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Head-to-Head: Knocking off the Pacers/Heat

Basketball Insiders’ Joel Brigham, Bill Ingram and Moke Hamilton debate over who is most equipped to knockoff the Miami HEAT and Indiana Pacers.

Basketball Insiders



The Indiana Pacers and Miami HEAT have been at the top of the Eastern Conference all season long. Even with some struggles as of late, they’re still going to be the heavy favorites as we enter the postseason. So, we asked Bill Ingram, Joel Brigham and Moke Hamilton to give us their opinion on who can knock out the conference’s top two teams.

Toronto Raptors

Not so long ago, the plan for the Toronto Raptors was to trade Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and join the ranks of the Eastern Conference tankers  headed for the draft lottery. Of course, they only got one trade into that  master plan, and after Gay was suited up for the Sacramento Kings something unexpected started happening in Toronto:

The Raptors started playing the best basketball they have played in years.

The closer we get to the playoffs, the better the Raptors look, not only holding  their own with the top teams from the Western Conference but also looking like a  team that could make some noise in the East. Since the start of March, Toronto  has beaten Houston, Golden State and Memphis, all likely Western Conference  playoff teams, while also taking the Oklahoma City Thunder down to the wire in a  one-point loss and handling the downward spiraling Indiana Pacers. The bad news  for Indiana, of course, is that the Raptors could be their second round opponent.

As we start to look forward to the start of postseason play, no team in the  field across both conferences looks more ripe for an upset than the foundering  Pacers. At the same time, no team looks more likely to upset a contender than  the Raptors. If the two meet, things probably won’t go well for the Pacers.

– Bill Ingram

Chicago Bulls

Through the All-Star break it was pretty much set in stone that the Indiana Pacers or Miami HEAT would represent the Eastern Conference in this year’s NBA Finals, and with LeBron James still dominating and Indiana looking as if they were making the next step as a team, it was hard to argue with that assertion.

Now, though, the picture is nowhere near as rosy for either team.  The Pacers have failed to reach 80 points in five of the past eight games and have lost six games in that stretch, while four of Miami’s last five losses have been to lottery teams.  In other words, the two “best” teams in the Eastern Conference are completely and utterly vulnerable, but are there any other teams in the conference that could knock them off in a seven-game playoff series?

Well, there’s at least one: the Chicago Bulls.

While it’s true that they are, on paper, too undermanned to make a serious run to the NBA Finals, the Bulls are too well-coached and motivated to make things easy on any playoff opponent they may face.  Despite losing Derrick Rose for the year and trading Luol Deng halfway through the season in a cost-cutting move, the Bulls are still tied for third-place in the conference and are playing as well as anyone in the East right now.

They were supposed to be a lottery team after the Deng trade.  Instead, they flourished, and now they’re looking at homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

There are a lot of reasons this happened, but it starts on the defensive end of the floor, where they’re among the best in the league.  Since the playoffs ramp up that defensive intensity by about double what we see in the regular season, that’s an area where Chicago really should flourish.  No matter the opponent, they will give teams headaches.

Anchored by Joakim Noah, they’re going to make it incredibly hard for teams to score, and since the Pacers already are struggling to do that, a series with Chicago would be incredibly long and challenging to get through in one piece.

The team has struggled offensively all year long, but they have beat a lot of really good teams this year (including the Miami HEAT, twice) and certainly have it in them to score points, especially against the league’s best teams.  They’ll need to get hot offensively, but they can certainly give both Miami and Indiana headaches in a potential playoff matchup.  Indiana looks especially open to an upset, but if either team is going to lose in a seven-game series, Chicago seems like the most likely team to do it.

– Joel Brigham

Brooklyn Nets

2014 Jason Kidd may not be 1995 Rudy Tomjanovich, but that does not mean that the 2014 Brooklyn Nets cannot be the 1995 Houston Rockets.

Way back in 1995, way back when Michael Jordan traded in his basketball shorts for a pair of baseball cleats, Hakeem Olajuwon and his Houston Rockets put together one of the most improbable championship runs that the league has ever seen.

After following their 58-24 1994 championship campaign with a 47-win 1994-95 season, the Rockets limped into the Western Conference playoffs as the sixth seed in the conference and quickly fell behind the 60-22 Utah Jazz, 2-0. The Rockets pulled off a stunning upset by recovering and winning the final three games of the series and sending Karl Malone and John Stockton home early.

That was the year Utah’s tandem was supposed to become NBA champions, but it did not happen.

The same can be said of Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns. The 59-23 Suns, in their second round series against the Rockets, opened up a 3-1 series lead before the Mario Elie, Chucky Brown and Sam Cassell came alive in Games 5, 6 and 7 to help the Rockets end Barkley and Kevin Johnson’s playoff run.

In the conference finals, the Rockets took all of six games to knock off the 62-20 San Antonio Spurs—the league’s top team. In the 1995 NBA Finals, Olajuwon humbled Shaquille O’Neal and his Orlando Magic, dominating him in a way that the league had not seen, even in O’Neal’s professional infancy.

Over the course of their run to the NBA Championship in 1995, the Rockets knocked off the number one seed in each conference, as well as the second and third seeds in the Western Conference. That season, the Jazz, Suns, Spurs and Magic collectively won 72.5 percent of their games, having compiled a combined record of 238-90, and they were all done in by the 47-35 sixth seed who had been there, done that and dug deep once the playoffs began.

When it was all said and done, with the world watching and a second consecutive championship sealed and delivered, Tomjanovich muttered famous words.

Never underestimate the heart of a champion.

And although the Nets, as a team, are not champions, Kidd, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are.

As it stands, there are very real concerns with the Nets aging core. Andrei Kirilenko and Kevin Garnett have both missed significant time this season with various injuries, and both are needed for the Nets to enjoy a long playoff run. However, behind the clutch shooting of Joe Johnson, the rejuvenated play of Deron Williams, the impressive play of rookie Mason Plumlee and the inspiring play of Shaun Livingston, the Nets have very quietly become the Eastern Conference’s top team since January 1.

That’s right, the 31-13 Nets have a better record since January 1 than the Chicago Bulls (32-14), Toronto Raptors (30-17) Miami HEAT (28-16) and Indiana Pacers (28-19).

Since it was announced that Brook Lopez would miss the remainder of the season back in December, the Nets have banded together, forged a new identify built around small ball, inserted a dynamic rookie into their rotation and pulled off a trade for a bench scorer in Marcus Thornton who may pay dividends in the postseason.

As the discussion of contenders persists, the Nets are far too often dismissed as a team that has the chance of accomplishing something great this season. More attention is being paid to the fact that the Nets have 34 losses than the fact that 21 of those losses came before January 1.

When Garnett met with the New York media for the first time prior to the season, he explicitly said that the only reason that he and Pierce were in Brooklyn was to win a championship.

Translation: We want another crack at LeBron James.

If the current seeds hold, unlike the 1995 Rockets, the Nets would enter the postseason as the fifth seed and would battle the Bulls in the first round. If they managed to score the upset, Garnett would get his shot.

The Nets may not be champions, but they are comprised of a few. If health is on their side and if things break right, they may be the sleeping dragon in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

Or, more appropriately, the sleeping lion.

And that lion’s heart? No, you certainly cannot dismiss it or doubt it. Revere it, respect it. Because if there is one thing we have learned from Tomjanovich, Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and that 1995 Rockets team, is that who you are at the end of the season is much more important than who you were at the beginning of it.

As the season ends, the Nets just so happen to be the best team in the NBA’s East.

– Moke Hamilton


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NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics

The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.

Moke Hamilton



Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.

Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.

Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.

As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.

Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.

Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.

“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by

“I’m tired of not playing.”

Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.

As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.

What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.

Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.

Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.

Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.

In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.

Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.

With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.

As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.

Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.

But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.

And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.

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Winslow and the Miami HEAT Are “Believing in Each Other”

Justise Winslow discusses the all-around team effort of the Miami HEAT with Basketball Insiders.

Dennis Chambers



The days of LeBron James in Miami are over. Chris Bosh isn’t there anymore, either. No more Ray Allen or Shane Battier. Dwyane Wade is back, but he’s not “Flash” nowadays.

Actually, check the entire Miami HEAT roster; there’s no superstar. They have an All-Star in Goran Dragic, even if he was the third alternate. But during this most recent playoff push, the HEAT don’t have a worldwide household name to plaster all over billboards as a reason for their success.

With 10 games remaining until the playoffs, Miami doesn’t have a player averaging more than 33 minutes per game. Instead, they have 11 players who average at least 20 minutes a contest. Their approach is that of a deep rotation, and its led them to a 39-33 record and the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. All while the rest of the league is star-driven.

One of those key cogs to the Miami machine is third-year wing, Justise Winslow. A former top-10 pick out of Duke, Winslow is enjoying most efficient season so far for the HEAT. To him, the fact that his squad isn’t littered with names like LeBron and Steph doesn’t make a difference.

“I think our team is extremely confident in each other,” Winslow said. “I think that’s a big thing is that we all believe in each other. We play to each other’s strengths, and most importantly we’re a defensive-minded team. We hang our hats on the defensive end, and that’s really what gets us going as a team.”

Winslow isn’t exaggerating. The HEAT is seventh in the NBA in defensive rating. Head coach Erik Spoelstra harps on the team’s defensive scheme and preparation. Without a go-to scorer capable of getting the team 30 any given night, Miami needs to do their job as a collective unit on the defensive end of the floor night in and night out.

“Each night the coaching staff preaching to us that we have enough, no matter who is in the lineup,” Winslow said. “So it’s just about going out there and executing and putting together a good game of 48-minute basketball. I think our belief in each other that we have enough to get the job done is key.”

In the current NBA landscape, a lot of the playoff contenders are centered around players with big resumes and bigger names. As a result, the HEAT get lost in the shuffle of the national conversation from time to time. Their culture of togetherness and slight from the media outside of their city could make for the perfect “chip on the shoulder” recipe. Or so you would think. Winslow doesn’t believe the chatter, or lack thereof, matters any to Miami.

“We don’t pay too much attention to that,” Winslow said. ‘We’re so focused, and locked in on our team, and each other, and trying to win each game. For us, it’s about having the respect of your peers, of the other team. I think every night no matter who we have or who’s healthy, I think teams know we’re going to be a tough, physical team. Guys in this league don’t want that, you don’t want to have to play against a Miami HEAT team that’s going to be physical, that’s going to get into your body, that’s going to make you play a hard, 48-minute basketball game.”

Because of the HEAT’s brand of basketball, an 82-game season can be grueling. For Winslow, keeping his body right throughout the grind is important to him. After dealing with a few injuries last season, and ultimately being shut down for the year last January to undergo right shoulder surgery for a torn labrum, Winslow was determined to make sure he kept his body in check throughout his comeback so he would be available for a long playoff run.

While his numbers aren’t flashy, Winslow is showing improvement. His 49.3 true shooting percentage is the highest of his career, along with shooting nearly 43 percent from beyond the arc, Winslow made strides in arguably the biggest knock against his game since coming out of college.

Because NBA players have the freedom to form partnerships with whichever companies they’d like, Winslow made the choice to strike up a partnership that he felt would not only help him off the court but more importantly, on it as well.

“My partnership with MET-Rx has been great,” Winslow said. “They’ve really helped take my game to the next level with all their nutritional supplements, and the Big 100 bar. So, for me, I’m always looking for ways to stay off my feet, but also get in the best shape possible and this was just a great way to help.”

The grind of the NBA season is also eased for playoff teams by a veteran presence. So, when the HEAT brought back franchise legend Wade at the trade deadline, their locker room suddenly had a face and feel of someone who’s been there before. A player who reached the pinnacle, with the very team that traded for him nonetheless.

Getting Wade back to Miami was crucial for the team’s playoff run down the stretch, and more importantly for Winslow, who benefited greatly from his time with the future Hall of Famer when he was fresh out of college.

“First and foremost, it was great to get him back,” Winslow said. “Just the role that he played in my career as a rookie, and everything I learned from him. But then also, just the energy and positivity that he brought to the locker room, and also the community of Miami, the city of Miami as a whole. It was a much-needed energy boost, and good vibes that he brought back for that post All-Star break push for playoffs. So, it’s just been great having him back, and it’s kind of rejuvenated the team and the locker room, and just the city in general.”

Wade is the MVP-caliber player he once was this time around, though. But that’s okay. This version of the Miami HEAT is charging toward the postseason with a team-first mentality.

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NBA Daily: The Road Ahead for Michael Porter Jr.

Michael Porter Jr. is an elite prospect, but questions surrounding his back will determine his landing spot in the NBA.

Steve Kyler



The Road Ahead for Michael Porter Jr.

While some of the highly thought of college players have made their intentions on declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft known, Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr still hasn’t made his proclamation. Most people in NBA circles believe he’ll be in the 2018 NBA Draft class—you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t think he’s in.

Back in November, the Missouri staff was somewhat vague and guarded about Porter’s condition until it was announced that he’d have back surgery on a couple of problematic discs in the lumbar area of his spine. The procedure is called a microdiscectomy and by all accounts was a success.

Porter missed virtually all of his college season but opted to play in the post-season for Missouri, who got eliminated fairly quickly.

There were certainly a lot of ugly things about Porter’s game. He looked out of shape, and certainly wasn’t the overwhelming dominating force he’d been in high school. Some executives applauded his decision to play, even though he wasn’t at a 100 percent. Some pointed to that fact that too many college players play it safe and that’s not always viewed positively. Almost no one Basketball Insiders spoke with was holding the less than stellar outing against him. In fact, most had far more positive things to say than negative. There was one resounding theme from the NBA executives who spoke about this situation—none of it matters until they see his medical.

Assuming Porter does as expected and hires an agent and enters the draft, the next challenge he’ll face is how open he wants to be to teams looking at drafting him.

In recent years, NBA teams have not shied away from using high draft picks on injured or recently injured players. Once a team can get a sense of how the player is recovering, they can make a value judgment.

Agents often use this information and access to the player to help steer their client to the situation they deem most favorable. While fans and outsiders often get caught up in the pick number a player ultimately lands at, more and more agents are concerned with fit, especially for a player that may need time to get back to 100 percent.

Most agents would want to steer their client to a team with favorable medical staff, a team with a proven track record of patience or more importantly, a team with the best chance at a long and fruitful career.

This won’t be good news for some team that could end up in the top 10, as it’s more likely that Porter isn’t made available to everyone. NBA executives will tell you, they can certainly draft him if they wanted to, but most teams won’t draft a player if their medical staff doesn’t sign off, and without information and access how can they do that?

There is a significant financial difference in going third in the draft ($5.47 million) and 10th ($2.964 million) – but several agents commented that the short-term money shouldn’t drive the long-term decision, especially if the player isn’t 100 percent. The fit and situation typically trump everything in these situations.

Another concept to consider is while Porter did play, there are questions about whether he’ll host a pro-day, take part in private team workouts or simply let his body of work drive his draft value.

Almost no one who spoke about this situation believed Porter would take part in the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, as he’d have to subject himself to the medical testing that’s part of that event.

The common perception on Porter is he’s a top-five talent, although it seems more likely that his camp is going to try and work the process to ensure he lands in a favorable situation. That could mean he falls out of top-five selections, simply because he and his agents choose to.

There is still a lot that needs to play out for Porter, including his announcement that he will enter the draft. But given where things stand with him, it’s more likely than not he’s coming into the draft, and it’s more likely than not he’ll have a lot of questions NBA teams will want to understand before his real draft position is clear.

The NBA Draft Lottery will be held in Chicago this year and is scheduled for May 15th. The annual Draft Combine, also in Chicago, gets underway on May 16th.

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