Russell Westbrook, LeBron James

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.

Kawhi Leonard drops 41, Spurs best Cavaliers in OT in what may be game of the Year (VIDEO)

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The Spurs would like you to include them in your conversations about contenders.

Without Pau Gasol (hand) or Tony Parker (foot), San Antonio went into Cleveland and beat the defending NBA champions in OT 118-115 in what was one of the wildest, most entertaining games of the season. Check out the clutch-time action above, including LeBron James hitting a three Shaker Heights.

But the real star was Kawhi Leonard, who put up a career-best 41 on 30 shots. He’s the guy who has to create and make plays for this offense, and he did it on a big stage. LeBron added 29 points. Between them, they put on quite a show.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Nic Batum lead Hornets past Nets 112-105

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 04:  Nicolas Batum #5 of the Charlotte Hornets in action against the Brooklyn Nets during the second half at Barclays Center on November 4, 2016 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Nic Batum has certainly had better shooting nights.

But the eight-year NBA veteran from France was feeling pretty good after making two clutch 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to help the Charlotte Hornets defeat the Brooklyn Nets 112-105 on Saturday night for their third straight win.

“I missed some easy that I need to make,” Batum said. “So I feel like when it’s a close game like that, I need to make some big plays and I did.”

After letting a 17-point first half advantage slip away, Charlotte grabbed the lead for good with 3:21 left in the game when Batum got a fadeaway 3-pointer to fall after the ball bounced lazily on the rim four times before going in. Batum, who was fouled on the play, added the free throw to complete the four-point play.

Batum added a 3-pointer from the left wing on the next possession to push the lead to 104-98. Kemba Walker then sank a leaning 3-pointer from the top of the key to give Charlotte some extra breathing room.

Coach Steve Clifford said he has no idea how Batum shoots the ball so well off-balanced.

“He’s done it since before he got in the NBA,” Clifford said. “He’s got great balance and hand-eye coordination.”

Batum finished with 16 points, nine rebounds and six assists for the Hornets.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had 17 points and 14 rebounds for Charlotte, which avenged a 120-118 loss to the Nets on Dec. 26 in which Randy Foye beat them with a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Brook Lopez had 24 points for the struggling Nets, who have lost 12 of their last 13 and failed in their quest to become the last NBA team to reach double digits in wins this season.

“We came in and we were exhausted from last night and had a bad first quarter, but we responded to that,” Lopez said. “We came in the second half and definitely made it a game and that’s the way we’ve got to play every night.”

TIP INS

Nets: Jeremy Lin remained out with a hamstring injury. … Attempted 41 3-pointers in the game, making 17. … Lopez had his 15th 20-point game this season. … Quincy Acy had a season-high 14 points off the bench. … Had a season-high 30 assists.

Hornets: Shot 54.5 percent in the first half from the field, including 6 of 13 from 3-point range to build a 60-46 lead. … Marvin Williams has made a 3-pointer in 18 straight games.

TOUGH FIRST QUARTER

The Hornets jumped out to a quick 16-4 lead as the Nets missed 11 of their first 12 shots from the field. Clifford called it the team’s best first quarter of the season, considering the Nets put up 143 points against New Orleans the night before.

“They’re hard to guard,” Clifford said. “They have so many ways to drive the ball. They’re very difficult to guard. I thought our guys battled hard.”

3-POINT SHOOTING

Charlotte, which made 14 of 29 3-pointers, had seven of those in the fourth quarter.

“Two of them were off our turnovers,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “You turnover, you have to sprint back, matchup and find 3-point shooters. Credit to them, they made some huge shots.”

SCHOOL IN SESSIONS

Here’s a rarity this season: Ramon Sessions, Charlotte’s backup point guard, had 17 points and actually outscored All-Star candidate Kemba Walker, who had 16 points.

“Kemba carries us every game, so when we can step in and give those guys a rest,” Sessions said. “Last game, he didn’t have to play in the fourth quarter, so during the season if we can get those stretches where he doesn’t have to play as many minutes that will be good for us in the long run.”

UP NEXT

Nets: Host the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night.

Hornets: Play their third game of a five-game homestand Monday night against the Washington Wizards.

Paul Millsap, Dwight Howard help Hawks pull away from 76ers 110-93

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ATLANTA (AP) The young Philadelphia 76ers are on the rise, but the Atlanta Hawks’ experience and attention to detail made the difference Saturday night.

Paul Millsap scored 22 points and combined with Dwight Howard to dominate on the boards as the Hawks beat the Sixers 110-93 for their ninth win in 11 games.

Howard grabbed 15 rebounds in addition to scoring 13 points, Millsap added 10 rebounds and Atlanta used a 48-38 rebounding edge to beat Philadelphia for the sixth straight time.

The Sixers (15-27) lost for just the third time in 11 games, done in partly by 21 turnovers that led to 17 Atlanta points.

Nothing mattered more than the way the Hawks (26-18) were shooting in the second quarter. They made 16 of 23 shots and outscored the Sixers 37-29 in the period to take a 62-54 halftime lead.

“We got into a good rhythm,” said Millsap, who shot 9-of-14. “We were moving the basketball, playing with each other, all the things that make us successful.”

Ersan Ilyasova led the Sixers with 21 points, and when Robert Covington (15 points, 10 rebounds) made two free throws with 6:46 left in the game, Philadelphia had whittled an 18-point third-quarter deficit to a 94-87 Atlanta lead.

The Hawks cruised from there to win for the 11th time in 13 games. They are a season-high eight games over .500, and a half game behind the Celtics for the No. 3 spot in the East.

WRONG END OF RUN

In the second game of back-to-backs, the Sixers looked as if they ran out of gas in the second quarter about 24 hours after their 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers.

“There was an energy that wasn’t with us tonight,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said. “I think the second group struggled. I thought that the energy and the activity of that second group tonight wasn’t what it has been.”

HOWARD’S HEROICS

When the Atlanta Falcons play the Green Bay Packers on Sunday in the NFC championship game in the Georgia Dome, which is less than a mile from Philips Arena, Howard said he’ll be cheering like mad.

“I don’t want to jinx myself, but I said before the season the Falcons and Patriots would be in the Super Bowl,” the Atlanta native said. “Go Falcons! Rise up!”

TIP-INS

Sixers: Saturday was to be a rest day for center Joel Embiid anyway, and while he didn’t play against the Hawks his availability is unclear after he suffered a knee contusion in Friday’s win over the Trail Blazers. Brown said Embiid will be further assessed upon the team’s return home. … Backup point guard Sergio Rodriguez did not play for just the fifth time in 42 games, including 30 starts. Brown said he’s trying different combinations.

Hawks: Backup big man Mike Muscala missed his fourth straight game with a left ankle sprain. … Atlanta has scored 100 or more points in six of the last seven games.

KEEP PUNCHING

Although the Sixers scored just 16 points in the fourth quarter on 5-of-16 shooting, they made a game of it with late defense. Atlanta missed seven of its first nine shots in the quarter as Philadelphia cut the deficit to seven points.

“I think the last time we played them, we came out at halftime and the game was pretty much over from there,” said point guard T.J. McConnell, who finished with eight points, a game-high 11 assists and three of Philly’s eight steals. “But this time, they punched us in the mouth again and we didn’t go away. We’ve kind of been showing that resiliency.”

UP NEXT

Sixers: have a day off and then practice Monday before playing host to the Clippers, who will be without point guard Chris Paul and forward Blake Griffin, on Tuesday.

Hawks: The Clippers will stop in Atlanta before heading to Philadelphia, meeting the Hawks for the first time this season on Monday night.

Sam Dekker scores career-best 30 leading Rockets past Grizzlies

Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley (2) congratulates forward Sam Dekker (7) after Dekker scored 30 points in an NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, in Memphis, Tenn. The Rockets won by a score of 119-95. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) Sam Dekker scored a career-high 30 points, James Harden added 29 points and 10 assists and the Houston Rockets leaned on their usual 3-point offense to beat the Memphis Grizzlies 119-95 on Saturday night.

Eric Gordon added 21 points as the Rockets built the lead to as many as 20 in the fourth quarter before easily coasting home.

Dekker, making his first career start in place of the ill Ryan Anderson, made 12 of 19 shots, including 6 of 11 from outside the arc. Houston shot 51 percent overall and 38 percent from distance.

Marc Gasol scored 32 points and Mike Conley added 15 for the Grizzlies, who lost for the third time in the last four.

Memphis struggled shooting the entire night, finishing at 37 percent and unsuccessfully tried to follow the Rockets’ long-range attack but converted only 9 of 34 from outside the arc.

Even with Dekker starting instead of his normal reserve role, the Houston bench outscored the Memphis subs 44-29 as the Rockets dominated most aspects of the game.

Houston took the lead in the first half and never really let up the rest of the night in bouncing back from a home loss to Golden State on Friday.

After missing their first seven 3-point shots to open the game, the Rockets converted a trio late in the first quarter to run the lead to double digits.

Meanwhile, the Rockets’ aggressive defense gummed up Memphis’ offensive flow. Houston defenders double-teamed Memphis and closed out on jumpers, resulting in the Grizzlies shooting under 30 percent in much of the second quarter.

That helped Houston stretch the lead to as many as 16 in the half before holding a 58-49 advantage at the break. Dekker already had 16 points to lead the Rockets, connecting on seven of his nine shots, missing only one of his three shots from outside the arc.

Gasol had 17 points to lead Memphis.

By the third quarter, the Rockets stretched the advantage to 91-72, and even when Memphis put together a bit of a rally in the fourth, it never cut the deficit to single digits.

TIP-INS

Rockets: Anderson missed his third game with the flu. He sat out two games and tried to play in Friday’s loss to Golden State before leaving after nine minutes on the floor. .The Rockets used their 10th different starting lineup this season. .Despite the slow start from outside the arc, the Rockets ended the night 16 from 42 from 3. Houston has failed to connect on at least 10 3-pointers in only four games this season.

Grizzlies: Reserve G Troy Daniels sat out with a right knee injury suffered in the Friday night’s win over Sacramento. . F Chandler Parsons, who sat out Friday’s win over Sacramento for rest, returned to action, scoring 12 points.

BACK-TO-BACKS

The game featured two of the most successful teams playing on the second night of a back-to-back. Houston is now 11-1, while the Grizzlies, who beat the Kings on Friday, dropped to 8-3 on the second night of back-to-backs.

UP NEXT

Rockets: Play the second game of a five-game road trip on Monday against the Bucks in Milwaukee

Grizzlies: Close out a three-game homestand against the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday.