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.

Warriors embrace/struggle through yoga

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 05:  Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors reacts in the second quarter of Game 2 of the 2016 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers at ORACLE Arena on June 5, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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 Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Anderson Varejao lowered his 6-foot-11 frame into a runner’s lunge and raised one arm high into the air to add a twist, demonstrating after a recent shootaround the new yoga pose he just learned.

Then, he took it up a notch and attempted an airplane balancing pose on one leg with his arms spread wide.

The Golden State Warriors have become yogis.

Coach Steve Kerr is committed to changing things up, and he gave Golden State a day off from the practice floor one day last week so the players could practice yoga instead. In the middle of a prolonged stretch at home with a more regular routine, the schedule allowed for some improvising.

“I really liked it,” Varejao said. “I’m going to do more.”

Doubt you’ll see Draymond Green or Klay Thompson doing downward-facing dog again soon – though Green might be talked into another try eventually.

“I’m bad,” Green said. “Yoga isn’t for everybody. I think it’s a great thing, I just don’t think my body is made for all of those different positions. I did well at a few of them. It’s hard, it’s tough. My body really isn’t cut out for yoga.”

The very next night after the group class, during warmups for a home game with the Pistons, player development coach Bruce Fraser pulled his foot to his opposite inner thigh for an impromptu tree pose. He laughed as an amused Shaun Livingston watched from the baseline.

Andre Iguodala is an experienced yogi who can really cat-cow and is considered top on the team, often taking classes. Center Zaza Pachulia also can forward fold with the best of them. They took prominent positions in the class led by Lisa Goodwin, Golden State’s director of corporate communications and also a yoga teacher, at a Berkeley studio – a first for Kerr taking the team away from team headquarters for a yoga session.

No surprise, two-time reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry can bring it on the mat, too.

“We’ve had some optional yoga sessions at our facility. This is the first time we took everybody and made it mandatory,” Kerr said. “It was good.”

The temperature was about 92 degrees for the hour-long power vinyasa class, so it was steamy.

Everybody was drenched in sweat by the end for final resting pose, or savasana.

“My muscles felt good,” forward James Michael McAdoo said, rubbing his stomach where his core got a workout. “It was fun. It was hot in there, like working in a sauna. I told our strength and conditioning coach, `You got to step up your game. Lisa embarrassed us.'”

“It’s awful, it’s pitiful,” Thompson said of his own yoga ability. “It’s something I worked on and it’s something I actually enjoy. More than just being physically challenging, it’s an incredible mental workout. It tests your pain tolerance and your ability to push yourself mentally. That’s why I like it. It was really good. I think it helped a lot of us – everybody, even the coaches.”

Along with the experienced yoga veterans, there were some first-timers.

A few found it extremely tough.

“I’m not the most flexible,” acknowledged player development coach Chris DeMarco.

Assistant coach Mike Brown described his debut as “terrible.”

“For me, it was really hard, but it was fun,” he said, later adding, “I nearly passed out.”

Ron Adams, another assistant who focuses on preparing Golden State’s defense, happened to work out in the hottest corner of the room for his first time practicing in that high temperature.

“It’s such a cleansing exercise,” he said.

The Warriors aren’t the only ones doing it.

Detroit coach Stan Van Gundy has scheduled yoga time for the Pistons, saying: “It’s got its value, no question about it. Would I consider doing it with them? Probably not.”

Kerr goes whenever he can fit it in, typically taking an hour-long class during the lunch hour on game days when the schedule – and his body – allows.

It’s a time he can focus on taking some deep breaths, literally, away from the pressure-packed NBA workload and just be just another yoga student for 60 minutes out of his day.

This weekend marks one year since Kerr formally returned to the bench last Jan. 22 against Indiana after a lengthy leave of absence to deal with complications from a pair of back surgeries. Current Lakers coach Luke Walton led the way during a record 24-0 start and went 39-4 before Kerr’s comeback on the way to winning Coach of the Year after an NBA record 73-9 finish.

While the 51-year-old Kerr still has some discouraging, physically challenging moments dealing with pain and headaches, he considers himself fortunate to be on the sideline doing what he loves.

“I guess normal is a good way to say it. He seems like his old self,” Curry said. “You know he’s been through a lot just physically trying to recover from the surgeries he’s had. I can’t imagine the frustration, how long it took and things he had to do and all the doctors he’s met with. His whole story is crazy. We’re obviously happy to have him back but not only that, you see him with energy and his presence like he wants. It’s been good to see.”

Whether Kerr will take his team back to yoga any time soon, time will tell. The Warriors are at the season’s midway point and the “dog days” of January as Kerr has put it. Golden State was home for all but a night from Dec. 26 until leaving for Houston on Thursday for Friday’s game against the Rockets, with just a quick bus ride to Sacramento as the lone road trip in a 10-game stretch during that span.

Because there was so much time to practice, the yoga day was a nice change of scenery.

“Just to get away and go do something else,” Green said. “We’re still together doing something productive. But, it’s not for me.”

Lakers’ D’Angelo Russell slips, mildly sprains knee ligament. MRI Saturday.

Indiana Pacers forward Thaddeus Young, right, takes the ball away as Los Angeles Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell, center, falls to the floor with an injury during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell mildly sprained a ligament in his right knee in the opening minutes of Los Angeles’ game against the Indiana Pacers on Friday night.

Russell was re-evaluated at halftime and did not return to the game.

Russell was hurt while going around a screen set by teammate Julius Randle on Los Angeles’ second possession. The point guard’s left leg alarmingly stretched backward when he lost his footing, and he stayed down on the court for several moments.

He eventually walked on his own to the locker room, where the sprain was diagnosed.

Russell is averaging 14.8 points, 4.5 assists and 3.8 rebounds during the second NBA season for the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft.

Dwyane Wade apologizes to Bulls fans after ugly Chicago loss

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Even for an up-and-down Bulls team that has seen some sloppy losses, Friday night’s was ugly. The Atlanta Hawks went on a 36-11 run between the end of the first quarter and the start of the second, they led by as many as 34, and cruised in for the 103-92 win. The game wasn’t that close, the Hawks thoroughly outplayed the Bulls, and after the game ended coach Fred Hoiberg said he and his staff need to reexamine everything.

Dwyane Wade went another direction, apologizing to fans.

Wade was 2-of-10 shooting on the night.

Despite the loss, the Bulls remain tied with the Bucks for the final playoff slot in the East, a race that will likely include Detroit and New York (and maybe Charlotte) and go down to the final days of the season. The Bulls (21-23) can’t have many more games like Friday.

Warriors get 6th straight win, 125-108 over Rockets

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry reacts after making a 3-point basket late in the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in Houston. Golden State won 125-108. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
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HOUSTON (AP) — Kevin Durant scored 32 points and the Golden State Warriors used a big third quarter to build a huge lead and coast to their sixth straight victory, 125-108 over the Houston Rockets on Friday night.

In a matchup of two of the best teams in the Western Conference and All-Star starting guards Stephen Curry and James Harden, the Rockets fell short. Houston, which entered the game leading the NBA with 667 3-pointers, was just 7 of 35 behind the arc. Harden went 0 for 5 and Eric Gordon, who entered the game leading the NBA with 160 3s, missed all seven attempts.

Clint Capela had 22 points and Harden added 17 points with 11 assists for the Rockets, who are third in the West behind Golden State and San Antonio.

The Warriors were up by five at halftime and used a 12-4 run to open the second half and stretch their lead to 74-61 with about nine minutes left in the quarter. Golden State got six points from Durant in that span, including a dunk and a nifty reverse layup.

Houston got four points from Capela after that before Golden State used a 10-2 run, with 3s from Draymond Green and Curry, to make it 84-67 midway through the period.

Golden State pushed the lead to 99-79 entering the fourth quarter.

Houston won the first game against Golden State this season in two overtimes to snap an eight-game, regular-season losing streak to the Warriors. But it was clear the Rockets wouldn’t make it two in a row after they scored just 22 points and went 0 for 10 on 3-pointers in the third quarter.

Houston scored the first five points of the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to 99-84. But Golden State used a 9-4 run after that to extend its lead to 20 points by the midpoint of the quarter, and many fans started heading for the exits.

Curry finished with 24 points and made five 3-pointers, including one with about 3 1/2 minutes remaining that left the Warriors up 117-93. Both teams cleared their benches after that.

The Warriors led 62-57 at halftime.

TIP-INS

Warriors: Golden State made 15 of 38 3-pointers. … Klay Thompson added 16 points. … Green had 15 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.

Rockets: Ryan Anderson had one rebound in nine minutes in his return after missing two games with the flu. … Capela played 21 minutes off the bench in his third game back after missing a month with a fracture on his left fibula. … Sam Dekker had 17 points for his 11th double-digit game this season. …

CHEERING ON THE HOME TEAM

Houston Texans star J.J. Watt cheered the Rockets on from a courtside seat. He received a huge ovation when he was shown on the Jumbotron during a timeout in the second quarter. Watt, who won NFL Defensive Player of the Year last season, played just three games this season before having season-ending back surgery.