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.

Seth Curry, Mavs hand Heat third loss in 19 games with 96-89 win

Dallas Mavericks guard Seth Curry (30) shoots against Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Dallas, Monday, Feb. 27, 2017. The Mavericks won 96-89. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
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DALLAS (AP) — Seth Curry scored 29 points, Harrison Barnes added 24 and the Dallas Mavericks beat Miami 96-89 on Monday night, handing the Heat just their third loss in 19 games.

Curry looked a little like famous older brother Stephen Curry of Golden State by hitting two long 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, the latter giving Dallas a 90-89 lead. The Mavericks rallied from 14 points down in the first quarter and let an 11-point third-quarter lead get away.

Two games after scoring a career-high 31 points in a loss at Minnesota, Curry was 5 of 7 from long range to help the Mavericks improve to 2-0 with forward-center Nerlens Noel, who came from Philadelphia before the trade deadline.

Goran Dragic scored 24 points for the Heat, who went scoreless over the final 4:37 as a three-game winning streak ended.

Hassan Whiteside, a free agent target for Dallas last summer, had 19 points and 19 rebounds. Now the Mavericks are preparing for a future with the 22-year-old Noel, who had a crowd-energizing block from behind on Whiteside and finished with six points and six rebounds.

Dragic finished a 9-0 Heat run with a 3-pointer that bounced high off the front of the rim and went in for an 89-84 lead. But Miami missed its last seven shots, and the Mavericks scored the final six points on free throws after Curry’s go-ahead shot.

Curry scored 11 points in the second quarter, including a three-point play that gave Dallas its first lead at 48-46 after the Mavericks trailed by 14 in the first quarter. He had another flurry late in the third, hitting a long 3 and a pull-up jumper for the final five points as Dallas took a 78-69 lead into the final quarter.

TIP-INS

Heat: C Willie Reed won’t need a boot or crutches to treat bursitis in his right ankle. Coach Erik Spoelstra said Reed was day to day. … The visit to Dallas was the Miami’s last road game against the West this season.

Mavericks: Coach Rick Carlisle said G J.J. Barea is at least a week away from returning from a left calf strain that has sidelined him the past 16 games and for 33 of the 41 games he has missed this season. … G Quinn Cook, undrafted in 2015 out of Duke, made his NBA debut a day after signing a 10-day contract, getting two points and two assists in 17 minutes. … Seth Curry had a big night while his brother had a most miserable one. Stephen Curry was a career-worst 0 for 11 from deep in the Warriors’ win over Philadelphia on Monday.

 

LeBron James shakes off strep throat, leads Cavs past Bucks 102-95

CLEVELAND, OH - FEBRUARY 27: Rashad Vaughn #20 of the Milwaukee Bucks guards LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the second half at Quicken Loans Arena on February 27, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Bucks 102-95. 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 Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James returned from a bout with strep throat and scored 24 points, Kyrie Irving added 25 and the Cleveland Cavaliers held off the Milwaukee Bucks 102-95 on Monday night.

James missed Saturday’s loss to Chicago – the Cavs fell to 0-4 this season without their superstar – and was listed as questionable before arriving at Quicken Loans Arena. He looked fit from the start, delivering an early dunk and adding one in the fourth that he capped by screaming, “That’s and one!” at MiIwaukee’s John Henson, who fouled him.

James’ dunk triggered an 11-0 run that helped put away the Bucks, who were within 86-85 midway through the fourth.

Malcolm Brogdon scored 20 to lead Milwaukee, and Bucks All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo scored just nine on 4-of-13 shooting.

The Bucks may have sustained a costly injury as forward Michael Beasley sprained his left knee in the first half. Beasley’s knee buckled grotesquely as he tried to defend James on the baseline. He scored 11 points before going down and had to be helped to Milwaukee’s locker room.

Looking to stay on top in the East, the Cavs signed free agent point guard Deron Williams before the game.

The three-time All-Star gives Cleveland depth, someone to lead its second unit and a reliable backup for Irving. Williams negotiated a buyout of his contract last week with Dallas before being waived and informing the Cavs he wanted to join them and try to win a title.

Cleveland is more than happy to add him to a bench that has improved in the last month with the additions of Kyle Korver and Derrick Williams, who combined for 27 points in the win.

There’s also a chance the Cavs could sign free agent center Andrew Bogut, who was waived by Philadelphia on Monday and is being courted by several teams.

Derrick Williams beat the horn ending the third quarter by dropping a 3-pointer from 35 feet to give Cleveland a 77-73 lead entering the fourth.

The Cavs were down by seven earlier in the quarter before going on a 13-0 run.

TIP-INS

Bucks: Beasley started for G Khris Middleton, who didn’t make the trip as part of the team’s plan to rest him in back-to-back games. He missed three months with a torn hamstring. … G Matthew Dellavedova spent part of the pregame meeting with former Cavs teammates and coaches. He received his diamond championship ring on Milwaukee’s previous visit. … Coach Jason Kidd said it’s a treat getting to watch Antetokounmpo develop. He’s the only NBA player leading his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. “It’s a great seat to have,” Kidd said. “When you’re able to see for the last three years, his growth and understanding, how fast he picked up things and how much he wants to be good in this league.”

Cavaliers: Irving became the eighth player in team history with 2,000 career assists. … While James was better, coach Tyronn Lue was under the weather and awaiting results on a strep test. … Deron Williams received a loud ovation when he was introduced during the fourth quarter. He has worn No. 8 throughout his career, but will don 31 for Cleveland. “My first high school number was 31,” he said. “I wanted a single number, but all of them were pretty much taken, so I went with 31.”

 

Dwight Howard pushes Al Horford, gets technical, later ejected for hanging on rim

Atlanta Hawks center Dwight Howard (8) drives past Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) during the second quarter of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Monday, Feb. 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Associated Press
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It ended up working out for Atlanta — the Hawks went on a 22-11 run after Dwight Howard was ejected, then hung on for a comfortable win 114-98.

Still, Howard found a way to get tossed. He did it two separate technical fouls in the third quarter. The first came when he shoved Al Horford after the Celtic big fouled Howard under the basket (always a smart move rather than give up a dunk).

The next came a few minutes later when Howard slammed then pulled himself up like a pull-up on the rim, an automatic tech every time.

That’s technicals 10 and 11 on the season for Howard. He’s got some work to do to catch up with DeMarcus Cousins, but still he’s racked up a few.

It just didn’t matter on Monday, with Dennis Schroder leading the way with 21 points for the Hawks.

 

DeMar DeRozan drains game winner to cap 37-point night, Raptors beat Knicks 92-91

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With Kyle Lowry out until around the start of the playoffs, a lot is going to be asked of DeMar DeRozan. Monday night at Madison Square Garden, he delivered.

The Raptors needed a bucket as time ran down, not only got the ball to DeRozan but got the switch so Derrick Rose was guarding him, and that allowed the Raptors star to get to his spot, rise up and bury the midrange jumper for the win.

It capped off an impressive 37-point night for DeRozan — he’s going to need to do more of this in the coming weeks.