2018 Free Agency Update: LeBron lays low during early morning madness, as do Heat

Cleveland’s LeBron James during Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics on May 27, 2018. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

As LeBron James’ private plane was tracking from Anguilla to Van Nuys Saturday, backroom deals were being struck all over the NBA landscape.

The frenzy started minutes before the ball dropped on the NBA New Year at midnight and continued well into the morning. Within hours about 20 players reportedly agreed to deals, with most not allowed to sign before noon on Friday.

One team sitting out the madness: the Miami Heat. The Heat’s lack of flexibility makes it very difficult for Pat Riley and Andy Elisburg to become a major player this summer, other than through the trade market.

The biggest names – Golden State’s Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City’s Paul George, Houston’s Chris Paul, Denver’s Nikola Jokic – are returning to their old teams. The four will re-sign on deals ranging from two to four years and totaling more than $500 million. (And this is a summer in which the theme is fiscal responsibility.)

The most intriguing names on the move so far are DeAndre Jordan from the Clippers to Dallas, Trevor Ariza from Houston to Phoenix and two players who obviously do not Trust the Process in Philadelphia, Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli, who will sign with Milwaukee and San Antonio, respectively.

Other than that, few names will tilt the needle as we enter the week, with, of course, one exception.

James spent most of last week holed up in the Caribbean, weighing his options. Saturday morning, he and his financial team boarded his jet for Southern California, where, let’s face it, all signs point to him ultimately staying put as a member of the Lakers. But on Sunday, James’ agent, Rich Paul, reportedly was set to meet with a high-level Sixers contingent in Los Angeles.

Before meeting with Philadelphia, the only reported contact James had with any team after midnight was a phone call with Cleveland general manger Koby Altman. James owes the Cavaliers nothing after delivering on his promise to bring Cleveland a title after returning four years ago but perhaps he learned from the embarrassing way he left his hometown team the first time with a poorly-planned, hour-long infomercial in which he declared he was “taking his talents to South Beach.”

James is not holding this free agent season hostage as he did eight and four years ago, when he bolted Miami and returned to Cleveland. A sign that many believe James’ decision has been made is so many deals being reported in the early hours of free agency. If James had a long list of teams he was considering, everything would have been on hold, much like it was two years ago for Durant and last year for Gordon Hayward.

But James has been trending toward the Lakers for weeks and that narrative become stronger Friday when James informed Cleveland he would opt out of the final year of contract, which realistically narrowed his choices to the Lakers, Cavs and Sixers. The biggest question now is who rides James’ coattails to L.A. With George staying put in OKC, the Lakers (and likely James) have targeted New Orleans’ DeMarcus Cousins.

Despite the early rush, this will be a tight market for free agents. Just eight teams have cap space of any significance and already two of them, Dallas and Phoenix, have made their big moves. Of those remaining teams, just the Lakers, Philadelphia and Indiana appear willing to hand out substantial contracts. The others – Atlanta, Chicago and Sacramento – could sign mid-tier players and/or use their space for trades.

Many teams are looking back at the summer of 2016 when spending got out of control and some of the worst contracts in league history were handed out, and ahead to next summer when the cap will rise to a projected $109 million and the market will be deeper with Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and Kevin Love among those all likely to be available.

As for the Heat, the first bit of news likely will involve free agent guard Wayne Ellington. Miami would like to retain the franchise’s record holder for the most 3 pointers in a season, but at what price? The Heat have Ellington’s early Bird rights and can pay him as much as $10.9 million next season but that could put them above the new luxury tax line, which was revealed last night as $123.733 million, unless other salary is shed through a trade.

Ilyasova, Belinelli and Doug McDermott (Indiana) are long-range shooters like Ellington and their contracts were in the $6-$7.3 million per year range. Ellington will receive interest as the market settles but expect him and the Heat to have several conversations.

[Miami Heat swingman Rodney McGruder’s contract guaranteed for 2018-19]

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2018 Free Agency Primer: We bring you the top five players at each position

LeBron James speaks to the media after Cleveland was swept by Golden State in the NBA Finals. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Free agency starts at 12:01 Sunday. Barring any significant trades that allow them to shed salaries, the Miami Heat lack cap space to become a major player this summer.

More than 125 players are free to sign with any team, although several are restricted. Here is our list of the top players at this time at each position.

POINT GUARDS

Chris Paul, Houston: The Rockets will try to find a way to bring back Paul – he can sign for $205 million over five years – and add LeBron James or Paul George.

Isaiah Thomas, Lakers: Thomas’ timing could not have been worse. He insists he is a max player but he won’t get close to that after a season in which his production fell and questions still persist about his hip.

Rajon Rondo, New Orleans: Rondo is no longer the player he was in Boston but he has rehabilitated his image in Chicago and New Orleans and continues to be a solid floor general.

Elfrid Payton, Phoenix: The Suns acquired Payton from Orlando at the trade deadline hoping he would be their point guard of the future. Not so and they are moving on from Payton.

Fred Van Vleet, Toronto (R): Van Vleet had a breakout year last season, his third in the league and will receive a nice pay raise from the $1.3 million he made in 2017-18.

SHOOTING GUARDS

Zach LaVine, Bulls (R): LaVine returned from ACL surgery and looked good in his half season in Chicago. If teams are not scared off by the injury he could get close to the max.

Tyreke Evans, Memphis: Evans had a solid year averaging 19.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists. At 28 he is looking at his last big contract.

Will Barton, Denver: An underrated player who has steadily improved the last four seasons had his best season heading into free agency. Mostly a reserve but proved last season he can be productive starting.

JJ Redick, Philadelphia: Redick made the most of his one-year, $23 million deal with the 76ers, averaging 17.1 points. Now, he is on the market again.

Marcus Smart, Boston: Smart has been a valuable reserve for the Celtics the last two years and helped his cause in the playoffs. One of the top defensive guards in the league.

SMALL FORWARDS

LeBron James, Cleveland: Everything is on hold until James decides where he is headed – he first must decline his player option for $35.6 million. The Lakers appear to be in the lead but the Cavaliers are holding out hope he returns.

Kevin Durant, Golden State: Durant is expected to decline his player option for $26.2 million after signing a two-year deal last summer and re-signing with the Warriors. Durant said he’s ready to ink a long-term deal.

Paul George, Oklahoma City: The Thunder were hoping to retain George after the gamble it took last summer to trade for him and put together a team that could compete for a title. George opted out and will field offers, which doesn’t look good for OKC.

Trevor Ariza, Houston: The Rockets will make an attempt to somehow land James but that will take creativity and certainly would mean losing Ariza. Otherwise, the Rockets are in play.

Rudy Gay, San Antonio: Gay declined his player option for $8.8 million to test free agency for a second consecutive season. He averaged 11.5 points and 5.1 rebounds in his one year in San Antonio.

POWER FORWARDS

Aaron Gordon, Orlando (R): Gordon is going to get paid – he is seeking a max deal – and the Magic have a big decision as to whether they match an offer to keep him, let him go or try to work out a sign-and-trade.

Julius Randle, Lakers (R): Randle’s future is as murky as anybody’s on the market depending on what happens in L.A. The Lakers are trying to land some combination of LeBron, Leonard and Paul George – or even all three – and how it unfolds will determine whether Randle returns.

Derrick Favors, Utah: Favors is an under-the-radar free agent who will be a nice pickup for somebody if he leaves Utah. The Jazz want him back but his future will have everything to do with how much money is left after the big names move.

Jabari Parker, Milwaukee (R): Parker struggled this season playing just 31 games after returning from a torn ACL. Not sure the Bucks are eager to give him a large contract which could limit his offer on the open market.

Montrezl Harrell, Clippers: Another underrated player who played an important role on the Clippers after being acquired last summer in the Chris Paul trade. An explosive player with great energy who is a tough matchup at 6-8. Can also play center.

CENTERS

DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans: Cousins’ torn Achilles came at a bad time. He would have been a max player but likely will have to take less after suffering the injury in late January. The big question is if the Pelicans really want him back?

Clint Capela, Houston (R): The Rockets love Capela and matching an offer would be a no-brainer if it weren’t for their pursuit of LeBron. Ideally, Houston retains Chris Paul and Capela and somehow lands LeBron, but that will be difficult.

DeAndre Jordan, Clippers: Jordan could exercise his player option and be traded to Dallas before free agency kicks off. He is a capable scorer, one of the best rebounders in the league and a huge asset defensively.

Jusuf Nurkic, Portland (R): Nurkic improved during his first full season in Portland but he remains an inconsistent player. The Trail Blazers will have a decision to make when he receives an offer.

Brook Lopez, Lakers: Lopez has expanded his game, making 246 threes on 34.5 percent shooting the last two years. He made just three threes in his first eight seasons. A return to L.A. is unlikely.

2018 Heat Offseason Preview

[Monday’s question: LeBron James could be on the move again, do the Heat have a chance of bringing him back?]

[Tuesday’s question: Will Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem return for a 16th NBA season or retire?]

[Wednesday’s question: Will 3-point specialist Wayne Ellington return to Heat?]

[Thursday’s question: With no cap space, can Heat turn to trades to improve roster?]

[Friday’s question: Does Hassan Whiteside’s contract make him untradeable?]

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This may not be the summer Pat Riley is able to work his magic, which will leave Heat fans with an empty feeling again

Miami Heat President Pat Riley attends the NBA draft combine last month in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Barring a trade, the Miami Heat will be sitting out the NBA draft for just the third time in their history.

But don’t mistake that for Pat Riley sitting on a yacht off some tropical island and a “closed” sign being hung on the offices at 601 Biscayne Blvd.

The Heat certainly are open for business as the NBA’s offseason officially kicks off with Thursday’s draft and then hits a frenzied pace 10 days later with the start of free agency. Somehow, the Heat will manage to join the party – they seemingly always do – but will they become bystanders or can they find a way to become the life of the party?

Recent history has not been kind to the Heat. Miami has entered the last two summers full of hope and optimism just from getting sit-downs with the two most coveted free agents – Kevin Durant in 2016 and Gordon Hayward in 2017.

Admittedly a longshot both years – more so with Durant – Miami had to settle for Plan B, in both cases. In 2016 – and after losing Dwyane Wade – that meant basically starting over by offering one-year deals to lower-level free agents and develop its young core of Hassan Whiteside, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow and Tyler Johnson. Last summer that meant holding onto free agents from the previous summer that showed promise – James Johnson, Dion Waiters and Wayne Ellington – and picking up a nice supplemental part, which the Heat did with the solid signing of Kelly Olynyk.

Which brings us to the summer of 2018.

After watching Durant being convinced to chase rings at Golden State and Brad Stevens convincing Hayward to turn back the clock to his college days in Boston, could the Heat be looking at having failed to meet their highest expectations for the third consecutive summer?

Miami has been as much a victim of its own success and Riley’s reputation as anything else. Few teams ever even make the final cut when it comes to the summer’s biggest catch, but the Heat seem to every year. They did in 2010 and capitalized, leading to two titles and four consecutive Finals appearances, which raised the bar even higher. They did again the last two summers, although the outcome was far less satisfying than 2010.

For every LeBron James and Chris Bosh there is a Kevin Durant and Gordon Hayward. And while some may look at it as if Riley is losing his touch, just by getting in the door every year shows his reputation remains intact.

Throwing a bag of championship rings on the table still resonates.

So how will 2018 play out? The Heat enter this offseason in a much different place with no flexibility and few assets to offer as major trade bait. And this free agency class is top heavy with Durant, James, Chris Paul, Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins leading the way, with James, George and Cousins the realistic choices to switch teams.

And even without anything to offer, Riley still likely will get a sit-down with James. But getting in the door and closing the deal are two very different things. The only way James returns to Miami is for Riley and Andy Elisburg to pull off a stunning sign-and-trade that would involve convincing James the Heat are on the cusp of contending and then convincing Cavs owner Dan Gilbert to once again deal with Riley.

There is a better chance of Cleveland becoming the No. 1 tourist destination in the country than that happening.

Otherwise, Riley will be left to work his magic via a trade. But even those odds of obtaining someone like Kawhi Leonard appear stacked against the Heat. Still, Riley will not sit idly by. Leonard is not the only “transformative” player the Heat can pursue to improve this roster. Plenty of names will be discussed and several could be targeted by the Heat.

Players like Bradley Beal, DeMar DeRozan, C.J. McCollum, John Wall and Andrew Wiggins to name a few could be explored. Any one of them would immediately become the best player on the Heat if acquired.

Yes, the pressure is on Riley to improve this team. The optics of bringing back this roster, one that won 44 games and lasted just five games in playoffs, intact would not be good. But Riley may have no choice and he raised that possibility following the season,.

I expect Riley to pull off some kind of deal to shake up this team even if it means putting the franchise in a better position for the future. Making a significant move, though, will be very difficult. Heat fans may be left wanting for more – for the third consecutive year – but even Riley may not be able to work that magic this summer.

[Mailbag: Would Heat give up all young talent for Kawhi Leonard without guarantee? That & more on Grizzlies rumors, possible draft day deal]

[Udonis Haslem on LeBron James’ visit to Miami during playoffs: ‘We sat down to eat, is that a crime?’]

[Possible NBA draft rule change could prove costly for Heat]

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NBA Finals: How does LeBron James’ past four seasons with Cavaliers compare to his time with Heat?

LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers defended by Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors during Game Four of the 2018 NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena on June 8, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

It’s hard to believe, but LeBron James has now played 15 full NBA seasons.

And still, the 33-year-old James is widely considered the best player in the league. He’s not part of the league’s best team, though.

That title belongs to the Golden State Warriors, which completed the 4-0 sweep of James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals on Friday to become back-to-back NBA champions. Continue reading “NBA Finals: How does LeBron James’ past four seasons with Cavaliers compare to his time with Heat?”

A positive trend for basketball in South Florida has continued in 2018 NBA Finals

Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James, right, looks up at a replay during the first half of Game 3 of basketball’s NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Wednesday, June 6, 2018, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

MIAMI — The Heat haven’t been in the NBA Finals since 2014, but that doesn’t mean South Florida has stopped watching the championship series.

The television ratings through the first three games of this year’s NBA Finals continue a positive trend for basketball locally. According to Nielsen, the television ratings for Sunday’s Game 2 in the Miami market ranked sixth with a 15.8 rating behind just San Francisco, Cleveland, Memphis, Columbus and Sacramento — four of those five markets have an obvious tie to the Finals between Golden State and Cleveland as cities in either California or Ohio. Continue reading “A positive trend for basketball in South Florida has continued in 2018 NBA Finals”

NBA Finals: What’s it like to face the Warriors? LeBron James says it’s ‘like playing the Patriots’

Stephen Curry #30 and Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors celebrate with Kevin Durant #35 against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second half during Game Three of the 2018 NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena on June 6, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

How big is the gap between the Cavaliers and Warriors? Just look at Cleveland’s razor-thin margin for error and Golden State’s not-so-small margin for error.

The Cavaliers got a triple-double from LeBron James and a combined 48 points from Kevin Love, Rodney Hood and JR Smith. But that wasn’t enough in Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Wednesday night, and neither was a 51-point performance from James in Game 1.

The Warriors got a 3-of-16 shooting performance from Stephen Curry and a 4-of-11 shooting performance form Klay Thompson, as the Splash Brothers combined for just 21 points on 3-of-15 shooting from 3-point range. But that was actually enough because Golden State also has Kevin Durant. Continue reading “NBA Finals: What’s it like to face the Warriors? LeBron James says it’s ‘like playing the Patriots’”

NBA Finals: Stephen Curry puts on a show; Cavaliers look deflated in Game 2 loss to Warriors

Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors celebrates with Draymond Green during the fourth quarter of Game 2. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Coach Tyronn Lue insisted the Cleveland was not a broken team after squandering a great opportunity to steal Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Lue said the Cavaliers were ready for Sunday’s Game 2 in Oakland.

Lue’s team did not back him up.

Game 2 was more like what most expected from this series. The Cavaliers fell behind early and never led. Now they limp back to Cleveland for Game 3 on Wednesday down 0-2.

“I didn’t think we started the game like we needed to start,” Lue said as Golden State made its first seven field goal attempts. “Not being physical enough. We can’t start the game like that. … We have to start the game better, being more physical, bringing the physicality. We didn’t do that tonight to start.”

The Cavaliers can say what they want but Thursday’s loss was deflating and took something out of the underdogs. Cleveland was flat on both ends of the court for most of the first half and after cutting into the lead in the third quarter, quickly ran out of gas in the fourth quarter as Golden State stretched the lead to 23 before setting fo a 122-103 victory.

Cleveland reverted back to the shaky defensive team was saw all season, allowing the Warriors to shoot 57.3 percent from the field and LeBron James wasn’t anything close to matching his extraordinary Game 1 effort. And unless James plays out of this world, the Cavaliers have no chance.

James once again filled the stat sheet with 29 points, 9 rebounds and 13 assists, but his impact was nothing like Game 1 when he dropped 51. And James looked fatigued at times playing all but the final 4:09. He now has played 185:29 of a possible 197 minutes in the last four games. When LeBron is tired it shows more on the defensive end and in his effort getting back on defense. And he spent more time whining about non-calls than usual.

“It sucks to lose,” said James, who insists he got tired once during the game. “It sucks when you go out there and give everything you have – your mind’s into it, your body’s into it and you come out on the losing end.”

Cleveland forward LeBron James sits on the bench during the second half of the Cavaliers’ Game 2 Finals loss to the Warriors. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Stephen Curry highlight film: The first one came with 7:54 to play in the game. With the shot clock running down Curry briefly lost his dribble, picked up the ball and threw up a high-arcing shot from about 30 feet over Kevin Love that cleaning went through to push the Warriors lead to 14. About two minutes later, Curry raced to the corner and launched another 3-pointer, again over Love. The only difference this time was he landed on his back as he was fouled by Love and the shot turned into a four-point play.

“A big moment where we had a significant lead and we could extend it a little bit and create some separation down the stretch,” Curry said about the three that beat shot clock. “It was a cool moment for sure.”

The two 3-pointers were part of Curry’s Finals record of nine (in 17 attempts). He finished with 33 points and placed himself as the leading contender for Finals MVP. And that is saying a lot when for the second straight game the Warriors’ Big Three all topped 20 points with Kevin Duran scoring 26 (on 10-of-14 shooting) and Klay Thompson adding 20 (8 of 13).

    Warriors fans taunt JR Smith: Cleveland’s JR Smith wasn’t going to forget about one of the biggest blunders in Finals history in Game 1, a play that dominated the conversation during the two-day break between games. Smith’s meltdown in the final seconds of regulation – he dribbled out the final 4.7 seconds with the score tied – gave the Warriors life, who took advantage and dominated the overtime.

Warriors fans first showed Smith how much they appreciated his contributing to their team’s win by loudly cheering him during pregame introductions. Then, with Smith at the foul line, he heard chants of “MVP, MVP.” One fan brought a sign saying Smith was “DA REAL MVP.”

And how did Smith respond? He finished with five points on 2-of-9 shooting but wasn’t about to admit the taunts got under his skin. Then again, this is a man who wanted everybody to believe that he knew the score at the end of Game 1 and was dribbling the ball to halfcourt looking for a better shot.

“I’m always a person who the fans like to talk to or heckle,” Smith said. “I like it. I’d rather they do that than not acknowledge me at all. I appreciate it.”

[Heat offseason Q&A: Udonis Haslem not going to rush decision on his future]

[Why are the Heat tied for fifth-best odds to win the 2018-19 NBA title?]

[Heat offseason Q&A: Kelly Olynyk from India on Basketball Without Borders, his offseason & more]

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NBA Finals: JR Smith’s blunder costs LeBron, Cavaliers chance to steal Game 1 from Warriors

Cleveland’s LeBron James looks at JR Smith as time expires in regulation against the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals with the score tied at 107. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The Cleveland Cavaliers – the biggest underdogs in the Finals in 30 years – squandered a golden opportunity to steal Game 1 and now must be wondering just what they have to do to win a game against the Golden State Warriors.

In the final minute of regulation, the Cavaliers were victimized by a little-known rule that allowed the officials to change a call and then watched JR Smith dribble out what could have been their only chance at a win.

Smith rebounded a missed George Hill free throw with 4.7 seconds to play in regulation and thinking the Cavs had the lead raced to halfcourt with the ball. The problem was the game was tied and Smith’s brain cramp send the game into overtime where the Warriors dominated for a 124-114 win.

Although Smith tried to save himself by saying he knew the game was tied and he was trying to find room to get a shot and then thought Cleveland going to call a time out, he clearly believed the Cavs had the lead.

Cavs coach Tryonn Lue confirmed that.

“He thought it was over,” Lue said. “He thought we were up one.”

The look on LeBron James’ face told the story. James finished with 51 points and must have been wondering if his effort was going to go to waste.

It did.

Smith’s mental meltdown concluded a bizarre final minute filled with drama and breakdowns.

It all started with a reversal on a block-charge call with 34.6 seconds to play that had a huge impact on the outcome. Kevin Durant was originally called for an offensive foul but because the officials could review the play to see if James was in the restricted circle, the actual call was also able to be reviewed. It was changed – correctly – to a block on James.

Instead of the Cavs leading 104-102 with the ball, Durant made both free throws and the game was tied.

“For our team to come out and play their hearts out, compete the way we did, it’s bad,” Lue said about the overturned call.

Fast forward to the final seconds with the Warriors leading 107-106 thanks to a Stephen Curry basket and free throw. The Warriors fell asleep on the biggest possession of the game and Klay Thompson had to grab Hill, who was cutting to the basket and would have been wide open as James was making the pass. Hill made the first free throw to tie the score and missed the second, setting up Smith’s blunder.

All of which must have James wondering: “What more can I do?”

James had the sixth 50-point game in NBA Finals history. He also tied Michael Jordan with his 109th playoff game with at least 30 points. James shot 19 of 32, had eight rebounds and eight assists and still could not will his team to a win.

In addition, the Cavaliers finished with a 52-38 rebounding advantage and the Warriors were just 8 of 30 on 3-pointers midway through the fourth quarter. They finished 13 of 36.

While Lue said the  Cavs were robbed, Warriors coach Steve Kerr said his team was lucky.

“We played as well as we’ve played all postseason,” James said. “We gave ourselves a chance possession after possession after possession. And there were some plays that were kind of taken away from us.”

Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson confronts Golden State’s Draymond Green late in Game 1. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Let’s get physical: With the Cavaliers’ frustration level already boiling over, tempers flared in the final seconds of overtime and it could impact Sunday’s Game 2. After James had words with Curry and Thompson, Cleveland’s Tristian Thompson took offense to Shaun Livingston taking a shot with four seconds remaining and threw an elbow at Livingston.

Thompson said the thought Livingston should not have shot the ball and taken the shot clock violation. “That was some bull****,” he said.

Livingston, and the rest of the Warriors, disagreed.

“We don’t ever take a turnover,” Livingston said. “We finish the game out, that’s just how we play. That’s not disrespect to any team.”

Thompson was immediately ejected and as the teams came together Golden State’s Draymond Green started talking and waiving goodbye. Thompson shoved the basketball and his hand in Green’s face. Green backed off.

The league certainly will take a look at the play today and could fine or even suspend Tristian Thompson for a game.

Klay Thompson is in pain after injuring his left knee. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Warriors let out sigh of relief: As much as we all believe this will be a quick series the first quarter reminded us how quickly things could change.

Everybody connected to the Warriors held their breath when Smith slipped and rolled into Klay Thompson’s left knee about six minutes into the game. The Warriors guard went down grimacing and slapped the court, a bad sign. But the news was as good as it could have been for the Warriors as Thompson was diagnosed with a leg contusion and returned at the start of the second quarter. He finished with 24 points.

But the play illustrates why nothing is guaranteed. This could easily have ended differently and suddenly the Warriors are down one of their stars and the series takes on a whole different look.

[Heat center Hassan Whiteside to play in NBA Africa Game]

[Mailbag: Do Heat really have a chance in the LeBron James free agency sweepstakes?]

[Miami Heat ties to Finals not limited to LeBron James]

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Miami Heat ties to Finals not limited to LeBron James

Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh led the Miami Heat to four consecutive Finals appearances and two championships. (Photo by Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images)

The Miami Heat were eliminated from the playoffs more than five weeks ago. But the Heat have plenty of ties to the Finals, which starts Thursday and pairs Cleveland and Golden State for the fourth consecutive year.

But for the Heat, this isn’t exactly how they want to be connected to the Finals.

Here are six Heat ties to the 2018 Finals:

LeBron James: OK, we get the most obvious out of the way first. James is playing in his eighth consecutive Finals, half of those with the Heat and half with the Cavs. With Miami, he won two titles. Unless the Cavs pull off the upset, he likely will be 1-for-4 with Cleveland.

A Finals four-peat: The Cavaliers and Warriors join just three other franchises to appear in at least four consecutive Finals, including the Heat, the last to do it from 2011 to 2014 with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Until then, just the Celtics (1984-87) and Lakers (1982-85) accomplished the feat. Boston also appeared in 10 straight Finals from 1957-66.

Kevin Durant: The Heat were one of six teams the former MVP met with during the summer of 2016, giving the contingent led by owner Micky Arison and president Pat Riley about two hours of his time in the Hamptons. The Heat thought they were in a good spot considering they were the second-to-last team – in front of the one he had played with for the first nine years of his career, Oklahoma City – to meet with the jewel of the summer’s free agent crop. But in the end, it was Golden State, which sent Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala to the meeting, that landed Durant. The quintet has now become known as the “Hamptons Five.”

Okaro White: Okaro White has not played a minute this season for the Cavaliers and he’s been on the inactive list for all 18 playoff games, But he’s in the Finals. White, from Florida State, turned two 10-day contracts with the Heat during the 2016-17 season into a two-year deal. He started this past season in Miami and had surgery for a broken foot a month into the season. White was traded to Atlanta on Feb. 8 for Luke Babbitt, waived by the Hawks and signed to a 10-day contract by the Cavs. Cleveland then signed him for the rest of the season on April 6 giving him a front-row seat for the entire playoffs.

The Cleveland staff: Former Heat players James Posey and Damon Jones are a part of Tyronn Lue’s staff. Posey played two seasons with the Heat (2005-07) and was a key member of the 2006 title team. Jones played one season in Miami (2004-05) but made his mark. Jones played in all 82 games, starting 66, and set a franchise record with 225 3-point field goals, one that held until this past season when Wayne Ellington recorded 227 threes. Jones then signed with the Cavs prior to the 2005-06 season.

Shaun Livingston: The Heat took a chance on Livingston, signing the free agent guard in October 2008 after a knee injury forced him to miss the entire previous season. But three months later, and after playing in just four games for the Heat, Livingston was traded to Memphis. Since, Livingston has been with eight different organizations, waived four times and traded twice before finding a home with the Warriors in 2014. He joined Golden State at the start of their Finals run and now has been an integral part of two (and perhaps three) title teams.

[How Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union are caught up in Twitter account scandal linked to Sixers’ executive Bryan Colangelo]

[Shane Battier will remain with Heat front office after withdrawing name from Pistons search]

[Mailbag: Were injuries to blame for Heat’s first-round playoff exit?]

[James Johnson undergoes offseason surgery for sports hernia]

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New format breathes life (and defense) back into NBA All-Star Game

Team Stephen’s Joel Embiid battles for the ball against Team LeBron’s Kevin Durant and LeBron James in Sunday’s NBA All-Star game. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

LOS ANGELES – The NBA and its players association have stumbled onto something. And they shouldn’t let it go by the wayside.

The out-of-the-box thinking for the All-Star Game — scrapping the traditional East vs. West format and allowing the players to choose sides to create more competition — worked.

Sunday’s game, won by LeBron James’ team 148-145 over Stephen Curry’s squad was more than a showcase. It was actually a competitive game.

And not a laughable display of nine players standing around and choosing whose turn it is to fly to the rim or take a 35-foot jumper.

After a slow start — though not nearly as slow as the pregame show featuring the overexposed Kevin Hart — the players warmed up to actually playing defense, an art that had been lost in the last four All-Star games.

“The beginning of the game was basically no difference, a little bit of highlights,” said Heat guard Goran Dragic, who had two points, four rebounds and an assist in his All-Star game debut. He played 11:28.

Goran Dragic

“But then when the game was getting to the end, the last six, seven minutes was really a competitive game. We were down (13) points and we were really competing on defense. I think that’s good for the fans. You want to have a close game and we had one. It’s fun. You can see some highlights — alley-oops, crazy dunks — but I think the fans wanted competitiveness.”

They certainly got it.

Team LeBron trailed 133-120 with just under seven minutes to play, but went on a 24-17 run to tie the score with 1:30 remaining. Then, with the help of a finger-roll layup by MVP LeBron with 34.5 seconds to go, his team took a one-point lead.

Following a turnover by DeMar DeRozan, Team LeBron got the ball back and a Russell Westbrook bucket gave them a three-point lead with 10.7 seconds left.

Team Stephen, though, had one last chance to send the game into overtime. But Curry let his boys down when he could not get a shot off with LeBron and his Golden State teammate, Kevin Durant, smothering him. Curry was forced to give up the ball to DeRozan, who couldn’t get a shot off before the buzzer.

The last time an All-Star Game was decided by one possession was 2010.

“We tried to set the tone early of playing a little bit of defense, creating that competitive environment that was a great change for the fans,” Curry said. “I think we accomplished that all the way down to the finish.”

Yes they did. There was defense (a shocking concept for an All-Star game). There were strategic timeouts by coaches Dwane Casey of Toronto and Mike D’Antoni of Houston (again, something the All-Star game has not seen in awhile). There was James shouting out defensive calls. There were eight blocked shots, 20 steals and the first ever All-Star Game referee’s review (which, by the way, they got wrong).

Oh, and there were 28 free throws, another indication that defense was being played at the rim. The last two All-Star Games, which turned into unwatchable slam-dunk contests, had 16 free throws combined.

And the winning team the last two years, the West on both occasions, scored 196 and 192 points, forcing the NBA to get out ahead of this deteriorating snoozefest before someone cracked 200 points.

DeRozan and Durant both said it was the most fun each has had playing in an All-Star Game. And most players had to agree especially when the winning team has averaged 178.5 points the last four years.

“Both (teams) competed and they went after it, and that’s what you want to see,” said Heat general manager Andy Elisburg, who was part of the team’s contingent at the game to support Dragic.

“You want to see a game where there’s excitement and you got a one-possession game at the end.”

Elisburg doesn’t know if the format will continue — although with the positive reviews coming from the Hollywood crowd and beyond, the NBA has no choice. Now the league must take this format one step further and televise the draft.

Make it part of All-Star Weekend, say Friday night. Have all 24 players shooting around on the court and the two captains at midcourt pointing to a player and that player dropping the ball and walking over to stand next to his captain.

Just like they probably did hundreds of times on the playground.

Talk about ratings!

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