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NBA Trade Watch: The Southeast

Buddy Grizzard outlines prospects for Southeast Division teams as the trade deadline fast approaches.

Buddy Grizzard

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The Southeast Division features the two worst teams in the NBA (the Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic), as well as the disappointing Charlotte Hornets and a pair of teams in the thick of the playoff race (the Miami HEAT and Washington Wizards). It’s a down year for a division that’s been pretty tough in the past.

With the NBA’s trade deadline right around the corner, here’s a look at things to keep an eye on for the Southeast.

Atlanta Hawks (11-30)

Losing former All-Stars Al Horford, Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap in the space of two seasons has been more than the Atlanta Hawks could overcome. The result will almost certainly be the first missed playoffs since the season before Atlanta drafted Horford. Atlanta’s 10 consecutive playoff appearances trails only the Spurs (20). And with the Grizzlies and Clippers also in danger of missing the postseason, it could be the Rockets and Warriors sharing second place with six consecutive appearances each if they make it.

And the Hawks might not be done bleeding talent.

Dennis Schroder may not be long for Atlanta. The mercurial point guard is nearly impossible to guard, but he isn’t a leader. It’s hard to believe that a player who frequently dresses down teammates when they make mistakes, then goes out and shoots a two-pointer at the buzzer in a game the Hawks trailed by three, understands accountability. Schroder is known for his after-hours lifestyle, which resulted in a battery arrest in September.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Marco Belinelli — $6,606,060

Ersan Ilyasova — $6,000,000

Dewayne Dedmon — $6,000,000 ($6.3 million player option)

Mike Muscala — $5,000,000 ($5 million player option)

Malcolm Delaney — $2,500,000 ($3,125,000 qualifying offer)

Luke Babbitt — $1,471,382

Names Worth Talking About:

The name most worth talking about for the Atlanta Hawks is Trae Young. The Hawks are being outscored by 6.2 points per 100 possessions with Schroder on the court, a net rating that is worse than any other Hawk with at least 600 minutes this season except Marco Belinelli (-9.2). Young could be a generational talent. Schroder is an offensive-minded point guard who doesn’t make his teammates better.

Hawks GM Travis Schlenk was part of the Warriors front office that drafted Stephen Curry in 2009, then made the momentous decision to trade Monta Ellis and build around Curry in March of 2012. Young gets compared to Curry because of the absurd range on his shot, but he’s leading the nation in both scoring and assists. If his game translates to the NBA level, he’ll be a nightmare to guard in the pick and roll. Getting value for Schroder could be difficult due to the off-court issues.

Another player to keep an eye on is Kent Bazemore, who turns 29 in July. With Atlanta building a young core, Bazemore will likely be in his 30s by the time the Hawks are ready to make a run to the playoffs. One team to watch regarding Bazemore is the New Orleans Pelicans, which signed small forward Solomon Hill to a four-year, $52 million deal in 2016 only to lose him to a hamstring injury that has prevented him from playing this season.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

The Hawks need to get whatever assets it can for players on expiring contracts or player options. Among expiring contracts, Ersan Ilyasova has started nearly 400 games and has the best on-court net rating of any Hawk with at least 700 minutes. Belinelli’s name gets thrown around, but as mentioned, he hasn’t been good.

Dewayne Dedmon has also struggled and been slowed by injury. His nearly 44 percent shooting from three on 32 attempts this season after attempting only one three in his first four seasons has been a shock. Dedmon has a player option and could test free agency this summer, which makes it difficult for the Hawks to get value by trading him before the deadline. Luke Babbitt had excellent on/off numbers as a starter for the HEAT last season but hasn’t made much of a dent in Atlanta.

Basketball Insiders senior writer Michael Scotto reported Thursday that the Hawks are seeking high second round picks for the expiring veterans. The Raptors and Rockets are contenders currently in position to pick high in the second round, according to NBADraft.net.

Charlotte Hornets (15-24)

Things look grim for the Hornets, which currently sit five games out of the eighth playoff seed in the East. However, the team will play seven of the next eight at home. This gives Charlotte a chance to show improvement ahead of the deadline and help the front office decide if it should be buyers or sellers.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Michael Carter-Williams — $2,700,000

Johnny O’Bryant — $1,524,305

Names Worth Talking About:

Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post wrote a speculative piece suggesting that the Hornets should trade Kemba Walker to jump-start a rebuild and help the team avoid future luxury tax penalties. Most of the roster is under contract through next season and Charlotte, as currently constructed, would be a tax team in 2018-19. That will be a tough pill for Michael Jordan to swallow if his team misses the playoffs again this season.

If the Hornets actually make Walker available, half the league would likely register interest. Trading Walker wouldn’t just trigger a rebuild, it would tear the Hornets down to the studs. Charlotte is 13.4 points per 100 possessions worse whenever Walker is out of the game, an impact that is double that of any other player. Kemba Walker is the Charlotte Hornets. It’s hard to imagine the fan backlash if such a move was executed.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

Charlotte’s top six players, including Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Dwight Howard, Marvin Williams, Nicolas Batum and Jeremy Lamb, have been solid all season. All six have posted a positive on-court net rating. But from there, the bench falls off a cliff, ranging from Cody Zeller’s -3.6 to Malik Monk’s -14.6. Michael Carter-Williams and Johnny O’Bryant are the only expiring contracts, but they’ve posted a -7.4 and -9.5 net rating, respectively. The Hornets need any bench help they can get, but will have trouble making moves due to the cap. Backup point guard continues to be the biggest issue, with neither Carter-Williams nor Monk making a positive impact.

Miami HEAT (24-17)

After an 11-13 start, during which the HEAT barely resembled a team ready to build on last season’s near playoff run, Miami has gone 13-4 and rocketed to fourth in the East. That’s a lot more like last season’s team, which closed the season 30-11, only to miss the playoffs on a tiebreak. The problem is that, unlike the HEAT of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, these HEAT are decidedly lacking in star power. Miami has taken the intriguing route of spending over the cap on a group of overachievers in a way that could limit the team’s ceiling.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Wayne Ellington

Names Worth Talking About:

People are talking about HEAT center Hassan Whiteside. A lot. Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald wrote Wednesday that he spoke to two NBA scouts who speculate the HEAT could get a late lottery pick for Whiteside. That strains credulity. What team in possession of a lottery pick is so desperate for a center that it would trade for one who has been made virtually obsolete by Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk?

As the HEAT have surged, Whiteside’s impact has been marginal. He’s playing just 25.8 minutes per game, his fewest since the 2014-15 season. And in a league where the traditional center is fast becoming fossilized, ESPN’s Zach Lowe notes that Whiteside is shooting just 42 percent on post-ups, which ranked 43rd out of 52 players with at least 50 attempts.

The real name worth talking about is Wayne Ellington, who is shooting 41 percent on over seven three-point attempts per game. He’s the only notable Miami player on an expiring contract, and that status puts the HEAT in a tough position. Miami has most of its roster under contract through next season, which places it in luxury tax territory. The HEAT outscore opponents by 2.8 points per 100 possessions with Ellington on court, a team-best net rating by more than two full points. The team may have to dangle Ellington in trade talks in hopes of getting an asset back since it will be extremely difficult to retain him past this season.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

Aside from getting something significant in return for Ellington, the best result for Miami would be to move off one of its larger contracts to subdue the salary cap issues and add flexibility. Moving Whiteside would accomplish this, assuming the HEAT took significantly less salary back, but it would leave the team without a proven rim protector. Such an outcome seems unlikely, as does getting a significant return for Justise Winslow, whom the Celtics reportedly pursued with a chest of draft picks during the 2015 draft but has yet to develop into an impact player.

Orlando Magic (12-30)

Victor Oladipo’s emergence with the Pacers has left the Magic organization with egg all over its face. The team drafted a young core, panicked, tried to leapfrog into the playoffs with veterans, and now sits a half game ahead of the league-worst Atlanta Hawks. There’s no way to sugar coat this: The Magic are years away from putting a competitive product on the floor and will have to go back to building through the draft.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Shelvin Mack — $6,000,000 ($6 million non-guaranteed in 2018-19)

Mario Hezonja — $4,078,320

Arron Afflalo — $1,471,382

Names Worth Talking About:

Things might have been different if Elfrid Payton had popped early. With Aaron Gordon emerging as one of the league’s exciting young players and center Nikola Vucevic — out of nowhere — shooting over 34 percent on 140 three-point attempts, Orlando might have had something with a stud point guard and a do-over on the Oladipo trade. As it stands, despite Payton shooting a career-best 37.5 percent from three, the Magic are being outscored by nine points per 100 with him on the floor.

Vucevic has the best net rating among Magic with at least 500 minutes, and one of the league’s more team-friendly contracts with just over $12 million on the books this season and just under $13 million next. But it may be too late to get anything significant for him. Meanwhile, Evan Fournier’s flat $17 million guaranteed for three seasons starting this season with a player option in the fourth is prohibitive for a player not known for his defense. And let’s not even talk about Bismack Biyombo, who sports a team-worst -15.4 net rating and is guaranteed $17 million this season and next with a player option after.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

Where to begin? The Magic need everything. There’s a decided lack of defensive identity after Orlando traded Oladipo, a two-way wing (among the league’s most precious commodities). Jonathon Simmons has played the most minutes on the team but his -9.4 net rating is worse than anyone but Biyombo. The team declined its option on Mario Hezonja so it likely can’t get anything for him. He’ll probably emerge as a rotation player for a less dysfunctional franchise after he hits free agency this summer.

Washington Wizards (23-18)

The Wizards are spent into the luxury tax and in full win-now mode. John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and Ian Mahinmi are all locked up through at least the 2019-20 season. Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris, Tomas Satoransky and Kelly Oubre are fully guaranteed through next season. Injuries and inconsistency have been a factor, and fifth in the East just doesn’t feel good enough for a team that aspires to contend.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Jason Smith — $5,225,000 ($5.45 million player option)

Jodie Meeks — $3,290,000 ($3.45 million player option)

Tim Frazier — $2,000,000

Names Worth Talking About:

Mahinmi has played only 571 minutes, but his +4.6 net rating is fourth on the team and some small comfort after the team invested major dollars in him. There’s almost no chance another team would take his contract, but at least the Wizards are performing well when he’s available. Marcin Gortat likewise appears to be a player few if any teams would be interested in.

Mike Scott has been a pleasant surprise with 9.4 points per game, which is good for sixth on the team. Washington only signed him to a one-year, veteran’s minimum deal, so he can test free agency after the season with the Wizards facing a cap crunch.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

Backup point guard Tim Frazier’s -6.7 net rating is a team worst and Jodie Meeks is next at -3.8. Jason Smith has played only 160 minutes. None has trade value. The Wizards’ biggest need is depth and an upgrade at backup point guard. But with the team’s cap situation and lack of assets, it’s going to be very tricky to get anything done.

With the Southeast Division’s competitive teams lacking cap space and lesser teams short on attractive trade assets, this could be a ho-hum deadline in Dixie. That is unless the Hornets go crazy and make Walker available, or another unexpected piece suddenly comes on the market. The league is still coming to terms with the hangover from the cap explosion of recent seasons. And with cap levels set to remain relatively flat in coming seasons, deadline deals will be harder to execute than in recent years.

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NBA

Rookie Of The Year Watch – 01/17/18

Shane Rhodes checks in on a tightening Rookie of the Year race.

Shane Rhodes

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As the old adage goes, time flies when you’re having fun. And this NBA season sure has flown.

Not only has there been some great storylines this regular season, there has been even better basketball and, in recent days, plenty of petty fights or squabbles to satisfy the rowdiest of fans.

Still, nothing is more satisfying than winning. And while most rookies aren’t in a position to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy, they are in a position to take home another award; Rookie of The Year. The 2017 rookie class has been one of the more fun and exciting classes in a long time. But, at the season’s midpoint, who is leading the pack?

6. Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers

While the shot still isn’t there, Lonzo Ball pretty much does everything else well for the Los Angeles Lakers. Averaging a solid 10.2 points to go along with 7.1 rebounds and assists per game, Ball has been an all-around contributor for this young Laker squad and has done it all while playing under the crushing pressure of his father LaVar and the city of Los Angeles. He often tries to get everyone involved in the offense and is constantly pushing the tempo. While it hasn’t resulted in many Laker wins yet, it surely will in time.

However, when I say his shot isn’t there yet, it really isn’t there. Ball’s current shooting splits of 35.6/30.3/40.8 from the floor, three and the line, while improved on his early season numbers, are pretty much a disaster; certainly not what the Lakers expected when they took him second overall. While there have been flashes of the player that shot over 40 percent from beyond the arc at UCLA, Ball’s shooting has been streaky at best but those numbers, alongside his form, should continue to improve over time. The Lakers will need it to if they want to have any chance of climbing the Western Conference ladder in the near future.

5. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls

Lauri Markkanen has played a major role in the recent surge by the Chicago Bulls. While it may seem strange to say that a 17-27 team is surging, not many people thought the Bulls would win this many games over the course of the whole season after trading star Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the offseason.

Markkanen has averaged 15.5 points to go along with 7.6 rebounds per game this season while shooting 43 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from three. While those numbers have dipped since the beginning of the season, Markkanen still ranks fifth among rookies in three-point percentage. The return of guard Zach LaVine alongside the emergence of Kris Dunn — both acquired in the trade with Minnesota — should go along way in alleviating the offensive burden on the Finnish forward as well.

Markkanen’s defense is really the only thing holding back his game; 0.6 blocks per game seems a little too low for someone who stands at seven-feet tall, while his 108.4 defensive rating leaves a little something to be desired.

4. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers

At this point in the season, Kyle Kuzma is still, by far, the steal of the draft for the Lakers.

Averaging 16.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, Kuzma ranks third among rookies in scoring while he sits fifth and sixth in rebounding and three-point percentage, respectively. He has certainly forced his way into the Lakers’ future as a building block, but Kuzma needs to do more on the offensive end outside of scoring the ball. His assist percentage of 9.6 is among the lowest of the team’s regular rotation and could certainly stand to improve as the Lakers continue to push to become a more ball movement oriented team.

Kuzma’s defense, while not terrible, could use some improvement as well. Kuzma isn’t overly athletic, so he has trouble keeping up with smaller forwards and guards when switched onto them. Improving his agility and or quickness could go a long way here.

3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Most rookies in Jayson Tatum’s position — playing on a Conference contender — don’t have much of a shot at taking home Rookie of the Year. That fact alone makes what Tatum has done this season for the Boston Celtics that much more impressive.

Averaging 13.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, Tatum has played an integral role for the Celtics, who currently sit comfortably atop the Eastern Conference. He remains one of the most efficient rookies on offense, shooting 49.9 percent from the floor and 46 percent from three while maintaining in the poise of a veteran in late game situations. Tatum plays a large part in Boston’s elite, league-leading defense as well, and his defensive rating of 99.1 paces all rookies.

There hasn’t been much to complain about when it comes to Tatum outside his aggressiveness on the offensive end. As the Celtics’ fourth option, Tatum doesn’t really need to shoulder much of a load on offense, but it would still be nice to see him to at least attempt create his own shot on a consistent basis when he is running with the second unit.

2. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

There is no doubt about it, Donovan Mitchell has been the most explosive, if not most exciting, rookie in this class. His 18.9 points per game leads all rookies while his scoring and high-flying athletic ability have created more than a few highlights for the Utah Jazz in recent weeks. Mitchell is also second among rookies in total steals, registering 61 pickpockets on the season.

In the absence of Rudy Gobert, Mitchell has managed to keep the Jazz somewhat afloat in the tough Western Conference. The two should certainly form an interesting pick-and-roll tandem when Gobert returns and, sitting at 10th in the West with a 17-26 record, they are capable of making a late-season push into the bottom of the playoff picture.

The only problem with Mitchell, as it has been all season, is his efficiency. Mitchell is shooting just 44 percent from the field and 34.9 percent from three, but a lot of that has to do with his 28.4 percent usage rate. As the Jazz return Gobert and others, Mitchell’s usage rate should drop, which should coincide with a drop in field goal attempts and an uptick in his shooting percentages.

1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

For better or worse, this award is still Ben Simmons’ to lose. He hasn’t been the dominant player he was in the early season for the Philadelphia 76ers, but Simmons still has a leg up on most rookies thanks to his athletic ability, court vision and ball-handling skills. Simmons and his 16.8 points, eight rebounds and 7.1 assists per game are still a matchup nightmare against most teams due to his sheer size when compared to the average point guard as well.

Simmons is not without his faults, however. Whether it’s because he is shooting with the wrong hand or something else, Simmons’ jump shot needs plenty of work. While he’s shooting 51.3 percent from the field, most of his attempts are dunks or hooks close to the basket. He still has yet to make a three-point attempt, taking just 10 on the season. Simmons’ lack of shooting means defenses can almost completely ignore him outside the paint while the offense goes into a pit when fellow star Joel Embiid is on the bench; that will need to change if the 76ers want to be the powerhouse The Process has led them to believe they will become.

Again, Rookie of The Year is Simmons’ award to lose. However, if he is unable to adjust his offensive game — especially when Joel Embiid sits — he will begin to feel plenty of pressure from his fellow rookies who are on the rise.

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NBA Daily: Jayson Tatum: Boston’s X-Factor

Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum speaks to Michael Scotto about his early adjustments and success.

Michael Scotto

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When All-Star Gordon Hayward dislocated his ankle and fractured his tibia five minutes into the season, the outlook changed drastically for the Boston Celtics this season.

“I think our group, going into the season, there were a lot of expectations with Gordon [Hayward] and then the injury happens, and a lot of our younger guys had to grow up a lot quicker,” Celtics center Al Horford told Basketball Insiders on January 6 before facing the Brooklyn Nets. “It has given our team an opportunity to develop, to embrace the challenge that we have in front of us, and it’s opened up a lot of playing time for guys.

“I feel like we’re taking advantage of it. We’re growing as a group and, really, I feel like there’s no ceiling for our group. As long as we keep defending and keep doing the things that we need to do on the defensive end, I think it’s going to put us in a position to be successful.”

Those expectations included challenging the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Eastern Conference crown and potentially a championship.

In Hayward’s absence, the youngest player had to grow up the quickest: third overall pick Jayson Tatum.

“It just gave me more of an opportunity that I wouldn’t have had,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders in a video interview. “It’s definitely unfortunate that it had to come the way it did with one of our best players getting hurt, but we’ve all just had to contribute more, step up more losing him on the first night. We had 81 more games left, so we couldn’t make excuses for that.”

The 19-year-old forward has made the most of his opportunity as a full-time starter in his rookie campaign. Tatum is averaging 13.9 points while shooting 50 percent from the field, a league-leading 46 percent from beyond the arc, and 82 percent from the foul line as of January 16.

The 6-foot-8 forward has shown a penchant for coming through in the clutch halfway through the season. According to Basketball-Reference, Tatum has shot 60 percent from the field and 54 percent from beyond the arc in the fourth quarter.

The Eastern Conference December Rookie of the Month has taken some notes in the clutch from four-time All-Star Kyrie Irving.

“I grew up in high school and college seeing him on TV and now seeing it live on your own team,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders. “He’s one of the best players in the world, and he puts on a show each and every night.”

Tatum and Irving, both Duke alumni, played for coach Mike Krzyzewski and are in their first season under Celtics coach Brad Stevens.

Tatum notices differences between the two coaches who have molded the talented teenager.

“They’re both great terrific coaches,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders. “Coach K has been coaching for a long time, but they definitely both know a lot. Brad is a lot more chill, Coach (K) is a lot more fired up, slapping the floor and yelling at guys. I definitely respect them both, and it’s an honor to play for both of them.”

Stevens’ defensive system has helped Tatum realize the defensive potential that drew comparisons to Paul George from scouts and executives before the draft. According to Basketball-Reference, the rookie is tied for third in defensive win shares with George (2.5) and ranks eighth in defensive rating (101.5).

On offense, Tatum has put in time with trainer Drew Hanlen of Pure Sweat Basketball to work on his isolation moves and improve his 3-point shooting. Tatum shot a pedestrian 34 percent from 3-point range at Duke, but now leads the NBA shooting 46 percent from beyond the arc.

Thus far, Tatum has shown encouraging flashes of becoming the player he ultimately wants to be on both sides of the court.

“Just being in the All-Star game as many times as possible, win MVP, win a championship,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders. “Everyone wants to win a championship. Just play as long as possible. Hopefully, I can do that.”

If Tatum continues to be near the top of the Rookie of the Year conversation, rise to the occasion in the fourth quarter and remain a lockdown defender and 3-point shooter, maybe he and the Celtics can realize those heightened expectations after all.

Is that a lot to ask of a 19-year-old?

Absolutely.

However, as the NBA has learned, Tatum is no average teenager and the x-factor towards how far Boston can go this season.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Surging HEAT Must Overcome Adversity

The Miami HEAT have been hit with a number of injuries at shooting guard. Can they stay hot?

Buddy Grizzard

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The Miami HEAT have surged to fourth in the Eastern Conference on the back of a 14-5 stretch since Dec. 9, including a seven-game win streak that ended with Monday’s 119-111 loss to the Bulls in Chicago. In the loss, shooting guard Tyler Johnson got his legs tangled with Robin Lopez and appeared to suffer a serious injury.

“I was scared,” said HEAT small forward Josh Richardson, who joined his teammates in racing down the court to check on Johnson. “You never want to see a guy, whether it’s on your team or the other team, down like that. I talked to him when he was in here [the locker room] and he said he didn’t know what was up.”

Coach Erik Spoelstra told pool reporters after the game that X-rays were negative. It was initially feared to be a knee injury, but Spoelstra said the knee is okay and the ankle is the area of concern. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted that an MRI was not deemed necessary and Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, the HEAT is facing a serious shortage at shooting guard, having lost Dion Waiters to season-ending knee surgery, Rodney McGruder to a left tibia stress fracture that will likely keep him out until February, and now Johnson. Miami has applied for a $5.5 million disabled player exception after losing Waiters, according to the Sun-Sentinel. HEAT power forward James Johnson said the team will be looking for other players to step up.

“I think it’s the next guy’s gonna step up like we always do,” said Johnson. “As we have guys going down we also have guys getting back and getting back in their groove [like] Justise Winslow. Hopefully, it’s going to give another guy a chance to emerge on this team or in this league.”

Johnson added that the loss to Chicago came against a hot team and the HEAT didn’t have the right mental approach or defensive communication to slow them down.

“Our communication was lacking tonight,” said Johnson. “I think our brains rested tonight and that’s not like us. Tilt your hat to Chicago. They’re shooting the hell out the ball. They didn’t let us come back.”

Richardson echoed the theme of communication and the inability to counter a hot-shooting team.

“We weren’t communicating very well and we were not giving them enough static on the three-point line,” said Richardson. “They’ve been the number one three-point shooting team in the league for like 20 games now. They ran some good actions that we were not reacting right to.”

Spoelstra referred to a turnover-riddled close to the first half as “disgusting” basketball and agreed that the defense let his team down.

“I don’t know what our record is in HEAT franchise history when we give up 120-plus,” said Spoelstra. “I would guess that it’s probably not pretty good.”

The good news for Miami is that it can try a combination of Richardson and Winslow at the wings, while Wayne Ellington has been shooting the leather off the ball from three this season (40.5 percent on over seven attempts per game). The HEAT is the latest team to attempt to defy history by making a serious run without a superstar player. To make that a reality and remain in the upper half of the East’s playoff bracket, Miami will have to personify the “next man up” credo.

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