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.

Report: Some Warriors executives believe Golden State will sign Kevin Durant

Oklahoma City Thunder's Kevin Durant (35) loses the ball next to Golden State Warriors' Marreese Speights during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. The Warriors won 116-108. (AP Photo/George Nikitin)
AP Photo/George Nikitin
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An NBA general manager reportedly believes Kevin Durant will sign with the Warriors.

That general manager, unless it was Bob Myers in the first place, has company.

Chris Broussard of ESPN on Durant:

There are people in Golden State that think they’re getting him.

People in management, and I think some players, too.

Blind optimism? Definitely possible.

Echo-chamber participation? Totally conceivable.

Genuine insight? Also believable.

It’s that last possibility that makes this so intriguing. Durant has reportedly researched the Bay Area, and why shouldn’t that include back-channel talks between his people and the Warriors? Golden State definitely could have legitimate reason to believe Durant is coming.

One reason this is so important: The Warriors don’t have enough cap space to re-sign Durant. What lengths they’ll travel to clear it depends on their perceived odds of signing him.

Whether or not Golden State actually gets Durant – count me in the camp that believes he hasn’t made a decision – this belief he’ll sign with the Warriors could definitely influence the rest of their offseason and maybe even smaller moves before the trade deadline.

Shaq, Yao, Iverson look to take next step to Hall of Fame

LOS ANGELES - DECEMBER 25:  Yao Ming #11 of the Houston Rockets posts up Shaquille O'Neal #34 of the Los Angeles Lakers on December 25, 2003 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.  The Rockets won 99-87.  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 Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
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TORONTO (AP) Shaquille O’Neal should be a lock. Yao Ming and Allen Iverson could join him.

Two larger-than-life big men and one of basketball’s most exciting little guys highlight the list of players, coaches and contributors who are eligible for induction this year into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

O’Neal and Iverson must get past an extra step by first being chosen as finalists Friday at a press conference during the NBA’s All-Star weekend festivities. If they do, they would then require 18 votes from the 24-member Honors Committee, as do all nominees from the North American and Women’s Committees.

But Yao was nominated by the Hall’s International Committee, recognized as much for his impact in the growth of basketball in his native China as his play in the NBA. That committee elects players directly to the Hall.

The class of 2016 will be unveiled April 4 in Houston on the day of the NCAA championship game, and the enshrinement ceremony is set for Sept. 9 in Springfield, Massachusetts.

O’Neal, Yao and Iverson earned a chance to be a part of it after a recent rule change that made players eligible for nomination after four full seasons of retirement. Previously, they had to wait five years, which meant they were actually six years removed from their playing days by the time they could take their place in the birthplace of basketball.

O’Neal won four NBA championships, an MVP award and is in the league’s top 10 in career scoring. Iverson, just 6-feet tall, won four scoring titles and was the league’s MVP in 2001, when his 48-performance for Philadelphia in Game 1 of the NBA Finals handed O’Neal’s Lakers their only loss of the most dominant postseason in NBA history.

Yao doesn’t have as impressive a resume, his career cut short by multiple foot injuries. But the 7-foot-6 center lasted long enough to make an enormous impact on and off the court after being selected No. 1 overall in 2002.

A look at some others who could be Springfield-bound in September:

JERRY KRAUSE: On the 20th anniversary of the Chicago Bulls compiling the best record in NBA history, perhaps it’s time to honor the executive who was one of the architects of the six-time champions?

TOM IZZO: The way he consistently gets his Michigan State teams to peak in March, don’t be surprised if he’s got a game to coach in Houston when the class he should be in appears during Final Four weekend.

SHERYL SWOOPES: The first player signed by the WNBA went on to win three MVP awards and four championships in the league, but it was her 47-point performance in leading Texas Tech to the 1993 NCAA championship that many think of first when talking about one of the greats of women’s basketball.

MARV ALBERT: Already a Hall of Famer as a broadcaster, Albert, like Krause, is now nominated by the Contributor Committee that directly elects to the Hall. Should he be honored again? As Albert might exclaim while calling a game, “YES!!”

DARELL GARRETSON: He officiated more than 2,000 games in the NBA and spent 17 years as the league’s chief of officiating. There aren’t many easy calls for referees, but this seems an easy call about one.

Will Jonathan Isaac jump from high school to NBA draft?

AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Satnam Singh, the Mavericks No. 52 pick in the 2015 draft, was the first player drafted directly from high school in a decade.

Another, much higher-profile, high schooler could follow his path.

The NBA’s “one-and-done” rule effectively prohibited anyone from jumping from high school to the NBA. Amir Johnson, whom the Pistons drafted No. 56 in 2005, was the last high school player drafted before the rule was implemented.

But Singh spent five years at IMG Academy in Florida and was eligible. Now, another IMG player wants to follow a similar path.

Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated:

In a decision that could signal a new avenue to the NBA for elite American basketball players, Top 10 high school prospect Jonathan Isaac told Sports Illustrated on Friday that he will explore declaring for the 2016 NBA draft directly from prep school.

Isaac, a 6’10” small forward from IMG (Fla.) Academy, said in a phone interview that he expects to take advantage of a new rule that allows prospects to enter the NBA draft and return to college if they don’t feel good about their projected draft position. The new rule allows Isaac to participate in the NBA draft combine, hold an NBA workout and pull out of the draft without compromising his amateur standing at Florida State, where he’s signed to play next season.

Isaac, 18, and IMG officials expect that he’ll be eligible for the 2016 NBA draft because he started high school in 2011, which would make him one year removed from his initial graduating class. Isaac did not graduate from high school in 2015, but IMG officials expect he’d be eligible because former IMG player Satnam Singh had a similar circumstance and was eligible for the 2015 Draft.

Isaac is a potential first-rounder. The new rule doesn’t affect his ability to declare for the draft, but rather his ability to withdraw and play for Florida state IF he declares for the draft.

The bigger question: Can he declare for the draft?

The relevant requirement in the Collective Bargaining Agreement:

The player (A) is or will be at least nineteen (19) years of age during the calendar year in which the Draft is held, and (B) with respect to a player who is not an international player (defined below), at least one (1) NBA Season has elapsed since the player’s graduation from high school (or, if the player did not graduate from high school, since the graduation of the class with which the player would have graduated had he graduated from high school

Isaac turns 19 in October, so he’d meet the age requirement. He also hasn’t graduated high school, so he could claim his class graduated last year – four years after entering high school.

However, that argument works only if he doesn’t graduate this spring. If he does, that takes precedence over his class’s graduation, and he’d have to wait another year to declare for the draft.

As crazy as this sounds, Isaac will have more options for his professional future by NOT graduating high school.

This passage in the Collective Bargaining Agreement should probably be changed in the next edition.

It’s also difficult to tell how this situation compares with Singh. Although academics kept him from receiving college scholarships, Singh graduated from IMG, according to his father. Perhaps, Singh didn’t actually graduate. A quote from his dad isn’t a verified transcript.

No matter how Singh got to the draft, Isaac and those close to him at IMG should know the details of the path.

Now, it’s a question whether Isaac can and will follow.

Kevin Durant chokes up talking about Monty Williams’ wife (video)

Oklahoma Thunder players, from left, Cameron Payne, Kevin Durant, Andrew Morrow and D.J. Augustin bow their heads during a moment of silence for Ingrid Williams, the wife of Thunder assistant coach Monty Williams, who died Wednesday as the result of a car accident Tuesday, before an NBA basketball game between the New Orleans Pelicans and the Oklahoma City Thunder, in Oklahoma City, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
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OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma City Thunder held a moment of silence for assistant coach Monty Williams’ wife before their game against the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday night, a day after she died following a car crash.

Williams coached New Orleans last season, and the Pelicans also held a moment of silence for Ingrid Williams before their game Wednesday night against Utah.

The family’s pastor, Dr. Mark Hitchcock of Faith Bible Church in Edmond prayed for the family.

Thunder star Kevin Durant was overcome with emotion as he reflected after the morning shootaround.

“Just love Coach Monty so much, man,” Durant said. “I feel for him, man. It’s somebody we all love.”

Thunder coach Billy Donovan said it would be different Thursday without Williams to his right, but the team had no choice but to prepare for the game.

“I thought our group this morning was as good as it could be coming in,” Donovan said. “Everybody, I think, personally, is hurting for Monty and his family. Just trying to have faith right now that Ingrid is in a better place, and hopeful that our guys will come out there and play to the best of their ability.”

Ingrid Williams, 44, was involved in a crash Tuesday night. An oncoming car crossed the center line and hit her SUV just outside of downtown Oklahoma City, said police Capt. Paco Valderrama. That driver was pronounced dead at the scene, Valderrama said.

Monty Williams was hired by New Orleans to his first and only head coaching job in 2010 and fired after last season. He helped guide the Pelicans to the postseason twice and had a record of 173-221.

Pelicans star Anthony Davis spent three seasons with Williams as his coach and said Ingrid Williams was important, too. He said in a tweet: “Completely devastated. Ingrid Williams was like a 2nd mother to me when I got to NOLA. My thoughts & prayers are with Monty & the family.”

First-year Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said Ingrid’s impact was significant. It really affected his team as it prepared for its game Wednesday night, and the players were still dealing with it Thursday.

“It was really difficult for our guys to get through it because he (Monty Williams) has had such an impact on the players, and she had even more of an impact, maybe, with the mothering that she did for most of the guys and the type of person that she was,” Gentry said. “She wanted everybody to feel like they had a home away from home.”