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.

Rumor: Magic expected to fire Frank Vogel

AP Photo/John Raoux
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Magic president Jeff Weltman inherited an expensive and bad roster, limiting his options to shape it.

He also inherited coach Frank Vogel, and maybe there’s something Weltman will do about that.

Marc Stein of The New York Times in his newsletter:

Orlando’s ongoing malaise, especially after the promise of an unexpected 8-4 start, make it a widely held assumption in coaching circles that Vogel will be dismissed after the franchise’s sixth successive season out of the playoffs.

Perhaps, these people in coaching circles are doing nothing more than connecting dots. Many coaches with poor records – only the Suns and Nets have been worse during Vogel’s two-year tenure – inherited by a new front office get fired.

Or it could be something more concrete, like Orlando putting out feelers for potential replacements. That possibility gives juice to this report.

Vogel has one more guaranteed year left on his contract, according to Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel. Will ownership pay to oust Vogel? That seems likely. The alternative is paying Weltman to sit on his hands.

This would be a tough break for Vogel, who coached well with the Pacers. The Magic’s roster is just so lacking. Vogel hasn’t impressed in Orlando, but his opportunity to do so has been narrow.

At least it’d be more understandable if he got fired by a losing team. Last time, he got fired by a winning team.

Rumor: Bucks, Jabari Parker could part after season

AP Photo/Morry Gash

Jabari Parker is a confounding fit on the Bucks now and in the future.

Could he and Milwaukee part ways this summer, when he’ll be a restricted free agent?

Gery Woelfel on 105.7 The Fan:

At this very moment, I’d say the odds are slim to none it’s going to happen … that he’ll be on this team next year.

I just don’t see a good fit there. I didn’t bring this up, and I’ve been meaning to do so, but I haven’t. He came very, very close to being traded at the deadline. And I think that spoke volumes of they think of Jabari Parker and whether he’s a part of their future plans.

Bucks executive Alex Lasry denied it:

So did general manager Jon Horst. Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Horst made it clear both on the radio and in a separate interview with the Journal Sentinel on Wednesday that the Bucks never had any intention of trading Parker

Teams often discuss trading players then deny it to avoid offending the player. Whether or not they nearly traded Parker, the Bucks would probably respond now similarly.

As far as Parker’s future in Milwaukee, it’s unclear where the well-connected Woelfel’s reporting ends and his analysis begins. There’s a huge difference between trading Parker for value and letting him walk for nothing. Just because the Bucks came close to trading Parker wouldn’t mean they won’t re-sign him.

Shedding Parker would not open cap space without additional moves. It would probably allow Milwaukee to use the full mid-level exception and stay beneath the luxury-tax line. But that’s unlikely to land a player who combines Parker’s age and talent.

Because Parker will be a restricted free agent, the Bucks hold the cards. If he’s upset about trade talks or anything else, he can’t unilaterally leave.

Milwaukee must determine how much to pay Parker and how to utilize him with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Those are hard questions. But the Bucks throwing up their hands and letting Parker walk in free agency isn’t the answer.

Tony Parker: My quad injury 100 times worse than Kawhi Leonard’s

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Tony Parker reportedly led a players-only meeting in which Spurs implored Kawhi Leonard to return.

Leonard injured his quad last season, has played just nine games this season and remains sidelined. The Spurs have reportedly cleared him, but he got second opinions and is waiting for his medical team to clear him.

Parker injured his quad last May then returned in November – and said at the time Leonard would return in 2-3 weeks.

Tom Orsborn of the San Antonio Express-News:

It’s not hard to read between these lines.

Though some Spurs reportedly told Leonard to return only once he feels ready, Parker is clearly applying pressure. It’s not working, but he’s apparently not stopping.

These comments don’t befit a healthy organization, which is just so stunning for the Spurs, whose excellent culture has been exalted for year.

Maybe Parker will get his wish, and a shamed-into-playing Leonard will lead San Antonio deep into the playoffs. But it seems more likely these quotes will just increase tension.

Celtics: Kyrie Irving to undergo ‘minimally invasive procedure’ on injured knee

AP Photo/Jim Mone

With uncertainty surrounding Kyrie Irving‘s knee injury, the Celtics announced a course of action.

Celtics release:

The Boston Celtics announced today that guard Kyrie Irving will tomorrow undergo a minimally invasive procedure to alleviate irritation in his left knee. Further information will be provided following tomorrow’s procedure, and the team will have no further comment until that time.

This is so vague. We barely know more than we did before.

Irving reportedly might need the pins removed from his knee, so that’d be the first guess at the type of procedure. But that’s just a guess.

The Celtics look vulnerable with Irving hobbled, which is big update from yesterday, when the Celtics looked vulnerable with Irving hobbled.