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.

John Wall has 29 points, 13 assists as Wizards top Knicks 113-110

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards looks on against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Verizon Center on January 6, 2017 in Washington, DC.  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 Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK (AP) John Wall scored the pivotal points and made the saving steal, though the Knicks thought the Wizards had another defender who impacted their final possession even before Wall ended it.

Carmelo Anthony and Courtney Lee said a Washington assistant coach standing on the court too close to Lee kept him from taking a tying 3-point attempt. He instead passed to Brandon Jennings, who had the ball stolen by Wall.

“He was on the court,” Anthony said. “They had six players on the court.”

Wall didn’t need extra help. He had 29 points and 13 assists and scored the surging Wizards’ final four points in the last 32 seconds of their 113-110 victory Thursday night.

Otto Porter Jr. made six 3-pointers for the second straight night and added 23 points, but the Wizards needed big plays from Wall to win their fourth in a row.

He made two free throws to put Washington back on top after New York had rallied to take a 110-109 lead, then rebounded Anthony’s miss and left all the Knicks in his dust as he raced down the floor for a dunk with 13.7 seconds to play.

“Just trying to make the big-time plays,” Wall said. “But, if it’s me scoring or me passing, I’m going to live with the results if it’s the right read and the right play, and tonight I came up with some big shots and we won.”

Anthony finished with 34 points but threw the ball to Lee near the Wizards’ bench on the last possession. Lee said he heard someone standing close to him and yelling as if he was a nearby defender, confusing him enough into thinking that if he took the shot, it could be blocked.

Replays showed Wizards assistant Sidney Lowe standing on the court near Lee, who dribbled left and passed the ball hurriedly to Jennings, who had it knocked away by Wall.

“I’m not sure if he had his hands up or not, but I mean, he fooled me,” Lee said, adding he thought the NBA should look into the play. “I still should’ve took the shot, I mean it’s at the end of the game, but I drove and tried to make a play. I seen Brandon standing there but it didn’t work out.”

Derrick Rose added 20 points and Kristaps Porzingis came off the bench for 15 in his return from a sore left Achilles tendon.

The Wizards trailed 67-66 at halftime after Anthony scored a Knicks-record 25 points in the second quarter, then outscored New York 34-19 to take a 100-86 lead into the fourth.

The Knicks came all the way back to take a 110-109 lead when Rose put back his own miss with 48 seconds to play. Wall handled things from there as the Wizards won for the seventh time in eight games. They are 20-10 following a 3-9 start.

“It’s good to get a road win. We’ve had so many last-second shots on the road that didn’t go our way,” coach Scott Brooks said. “It’s nice to get a close-out tonight.”

Porter, who matched the career high for 3-pointers he set Wednesday against Memphis, had 15 points in the third quarter. The Wizards are 12-2 when he makes three or more 3s.

TIP-INS

Wizards: Wall, the NBA leader in total steals, has one in a career-best 30 straight games. … The Wizards have won six straight at Madison Square Garden.

Knicks: Joakim Noah missed his second straight game with a sprained left ankle. The Knicks lost for the first time in six games this season without their starting center. … Hall of Famer Willis Reed and Allan Houston shared the previous franchise record, having both scored 24 points in a quarter. Reed also did it in the second period, while Houston’s outburst came in the fourth.

BACK-TO-BACK FACTS

Washington improved to 2-7 on the second night of back-to-back games – with both victories against the Knicks, who are even worse in that situation. New York is 1-9, including a loss at Washington on Nov. 17.

UP NEXT

Wizards: Visit the Pistons on Saturday. The Wizards won 122-108 at home against Detroit on Dec. 16 behind 29 points and 11 assists from Wall.

Knicks: Host the Suns on Saturday as coach Jeff Hornacek tries to beat his former team for the first time. Phoenix pulled out a 113-111 overtime victory against New York on Dec. 13.

Kawhi Leonard has 34, Spurs overcome Pau Gasol’s injury to top Nuggets

San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard runs up the court after scoring during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Indiana Pacers, Monday, Dec. 21, 2015, in San Antonio. San Antonio won 106-92. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)
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SAN ANTONIO (AP) Kawhi Leonard scored 34 points, rookie Dejounte Murray added a season-high 24 and the short-handed San Antonio Spurs overcame a pregame injury to Pau Gasol in beating the Denver Nuggets 118-104 on Thursday night.

Denver’s three-game winning streak was snapped despite a career-high 35 points from Nikola Jokic.

Leonard had his fifth straight 30-point performance, right after learning he will start for the Western Conference in the All-Star Game for the second consecutive season.

The Spurs were unexpectedly without Gasol, Tony Parker and then coach Gregg Popovich. Gasol and Parker were both late scratches due to injury, and Popovich was ejected for the first time this season.

Gasol broke the ring finger on his left (non-shooting) hand by jamming it against Kyle Anderson‘s shoulder during pregame warmups while attempting a running hook. The 16-year veteran center immediately clutched his hand and left the court.

X-rays revealed the break, and the Spurs said there is no timeline for Gasol’s return.

Murray started in place of Parker, who sat out with a sprained left foot. The rookie responded by shooting 7 for 11, including 3 of 5 on 3-pointers.

Popovich did not get to see the Spurs improve to 15-2 at home since Nov. 11 after picking up his fifth and sixth technical fouls. Zach Zarba ejected Popovich with 1:36 remaining in the first half after he became incensed over a foul called on Davis Bertans against Jokic.

Minutes earlier, Popovich was upset over a non-call for Bertans.

TIP-INS

Nuggets: Jokic has led the team in scoring or shared the high mark in 10 of Denver’s past 18 games after doing so just once in the previous 22 games. . Jokic was the only Denver player who did not have a losing record as a starter until Thursday’s defeat. He is 11-12 as a starter. . C Jusuf Nurkic had five points, leaving him one shy of 1,000 for his career. . F Juancho Hernangomez made his second career start. . During Popovich’s ejection, Nuggets G Emmanuel Mudiay shadowed Zarba and mimicked the official calling a technical foul and ejecting the Spurs’ coach. . Denver has had two three-game winning streaks this season. The previous streak was snapped 119-102 by the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 20.

Spurs: Gasol missed his first game due to injury this season. He sat out two games for rest. He is averaging 11.7 points and 7.9 rebounds in 39 games. . Parker has missed eight games this season, including two for rest. The point guard missed three games with a sore right knee, one due to a bruised left quadriceps and another because of a bruised left knee. . At least one Spurs player has appeared in the All-Star Game in all but two of the franchise’s 40 years in the NBA – 1989 and 1997. … Leonard has scored in double figures in 74 straight games, the longest streak by a Spurs player since Duncan had 75 in 2004-05.

UP NEXT

Nuggets: At the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday night.

Spurs: At the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday night.

Goran Dragic scores 32 as Heat top Mavericks 99-95

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 22:  Goran Dragic #7 of the Miami Heat drives to the basket during a game against the Los Angeles Lakers at American Airlines Arena on December 22, 2016 in Miami, Florida. 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 Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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MIAMI (AP) Just like in 2006 and 2011, the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks are essentially in the same place.

Different spot in the standings, though.

Goran Dragic had 32 points, Tyler Johnson scored 10 of his 23 in the fourth quarter and the Heat beat the Mavericks 99-95 on Thursday night, snapping Dallas’ season-high three-game winning streak.

“Like an old-school Miami-Dallas game,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

He said it with a smile, not entirely serious, of course. The stakes in Heat-Mavs games are far different now, with both teams languishing in the bottom half of their respective conferences and not going back and forth in the NBA Finals. But both franchises have been a bit better of late, providing hope for the second half.

“We worked hard for this, the whole team,” Dragic said. “We lost a lot of close games, but we’re getting better in those close games and we feel like tonight we defended well, the ball was moving and we made the right plays.”

Hassan Whiteside scored 13 and Dion Waiters added 12 for the Heat.

Dirk Nowitzki had 19 points for Dallas, which went 1 for 8 from the field during a late stretch of the fourth quarter and never got the lead again.

“It was a really tough stretch for us,” Nowitzki said. “We went from being up a couple to down seven or eight and then we put the starters back in or the other unit, so that was a bad stretch … and after that we had to play catch-up.”

Wesley Matthews scored 18 for the Mavericks, who got 15 apiece from Harrison Barnes and Seth Curry.

“It’s not exactly 2011,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “It’s two franchises that are competitive, and that are playing a little better in recent games. It’s a competitive game. We’ve had health issues. They’ve obviously had health issues.”

Nowitzki made two of three free throws with 18.5 seconds left to get the Mavs within 95-92. The Heat needed to burn two timeouts before even getting the ball inbounded on the ensuing possession, and Johnson hit two from the line five seconds later to help seal the win.

TIP-INS

Mavericks: J.J. Barea scored 13 points and has reached double figures in 11 of his 17 games this season. At 32, he’s on pace to average more than 12 points a game for the first time. … Dallas took only 11 free throws to Miami’s 29.

Heat: Miami improved to 3-21 when trailing at halftime. Dallas led 53-44 at the break. … Okaro White made his NBA debut. He was signed to a 10-day deal earlier this week. … Wayne Ellington got his 1,000th career rebound and is one 3-pointer shy of 500.

PROMOTION ISSUE

A fan avoided injury when a door – depicting a hotel room door – on a wheeled frame fell over during a promotion after the first quarter. The promotion had several fans slide hotel “keys” into the door, and the one that worked won a hotel stay. The floor was slightly damaged near midcourt.

BOGUT CLOSER

Dallas center Andrew Bogut missed his fourth straight game with a right hamstring strain. He worked out on the court before the game and is improving, though he isn’t expected to play Friday against Utah.

UP NEXT

Mavericks: Host the Utah Jazz on Friday. Dallas is 0-7 on the second night of back-to-backs this season.

Heat: Host the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday. Miami is 1-1 against the Bucks, with both teams winning at home.

LeBron James, Kyrie Irving lead Cavaliers to 118-103 win over Suns

PHOENIX, AZ - JANUARY 08:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers handles the ball against TJ Warren #12 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of the NBA game at Talking Stick Resort Arena on January 8, 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Cavaliers defeated the Suns 120-116. 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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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CLEVELAND (AP) Before their first home game following a long trip that ended with a miserable thud at Golden State, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue showed his team video clips to remind them who they are.

The message?

“Do that,” LeBron James said.

Kyrie Irving scored 26 points, James, his All-Star teammate, had 21 points and 15 assists, and Cleveland looked more like an NBA champion in a 118-103 win over the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night.

The Cavs were back in Quicken Loans Arena following a six-game road swing (their longest of the season) that concluded with an embarrassing 35-point loss to the Warriors. But on their home floor, they had better offensive balance, ball movement and defense while improving to 30-11 – the same record Cleveland had at the halfway point of its 2016 NBA title season.

Channing Frye scored 18, Iman Shumpert 17 and James Jones 14 while filling in for star forward Kevin Love, still bothered by back spasms.

“Coming off our road trip we just weren’t playing Cavalier basketball,” said James, “and getting the ball popping from one side to the other. It was good to get back to the way we’ve been playing for most of the season.”

Tyson Chandler had 22 points and 16 rebounds, but the Suns lost for the fourth time in five games.

Phoenix closed within 12 in the fourth, but was unable to get any closer.

“They always make the right play offensively and defensively,” said Suns guard Devin Booker, who finished with 21 points on 4-of-12 shooting. “They’re always on a string together on both ends of the floor. You can hear them talking out there. You can hear them communicating. I guess that’s one thing you can learn from them, how comfortable they are with themselves and the way they talk to each other.”

Already thin on their front line with Love out, the Cavs lost forward Tristan Thompson in the second quarter with a dislocated left index finger. However, Thompson returned after halftime.

And Cleveland’s offense was in a much better rhythm from the start after a trip that wasn’t always pleasing to the eye.

Irving and James shined as always, but it was the contributions of Cleveland’s supporting cast that made the difference.

“We definitely needed it,” James said. “We needed guys to step up and you know, we had that tonight out of everybody, especially Channing.”

While trying to integrate newly acquired Kyle Korver into their rotation on the road, the Cavs got into some bad habits as they forced passes to one of the league’s best shooters. A couple of practices seem to have helped as Korver made a pair of 3-pointers in the second quarter of his home debut to help Cleveland open a 21-point lead.

The Suns made a brief run in the third and got within 12 before Shumpert hit a pair of 3s and Jones hit one from long range.

IRON MAN

Thompson injured his finger when he got it caught on Chandler’s jersey. For a moment, he was worried it might affect his consecutive games streak that now stands at 411 – the longest current run in the league.

“Once they told me it was only dislocated, I knew the streak was still alive,” he said.

TIP-INS

Suns: G Brandon Knight returned after missing two games with a sprained right wrist, but had a short night after committing four fouls in four minutes in the first half. … Chandler has at least 15 rebounds in six straight games, matching the club record set by Jim Fox in 1969. … Booker had averaged 30 points in his past six games.

Cavaliers: Korver finished with nine points. … James, who missed his 46th career triple-double by one rebound, will be making his 13th consecutive All-Star Game appearance next month. He said the honor never gets old. “Just means I’ve been doing something right in this league,” he said. “Means I’m consistent and taking pride in my individual ability to go out and produce for the team every night, and whatever team I’ve been on in my career. It’s always great to see my name up there with the best guys in the league, so it’s a pretty cool thing.” … G J.R. Smith has had the hard cast removed from his surgically repaired thumb. He’s expected back in late March. … Jones made his first start since April 2, 2015.

UP NEXT

Suns: At the New York Knicks on Saturday. Phoenix won the first meeting this season in overtime.

Cavaliers: Host the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday in a matchup between two of the NBA’s best teams.