Oklahoma City Thunder v Miami Heat

5 Things to Watch: Heat-Thunder, a potential Finals preview worth playing



Best in the East vs. best in the West.

Nope, that’s not right.

The two clearly best teams in the league.

Well, no, not really with how open the West is.

OK, how about just:

A more-probable-than-on-average chance that these two teams will meet in the Finals. There. Sufficiently hedged.

The Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder meet Sunday night in a clash of the titans. It’s probably the biggest game of the Thunder’s season, considering the Lakers’ slip back when the Thunder played them earlier this season. It’s the first of two Sunday games against the best in the East, with Chicago on tap next weekend, though it’s not known if Derrick Rose will be back for that game. But all the stars will be in the rotation tonight, and here’s a look at five things to watch as the Heat face the Thunder in OKC.

1. James Harden, the perfect problem for both sides. 

As our own Rob Mahoney points out at Bleacher Report, the Thunder face a problem of offense/defense with Harden. They are an infinitely better team offensively with Harden on the floor and a phenomenally better defensive team with Thabo Sefolosha on the floor instead. Can Harden check LeBron James or Dwyane Wade? His lateral quickness is limited against good perimeter penetration, let alone James and Wade. Even putting him against Mario Chalmers is problematic because of how Chalmers spaces the floor and can slip out for open threes. But Harden’s playmaking ability can make the Heat’s defense overreact, and if that happens the system breaks down. Harden needs to command the offense and make an impact in the passing lanes for OKC.

2. No role players needed

The over/under in this game is 201.5. Over/under on point scored by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook should be 160. They just don’t get much support, nor need it. If Serge Ibaka, Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Thabo, any role player steps up, that’s going to swing the balance of this game. The stars can almost cancel out one another. It’s the role players that may dictate the win.

3. Overturned

The Thunder have the worst turnover ratio in the league, spitting the ball up 15 percent of the time, and turning their opponent over the seventh least. The Heat are a monster in transition, a Flying Death Machine. The Thunder cannot spit the ball up against this team. Possessions are going to be precious and while both teams can play at a fast pace, each side is so good, you need to not give up easy buckets.

4. Does Oklahoma allow block parties?

Serge Ibaka and Kenrick Perkins have a huge advantage down low, even without offensive talent to be spoken of. Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem are not great offensive finishers at this point, and Perkins and Ibaka are monsters at challenging. Anthony and Haslem need to convert some buckets to get the Thunder help defenders to back off. If Ibaka and Perkins can freelance, they can attack the Heat at the rim and get them to the line where they’re not great. Nick Collison and Cole Nazr Mohammed can help.

5. Bosh space

Of course the big problem for Ibaka and Perkins is trying to guard in space, and the best player on the Heat in face-up mid-range is Chris Bosh. He’s able to raise up and knock down shot face-up and also on the pick and pop. If Lebron, Wade, or Chalmers use the pick and roll to draw that coverage from Ibaka who too often freaks out going for a block, Bosh can slice them up. Bosh has been phenomenal this season, an underrated part of the Heat’s season, and this is a game where he could have a monster day without doing the things he struggles at down low. He can kill the Thunder softly if they don’t adjust. Expect a lot of Collison on him if Ibaka struggles.

Will Kobe Bryant’s pending retirement change how Lakers use him?

Kobe Bryant, D'Angelo Russell, Byron Scott
Leave a comment

This is Kobe Bryant‘s final season in the NBA; he made that clear with his announcement on Sunday. If for the Lakers organization that means they want Kobe to go out playing his way — still trying to create and make tough shots — then go right ahead. As evidenced by the reactions at Staples Center Sunday night, the fans love it.

But what should have been the Lakers’ primary goal for this season — developing young players D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance — has seemed at cross purposes with that. At least in the mind of coach Byron Scott.

So there it was in crunch time against the Pacers’ Sunday and Kobe and Nick Young were on the court while Russell watched from the bench. It gives the perception the Lakers don’t embrace the future.

Will how they use Kobe Bryant — and by extension the younger players — change now that Kobe has made it official this is his final season?

“I don’t know that I’ll change that much, as far as I want him to play,” Scott said. “I still want him to go out on a very positive note. And there’s a part of me that feels he is going to have those glimmers, having some of those games I know he’s capable of having.”

Scott’s job as coach, at least in his mind, seems to have been to make the last couple seasons of Kobe’s career comfortable. He said that Kobe has earned the right to take his tough, contested shots but has benched the players he’s tried to develop for their mistakes (and not clearly communicated to those players why they are sitting, if you ask the youngsters).

Beyond the coach, this is an organizational decision and priority.

“We have to huddle up and decide if there is going to be anything different in terms of minutes,” Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak said. “It’s not something that’s going to be decided today. But since he has made it clear this will be the last season for him, it will be more enjoyable and I think people can appreciate and will appreciate what he’s accomplished, not only in our building — with loads of love — but even more so on the road.”

Kobe isn’t going to change.

“I gave up hoping he would change his approach 15, 18 years ago,” Kupchak joked. “He is what he is. And I’m thankful for it.”

I understand the need to let the fans see Kobe be Kobe, to let him go out on his terms (although playing him 30+ minutes a night and saying the goal is to have him standing at the end of the season is an odd mix, Scott). The Lakers are selling Kobe while they try to develop their young players.

The question of how well they are developing them remains.

One thing I would like to see is more Kobe with the second unit, and by extension less with Russell and Randle. Kobe’s going to take his shots, but if he is taking those away from Nick Young or Lou Williams, so what? Let those guys fight over the ball a little (that would be entertaining). But then rest him and let Russell and Randle and the other youth learn to work together for long stretches without any of those ball dominating players on the court. That includes letting the kids close some games, even if it’s not pretty.

This was always going to be a rough Lakers’ season, although it is uglier than the team and its fans imagined. But that’s okay if the young players are getting their minutes, being coached up, and developing. The Lakers can’t let the Kobe farewell tour get in the way of that.

Utah’s Rudy Gobert with the crazy high alley-oop finish (VIDEO)

Leave a comment

I love that the Jazz were going to be themselves against the Warriors — two of our three best players are big men in Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, and we are going to use them whether you go small or not. Those two have the athleticism to make that work in a way few teams can’t. The result was a close game, one ultimately won by the Warriors because Stephen Curry can do Stephen Curry things, but you had to love the way the Jazz played.

And you had to love this finish by Gobert in the fourth quarter.

This alley-oop is pretty well defended, but there’s not much a defender can do when you can lob the ball above the box on the backboard, and Gobert can just go get it and finish.

Kobe Bryant farewell tour starts in his hometown of Philadelphia

Los Angeles Lakers v Denver Nuggets
Leave a comment

Tuesday night’s Lakers/76ers game a “showdown” of the two worst teams in the NBA — and it’s Philadelphia’s best chance to get its first win of the season.

But that storyline is being overshadowed — Kobe Bryant announced this is his last NBA season, and that makes Tuesday night his farewell to his hometown of Philadelphia.

“So much of my game was developed in Philadelphia,” Kobe said Sunday while talking about this game. “At Lower Merion High School and coach (Greg) Downer, playing in the Sunny Hill League and all the great coaches, playing at Tustin playground and Ardmore playground and so many great memories there. It’s going to be a very special night.”

As they are known to do, Sixers fans have had a love/hate relationship with Kobe. He has been booed there before — most notably during the 2002 All-Star Game (after Kobe’s Lakers beat the Sixers in the Finals the season before, when Kobe said he was coming to Philly to “cut the heart out” of a gritty Sixers’ team). But this is one of the higher hoops IQ fan bases around the league too — they know the game, and they know greatness.

With that, expect Kobe to get a warm reception in his final trip to his hometown. And expect Kobe to savor it.

“I would hope that he has more fun, and appears less frustrated, and also gets more appreciation,” Lakers’ GM Mitch Kupchak said of Kobe making his announcement. “He’ll get it at home, but on the road too, because people will have to recognize this is his last year and they are watching one of the all-time greats.”

Sixers fans will recognize that before the game, but once the ball goes in the air for the opening tip those same fans will want to see their team get a win after starting the season 18-0.

The fact is the Sixers play harder more consistently than the Lakers, but they haven’t been able to close out games. Miami needed a big comeback to beat them, Boston only won by four, the Grizzlies had to come from behind as well, and Houston beat them by two. Brett Brown has his charges putting out the effort, and they are desperate for a win.

The problem is late in games, when other teams tighten up their defense, the talent gap shows and the Sixers cannot hang on. Their advantage now is that the talent gap with the Lakers is much smaller — the Lakers have shooters (Kobe, Lou Williams, Nick Young) but not ones who take smart shots. You can defend the Lakers late.

Is that enough to get the Sixers their first win of the season?

If so, that is a rough way for Kobe to start his farewell tour.

Five Takeaways from NBA Monday: Why do Rockets often lack energy?

Dwight Howard, James Harden, Arron Afflalo
1 Comment

This season the Eastern Conference has been deeper and a little better than the West — and that was on display Monday night when the Bulls beat the Spurs, and the Hawks beat the Thunder. Two wins showing the East is for real. Pistons fans told me on Twitter they should be in the Monday night big win mix also, and while I like Detroit (check out our discussion of them in the latest PBT podcast) beating Houston is no longer impressive. Our man Dan Feldman was at that game in Detroit and wrote this first takeaway from that game — what is wrong with Houston’s energy level?

1) Why have the Rockets so often lacked energy this season? “Talking about it is not going to do nothing,” Dwight Howard said. “There’s no Xs and Os that we can draw up. Talking about it in meetings is not going to do nothing. We’ve just got to go do it. We haven’t so far, and something has to change.”

“That’s a good question,” James Harden said in his entire answer, effectively ending the interview after a 116-105 loss to the Pistons dropped Houston to 7-11.

For what Howard provides in vague frustration and Harden in mystery, Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff believes he has uncovered what ails his team.

Bickerstaff pinned much of Houston’s defensive regression on its offensive finishing. As he explained, when the Rockets get all the way to the rim and miss, it’s too easy for opponents — with a Houston player under the basket and a loose ball getting kicked out — to run for easy shots.

The Rockets are attempting 39.2% of their shots in the restricted area, up from 34.7% last season. But they’re shooting just 58.6% there, down from 60.4% last season. Those extra misses at the rim have added up. But Bickerstaff believes his team will regress up to the mean.

“We play a certain style of basketball that we believe works,” Bickerstaff said. “It’s worked for us in the past. We’ll continue to play that way. We’ll continue to be aggressive getting to the paint, getting to the rim. We’ve just got to be stronger in our finishes, and things will change for us.”
—Dan Feldman

2) Bulls execute better than Spurs down stretch (you read that right), pick up big win. With two of the top six defenses in the Association coming into the game, you had to expect San Antonio/Chicago was going to be ugly, gritty, and come down to execution in the clutch. Let’s be honest, that sounds like a recipe for a Spurs win. But on Monday night all those things went the Bulls way — Chicago didn’t score a field goal the final six minutes of the game and still won 92-89. The pairing of Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic played better defense than we’d expect, and the Bulls as a team kept the Spurs from looking Spursian — San Antonio was 2-of-14 from three and seemed to rely more on beating guys one-on-one (specifically Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker) than most games. The Bulls offense late is too much Derrick Rose and he can’t carry a team like he once did (although Butler couldn’t do much do to Leonard’s defense). But it was enough for one night — this was a huge home win for the Bulls.

I have been hesitant to buy into Chicago this season as the potential second best team in the East, they look like the same old Bulls to me. However, the bottom line now is they are 10-5 and have beaten the Spurs, Thunder, Cavaliers and Pacers. That has to get you into one of the top tiers.


3) Atlanta’s team ball beats Westbrook/Durant Thunder for a day. It’s not as simple and clean as that headline makes it sound, but this game had that feel. The Hawks looked like Spurs northeast on Monday night, with ball movement that had them shooting 57 percent in the first quarter and opening up a double-digit lead. Then as happened all game one of the Thunder stars would spark a run — sometimes Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook other times — and the game would be tight again. It went back and forth like that all night. It was Westbrook who had the fourth quarter push (17 of his 34 in the final frame) to make things interesting, but Jeff Teague finishing in traffic late (he ended the night with 25) and Kent Bazemore making the defensive play of the night was enough. Big win for the Hawks.

4) Stephen Curry game winner keeps Warriors perfect. The Utah Jazz play big, their success is based around a front line of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert (two bigs who are quick), and they were not going to go small and try to match up with the Warriors. Good for them. The Jazz were going to be the Jazz and go down swinging, and Favors had 23 and Gordon Hayward had 23. And it was not enough. Draymond Green was Mr. Energy. And when the game was on the line late, Curry could create the sliver of space he needs to knock down the game winner to make Golden State 19-0.

5) DeMarcus Cousins is back, drops 31 on Dallas and Sacramento gets the win. The Sacramento Kings with DeMarcus Cousins in the lineup are 6-5 on the season and a dangerous team. It’s the 1-7 without him that holds them back. Cousins had 16 fourth quarter points (31 points, nine rebounds and six assists on the night), and that combined with some impressive defense down the stretch got the Kings a much-needed win. That defense late has to be the most heartening thing for Kings fans — they have been bad on that end of the floor. A little Cousins and a little defense and suddenly things look much better in Sacramento. Now they just have to do it consistently. And keep Cousins healthy.