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Sports

Ahead of Game Five, Are the Miami Heat Out of Moves?

As far as high-level playoff basketball goes, the Miami Heat-Boston Celtics Eastern Conference Finals hasn’t been especially watchable. Through four games, there hasn’t been a single minute of overlap where both teams have simultaneously played well; these are good basketball teams that seem physically incapable of stringing together extended periods of good basketball.

Despite the absence of traditionally fun things like points and people succeeding at their jobs, each game has featured a single stretch of lucidity where a team Moon Knight-ish-ly snaps out of their gormlessness and remembers what ostensibly made them contenders in the first place. Games One and Three featured torrid Miami runs that ripped open 20 point leads; the Celtics iced Games Two and Four pretty much by the first media timeout. The problem for the short–handed Miami Heat is that their 102-82 shellacking in Game Four may have shown that their institutional muscle memory has atrophied. 

While such doomerism feels extreme in a series that’s still knotted at two games apop, Miami’s troubles are more qualitative than quantitative. Namely, their offense has gone to crud—Jimmy Butler has a gimpy knee, Kyle Lowry’s hamstring has the structural soundness of a Gildan tee, Tyler Herro missed Game Four with a strained groin that could keep him out for weeks. Beyond Miami’s ever-growing sick bay, Boston’s own injury situation has improved now that Robert Williams (the actual Defensive Player of the Year) is back in the lineup. After missing Game Three, Williams changed the tenor and shape of the Celtics defense in Game Four by allowing Boston to play either mega-big lineups with a Williams-Al Horford pivot or switchy, smaller units with Williams as the lone big. 

As such, Miami’s offense faces a contracting menu of the possible—after all, you don’t score only 82 points in an entire game when you have an abundance of good options. Even at full-strength, their attack was merely above-average rather than elite, with their 114.2 offensive rating ranking 11th in the NBA during the regular season. For the playoffs, Miami’s offensive rating has stayed fairly productive overall(113.2 points per 100 possessions), but their efficiency in the halfcourt has cratered: in their 15 postseason games, their 92.8 offensive rating in the halfcourt is down nearly five points from their regular season mark. Their 90.9 halfcourt offensive rating against the Celtics is somehow even worse. Every bucket feels like a novelty.  

Whereas Boston has the stabilizing luxury of spamming Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown isolations and pick-and-rolls, Miami’s offense is a fragile, more delicate contraption. Like dialectic or egg-and-spoon races, the Heat rely on an orienting system of weights and counterweights to succeed.

Accordingly, the Heat conjure points by voltroning together the skillsets of their roster. Tyler Herro is a slick off-the-dribble scorer but not a nuclear athlete, so he makes for a nice pairing with Bam Adebayo, a frighteningly strong and fast dribble-handoff hub with a piddly bag of his own. Similarly, PJ Tucker is really only useful when he’s standing still in one of exactly two spots on the court, which, in turn, offers spacing for Jimmy Butler to get busy in the mid-post. Compared to a team like the Warriors that runs a specific offense out of ideological purity, the Heat are complicated by necessity—if they didn’t do all this stuff, they’d simply not score points. 

But with their entire backcourt in varying degrees of disrepair, the Heat are liable to completely unravel. Since Butler isn’t able to muster his usual level of burst, the Heat need to rely on their secondary (and tertiary) offensive weapons like Tyler Herro and Kyle Lowry to pick up the slack. But since Herro is out and Kyle Lowry is limited, Miami doesn’t have the pull-up shooting to coax Boston out of their paint-sealing drop pick-and-roll coverages. But since Boston’s bigs can chill in the paint, Adebayo is vulnerable to barf up clunkers against Williams like he did in games two and four. And since none of Butler, Herro, Lowry, or Adebayo can reliably do good stuff at the moment, the Eastern Conference Finals have featured a truly grim helping of Max Strus and Victor Oladipo Time. 

None of these individual ails would normally be enough to doom the Miami Heat to basketball hell; the cumulative attrition most likely will. The series is probably lost—all for want of a nail. 

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Sports

What’s Next for James Harden and the 76ers?

For the last two years, James Harden has grown tired of being James Harden. In Houston, he didn’t merely drive the bus; he was the bus. With the ball in his hands, he practically turned basketball into an individual sport, distilling all the ball and body movement that you would ordinarily expect into a single one-on-one matchup against his defender. Despite all the mewling that he was a flopping eyesore, he was great at this—his 2015-2021 stretch ranks as one of the single greatest offensive runs in basketball history. Sizing up his guy for eight seconds, watching the help defenders gird themselves to help at the rim, somehow creating a coherent offensive attack from nothing more than his own savvy and talent like Zeus sprouting Athena from his forehead: James Harden is so sick of that shit. 

Since his radical micro-ball Rockets team was bounced from the Bubble, basketball’s preeminent soloist has been in search of a band. Once spend-thrift owner Tilman Fertita axed just about every smart person in the organization to raid the franchise’s coffers to pay off his Rainforest Cafe debts, Harden strong-armed his way into a trade to Brooklyn. There, he imagined, he’d be able to play a less taxing style of basketball alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. He was right, kind of: during Harden’s 16 games alongside Durant and Irving, the Nets went 13-3 and scored 129.1 points per possession. And then Kyrie Irving did his own research. And then Kevin Durant got hurt. Once again, Harden was tasked with single-handedly hauling a threadbare supporting cast towards respectability and demanded a trade to Philadelphia, where MVP candidate Joel Embiid would presumably allow Harden to kick his feet up a little.

Now, Embiid is hurt and Harden is the begrudging lodestar for the Sixers. This is objectively funny—Harden has morphed into basketball’s Karl Havoc, gleefully creating situations for himself only to later realize he doesn’t want to be around anymore. Still, the problem isn’t so much that Harden has to temporarily revert to a previous super ball-dominant version of himself; it’s that he can’t. 

Whereas Harden was a bursty, untamable ball-handler as recently as last season, he now moves with the urgency and speed of a dad playing Marco Polo with his kids. He can’t beat defenders off the dribble; he can’t jump high or far enough to earn clean looks at the rim. The thing that made Harden such a singularly dominant scorer wasn’t just that he was a tricky player who could outsmart refs and defenses alike, but that he was able to combine that guile with the strength and athleticism of a more traditional two-guard. In this sense, Harden has reached the current-day Rudy Giuliani stage of his career, having lost the power that made people care about him in the first place; there’s nothing left for him besides the grift. 

To be sure, Harden is still a great player. He exists within that special stratosphere of stars where averaging 20ish points and 10ish assists per game is disappointing. In Game One against the Miami Heat, Harden was completely unable to assert himself, putting up a quiet 16 points and five assists. Worse, Harden managed a meager four points and two assists in the second half, thoroughly stumped by the Heat’s army of long, physical wings.

He couldn’t glide backwards into a step–back three because his defender was sitting on that move and denying him a clean release; he couldn’t punish overaggressive perimeter defense by exploding to the rim because his legs don’t work that way anymore.  A basketball genius, Harden consistently made the right play in response to Miami’s defensive tactics; it was just that the right play was often to passively cycle the ball to a teammate rather than do stuff himself.

The playoffs have always been cruel and revealing for Harden, but his struggles feel distinctly different than his previous flameouts. Previously, Harden has lost in the playoffs because he’s unable to seize on the same marginal advantages that he could reap in the regular season—the defenders contest his jumpers just a little more tightly, the refs become ever more reluctant to give Harden a friendly whistle. Now, though, it feels like the end—or, alternately, the beginning—of something.

The defining tension of his next few years will be how gracefully he handles the transition from being the guy to simply being a guy. As part of a larger constellation of talent, Harden is the kind of passer who can have a multiplicative effect on the talents of his teammates; despite his individual shortcomings as a scorer, Harden still boosts Philly’s offense by more than 12 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court. In particular, he’s empowered Joel Embiid to become a serious pick-and-roll threat for the first time in his career. 

There’s no doubt that Harden will continue to be a very good player for a long time, but there’s uncertainty of what shape or valence that goodness will assume. It’s not possible anymore for him to Norman Bombardini his way through games, consuming so many possessions that he eventually transforms into an offensive universe unto himself. But it’s also probably a waste for him to recede into the background and take a backseat to Tobias Harris. Philly won’t lose their series because of Harden’s awkward fit—they’ll probably lose no matter what if Embiid is out. But the fate of the franchise and all the outsized narrative importance that accompanies it will be determined by James Harden’s ability to reconcile no longer being James Harden.

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Sports Strength

NBA Highlights From January 3rd-9th

With the holiday season and the wave of Covid disruptions (hopefully) behind us, the first week of 2022 delivered some thrilling NBA action, Klay Thompson played in his first game in two and a half years and looked as if he never left. The Memphis Grizzlies and Ja Morant and bulldozed their competition, stretching their win streak to nine consecutive games. Down below are my four takeaways from the NBA’s latest week in action.

Thompson’s return elevates a already-great Warriors team

For the first time in 941 days, Steph Curry’s fellow Splash Brother returned to action, and it seemed like the old times again. In his first game since the 2019 Finals, Klay Thompson rediscovered his rhythm and scored 17 points in 20 minutes as his Golden State Warriors defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers, 96-82.

As previously mentioned when discussing what to expect from Thompson in his return, the All-Star shooting guard the Warriors’ offense a new dimension. He was fluid in his movement without the ball, successfully drove to the basket (even punctuating his return with an uncharacteristic dunk in traffic), and was sound on defense.

The Grizzlies are entering the conversation of title contenders

It’s becoming a distant memory when some people thought of the Memphis Grizzlies as a playoff team, who would be fodder for an exciting yet predictable first-round exit. Instead, the Grizzlies, who are three and a half games out of first place in the Western Conference, are forcing their way into the conversation about the league’s title contenders.

Led by rising MVP candidate Ja Morant, the Grizz succeed because their depth and athleticism have produced the league’s No. 1 defense over the past six weeks (Allowing 101.8 per 100 possessions).

Don’t count out the Heat to lead the East

Despite experiencing many injuries and a schedule that had them play 25 of their first 41 games on the road, the Heat are the third seed in the Eastern Conference– only two and a half games out of first. So what can happen next? A realistic run to the NBA Finals.

With Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo eventually making their return to the starting lineup, the Heat have all the necessary talents and coaching to challenge for the Eastern Conference crown, just as they did in the Bubble over a year and a half ago.

The Nets get Kyrie back but are still struggling

Even if the season debut of Kyrie Irving (who will only play road games because of NYC’s vaccination mandate) reignites the second-seeded Brooklyn Nets, it doesn’t fully erase their struggles over the last two-plus weeks. their struggles over the past two-plus weeks. Besides a rousing fourth-quarter comeback against the Pacers or rookie Cam Thomas’s game-winning floater against the Spurs on Sunday, the Nets have been fairly listless, losing four out of their previous six games.

And although every team has stretches where they play below their standard, it still feels as if we haven’t watched the Nets play their best basketball yet. But, with Irving now in tow and Durant still in MVP form, maybe that isn’t a bad thing.

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Sports Strength

NBA Highlights From October 26th-31st

Are you not entertained? After witnessing a great opening week to the 2021-’22 NBA regular season, the league’s second week in action managed to raise the stakes even more. At one point, we had three undefeated teams. The defending champs dropped below .500. New York City, by way of midtown Manhattan, is witnessing high-level basketball again. And Jimmy Butler is getting early hype as league MVP! So down below are my four biggest takeaways from it!

How about those Knicks?

Listen, we know most teams, including the NY Knicks, are only six or so games into their new season but can we acknowledge how great they looked? After having a surprising home loss against the Orlando Magic to conclude their opening week, the current No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference went 3-0 between last Tuesday-Sunday, with every win being a statement win.

Although Julius Randle has struggled to maintain his All-NBA form from last year, the Knicks have been buoyed by contributions from their lesser stars. Despite murmurs that the Knicks overpaid for him in free agency, Evan Fournier has emerged as a fearless wing scorer with his combination of on-ball chutzpah and off-ball craftiness. Even more promising, RJ Barrett has solidified the gains he made as a shooter last year while also emerging as an elite defender.

Lastly, Kemba Walker and Derrick Rose are providing the Knicks with the most stability, they have had in their backcourt in two decades.

Carmelo is making a run for Sixth Man of the Year

While NBA fans have debated whether the Los Angeles Lakers can overcome their roster’s oldness and awkward construction, one undeniable truth has emerged: Carmelo Anthony still is a bucket. In his first season as a Laker, the future Hall of Famer is averaging 16 PPG and has made himself an early, viable candidate for Sixth Man of the Year. Moreover, Anthony has scored with remarkable efficiency, shooting 50 percent from the field and 52% from long range.

Whether it’s as a shooter, scorer, or simply another body on the floor, Anthony’s presence has created the spacing and dynamism the Lakers’ offense often lacked last season.

Jimmy Butler for MVP?

If any player was looking to bounce back from a lackluster season, it was Jimmy Butler. After leading the Heat to the NBA Finals one year ago, Butler and Co. came back to Earth with an inconsistent regular season performance (Their 40-32 record landed them the sixth seed) before getting swept in the first round. But now? It’s Butler’s time for payback.

As his Heat stands at 5-1 after winning four consecutive games, including a pair of impressive wins over the Nets and Hornets, Butler is arguably playing the best basketball of his career. The Marquette product is currently averaging career-highs in points (25), rebounds (7.0), and steals per game (2.8), and field-goal percentage (52.9%) while also having the league’s third-highest player efficiency rating (30.69).

And who are the two players in front of Butler? The last-two MVP winners, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Wizards may have figured something out!

Amid the action during the NBA’s first two weeks, the Washington Wizards and their 5-1 record have flown under the radar. Even if it’s extremely unlikely that the Wizards will be able to sustain this pace, they deserve credit for what they’ve accomplished so far.

Bradley Beal has upped the ante as a complete player, bouncing back from a slow start to average 31 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists per game over his last two games. In addition, the Wizards’ trio of summer additions in Spencer Dinwiddle, Kyle Kuzma, and Montrezl Harrell have played the kind of basketball that provides a second wind in most players’ careers.

If you’re wondering who the Wizards have beaten this season, say hello to the Celtics (twice), Hawks, and Raptors, with two of those wins being on the road.

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Sports Strength

Kyle Lowry Already Looks So Natural in a Miami Heat Jersey

At some point, the Miami Heat became as much of a lifestyle brand as a basketball team; more notable than their on-court performance is the infrastructure of rah-rah Crossfit-y cultishness that undergirds it. Besides star players like Dwyane Wade or Armani-suited power-players like Pat Riley, the defining feature of the Heat has been an all-encompassing grindset, one where sweatiness is next to godliness. This is what acolytes call Heat Culture, the belief that success can be manifested through a maniacal devotion to pre-dawn shooting drills and top-tier aerobic capacity. 

Last season, though, Miami’s offense went adrift, straying from the intricate, fluid offense that propelled them to the Finals in the bubble. Even during that prolonged stretch where Jimmy Butler decided he never wanted to leave Disney World and Tyler Herro mutated into a sneering hellion, the Heat never had the individual talent to win simply; instead, their offense is dependent on the ability to sustain symbiosis between their diffuse parts.

When it works, Heat’s multi-pronged attack places immense mental and physical strain on all five defenders—no one team has the personnel to withstand Butler’s brutish, gnarly scoring while also limiting Bam Adebayo’s playmaking while also sticking with Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro as they careen around screens. Now, after sign-and-trading for Kyle Lowry, the Heat have added some much-needed pick-and-roll juice.

But for most of last season, the Heat’s offense was halting and disordered, stumbling to a 111.2 offensive rating that ranked 18th in the NBA. In comparison to their bubbled dynamism, the Heat’s offense last year resembled the hoops version of when Netflix glitches and the audio lags behind the video. 

And after a hectic 13 months that included parts of two NBA seasons, a Finals appearance and a first-round flameout, Miami doubled down on its Miami-ness over the off-season.  Whereas other teams lust after youth and athletic vigor, the Heat opted for players who are attuned with the franchise’s Spartan mentality; their two marquee offseason acquisitions, Kyle Lowry and PJ Tucker, are intense, sturdy veterans who possess all the panache of a station wagon. Like the rest of the Heat, the pair are both practitioners of dad-strength basketball, a style borne from years of lived experience and kettlebell curls. As a whole, the Heat may not be particularly strong or fast or tall or sharp-shooting, but they’re so smart and their chemistry comes so naturally that they’re an almost-contender all the same.

So far, the Heat’s bet on themselves has paid off—the Heat have already beaten the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets, ostensibly the two favorites in the Eastern Conference. Although it’s silly to read too much into this (the Bucks and Nets have no real incentive to try hard whereas the Heat always try alarmingly hard), these games provide a rough proof of concept of what the Heat think—hope?—they can become. Against the Bucks, the Heat demonstrated the full breadth of their offensive potency and scored 137 points—they made over 80 percent of their shots at the rim (per Cleaning the Glass) and 40 percent of their threes while maintaining a sparkling 11 percent turnover rate. Against the Nets, the Heat weathered a sloppy shooting night by physically dominating their shrimpier opponent and holding Brooklyn’s allegedly potent offense to 93 points.

Accordingly, it’s easy to forgot Lowry has only been a member of the Heat for three games. Although the 35-year-old Lowry will never replicate the kind of on-ball primacy or volume he commanded during his personal apex in Toronto, his acuity and mastery of the game’s finer details allow him to thrive within any role. Slotted alongside stars like Butler and Bam Adebayo, Lowry is free to focus on silently facilitating frictionless basketball. A short, old guard who was never particularly explosive to begin with, Lowry possesses intangible strengths that are so bulletproof they far outweigh his obvious deficiencies. 

With the Heat, Lowry has an ideal outlet for his off-kilter basketball genius; the Heat, like Lowry, brew a potent mixture of headiness and physicality. Playing with tremendous velocity, Lowry quickly shepherds his team into their offense and steals points in transition against lolling defenses. Too, he has an innate understanding of how to create space, whether by forcing defenders to account for his pull-up three-point shooting or by throwing his ass around to set screens for his teammates. He’s also a shockingly switchable defender despite being only 6’0. Most of all, Lowry is an organizing influence, offering the ligamenture that holds the Heat together. Unsurprisingly, he makes the Heat a faster and more unselfish team, same as he did with the Raptors for years. 

By doing so, Lowry has instantly established himself as a key cog in Miami’s machine, even if he’s averaged just 7.7 points per game and made a putrid 29.6 percent of his shots; on/off stats through only four games are probably too full of noise to be worth anything, but the Heat are 11.4 points per 100 possessions when Lowry is on the court and have won all three contests that he’s played. 

In this sense, the marriage between Lowry and the Heat is so strong because of its unorthodoxy. Lowry is a hugely successful point guard, sans the physical traits that usually accompany hugely successful point guard-dom; in a league where basketball is often likened to dance or poetry or jazz or some other art-house nonsense, the Heat coldly rack up wins by profoundly yucking their opponent’s yum. There’s a certain beauty when form finds its perfect function, no matter how jagged it may be.