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.

Watch 50 top clutch shots of last NBA season

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There are 1,230 NBA games in a season, and decent amount of those come down to which team executes better in a close game late. (By the way, the best teams don’t win the most close games, the best teams have the most blowouts and aren’t in as many close games.)

What that means is there are a lot of game winners, a lot of clutch shots every season. The folks at NBA.com compiled them for you, and what else do you have to do on a Sunday night but watch 13 minutes of them.

Yes, there is plenty of Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook in this one, but the clutch shot of the season belonged to Kyrie Irving.

Jason Terry chose Bucks because he wants to play, not just mentor

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 27:  Jason Terry #31 of the Houston Rockets dribbles the ball against the Golden State Warriors in Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on April 27, 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 Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Jason Terry has talked about reaching out to multiple teams, including contenders, during free agency before settling on the Milwaukee Bucks. When he talked about why the Bucks, he spoke of believing in what Jason Kidd was building.

There may have been another reason: Minutes.

From Gery Woelfel of the Racine Journal Times:

Some NBA officials contend he signed with Milwaukee and rejected overtures from a handful of teams, including the reigning NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers, because of potential playing time.

“He wants his minutes,’’ said an NBA executive, whose team had shown some interest in signing Terry. “He didn’t go there (Milwaukee) to sit on the bench.’’

Terry’s agent denied this, saying he wanted to be part of the Bucks.

If minutes was a key part of his decision, so what? Guys choose teams for money (usually), wins, to play with friends, lifestyle, and weather, plus other reasons — how much run they get is in that mix. It’s never just one thing. And playing time matters.

No doubt Terry will get run with the Bucks behind Matthew Dellavedova, although Giannis Antetokounmpo with the ball as point guard is what is going to make this team fun to watch.

Report: Other league executives don’t expect DeMarcus Cousins to stay in Sacramento

SACRAMENTO, CA - FEBRUARY 26:  DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings stands on the court during their game against the Los Angeles Clippers at Sleep Train Arena on February 26, 2016 in Sacramento, 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The vultures have been circling.

Other teams have called Sacramento GM Vlade Divac since the day he took office to inquire about the availability of DeMarcus Cousins — however, only George Karl took those calls and tried to run with it. The Kings know they have a franchise player, the best traditional center in the game right now, in Cousins and that is hard to come by. While it may not be easy — Cousins has always been demanding of those around him — they need to make it work.

Enter coach Dave Joerger, the guy who had success with difficult personalities in Memphis and got that team to the conference finals a couple of times.

Cousins has this season and next on his deal, and around the league the conventional wisdom is he bolts when this contract is up (hence the trade calls). Here is what one executive told Zach Harper of CBSSports.com.

“They’re fooling themselves if they think he’s sticking around,” said one league executive. “The good news for them is his value will always be high. There isn’t a point of no return in which you’re not getting high value for him. Teams will bid against each other in the trade market. Maybe [Cousins] doesn’t go for the biggest money in free agency but you’d love to have that card to play.”

The Kings aren’t giving up on being able to keep Cousins. They hope Joerger, the Olympics experience, some winning, a new building, and a trip to the playoffs will have Cousins thinking Sacramento is his home, where he wants to stay and build something.

I’d be surprised if the Kings seriously considered any move before next summer. But if Divac and company get the sense after this contract that they may not be able to keep Cousins — and let’s be clear, up to this point the organization has given him little reason to put his faith in them, Cousins is not unreasonable here — they have to make a move. This is not Oklahoma City where they can just turn the team over to Russell Westbrook, if Cousins goes it’s a rebuild in Sacramento (for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in a decade).

Celtics fans (and the rest of you convinced Cousins is coming your way), you need to wait it out. This is not going to be some quick move this summer.

But the vultures are circling.

Harrison Barnes says Mavericks are Nowitzki’s team, he has to prove himself to German

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 16:  Harrison Barnes #40 of the Golden State Warriors shoots the ball against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena on June 16, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Harrison Barnes is the new gun in Dallas — a four years, $94 million contract says so. Dallas is betting the No. 4 option in the Warriors attack is ready to blossom as the No. 1 option with the Mavericks.

But make no mistake, the Mavs are still Dirk Nowitzki‘s team.

Barnes knows it and told Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News he has to prove himself.

“Out of respect, this is Dirk’s team,” Barnes said. “He’s put in the years and won a championship. But I have to go out and earn that. People assume that just because you get paid a lot of money and have a lot of attention that all of the sudden you’re guaranteed this many shots. I have to prove that every day in practice. I have to prove that to the coaching staff, and ultimately, if I’m going to be the guy taking shots, I’ve got to prove it to Dirk.

“You have to have that balance of scoring and playmaking, and learn how to be a closer. I think that’s the beauty of it, that I get to learn from one of the best to ever do it in Dirk Nowitzki. You talk about guys closing games, he’s got to be top-five all time. I’m just looking forward to learning from that guy.”

That’s exactly what he’s supposed to say. Well done by Barnes.

There is going to be an adjustment period in Dallas. Barnes may be able to handle being a No. 1 option — don’t let his rough Finals or riding the bench in the Olympics cloud your judgement — but we will have a better sense of that in February and March rather than November. He needs time to grow.

By the way, good on Mark Cuban for using the cap space he had to make Nowitzki the highest paid player on the team at $25 million — reward the guy who has been loyal to you.