Outlining the damning problems of the Heat’s offense

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This season has gone pretty well for the Miami Heat, don’tcha think? They’re ranked seventh in the league in offensive efficiency, and sixth in the league in defensive efficiency. Aside from offensive rebounding rate, they rank in the top 13 teams in each of the offensive and defensive “four factors” (effective field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage allowed, turnover rate, opponent’s turnover rate, free throw rate, opponent’s free throw rate, defensive rebounding rate). They have a winning record despite having an entirely new team, and when all else fails, they still have two of the most talented basketball players on the planet.

Things are sunny in Miami, I’d say, with the only exceptions being the team’s disturbing lack of interest and effort, the bizarre chemistry, Erik Spoelstra’s oddly hot seat, and the dreaded offensive inefficiency. That’s an odd thing to attribute to a top-ten offense, but it’s certainly fitting; LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, two of the most efficient high-usage players in the league a season ago, have seen their shooting and turnover numbers plummet.

Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus took a stab at explaining why:

Watching the Heat’s offense, something jumps out immediately. When both James and Wade are both in the game, they are almost never on the same side of the floor. Sometimes, that means both are waiting as Carlos Arroyo or another perimeter player handles the ball. More often, it translates into either James or Wade initiating the offense (typically out of a pick-and-roll) while the other spots up on the opposite wing.

For opposing defenses, this is essentially an ideal situation. Though James and Wade can still create problems by driving off a cross-court pass, their presence on the weak side usually limits them to serving as stand-still shooters at best and decoys at worst. Scouting reports around the league encourage defenders to force James and Wade to become outside shooters, neutralizing the danger they pose off the dribble, in the paint and at the rim. For a variety of reasons, Miami has managed to do exactly that to its own stars…

The other interesting culprit that Hoopdata.com points out is how much less effective James and Wade have been when they do reach the paint. Here, there does seem to be some evidence that the Heat’s poor bench is hurting the performance of its stars. James is making 68.9 percent of his attempts at the rim thus far. Previously, the worst mark Hoopdata.com has recorded for James (going back to 2006-07) is 71.0 percent. Wade has taken an even more significant tumble. He’s making 55.7 percent of his at-rim attempts, having previously shot no worse than 66.0 percent on these shots. That is a possible indicator that Wade is not right physically.

More striking than James’ and Wade’s shooting at the rim is their lack of assists to other players who finish at the rim. Last year, they combined 6.2 at-rim assists per game (essentially, passes leading to dunks or layups). This season, that mark has declined to 2.5 per game. Even granting that Wade is handing out far fewer assists (4.1 vs. 6.5) and that fewer shots have been marked as at the rim by Hoopdata.com this season, the two players are setting up their teammates for close finishes less frequently.

The first point Pelton hits is hopefully something that will be rectified in the coming games. Utilizing LeBron and Wade at the same time is partly why the Miami offense has such explosive potential, and yet instead Erik Spoelstra and his staff (or perhaps LeBron and Wade themselves) have elected to take turns running pick-and-rolls opposite one another on the floor. Running more 2-3 pick-and-rolls is a surefire way to involve Miami’s most versatile players in more plays together, and as such force opposing defenses to concede certain opportunities to either LeBron or Wade.

Pelton’s second contention is even more interesting, as there isn’t an obvious explanation as to why James and Wade are suddenly lesser finishers around the basket. I’m sure offensive stagnation is at least somewhat to blame, as the forays that both players take deep into the paint are a bit more wild than they’re used to. Still, both players are missing very reasonable attempts from around the basket that they’re accustomed to making, and much of that relies on James and Wade’s specific execution of the plays at hand. Something’s a bit off, and it’s not just the spacing.

Either way, Wade’s finishing ability is statistically akin to that of Yi Jianlian, Spencer Hawes, Channing Frye, and Joel Anthony this season, and that hurts. A lot.

Each star’s lack of assists leading to baskets at the rim can be chalked up to the same logic touched upon earlier. By separating James and Wade within the offense, the Heat are essentially taking away each distributor’s best finishing option. Chris Bosh is a decent alternative, but the rest of the Heat bigs (Udonis Haslem included) are relatively poor finishers around the cup, sandbagging both Miami’s offensive efficiency and the assist productivity of James and Wade.

These points don’t address all of Miami’s offensive problems, but they do cover the most glaring. Sure, it would be nice if the Heat had a more capable offensive center, or a more prolific scoring point guard. But most of the Heat’s struggles can be remedied given the proper utilization of the immense talent already on the roster.

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

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It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.