Heat, James silence the critics

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Heat, James silence the critics

Well, that was certainly anti-climactic. After four dramatic contests, well-played on both sides, the villains in black--or white, as worn when in Miami--finally lived up to the hype Thursday night as the Heat ousted the Thunder, 121-106, to win the NBA Finals after winning the last four games of the series, but none as convincingly as the clincher.

League MVP LeBron James continued his sensational postseason run, capping the championship with a triple-double in Game 5 and the Finals MVP award while reshaping his image as a more gracious person as a champion than he was as a loser. Fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were outstanding in complementary roles, but surprisingly, hobbled veteran sharpshooter Mike Miller almost stole the show, knocking down his first five three-pointers en route to seven triples and 23 points.

After two seasons of critics questioning whether the Heat's role players had enough to push their star-studded trio over the top, the supporting cast delivered when it counted most. Mario Chalmers and respected veteran Shane Battier also had their moments in the spotlight, while even rookie point guard Norris Cole made an impact in limited minutes. Whether Miami simply caught lightning in a bottle--Bosh's return to health in the conference finals and playing tough and out of position at center, despite a game that leans more toward finesse than physical; outside shooting, a supposed Miami weakness, suddenly becoming a strength--or just found a winning formula is debatable, but either way, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra earned his stripes.

Under intense scrutiny with his boss, the legendary Pat Riley, supposedly ready to swoop in to take his job at any moment over the past two seasons, Spoelstra has certainly made his missteps, even in this very same postseason, but beyond the video-room narrative of his career, people forget that he managed to get a team featuring Wade and little else to the playoffs in back-to-back years before the advent of the "Big Three." That, as well as his more recent experiences, particularly last season's runner-up finish, counts for something, and it showed in the Finals, as he simply out-coached Thunder counterpart Scott Brooks in Thursday's laugher, the conclusion to an NBA campaign that almost didn't happen.

Speaking of Brooks--who, like Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, still doesn't have a contract extension--it's his turn to be under the microscope, albeit a less probing one. The postgame scene of superstar Kevin Durant crying in his mother's arms after Thursday's defeat was poignant, the series-changing Game 2 non-call of a James foul against Durant will be debated and All-Star sidekick Russell Westbrook's Game 4 43-point virtuoso performance will be remembered, but the inevitable offseason speculation will center on Brooks' adjustments or lack thereof, and therefore, whether he's the man to lead the young Thunder to the promised land.

That's unfortunate, as Oklahoma City's title-contending window is wide open--provided team general manager Sam Presti finds a way to keep both of his prized 22-year-olds (Westbrook and Durant are 23), league-leading shot-blocker Serge Ibaka and Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, who could have damaged his free-agent stock with his no-show of a series, around past next season. The squad appears to have such great chemistry on and off the court. That attribute is reminiscent of another Heat rival, the Bulls, who now have to regard both Finals participants as targets when Derrick Rose returns to full health--as various reports have stated, his recent Alabama trip is simply part of his rehabilitation process, which is going well, and is scheduled to feature a stint in his usual offseason training destination of Southern California later this summer--and whether moves are made this summer or the next, an upgraded supporting cast appears necessary for the franchise to host another parade on Michigan Avenue in the near future.

But now, in the brief window of time prior to next week's NBA Draft and the upcoming Olympics in London, is the Heat's time to bask in the glory. Although James and the team itself will still be regarded as villains in many circles, it's difficult for even their most ardent detractor to quibble with how they got their title and their prospects for winning more down the road.

Bobby Portis relishing his chance as starter

Bobby Portis relishing his chance as starter

A milk carton was a more likely place to find Bobby Portis than on a basketball floor playing big minutes for the majority of his second season.

He could often be found in the locker room before games and listening to the older players talk to the media afterward, trying his best to fight off the frustration and admitted confusion that comes with the regression of not getting playing time.

When Portis did play, he looked nothing like the confident and borderline cocky rookie who often referred to himself in the third person in interviews. He didn't know when he would play, how long he would be out there or even worse, what was expected of him.

The trade of Taj Gibson at the deadline — preceded by the temporary benching of Nikola Mirotic — put Portis back in the spotlight and he's intent on making the most of it during the last 23 games of the regular season.

"It's fun. You know go out there every day just to know that it's another day I'm going to play," Portis said. "That's the biggest thing for me. I feel like that's already a confidence builder right there, just coming into every game knowing that I'm in the rotation. It's great fun to go out there and play."

It's no secret the front office the Bulls want Portis to succeed and not add him to the ledger of some of the first-round disappointments that can be recalled in recent memory.

The trade of Gibson was certainly underlined with the mantra that Portis should play and the way was going to be cleared for Portis, one way or another. Scoring 19 with eight rebounds against the Celtics on national TV right before the All-Star break probably gave Portis enough validation considering he was thrust into the starting lineup at power forward soon after.

"I don't care about nobody judging me," Portis said. "At the end of the day I'm going to play basketball. That's my job. I'm going to go out there and do the things I do well. I feel like sometimes people misconstrue just because you don't play and they can say some things like that. I don't really care about anybody judging me at this point. At the end of the day I'm still going to be Bobby Portis at the end of the day."

Well, clearly, the third person thing hasn't left the second-year forward, but he said he stayed in the gym waiting on his opportunity, even through a quick but confusing stint to Hoffman Estates to the D-League.

"Just being hungry. Humble and hungry," Portis said. "You know one thing I always strive off of is being humble and hungry. That kept me sane. My mom, I talked to her a lot. She kept me grounded. It's kind of tough not playing and going through the season knowing that some games you might play, you might not play. You know it's about waiting your turn, but at the same time you have to keep working."

Being the fifth big in Fred Hoiberg's rotation didn't leave him a lot of room for Portis to get much run or even find a rhythm, and like many others who've found themselves out of the rotation unexpectedly, it was without much of an explanation.

"Nah, I didn't really know what I could do to get minutes," Portis said. "The one thing that I know that I always do is just come in here every day, work as hard as I can, let the dominos fall how they fall. Every day I come in here, just bust my butt for some minutes, but sometimes it wouldn't work."

Now that he has found himself into Hoiberg's good graces, his improving range has allowed both units to play similiarly.

"I think Bobby has done a real nice job," Hoiberg said. "He was a huge part of our win against Boston in our game right before the break. He just goes out and plays with so much energy. What I really like about him right now is he has no hesitation on his shot. He's stepping into his 3 with good rhythm."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Bears will not use franchise tag on Alshon Jeffery

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Bears will not use franchise tag on Alshon Jeffery

In this episode of the SportsTalk Live Podcast David Haugh (Chicago Tribune), Nick Friedell (ESPNChicago.com) and Danny Parkins (670 The Score) join David Kaplan on the panel.

NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport reports that the Bears will not use the franchise tag on Alshon Jeffery for the second straight year. Is that the right move? And what will Ryan Pace do with all of his team’s cap space?

The Bulls are winning but their new, young point guard doesn’t know his role. Will anything ever change with the Bulls?

That plus Scott Paddock drops by to recapping a thrilling Daytona 500 finish.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below: