“Absolutely,” the coach replied. “There is no doubt about it. Anytime you have an MVP candidate like (Dwight Howard) and then personnel that fits, you’re a contender.”
Writers covering both teams took that quote and ran with it, but not in the way you might expect.
In Orlando, Spoelstra was taken with a grain of salt.
From Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel: “Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said late Sunday afternoon that he considers the Orlando Magic a title contender now that it’s certain Dwight Howard will be with the team the rest of the season. In the hours that followed, Heat players were far less kind to the Magic than Spoelstra had been, and the Magic themselves undermined Spoelstra’s statement. Chris Bosh rolled early, and Dwyane Wade dominated late. When the Heat defense didn’t force turnovers, the Magic threw the ball away in fits of carelessness. No wonder Miami beat Orlando 91-81 at AmericanAirlines Arena. “We have to play better defense and make sure that we don’t turn over the ball,” Magic big man Glen Davis said. “We can’t just sit here and think we can turn it on when it’s time to turn it on. We’re not that good.”
In Miami, Spoelstra was taken at his word.
From Mike Berardino of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel: “If the NBA is all about matchups, the Heat should be signicantly more concerned about the Magic than any other potential Eastern Conference playoff opponent. With the possible exception of the Bulls. That’s why, as the Magic prepares for a home game against the Bulls on Monday, the Heat have a vested interest in seeing the Magic chip away at the Bulls’ shaky top-seed status. Far better to face, say, the Bucks or Knicks and then the Hawks or Sixers in the first two rounds than, for instance, the proud Celtics, followed by the dangerous Magic. That latter scenario, by the way, is how things could flow if the playoffs started Monday. You might not be all that afraid of the Celtics after how quickly the Heat dispatched them in last year’s playoffs, but even now, a year older, Doc Rivers’ team still has that “championship DNA.” Follow that up with a second-round matchup against the Magic that could easily go the distance, and that would be no way for the Heat to head into an expected return date with the Bulls. What’s that? You don’t see any reason for the Heat to fear the Magic in a seven-game series? Well, have you seen the way the Heat has been getting pushed around under the boards lately? Have you seen the recent troubles Chris Bosh has had on the glass?”
It was interesting that Berardino brought up Bosh, who hasn’t had a double-digit rebounding game since Feb. 21. He is averaging 7.9 rebounds per game, which is less than LeBron James and just a bit better than Udonis Haslem, who plays 10 less minutes per game.
But since the beginning of last season, the Heat’s bellwether has not been Bosh’s rebounding but his scoring. When Bosh scores at least 20 points, the Heat are 46-14, including playoffs. This season, the mark is 15-2.
From Ethan Skolnick of the Palm Beach Post: “Much of what occurs in an NBA game is influenced by what occurred much earlier. That is especially true when it comes to Chris Bosh. There’s a pattern to his play in his nearly two seasons with the Heat: Get him engaged early, and he tends to be more passionate and productive later. And so, no, he hadn’t scored much Sunday night between a 6-for-6 start and the five-minute mark of the fourth quarter. Still, he had stayed in tune on both ends in a way he had not during a two-week malaise. “He has to be big,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. And so Bosh was during a critical stretch that turned a ragged struggle into a 91-81 victory, a victory that was the Heat’s 13th straight at home, a victory that gave Miami a five-game lead for the East’s second seed. He was big for a team that had been in big trouble competing near the basket in the absence of his aggression. He was big with 23 points, but also in a way that won’t show in the box score – defending Dwight Howard (7-for-17) effectively, never better than with 4:45 remaining, forcing a rushed 7-foot turnaround that fell short. He was big after Dwyane Wade’s layup extended Miami’s edge to eight, boxing out Howard for a defensive rebound of a Quentin Richardson miss. He was big on the Heat’s next offensive set, gathering a slick but short bounce pass from LeBron James (seven assists), then converting for a basket and foul. “I just wanted to assert myself, take it personally and produce,” Bosh said.
The Heat and Magic won’t meet again until at least mid-May, when the conference semifinals begin. They have never met in a seven-game series. It might be fun.
There’s plenty of fun in Phoenix, where the surging Suns have climbed above .500 and are pushing their way into the playoff picture.
Heading into the All-Star break, Phoenix was 14-20 and had plenty of room on its bandwagon. Full disclosure: I jumped off sometime in early January, when the Suns were in the midst of dropping to 4-9 and Steve Nash was trying to figure out a way to pass to himself.
But the Suns are 9-2 since the break. Yes, they have benefited from a home-heavy schedule. But Nash has developed a pick-and-roll rapport with Marcin Gortat – to no one’s surprise – and Jared Dudley (scoring), Grant Hill (defense) and Channing Frye (rebounding) are chipping in.
One player the Suns hadn’t been getting much from lately is Michael Redd, who entering Friday’s game vs. Detroit had five donuts and no double-digit games in nine contests this month. But he snapped out of it with 11 points vs. the Pistons and came alive with a season-high 25 in Sunday’s 99-86 win over the Rockets.
From Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic: “For a change, the winning NBA team in town is not just the visitor. Some introductions might be in order for those who gave up on these Suns last month at 12-19. These Suns are the owners of a season-high four-game winning streak and boast a winning record for the first time this season after a thorough 99-86 victory over Houston on Sunday night at US Airways Center. This playoff race is on now that the Suns (23-22) dominated the Rockets (24-22) to pull within a half-game of their eighth-place spot in the Western Conference race. The victory also gave the Suns a chance at splitting their season series, a potential playoff tiebreaker, with Houston when they visit there April 13. Beyond whether Jared Dudley should be credited with a dunk or not for his first-quarter breakaway score, there was little in doubt in the way the Suns pounced on the injury-depleted, road-weary Rockets. The Suns finished taking advantage of the home-heavy stretch of their schedule, remaining the West’s hottest team with an 11-3 mark since entering Feb. 19 12-19. Only Chicago (12-2) has played better in the NBA and the Suns better feel like that heading into a stretch with 12 of the next 15 games on the road. “Chemistry is just outstanding now,” Suns center Marcin Gortat said. “Everybody feels good and hopefully we’re going to get a couple of wins on the road now.”
The Rockets hold the eighth spot in the West but are struggling without injured point guard Kyle Lowry (and injured shooting guard Kenyon Martin). It is just a half-game back to Utah and Phoenix, and it won’t take long to find out if the Suns are for real. They are 8-12 on the road and begin a four-game trip with consecutive games Tuesday and Wednesday in Florida.
- The Thunder snapped out of their funk with a 111-95 home win over the Trail Blazers, who help a lot of teams snap out of it. OKC had lost three of its last four home games but got a combined 54 points from Russell Westbrook (28) and Kevin Durant (26). Blazers interim coach Kaleb Canales had Chicago and OKC in his first two games and somehow went 1-1, which has to count for something.
- For the second straight day, the Clippers played an afternoon home game. And for the second straight day, Chris Paul saved their sorry behinds. Paul scored nine points in overtime of an 87-83 win over the Pistons, who fell to 1-3 on their five-game trip. At the end of regulation, Blake Griffin saved Paul’s behind, tipping in his miss to tie it. Paul finished with 19 points and 15 assists. In Saturday’s win over Houston, Paul scored 12 points in a 14-4 run over the final three minutes.
- In the nightcap at Staples Center, the Lakers had their 10-game home winning streak snapped with a 103-99 loss to the Jazz. Kobe Bryant made just 3-of-20 shots and has his Mamba mojo hijacked by Utah rookie Alec Burks, who scored 13 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter. Andrew Bynum continued crushing opponents with 33 points and 11 boards. Just one game in the loss column separates the Lakers, Clippers and Grizzlies.
- The Grizzlies avoided overtime – and another loss – in a 97-92 home win over the Wizards. Rudy Gay scored 27 points and Zach Randolph added 13, coming off the bench for the second time in as many games since his return. On Tuesday, Memphis begins a four-game road trip that ends with games against both LA clubs, directly above it in the West standings. Before the Grizzlies leave, they will work out Gilbert Arenas.
- The banged-up Hawks continued to use Joe Johnson at small forward in a 103-87 win at Cleveland. Johnson scored 28 points and is averaging nearly 26 since returning from a sore knee six games ago. Atlanta was without Al Horford, Marvin Williams, Willie Green, Vladimir Radmanovic and Jannero Pargo, a unit that would probably beat the Bobcats.
- As the Timberwolves slip in the West playoff race, they are arguing with each other. During a 115-99 loss at Sacramento, Kevin Love and J.J. Barea shouted at each other on the bench. Minnesota was without Nikola Pekovic (ankle); Darko Milicic started in his place and contributed a big two points in six minutes. The Kings had six players in double figures – none named DeMarcus Cousins – as they moved to 4-3 on their nine-game homestand.