NBA Finals Preview: Miami Heat vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

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SEASON RECORDS

Miami 46-20 (2 seed in East)
Oklahoma City 47-19 (2 seed in West)

SEASON SERIES

The teams split their two meetings. Miami won the last meeting on April 4 98-93 because LeBron James had a monster game and Heat players were knocking down their spot up looks. In the meeting just more than a week before (March 25) the Thunder won handily when they got 19 points from Serge Ibaka and 16 from Kendrick Perkins.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession/NBA rank)

Miami: offense 106.6 (8th); defense 100.2 (4th)
Oklahoma City: offense 109.8 (2nd); defense 103.2 (10th)

THREE KEY HEAT:

LeBron James: He deserved to be the MVP in the regular season and he has continued that level of play into the playoffs — 30.8 points a game on 50.8 percent shooting with a PER of 31.2, plus playing a key role on defense. Incredible. And none of that will matter for his legacy if the Heat don’t win it all — no matter how he plays he will take the blame with many fans if the Heat come up short in this series. He was not comfortable being painted as the villain last season and this finals will be contrasted as the “good” Thunder against the “evil” Heat by many. Wrongly, but that will be the perception. He will have to deal with that, or at least tune it out.

Bottom line for Miami — LeBron simply cannot be good in this series, he needs to be spectacular for the Heat to win.

Dwyane Wade: He has been good in the playoffs — 22.9 points per game on 47 percent shooting — but he also needs to elevate his level of play if the Heat are to win the series. OKC brings a lot of long, athletic defenders to the table and Wade will have Thabo Sefolosha draped over him. He needs to get into the paint, break down the Thunder defense. At the other end of the court he needs to help Miami create a pressure defense that slows the Thunder’s powerful offense or this series will go poorly for Miami. Normally we’d expect this from Wade, but he’s clearly been slowed by something (knee injury still bothering him?) and he has to get back to his elite leve of play at both ends to win this series.

Chris Bosh: We saw in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against Boston why he is key — defensive big men can’t hang near the basket and defend the rim if they have to respect Bosh out to the three point line. As Erik Spoelstra has long said, Bosh may not be the best player on the Heat but he is the most important — he opens up driving lanes for Wade and LeBron. Expect Bosh to get a lot of touches as the Thunder use both Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins to defend him, but both of those guys want to be in the paint. He also needs to crash the boards this series.

THREE KEY THUNDER:

Kevin Durant: The best pure scorer in the game today, he has a silky smooth jumper with an impossible to block release point and seemingly unlimited range. (That said, he was not the MVP this year — LeBron put up similar offensive numbers with more efficiency and had to do more on defense. This was not Durant’s year for that hardware, move on.) Miami is going to have some athletic, long defenders on him — including LeBron — and Durant is going to have to continue to score at a high rate. He is going to have to make plays late in close games. He is the heart of the Thunder offense.

James Harden: He is more than just a stunning beard. He is is the Thunder’s big advantage in this series — Miami gets no production out of its bench, Harden is the NBA Sixth Man of the Year averaging 17.6 points per game through the playoffs. He is their best playmaker and is shooting 44 percent from three in the post season. Miami has to find a way to account for him because when Miami goes to its bench they get worse, while Harden makes the Thunder better. If he has a big series Miami will struggle to match him.

Serge Ibaka: He has become an amazingly efficient shooter in these playoffs — his midrange jumper is falling consistently and that just gives Oklahoma City another offensive weapon. And they don’t need one. When OKC beat Miami in the regular season he had 19 points, do that again four times and the Thunder will win. But his real key will be on the defensive end — the long armed shot blocker will spend time on both Chris Bosh and LeBron James this series. If he can slow them down, make them less efficient (particularly James), it will be hard for the Heat to keep up with the Thunder’s scoring.

OUTLOOK

This could be an epic finals. These are two very athletic teams who have guys that can simply take over a game and not be stopped. These are two very entertaining teams to watch, two teams who wouldn’t mind a track meet at times. Miami’s ability to defend can be key, but they have been inconsistent with execution at both ends all season and all playoffs long — if they have lapses against Oklahoma City the price will be severe.

Oklahoma City has been a great offensive team that plays enough defense to win, but when Miami has the ball the Heat will face some challenges. Oklahoma City brings some very long and athletic defenders to the table in Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka, plus they have the very aggressive Russell Westbrook and the long arms of Kevin Durant. They contest everything and get in the passing lanes with that length. Then they use those turnovers to get out and run. Miami has to get into the teeth of the defense with penetration — if they settle for contested midrange shots they will lose. Well, one game LeBron will go off and drain those like he did against the Celtics in Game 6, but the Heat cannot sustain their offense that way. They need to get inside and kick out to Bosh and Chalmers to knock down shots.

Role players knocking down jumpers is key for the Heat – when they beat OKC in the regular season they shot better than 50 percent on their spot-up looks, when they lost the week before they shot 7-21 on spot up looks. Those have to fall for the Heat.

Oklahoma City will put up points, this is a powerful offensive team, but they have not run into a defense this athletic before. If Miami can pressure rushed shots and create turnovers to run on they will have an advantage. But they have to finish those transition looks — Oklahoma City has athletes that will run and challenge you on the break. This series is going to see some great chase down blocks, just watch.

Miami is in the same boat it has been the last two rounds of the playoffs — they can win this series if LeBron James and/or Dwyane Wade is playing exceptional basketball, but if those are merely good it is not enough. Miami has to play great defense, they need a role player to step up. But they can win this. The problem is the margin for error against the Thunder is much smaller than they have seen all playoffs. They cannot take halves off, they cannot coast. If Miami plays up to its potential they can win this, but are they capable of that?

PREDICTION

Thunder in six.

In the last round, down 2-0 to the Spurs, Oklahoma City was able to make defensive switches called for by coach Scott Brooks and turn the tide of that series. San Antonio hadn’t lost in 20 games and the Thunder swept them the next four. OKC’s ball movement improved. They did what contenders do. They are playing at a very high level.

Miami has been good enough to move on, beating a resilient team with good defense in Boston, but they have done it with spurts of execution and good defense. They slumped the second half of the season and did not build good habits to bring into the playoffs, and this is where it will cost them. They will fall in the finals to a better team for the second straight year.

NBA reacts to Suns’ Devin Booker dropping 70 on Celtics

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Devin Booker was the story of the NBA Friday night.

The 20-year-old Suns’ guard — who never scored more than 19 points in a game at Kentucky in college — dropped 70 on the Boston Celtics in a losing effort. He becomes only the sixth player in NBA history to score at least 70 in a game. At the end the Suns were fouling and calling time outs to stop the clock and get the ball back to Booker, but as Phoenix coach Earl Watson said to those who complained, “You got a problem with that? Do something. Simple as that.”

NBA Twitter exploded at what Booker did.

Booker himself responded this way.

Lonzo Ball makes expected official, declares for NBA Draft

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There was no hesitation. None was expected.

After UCLA was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament in the Sweet 16 by Kentucky, the Bruin’s Lonzo Ball — who is expected to be a top-three pick — declared for the NBA draft this June.

Ball is expected to go second or third in the upcoming NBA draft. Speaking with people around the league Washington’s Markelle Fultz is a clear No. 1, but after that if the Lakers — the team with the second-worst record in the league — have the No. 2 pick they are expected to snap up Ball. Depending on how the lottery shakes out the top of the draft, Ball could fall a little — there are teams that like Josh Jackson — but not much.

Ball is a 6’6″ point guard who averaged 14.7 points, 7.6 assists and 6.1 rebounds a game for UCLA last season. He has fantastic passing vision, impressive shooting range (although he can take some questionable shots), and a great sense of floor spacing and how to run an offense, particularly in transition. However, his weaknesses were exposed in his final game some as De’Aaron Fox of Kentucky completely outplayed Ball. Defensive pressure took Ball (and the Bruins) out of rhythm, forced them to play in the half court (where Ball is not as strong), and it’s one of the things Ball is going to have to adapt to at the next level where everyone is more athletic. Also, he’s going to need to get more consistent defensively.

The potential for Ball to be special is there, which is why he will go high in the draft.

And no, the rantings of his father will not change that. Teams see the father as a distraction that can be handled, they aren’t going to let him get in the way of drafting talent.

Watch highlights of Shaquille O’Neal’s statue unveiling outside Staples Center

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Kobe Bryant said “Thank you. I learned so much from you as a player.”

Jerry West said he loved him like a son.

Jeanie Buss said “No one celebrates a championship like you, but please no more asking Mark Madsen to dance.”

The Lakers unveiled a new statue for Shaquille O’Neal Friday night, one flying high over a Staples Center entrance, and the stars were on hand for the event. Phil Jackson was there making Snoop Dogg jokes. Shaq and Kobe were sharing laughs. It was a big night for a big man with a big personality. And a big heart.

Check out the highlights above.

Report: Knicks’ Joakim Noah to be suspended 20 games for violating league drug policy

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Joakim Noah hasn’t set foot on an NBA court since Feb. 4, and his season was all but ended when he had knee surgery at the end of February. Last summer, Phil Jackson took a $72 million gamble on an aging Noah that has not worked at all, and left New York with an anchor of a contract for three more seasons after this one.

Tomorrow it will be official Noah is done for this season, but not because of the Knicks or his injury.

During his recovery, Noah violated the NBA’s drug policy and will pay for a 20-game suspension, reports Adrian Wojnarowski at The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Noah tested positive for an over-the-counter supplement that is prohibited under the outgoing Collective Bargaining Agreement, league sources said.

Noah, 32, is expected to serve 10 games of the suspension to finish out the 2016-17 regular season and 10 games to start the 2017-18 season, league sources said.

The National Basketball Players Association’s investigation concluded that Noah hadn’t “knowingly or willingly” violated the policy and cooperated fully with the league’s probe, league sources said.

According to reports, this is not a substance banned in the new CBA that kicks in July 1, but was covered in the previous CBA. Over-the-counter supplements could be something put in his regular workout recovery drinks that he was unaware of, although we are unsure of the details.

Traditionally, the player has to be healthy enough to play before the league starts the suspension. Noah has been out for more than a month, but if a league doctor says he is healthy enough to play the then the clock on the suspension can start. The 10 games this season is no big deal for the Knicks, he wasn’t going to play anyway, but the 10 at the start of next season could sting (depending on how they plan to use him).