Was this an NBA Finals preview?

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Was this an NBA Finals preview?

From Comcast SportsNet
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- With his All-Star point guard on the bench with three early fouls, two-time NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant took it upon himself to keep the Oklahoma City Thunder rolling. After he did, even the mighty Miami Heat never could recover. Durant had 28 points, nine rebounds and tied his season-high with eight assists, Kendrick Perkins added a season-best 16 points and the Thunder opened a difficult stretch in their schedule by beating Miami 103-87 on Sunday night. The two title contenders opened the day tied for the second-best record in the NBA, three games behind the Chicago Bulls in the race for the top overall seed in the playoffs. West-leading Oklahoma City edged ahead into second, with the rematch 10 days away in Miami. "I think it was a good test for us," said Perkins, who has set new season scoring highs in two straight games. "We came out and did what we needed to do and protected home court. ... Now, we've got to move on. I don't think we should ride a rollercoaster over this one win." Oklahoma City had a season-high 13 steals and forced Miami into 21 turnovers that led to 28 Thunder points. Miami's big three -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh -- combined for 15 of the giveaways. "We will own this one," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "They jumped us. Everybody saw it. They had us on our heels and they were the aggressors." Wade led Miami with 22 points but also committed a season-worst six turnovers. Bosh had 18 points and five turnovers, and James ended up with 17 points, seven assists and four turnovers. "Some of it was attack turnovers and some of it was careless turnovers," James said. "We started the game with a turnover. From there on, we turned the ball over." Oklahoma City took the lead for good in the first 4 minutes of the second quarter, then built on it after All-Star Russell Westbrook picked up his third foul with 7 minutes left before halftime. Durant played a bigger role in orchestrating the offense, hitting a layup in transition and a foul line jumper but also setting up Perkins' two-handed slam and James Harden's fast-break layup during a 12-2 burst for the Thunder. Harden's layup bumped the lead up to 55-42 with 2:01 to go before halftime. "KD was just phenomenal. I think he took the matchup well with LeBron, he did his job and he almost had a triple-double tonight," Perkins said. "That's what we need out of him every night." The Heat made a brief 8-0 comeback spurt, fueled by back-to-back turnovers by Harden, and pulled to 91-83 after Shane Battier's second straight 3-pointer with 7:14 remaining. Perkins put an end to that rally by getting open for two-handed slams on consecutive possessions, and Durant nailed a 3 with 3:20 remaining to push Oklahoma City's lead back out to 100-85. Spoelstra then pulled James, Wade and Bosh with 96 seconds left facing a 16-point deficit. "They beat us in all facets of the game -- from the beginning to the end," James said. Serge Ibaka and Harden each scored 19 for Oklahoma City and Westbrook finished with 13 points, one game after going for a career-high 45 in a double-overtime win against Minnesota on Friday night. The Thunder will travel to face the Los Angeles Lakers and host Chicago next Sunday in their tough 11-day stretch. Oklahoma City shot 67 percent in the first half and never let Miami -- the league's second-best defense, allowing opponents to shoot only 38 percent -- piece together enough stops to mount a rally. Ibaka had a two-handed slam, Durant followed with a right-handed jam off of Westbrook's alley-oop and the lead stretched to 68-53 following Ibaka's putback with 7:04 left in the third quarter. Wade hit a pair of 3-pointers but couldn't spark a Heat comeback. Even when he finished the third quarter by hitting a buzzer-beater from four steps beyond midcourt, it didn't give Miami any momentum. Wade sat out the first three minutes of the final period, then didn't attempt a shot after checking back in. "I'd rather not comment on that," he said. When asked whether he wanted the ball in his hands, he said, "I don't want to talk about the offense." Before the game, Spoelstra called Miami's stretch of three straight road games -- and five of six -- an opportunity to take a step forward. "We've been disappointed in our play on the road in general since the All-Star break," Spoelstra said. Instead, the Heat continued a rough patch with five losses in their last seven road games. During a 14-game home winning streak spanning the past two months, Miami is only 10-7 on the road. "Our most important thing right now is to find a next level of basketball. We don't necessarily even know if we have another level or two but we want to keep on pushing to get to that point and find a better consistency than we've had the last three weeks," Spoelstra said beforehand. "When we're playing on the top of our game, we feel we can win anywhere. But we're not quite there yet." NOTES: The Heat are tied for the franchise's best start after 47 games at 35-12. ... The game included four of the NBA's top six scorers -- Durant, James, Westbrook and Wade. ... Miami's season-worst turnover total is 22. ... Harden had a career-worst seven turnovers, two more than he'd ever had before.

Will the Harris signing mean more time on the edge for Hightower?

Will the Harris signing mean more time on the edge for Hightower?

David Harris is expected to be a savvy middle linebacker who will line up his teammates when they help. He's expected to provide some level of leadership, even in his first year in New England, as an accomplished-but-hungry 33-year-old who has not yet reached a Super Bowl. 

What Harris is not expected to do is improve the Patriots pass-rush. He was in on one sack in 900 snaps last season.  

But in a roundabout way he might. 

MORE: How does Derek Carr's new deal impact Jimmy Garoppolo?

There are dominos to fall now that Harris has been added to Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's defense. How much will Harris play, and whose playing time will he cut into? Those questions don't yet have answers, but one of the more intriguing elements of the Harris acquisition is how he will benefit Dont'a Hightower's game.

If Harris can pick up the Patriots defense quickly -- and all indications are that there should be few issues there -- he could take some of the all-important communication responsibilities off of Hightower's shoulders. 

Ever since taking the reins from Jerod Mayo as the team's signal-caller, Hightower has had to be on top of all requisite pre-snap checks and last-second alignment changes. It's a critical role, and one that Hightower performs well, but those duties place some added stress on the player wearing the green dot. Perhaps if part of that load can be heaped onto Harris' plate, that might allow Hightower to feel as though he's been freed up to focus on his individual assignments.

Harris' presence might also impact where on the field Hightower is used. Hightower may be the most versatile piece on a Patriots defense loaded with them, but with Harris in the middle, Hightower could end up playing more on the edge, where he's proven he can make a major impact (see: Super Bowl LI).

For Belichick and his staff, having the ability to use one of their best pass-rushers -- and one of the most efficient rushers league-wide, per Pro Football Focus -- on the edge more frequently has to be an enticing byproduct of the move to sign Harris. Especially since there are some question marks among the team's end-of-the-line defenders behind Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich. 

We'll have to wait for training camp before we have an idea of how exactly Harris fits in with the Patriots defense. But the effect he'll have on his new teammates, and Hightower in particular, will be fascinating to track.