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MVP: Dwight Howard had better numbers, but come on, did you really expect 23 points from Steve Blake? The Lakers point guard shot 8-of-16 from the field, hitting tough shots in the first half to keep the Lakers competitive with the Spurs.
X factor: Tony Parker again struggled for the Spurs, possibly with an injury reoccurrence. After a good game in his return on Friday against the Kings, Parker shot 1-for-10 against Los Angeles and played just three minutes in the fourth quarter.
Defining moment: In the fourth quarter, the Lakers got three 3-pointers from Antawn Jamison and two from Jodie Meeks in the span of eight possessions. That's tough for any team to overcome.
MVP: James Harden had 29 points (9-for-11 shooting), five assists and three rebounds in the first half. He finished with 29 after setting the tone from the very start, running the ball down Sacramento's throat.
Defining moment: Early in the first half, DeMarcus Cousins dribbled the ball the length of the floor, going behind his back and then crossing over before laying it in. He did little of anything else the rest of the night, finishing with eight points.
X factor: Houston rookie Terrence Jones finished with five blocked shots (four in the first half), igniting the Rockets to several fast-break opportunities. He also airballed on both of his 3-pointers.
MVP: Dirk Nowitzki surpassed the 25,000-point plateau for his career in the second quarter, becoming the 17th player in NBA history to reach the mark. He also became just the ninth to reach that mark in addition to having 9,000 rebounds. He finished with 19 points on Sunday.
Defining moment: Ryan Anderson hit a 3-point basket to start the game. The Mavs immediately responded with an 11-0 run. The Hornets had some surges, but the Mavs played with poise, pride and a strong disposition. It's clear that they want to end their down season on a high note.
That was a barber's dream: The win moved Dallas back to .500 for the first time since they were 11-11 on Dec. 12. By getting back to .500, the Mavs were allowed to cash in on their pact to finally shave their beards by getting back to even footing.
MVP: Andre Iguodala. Iggy stepped into a larger role when Danilo Gallinari went down and took even more of a load in this game with Kenneth Faried out. He racked up a 28 points, nine assists and seven rebounds, with stifling defense to boot.
X factor: This may just be their common international heritage speaking to me, but Evan Fournier has a little bit of Manu Ginobili in him. His angular, probing drives and heady passes had a certain Ginobili flavor to them.
That was exemplary: An exemplary display of how to tank, that is. Sub-10 PER players Sasha Pavlovic and Luke Babbitt combined for 46 minutes, but Portland made it close enough at the end so a blatant tank-job wasn't obvious.
MVP: DeMar DeRozan was money from the baseline and adept at drawing contact, scoring 36 points on 22 shots (9-for-9 at the stripe) and proving that no high-percentage midrange game is unsustainable under the right set of conditions.
LVP: Joe Johnson was a mess, missing 12 of his 16 shots that included a garish 2-of-9 mark from beyond the arc. The most ignoble moment: two consecutive 3-point air balls that would've cut the deficit to a single score in the game's final moments.
That was disappointing: Clinging to a dream of moving up to the third seed, the Nets couldn't take advantage of an Indiana loss. Now, they won't be able to avoid a second-round matchup against Miami -- assuming they can get past their first opponent.
MVP: "Chris Copeland, Starting Center" only lasted two episodes, and that's probably for the best. As is Citizen Cope's propensity for potent bench punches, with this performance -- efficient scoring, impressive D on Roy Hibbert -- being a sterling example.
X factor: J.R. Smith. Nothing spectacular in the stat line (15 points on 7-for-16 shooting), but Earl's timely buckets and boards (eight on the day) helped the Knicks hold down the fort with Melo (shoulder) bolted to pine.
That was playoff-like: The Knicks locked up the East's No. 2 seed for the first time since '94, but such feats will be of little solace should these two meet in the second round. Indiana's plodding, pounding pace looms as a threat.
MVP: LeBron James didn't have a great game, by his lofty standards, but he was still the best player on the floor. The MVP-to-be finished with 24 points, seven rebounds and six assists for despite missing his last five shots from the floor.
X factor: Carlos Boozer. For Miami, that is. His numbers (16 points, 20 rebounds, three assists, two steals) were excellent, but his lacking defensive focus gave Miami open at-rim shots whenever he was on the floor.
That was sputtering: Shortly after the half, Chicago took a 61-60 lead and looked primed to take it down to the wire again. But there simply wasn't enough in the tank. The Bulls shot 4-for-20 in the fourth and were outscored 45-32 after their lead.
MVP: Thad Young, as he is more often than not, was very good. He scored 14 to go along with nine rebounds, four assists, a trio of steals, and generally flew around the floor like a player blissfully unaware of the game's importance (none) or his team's playoff chances (nil).
LVP: Kyrie Irving, for all the successes of his first two NBA seasons, can't solve Jrue Holiday and the Sixers. Irving got in foul trouble early and never got in rhythm, scoring a career-low four points in 19 minutes.
Defining moment: With the 1982-83 title team watching -- the most recent 76ers championship squad was honored at the half -- Philadelphia raced out to a 19-3 lead and never trailed. The balanced Sixers put six players in double figures.
Playoffs Near: How Will Heat Approach Bulls?
MIAMI -- When the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls last met late last month, the second-longest winning streak in NBA history was halted soon after reigning MVP LeBron James got hammered by a couple of hard fouls.
An exceedingly physical tone was set by Kirk Hinrich's first-quarter tackle of James, and the Bulls' stunning victory was capped shortly after Taj Gibson chopped the Heat star across the neck and shoulders in the fourth quarter.
Both teams had plenty at stake back on March 27.
The Heat were trying to extend a 27-game win streak that would ultimately fall six short of the mark set by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers. Meanwhile, the Bulls were aiming for a top-four spot in the East, home-court advantage in the playoffs and Derrick Rose's possible late-season debut.
Basically, all of those hopes have faded in the three weeks since the short-handed Bulls held off the Heat, 101-97, at the United Center. Now, both banged-up teams insist their priority is to get through the final days of the regular season and enter the playoffs as healthy as possible.
So that should render Sunday's showdown (ABC, 1 p.m. ET) between the Heat and Bulls simply an exhibition-style sparring session less than a week before the postseason, right?
Well, not necessarily.
"I expect nothing less than physical," James said. "The whole game will be physical. Physicality towards me, physicality towards everyone. I look forward to it. It'll be a good game. Once you're on the floor, you just go out and play. You can't shy away from it. You just take the challenge. And we'll be ready for it."
The bigger question is whether either coach should subject their star players to the potential pounding at this stage. For the Heat, James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have played just two games together since that loss in Chicago, with all three recently rotating rest and recovery from nagging injuries or illness over the past three weeks.
Along the way, Miami has managed to clinch the No. 1 seed in the East, the best record in the league and potential home-court advantage through the NBA Finals.
Counting Sunday, Miami (63-16) has three relatively meaningless games left in the season. That would seem to set up as the perfect time for coach Erik Spoelstra to put his "maintenance program" in full effect to ensure James, Wade and Bosh risk as little as possible before Game 1 of the playoffs against the No. 8 seed, Milwaukee.
But Spoelstra prides himself and his system on countering conventional wisdom. He approached this weekend's two-game homestand as the ultimate playoff preparation pop quiz for the Heat. So after James, Wade and Bosh played together for the first time in two weeks in Friday's 109-101 win against Boston, all signs indicate the trio will be back on the court Sunday against another playoff-bound team.
Other than appearing for treatment sessions and promotional events around Miami, the team had the day off Saturday. But James said Friday night that he planned to play Sunday against the Bulls, "if Spo allows me to." Wade, who returned from a six-game absence Friday, said his plan was to play against both the Celtics and the Bulls.
For Spoelstra, both the quality of competition and the day off between the two weekend games is the closest thing the Heat could get to simulating how the playoffs will feel.
"We don't know what their plan is for playing any of their guys," Spoelstra said of the Bulls. "But you can expect a physical game. Regardless, it will be a good tuneup for us -- a playoff mentality, because there will be bodies colliding and it will be tough to generate wide-open looks."
Chicago has been dealing with injury absences so frequently that it has been forced to start 16 different lineups this season. Over the past three seasons, the Bulls have faced the Heat without Rose more than they have with him. Richard Hamilton has only made cameo appearances in their recent matchups, and the Bulls were without Joakim Noah when they ended the Heat's historic winning streak.
Rose has missed the entire season recovering from knee surgery he had a year ago, although he has been traveling and practicing with the team for a couple of months. Hamilton returned from a back injury two games ago, but Noah (foot) and Gibson (knee) were sidelined recently.
All of the injuries have left the Bulls teetering between a mystery and a marvel for much of the season. Despite being perpetually short-handed, Chicago has remained one of the top defensive teams and has generated enough of a spark to snap two of the best streaks of the season.
After halting the Heat last month, the Bulls ended the New York Knicks' 13-game win streak in overtime Thursday.
But Chicago has also been enough of an enigma to have lost four of its past five matchups with lottery-bound teams, including two in the span of a week against Toronto.
After Friday's loss to the Raptors, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters in Toronto that now is certainly no time to buy into injuries or fatigue as excuses for some of the team's inconsistent performances this season.
"You play for each other, and that commitment has to be made by everybody," Thibodeau said Friday. "If we don't do that, we're not going to give ourselves a chance to win. We're short-handed, our chances [rely on] intensity and doing everything collectively. If we do that, we have a chance to win. If we don't, if someone wants to stand outside the circle, it's going to break everyone down."
The Heat certainly don't view the Bulls as a broken-down squad. They're still too good at beating up opponents.
The Bulls enter Sunday seeded sixth in the East, a half-game behind Atlanta for the fifth seed. As it stands now, Chicago would be headed for a first-round series against Indiana and would potentially avoid Miami until the conference finals. But the Pacers are 3-1 against the Bulls this season. If Chicago gets the fifth seed, it would face Brooklyn in the first round and potentially meet Miami in the second round. The Bulls are 3-1 against the Nets this season.
"They have the talent to be there, they have the system, they have an unbelievable coach," Wade said of the Bulls. "So they're right where they should be. They love challenges. You see we came in there with our streak, and (so did) the Knicks. And those guys step up to the billing. So they'll be a dangerous team in the playoffs, as they always are. They have a defensive system that is amazing. They have an offensive system they play very well. You've got to beat them. They're not going to give it to you."
And that's another reason why the Heat won't tread lightly entering Sunday's game. If James, Wade and Bosh step onto the court, they know they must be prepared to lock into a playoff-style battle and not a glorified scrimmage.
James took exception to the fouls by Hinrich and Gibson in the previous meeting, and said afterward that he didn't consider them to be basketball plays. When Hinrich grabbed James in the open court to prevent a fast break, both players went crashing to the ground, and it was called a common foul. Gibson's hit on James was also initially assessed as a common foul on the court, but was upgraded to a flagrant penalty the next day upon league review.
The Heat don't expect anything less than another hard-fought game between the two conference rivals. No team has had more regular-season success against Miami since 2010 than the Bulls, who have won seven of those past 10 meetings. But Miami took the lone playoff battle in that span with a five-game series win in the 2011 conference finals.
"They're just that team where if it's pickup (games), if it's preseason, if it's anything involving basketball, it's going to be physical," Bosh said. "Our guys take it to the hole pretty aggressively. Sometimes guys make certain plays -- whether it's a basketball play or not a basketball play, it's really up for grabs. We never minded hard, clean fouls."
Bosh also said that, at this point in the season, it's always smart for playoff-bound players to protect themselves and limit injury risks with far more meaningful games on deck.
"It still comes down to basketball," Spoelstra said when asked if the rivalry's physical nature will factor in whether his star players are available Sunday. "Our players don't shy away from physicality. We have to prepare for next weekend. All of those factor in -- the health, how they feel. We want to continue to build a rhythm, but how (the Bulls) play will not influence us. We're not afraid of anybody."
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That Was Easy: Picking LeBron
Easiest. Ballot. Ever.
I suspect that LeBron won't be a unanimous selection for Most Valuable Player because A) there's never been a unanimous MVP in the NBA and B) there's bound to be at least one voter, presumably based in the 405 area code, who won't be able to bring himself or herself to vote against poor Kevin Durant.
But there might never have been an easier choice in this space than James For MVP in 2013, which, yet again, is saying something when you saunter over to Box 3 and reacquaint yourself with some of the stuff Durant has done since Halloween.
KD's problem? LeBron came back from last season's breakthrough championship with the Heat -- followed by Olympic gold with Team USA -- with the very vengeance Miami prez Pat Riley warned us about. No longer burdened by past failings and unwavering in his confidence, James has merely uncorked the most statistically dominant campaign witnessed since Michael Jordan's 1988-89 masterpiece.
At 26.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.2 assists, LeBron's averages entering Friday's play have been matched or exceeded by only four players in history over the course of an entire season: Jordan once, Larry Bird once, John Havlicek twice ... and the incomparable Oscar Robertson five times. He's also shooting a seemingly unfair 56.3 percent from the floor, 40.3 percent from 3-point range and happens to be known as the most versatile defender in the game given his ability to guard four positions ... maybe even all five in a pinch.
Who Are These Bulls?
What in the world are we to make of the Chicago Bulls now, one week short of the NBA playoffs? Do we believe they're the team that lost by 42 to the Sacramento Kings a month ago or the team that stopped the Miami Heat's historic 27-game winning streak? Come postseason, are we to expect the Bulls that lost back-to-back games this week to completely awful Toronto and Detroit, or the team that came from 17 down Thursday night to snap the New York Knicks' 13-game winning streak?
They've become quite the tease, these Bulls, because they've taken down the Heat in Miami, beaten the Celtics in Boston, swept the season series from the Knicks ... yet lost at home to the Hornets, Suns and Bobcats. Certainly, opponents with streaks get the Bulls' attention. Not only did they stop 40 games of Heat and Knicks streaks, but the Bulls were a bad goaltending call away from stopping Denver's club-record winning streak at 11.
They've got a bit of big-game hunter in them but can't be bothered with the scrub teams, which for the unabashed optimist should mean good things for the Bulls in the postseason since there are no scrubs (OK, Milwaukee) in the playoffs. Good luck finding sensible explanations for why this has been the case the entire season. It's not like Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Richard "Rip" Hamilton, Marco Belinelli and Kirk Hinrich played against the Miamis of the world but missed the games against the Suns and Bobcats.
Actually, Carlos Boozer had about the best explanation after Thursday's win over the Knicks when he said, "I know we've had terrible losses that are just hard to explain. ... But because we've got essentially a starting five out of the lineup hurt, there are no gimme games for us. Nothing is going to be easy, not Charlotte or Toronto or whomever. We have to grind it out. Every game is going to be a grind; there's no choice in the matter."