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

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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.

Cavaliers, Warriors sweeps mean time to rest, get mental breather

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Kevin Durant can take some pressure off that tender left calf. LeBron James has extra time to recoup after barely leaving the floor in the first round.

Golden State coach Steve Kerr scheduled some medical appointments as he deals with debilitating symptoms still affecting him nearly two years after complications from a pair of back surgeries.

The two star-studded teams expected by many to face off once more in the NBA Finals each swept through their respective first-round playoff series in four games, leaving ample time for the Cavaliers and Warriors to rest up, heal up and prepare for the next opponent.

“It gives me a mental break. As far as physically, I am who I am,” James said. “I’ve played so many games over the years, the best break for me is probably when I’m done.”

Of course guys like James and Draymond Green are already eager to get back on the court.

Cleveland now knows its next opponent is Toronto, while the Warriors were still waiting out the Clippers-Jazz series.

“Definitely have gotten antsy to play,” Green said Friday. “But you see that break and you’re excited about it, just to get that time to rest and get everybody back as close to 100 (percent) as possible for the next round. At the same time you do get antsy to get back on the floor and back in the rhythm of things. I think it’s been a good week for us to sweep and get this time off.”

Durant, still receiving treatment on his left leg and knee, spent Thursday at a San Francisco Giants baseball game. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue threw a huge watch party Thursday night so players and members of the organization could see the Raptors close out the Bucks in six games.

Golden State scrimmaged Friday to stay sharp, while Cleveland players have competed in such ways as racing on cardiovascular machines in the weight room to stay fresh and motivated.

James led the league in minutes during the regular season then played nearly 44 per game in the first-round sweep of Indiana – familiar territory after the Cavs also swept Detroit in the first round last season, then followed by eliminating Atlanta in the minimum four games.

“I’m ready to get this thing going, but obviously I’m not going to rush the process,” James said. “… But, yeah, I don’t like the way I feel when we’re not playing.”

In 2015, when the Warriors captured their first championship in 40 years, Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving suffered a freak Game 1 injury when he fractured his left kneecap, and Kevin Love was already lost to a dislocated left shoulder.

Last June, Stephen Curry had returned from a knee injury but never fully got healthy and the thought was the Warriors wore down after chasing and breaking the Chicago Bulls’ regular-season wins record with 73 victories.

“If you could sweep every series that would be perfect,” Durant said, “because you just want to play well and then you’ll worry about the rest afterward. That’s the situation we’re in. We’ve got a lot of guys banged up, so it’s good to have a few days to get your bodies right and your mind right and just get back to the drawing board in terms of individual work, team work.”

In the Warriors’ case, it also has meant more time working with Mike Brown as acting head coach while Kerr is away. The reigning NBA Coach of the Year missed Games 3 and 4 at Portland because he was in such discomfort, having dealt with headaches, neck pain and nausea that recently became worse.

While Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is most known for sitting several star players at once without regard to anything but his team’s best interest, others have caught on and replicated the strategy of spelling players in order to pace for the long haul.

In March 2015, the Warriors lost at Denver with Curry watching – along with Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut – in the first game of a back-to-back. Oh, did Kerr take heat for it, even personally answering a few emails. And the Warriors reached out to other upset fans and sent along care packages.

“As a coach your responsibility is to keep your players healthy and there are times when guys need a night off,” Kerr said.

In December, Cleveland caused an uproar by resting James, Love and Irving in a loss at Memphis. Lue then sat several starters for the final game of the regular season against Toronto, and the teams will meet again in the Eastern Conference semifinals starting Monday.

Now, the Cleveland coach insists, James can handle the heavy minutes when it matters most.

“His body can take it,” Lue said, “so I’m not worried about what outside people say.”

AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.

 

Chris Paul told Paul Pierce: “You’re not ending your career in Utah”

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When the Clippers lose their final game this season — maybe Sunday, maybe not for weeks — the Hall of Fame career of Paul Pierce will come to an end.

It’s not why Doc Rivers was leaning so heavily on Pierce Friday night, that’s more desperation on a shorthanded (and not that deep to start with) lineup. The Clippers got away with 20+ minutes of Pierce on Friday and still got the win.

He even served as an inspiration for Chris Paul, as CP3 said in his postgame press conference.

The best part of that video? DeAndre Jordan‘s reaction.

You can be sure Utah Jazz fans will take this comment as a slight and let CP3 hear about it next season. As for the Jazz players, they are heading into Game 7, how much more motivation do they need.

John Wall’s chasedown block of Dennis Schroder, layup saved game for Wizards (VIDEO)

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Washington had been up 22 points in the third quarter and seemed to be cruising to a win in Atlanta, and with it a trip to the second round… but it would not be that easy. The Hawks made their push back, knocking down threes and chipping away at the Wizards lead until it was all the way down to 93-90, a one possession game.

Then John Wall took over.

It started with the big play you see above — a chasedown block on Dennis Schroder, which turned into a Wall layup on the other end.

That play changed the momentum. Washington closed the game on a 22-9 run where Wall scored the final 13 points on his way to 42 for the night on just 25 shots. The end result was a 115-99 Wizards win to close the Hawks out 4-2.

Steve Ballmer loses control after Austin Rivers three, creates another meme

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Clippers’ owner Steve Ballmer has been a meme machine this series. First, there was the sad face after the Clippers Game 5 loss at home.

Then Friday, there was his reaction to an Austin Rivers three.

Ballmer’s reactions may be the best part of the Game 7 between these teams Sunday.