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.

Justise Winslow stepped on Joel Embiid’s mask (VIDEO)

AP
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Joel Embiid started for the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday night. The Game 3 matchup between the Miami Heat and Philadelphia was an important one with the teams tied, 1-1.

Embiid had previously vented his frustration on social media about the perceived slowness of his return to the floor from an orbital fracture.

Now, the Cameroonian big man is back for the Sixers and playing with a huge mask and goggles.

But the mask didn’t come without its problems for Embiid. It clearly affected his shooting and ability to handle the ball, as evidenced by a missed alley-oop in the second quarter, among other things.

There’s also the matter of how other players are treating Embiid and his mask. At one point, Embiid’s googles ended up on the floor and Heat forward Justise Winslow purposely stepped on them.

Via Twitter:

That’s harsh.

Embiid will have to adjust to using the mask since it’s unlikely he will be cleared to play without it soon. Hopefully he has some backups just in case the first couple sets get broken.

Tractors worth $50,000 stolen from Scottie Pippen’s farm

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HAMBURG, Ark. (AP) — Authorities in rural Arkansas are investigating the theft of more than $50,000 worth of equipment from a farm owned by former NBA star Scottie Pippen.

Investigator Mark Griever of the Ashley County Sheriff’s Office says two tractors were stolen from the farm in Hamburg, about 110 miles (180 kilometers) southeast of Little Rock. According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Pippen’s family is offering a $2,500 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction.

Griever says Pippen owns the livestock farm with his brother.

Pippen, who now lives in Florida, is a native of Hamburg. Pippen won six NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls alongside Michael Jordan in the 1990s.

Bucks’ Jabari Parker “frustrated,” wants more playing time

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In the first two games against Boston, Jabari Parker is 1-of-7 shooting, has grabbed 15 percent of the available rebounds while on the court (low for a big expected to board), has more turnovers than assists, has been exploited on defense by Boston, and is -29. All in just 25 minutes.

Parker is also frustrated he isn’t getting more minutes and more of a chance to prove himself. From Stephen Watson of WISN News 12 in Milwaukee:

While there are questions about how Joe Prunty has handled the Bucks and their rotations in this series, more Jabari Parker is nobody’s answer. Except Parker’s. And Celtics’ fans. Parker can be as frustrated as he wants, he hasn’t played his way into more minutes.

Parker returned to the Bucks in January after rehab on his second ACL surgery and averaged 12.6 points per game. He showed some value, with an ability to score efficiently inside and shooting 38 percent from three, averaging 12.6 points per game. But he remains a below-the-rim player who struggles to defend, and in the playoffs that gets a guy a seat.

It’s going to be an interesting summer. Parker is a restricted free agent this summer and the Bucks do not see him as a core part of their future next to Giannis Antetokounmpo anymore, they are not going to come in with a big offer to keep him. However, his play (especially in the postseason) and injury history, combined with a tight free agent market, means he may not have many suitors at all. Is it possible a rebuilding team willing to take a chance — Phoenix, Atlanta, etc. — would come in with an offer higher than the Bucks would match? Yes, it’s possible. But it won’t be for a lot of years, just one or two as teams want to see if he can get right and become the player he once projected to be.

Sixers’ Joel Embiid upgraded to “probable,” will start in Game 3 Thursday

Associated Press
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Everything you saw in the first two games of this Miami/Philadelphia playoff series you can throw out in the trash.

Joel Embiid is back and is now “probable” for Game 3, the Sixers announced, upgrading his status from “doubtful” earlier in the day. Embiid had been out with a concussion and orbital bone fracture.

Embiid will go through warmups — trying out both a mask and goggles — then will make a formal decision. However, he is expected to go. He certainly wants to play. And he is expected to start. How many minutes he can go remains to be seen.

This changes the Sixers and the series. Yes, Philly has likely Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons and high quality role players such as J.J. Redick and Robert Covington, however, is Embiid that makes it all work. Put simply, when Embiid is on the court the Sixers are 15.2 points per 100 possessions better — their defense is elite and their offense is outstanding.

The Sixers will be better with their best player back in the fold, but don’t think this makes the series a cakewalk for Philly. It changes everything about matchups, but things are not all positives. When Embiid is on the court, the up-tempo, ball-movement style that the Sixers built around Simmons slows down and stops at points. The Sixers have played Hassan Whiteside and his rim protection off the court with floor spacing shooting bigs, now he has a place to be in the matchups. There are things the Heat can do now that may work for them.

It just may not matter — Philadelphia just got a lot better.