Heat advance to Eastern Conference Finals

772294.png

Heat advance to Eastern Conference Finals

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Miami's Big Two was more than enough to finish off the Indiana Pacers.Dwyane Wade and LeBron James turned around a season on the brink with perhaps the most remarkable week of their high-powered partnership, capped off by a 105-93 victory in Game 6 Thursday night that sent the Heat back to the Eastern Conference finals.Wade scored 41 points, James had 28 and Miami wrapped up the series 4-2, advancing to face either Boston or Philadelphia.But this was about more than one game.This was a dazzling trilogy, Wade and James taking control when the Heat were down and looked like they might be out."In the regular season, we've had some good games," Wade said. "But I don't know if we've ever had three in a row like that in the playoffs."Seven days earlier, Miami trailed 2-1 in the series after getting routed 94-75 in Indianapolis. The fired-up Pacers had another game on their home court and a chance to build a commanding lead.Instead, the Big Three-Turned-Two took over.
With Chris Bosh sidelined by an abdominal injury, James and Wade soared to new heights in their two-man game. Over the course of three dazzling games, James scored 98 points, grabbed 34 rebounds and dished out 24 assists. Wade had 99 points, 22 rebounds and 11 assists."Ever since Game 3, they've played at such a high level," Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. "I don't know if anybody can beat them."Next up, either the Celtics or 76ers in a series that starts Monday in Miami. Of course, nothing less than an NBA title will make for a satisfying summer in South Beach.Two series down, two to go.The Heat rallied from an early 11-point deficit, riding the hot hand of Wade in the opening half. He scored 26 points by the break, tying Tim Hardaway's 16-year-old franchise record for most playoff points in the first two quarters. James hit consecutive baskets with just over a minute remaining to close it out."We understand that when Chris went out, we had to step up," Wade said. "The team looked to us to lead."The banged-up Heat will get a chance to relax a couple of days before worrying about the next opponent, which will be determined in Game 7 at Boston on Saturday.Bosh hopes to return at some point, but it might not matter.Not the way Wade and James are playing."Chris Bosh is an awesome basketball player, but when he goes down, that just means more touches for LeBron and Wade," Vogel said. "That's not exactly an advantage."David West led Indiana with 24 points and all five starters were in double figures. But that balance was overwhelmed by Wade and James.In a game of spurts, the decisive one came in the closing minutes of the third quarter.The Pacers tied it at 66 on Darren Collison's 3-pointer, but it was all Heat the rest of the period. They closed on a 13-3 run, capped by Mario Chalmers' buzzer-beating 3 from the corner. Wade, who was on the bench getting his customary breather at the end of the quarter, leaped from his seat as the ball left Chalmers' hand at the far end, raced along the baseline and pumped his fist when it swished.When Chalmers raced toward the Miami bench, Wade greeted him near the free throw line with a low-five."We just had a bad stretch," West said. "They got us in the third quarter."Cheerleading aside, D-Wade did his best work while in the game. He dropped 11-of-16 shooting on the Pacers in the first half, but also made sure the MVP stayed involved, dishing off a behind-the-back pass to James for a thunderous jam."They're too good. They capitalize on your mistakes," West said. "We were too loose with the ball. They pressure you all over the place."Indiana clamped down a bit on Wade after halftime, but he still managed perhaps his most jaw-dropping basket. Darting into the lane, he threw up a wild-looking, one-handed shot that looked like it might go over the backboard, only to catch the top of the glass and drop through, barely touching the twine.There was none of the nastiness that marked Game 5, when a bunch of flagrant fouls resulted in suspensions for two Miami players, co-captain Udonis Haslem and backup center Dexter Pittman. Pacers president Larry Bird was so disgusted with his team's performance in a 95-86 loss that he accused them of going "soft."Toughness wasn't the problem this time. This was merely a Miami team on a mission, a mission that began in the summer of 2010 when the Heat signed James and Bosh to join Wade in a seemingly unbeatable trio. There was a glitzy introduction and predictions of multiple championships, which left the rest of the league seething and plenty of people cheering when Miami was knocked off in the NBA finals by the Dallas Mavericks last season.Shaking off that disappointment, James had perhaps his greatest season yet. But it was Wade who took control in the decisive game against the Pacers, delivering one final blow when he split West and George Hill, banking in the shot despite taking a knee from Hill that sent the Heat guard tumbling to the court."We just didn't have enough yet," Vogel said, "but we'll be back."Chalmers finished with 15 points, while Mike Miller stepped up to provide some quality minutes, scoring 12 points on four 3-pointers to help fill the void without Haslem, Pittman and Bosh.When Miller wasn't in the game, he stretched out along the baseline to cope with his various aches and pains, more comfortable that way than sitting in a chair. When coach Erik Spoelstra called his number, Miller summoned several of his teammates to help lift him up."He might be the toughest guy on the team," Wade said.The Pacers started out like they were intent on sending the series back to Miami for a decisive game that surely would have had all of South Florida on edge.West knocked down a short jumper right off the tip, Danny Granger stuffed one off a fast break, and the Pacers had their yellow-clad fans in a tizzy when Granger connected on a 3-pointer to make it 13-3 before the game was 5 minutes old. Another basket by Granger, this one a turnaround jumper, gave the Pacers their biggest lead at 19-8.But Miami wasn't going to roll over that easy. Miller made the first of his 3s in the closing seconds of the first quarter, and Wade took over from there. He started the period by banking in a 12-footer, then made another short jumper to leave the crowd stirring uneasily. Miller followed with another 3 - and just like that, it was all tied up.Yet another 3 by Miller, this one a good 5 feet beyond the arc, gave Miami its biggest lead of the half, 41-35. Back came the Pacers, who went to the locker room with a 53-51 lead and hope of extending their season for at least one more game.Turns out, they were down to their last half.Notes: Indiana started 8-of-9 from the field, but went just 26-of-61 (43 percent) the rest of the way. ... The Heat held the Pacers to an average of less than 40 points in the second half over the last three games. ... Miami had only 10 turnovers, its fewest in the series.

Position battles to watch for at Bulls camp

Position battles to watch for at Bulls camp

After the Bulls traded for veteran center Robin Lopez and signed guards Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo in free agency,  the starting lineup for the 2016-17 season was 80 percent complete with Jimmy Butler moving over to small forward. The only real question remained: will Nikola Mirotic or Taj Gibson start at power forward?

Arguments can be made for both players, but early in camp it appears Mirotic will have the edge, based on his three-point shooting ability. The Bulls need to create floor spacing for their wing players (Wade and Butler) who are most effective driving to the basket, and Mirotic has the ability to knock down the three (.355 for his career, .390 last season). Mirotic is also an underrated defensive rebounder with decent size at 6-foot-10, 240 pounds.

Mirotic got off to a fast start last season in a starting role, but eventually went to the bench after a late November-early December shooting slump. His second NBA season was also sidetracked by an emergency appendectomy in late January that caused him to miss almost six weeks of action. Mirotic finished the season strong, and went on to play a lead role with his former Bulls teammate, Pau Gasol, on Spain’s national team at the Rio Olympics. Mirotic will be a restricted free agent at season’s end, so he has a lot riding on establishing himself as a bonafide NBA starter.

It's a similar story for Gibson, who will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and is looking to land one more big contract when he turns 32-years-old next June. Gibson is known for his relentless work on the boards and his ability to defend power forwards and centers. He’s also 100 percent healthy after dealing with the after-effects of ankle surgery last season. But given the Bulls’ spacing issues, it makes sense for the coaching staff to go with Mirotic alongside Wade, Rondo and Butler, and to pair Gibson with young perimeter threats like Doug McDermott, Denzel Valentine and Isaiah Canaan on the second unit. Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg could use Gibson in a backup center role, with McDermott getting minutes at power forward in small ball lineups. Gibson will play, but don’t be surprised to see his name come up again in midseason trade rumors.

So, where does that leave 2015 first-round draft pick Bobby Portis? Portis looked good in Las Vegas Summer League play, showing off improved low-post skills and a consistent three-point shot. But unless Portis has a big preseason, it’s hard to imagine him getting consistent rotation minutes early in the season. Portis could earn some time as a stretch five backing up Lopez, but those minutes might also go to Gibson or second-year center Cristiano Felicio. Portis worked hard all summer, and should be a better all-around player in his sophomore season, but he faces an uphill battle to earn regular minutes. It will be interesting to see how many of the Bulls young players wind up logging time with the Bulls’ new D-League team in Hoffman Estates. Portis might not be involved as a No. 1 draft pick, but Felicio and second-round selection Paul Zipser might want to get familiar with the trip out to the Sears Center.

[SHOP BULLS: Get your Bulls gear right here]

The other major training camp battle involves the backup point guard spot behind Rondo. The coaches have a wide variety of options, starting with former Notre Dame star Jerian Grant, who came over in the Derrick Rose trade with the Knicks. The soon to be 24-year-old Grant is the son of long-time NBA player Harvey Grant and nephew of former Bulls star Horace Grant. The Bulls were interested in selecting Jerian Grant in the 2015 draft, but he went off the board a few picks before their turn in the first round.

Grant was a big-time scorer at Notre Dame, but struggled to get on the court in his rookie season with the Knicks. After Kurt Rambis replaced Derek Fisher as head coach of the Knicks, Grant finally got some consistent playing time, averaging 16.8 ppg over the last four games of the season. He’s not a great three-point shooter, hitting just 22 percent from beyond the arc as a rookie, but his ability to get to the basket and create open shots for teammates would give the Bulls consistent point guard play throughout the game.

Canaan was signed late in free agency to give the Bulls another long-range shooting option. He hit 36 percent of his 3’s with Philadelphia last season, averaging 11 points a game. The 25-year-old Canaan figures to be specialist with the Bulls, much like Aaron Brooks who could score points in bunches, but didn’t excel at running a half-court offense. Even though Canaan only stands 6 feet tall, he’s really a shooting guard in a point guard’s body, much like Brooks, D.J. Augustin, Nate Robinson and C.J. Watson who proceeded him.

6-foot-6 Spencer Dinwiddie was considered a potential lottery pick at Colorado before suffering a devastating knee injury that dropped him into the second round. Dinwiddie didn’t get a lot of playing time for Stan Van Gundy in Detroit, but he’s completely healthy now and showed during Summer League play he’s capable of scoring over smaller point guards in the post. His size, scoring ability and defensive skills might push him ahead of the other candidates when all is said and done.

The wild card in the backup point guard derby is this year’s first-round pick Denzel Valentine. Even though he played a wing spot at Michigan State, Valentine was the floor general for Tom Izzo, and is an exceptional passer with outstanding court vision. Since playing time behind Wade & Butler might be limited, Valentine could wind up running the point on the second unit, with Butler on the court as the primary initiator on offense. Valentine’s shooting ability gives the Bulls another floor spacer, and at 6-foot-5, he’ll have size advantage over smaller backup point guards.

Boiling it all down, Hoiberg and his assistants figure to do a lot of experimenting during the preseason to find out which players execute best together. But once the ball goes up for real on Oct. 27, Hoiberg has to decide on his best 9 or 10 players for a consistent regular-season rotation. Matchups could dictate which backup point guards find the floor, but even this early in camp it’s pretty obvious the Bulls are intrigued by Valentine’s potential, and he should get consistent playing time in his rookie season.

Joakim Noah appreciative of time with Bulls despite 'low blow'

Joakim Noah appreciative of time with Bulls despite 'low blow'

Joakim Noah may be wearing a different uniform, but he's still wearing the same heart on his sleeve.

That much was made clear in his comments made to the New York media on Wednesday.

Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million deal with the Knicks after eight seasons with the Bulls, was asked about comments Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf questioning Noah's future as a main contributor on a team.

Reinsdorf told the Chicago Tribune earlier this month that Noah was "not a frontline player," referencing the team's decision not to bring him back in free agency.

Noah responded to those comments in classy fashion - while also getting his true thoughts across:

“He’s entitled to his opinion,’’ Noah said. “I feel I have no regrets about my time in Chicago. I gave it everything I had. To me that’s all that matters. I did everything I could for that organization. I thought it was a little bit of a low blow, but at the end of the day I have nothing but respect for that organization. I’m just excited for this new chapter of my career.”

No one would ever question Noah's heart, but it's undeniable that his body is beginning to show wear, and his performance has reflected it.

Noah played in just 29 games last season before a season-ending shoulder injury, averaging career-lows in points (4.3), field goal percentage (38.3%), free throw percentage (48.9%) and steals (0.6). That came on the heels of a 2015 season in which he missed 15 games and averaged 7.2 points, the lowest since his second season in the league.

But the Knicks are hoping a rejuvenated Noah, playing in his hometown, will find some magic in his 31-year-old body and be able to get the Knicks back to the playoffs.

Noah, Derrick Rose and the Knicks will square off against the Bulls at the United Center on Nov. 4.