for the Illinois program.

Now the hot start seems like a distant memory and the idea of reaching the NCAA tournament seems like a cruel joke.

And it hasn’t just been the losing that’s frustrating to fans, but how they’re losingthey simply can’t score.

It’s been downright painful to watch as the team goes long stretches without scoring and no matter how well they play defensively, they just can’t seem to score enough. 

The Illini are currently 11th in the Big Ten in scoring (65.7), field goal percentage (.407) and three-point percentage (.316), ahead of only Northwestern in all three categories.

Conversely, they have been pretty strong defensively allowing only 63 points per game, which is second in the league behind only Ohio State.

The problem is that they just don’t have enough guys that can put the ball in the hoop. Unfortunately, that’s a fairly important part of the game of basketball.

Illinois does have one of the top scorers (16.2) in the conference in Rayvonte Rice, but even he has slowed down after a hot start and hasn’t gotten any consistent help all season long. At times, Rice has even seemed to be trying to do too much offensively to carry the team, which has actually led to an already stagnant offense becoming more stagnant.

Bottom line—there just haven’t been enough guys doing their part to carry the load offensively.

Seniors Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey have been disappointing as they struggle with consistency throughout the season along with juniors Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu. These were the guys that were expected to carry this otherwise young Illinois team, but it just hasn’t happened.

Typically a team will only go as far as their upperclassmen take them and in the case of Illinois it appears that won’t be very far.

Now, some good news.

Amid all of the losing, a few of the freshmen have begun to develop and look like they may be solid contributors over the next few years.

Kendrick Nunn seems to be making the biggest strides as he has recently entered the starting lineup. Since becoming a starter, Nunn is averaging 13 points per game and his confidence seems to be growing. In the recent victory over Minnesota, Nunn knocked down five of seven three-point attempts and played his usual tough defense. It appears that he is quickly becoming the second scoring option that the Illini have been searching for all season.

Malcolm Hill is another freshman who has recently been inserted in the starting lineup and has also shown flashes of big-time potential. He still needs to improve defensively, but has begun to look more comfortable on the offensive end.

The play of Nunn and Hill along with the potential of big man Maverick Morgan should give the Illini faithful hope for the future. Rice, Abrams and Egwu will return as seniors next season and there is more help on the way. Transfers Ahmad Starks, Aaron Cosby and Darius Paul will be eligible next season and they will add both talent and depth. Lastly, the Illini will add a two-man recruiting class for 2014-15 that includes Leron Black and Michael Finke. Black is a big talent who could possibly crack the starting lineup as a freshman and should bring some toughness in the paint to an Illinois team that could use it.

For those that don’t know much about Black, you will soon.

And though the 2015 recruiting class is not complete, John Groce is off to a good start landing two Top-100 players, both from the state of Illinois, in DJ Williams (Simeon HS) and Aaron Jordan (Plainfield East HS). So the once bare cupboard is beginning to fill up for Groce and the Illini.

But first, this year’s team will try to finish up the current season on a positive note and that task certainly won’t be easy.

They will face a recently surging Nebraska team on Wednesday and then finish the season with a brutal three-game stretch against the top three teams in the conference. They will play Michigan State on the road, come home to take on Michigan and then finish up at Iowa.

After that it’s on to the Big Ten tournament where the Illini will try to make some noise as a heavy underdog, a position they are not really familiar with when it comes to the Big Ten tournament. In the 16-year history of the tournament, the Illini have only been seeded lower than fifth five times, which includes 1999 when they finished dead last.

That season, the 11th-seeded Illini won three games to reach the tournament final where they eventually lost to Michigan State, but it was a heck of a run from a team that had only won a total of three conference games all season.

If this season were to end right now, the Illini would again be an 11-seed and would have to win four games to reach the NCAA tournament. It can happen, but there’s not much to indicate that this team is capable of winning four games in four days against Big Ten competition.

So it would seem likely that this team is on its way to the very prestigious NIT tournament (maybe), which isn’t really something that any Illini fan cares about. The only thing that is important to Illini fans is that their team becomes relevant again, not only in the Big Ten, but nationally. They long for the days when reaching the NCAA tournament was an automatic and the only question was what seed the team would get.

The hope (and there is reason for hope) is that this season is just a bump in the road for a program that is seemingly on the rise and should be on their way to the point where making the NCAA tournament is a given and competing for a Big Ten championship is once again a legitimate goal.

See the light Illini fans, see the light.

 

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Michigan State Basketball: How Concerning Are Gary Harris’ Shooting Struggles?

Gary Harris‘ recent shooting struggles are just another part of Michigan State’s recent team-wide frustrations.

He shot a dreadful 3-of-20 from the floor against Wisconsin on Sunday. The talented sophomore certainly wasn’t shy about expressing his feelings regarding his recent slump.

Harris recorded the worst shooting game of his impressive two-year career. That contest only compounded his ongoing issues in the wake of Keith Appling‘s injury, as Harris is shooting just 23.1 percent through those two games.

But actually, he’s been up-and-down all year.

Harris’ overall numbers are gaudy, but he’s had an inconsistent shooting season, which explains his relatively low shooting percentages. The Indiana native leads the Big Ten with 17.6 points per game, but he is doing so on only 41 percent shooting (32.7 percent from three-point range.)

Those outputs are lower than his freshman year’s. However, after being named Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, being handed an enhanced role and having to compensate for key players’ absences from the lineup, Harris’ inevitable shooting struggles come as no surprise.

Before his recent two-game hiccup, Harris was dominating.

In the prior five games, he shot nearly 54 percent from the floor and was averaging 20.6 points per game. He recorded 20-plus points in four of those contests, including a 27-point eruption against a sound Michigan defense.

Clearly, Harris is capable of lighting it up on any given night. He can dissect a defense in a variety of ways. Harris has also displayed a willingness and competency at shouldering the offensive load with limited help.

But recently, he has found it much more difficult to generate easy scoring opportunities.

Per Gillian Van Stratt of mlive.com, Harris attributed his lack of production against Wisconsin to starting the game with poor shot selections. Harris noted that he needs to find some easy looks to get himself in a rhythm.

And he was right. The sophomore shooting guard consistently attempted difficult, guarded perimeter shots and was never able to find a groove.

In that contest, Harris missed all seven of his three-point attempts. More alarmingly, he didn’t shoot a free throw, which evidences his recent reliance on his jumper.

However, it seems that Harris has identified that issue. Although he’s a young player, there is a unique maturity to his temperament, and his ability to honestly reflect on his woes goes far beyond his years.

We see it on the court. We see it in the press conferences.

As he’s done so frequently this season, Harris will respond. For every series of games that he has struggled in, the sophomore has rebounded with an impressive string of subsequent performances. He has not recorded two straight games of single-digit point totals.

For Michigan State, there’s no reason to worry.

Harris is too resilient, mature and downright talented for his shooting skid to last. Additionally, Michigan State will face three consecutive opponents that are below .500 in the Big Ten.

That will equate to big scoring games for Harris. While he will continue to attract constant attention from opposing defenses as Appling and Branden Dawson continue to sit, Harris will improve on his recent shortcomings.

He’s targeted the reasons for his struggles. Now it’s just time for Harris to apply them.

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