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.

Three players most likely to be moved on Trade Deadline Day

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There will be trades today. Unexpected ones.

Probably not the big names fans are hoping to see. The offers for Carmelo Anthony have been so poor that as much as Phil Jackson wants to move ‘Melo he can’t take those offers. Indiana isn’t eager to trade Paul George, same with Chicago and Jimmy Butler, and it’s going to take a very unlikely Godfather offer to get those deals done (such as Boston parting with one of their Brooklyn picks). Andre Drummond likely remains a Piston.

Sorry to be Debbie Downer on the big trades.

But here are three guys likely to be moved.

1) Jahlil Okafor, Philadephia 76ers. He’s been in more rumors than Khloe Kardashian the past few months. The latest rumors have the Chicago Bulls making a push to land him, but demanding the Sixers take Nikola Mirotic back in the deal. The Bulls don’t need Mirotic — a stretch four shooing 29 percent from three this season — with the emergence of Cristiano Felicio. where Okafor would give Chicago more scoring inside. However, why exactly do the Sixers want Mirotic when they have Dario Saric? The Bulls are going to have to throw more in that deal.

Other teams have expressed interest in Okafor, including Indiana. The Sixers need to move people around up front, the only question is because there is a glut of centers on the market — Brook Lopez, Tyson Chandler, Greg Monroe, to name a few — the price is low. Bryan Colangelo may decide to wait until this summer, but he’s prefer to just get this done.

2) P.J. Tucker, Phoenix Suns. He’s a physical, tough defender who can get you buckets on the other end, a lot of teams could use him. The Clippers had interest and offered a couple of second round picks, but the Suns wanted a first-rounder. The Knicks also had interest at one point, but they don’t have a first-rounder they can move until basically the second coming. Still, Tucker is on the market and I expect some veteran team will come in and try to scoop him up.

3) Darren Collison, Sacramento Kings. After owner Vivek Ranadive finally changed his mind, the Kings moved quickly to trade DeMarcus Cousins and put the team on a path. A rebuilding path. One that doesn’t have a lot of roster spots for older players. That includes Darren Collison. He’s a solid point guard averaging 13.7 points per game this season, shooting 42 percent from three, and he knows how to run an offense. There’s a lot of teams that could use him, and the Kings can listen to multiple offers than take the best one. But there’s no reason to keep him around the rest of the season.

 

Report: Unless they trade for Jimmy Butler or Paul George, Celtics likely to keep main assets

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The Celtics have been linked in trade talks to the Bulls’ Jimmy Butler and Pacers’ Paul George, but that requires the other team to deal with Boston. Indications are neither Chicago nor Indiana is particularly amenable.

So, time for the Celtics to pick another star to target?

Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald:

With less than 24 hours until the NBA’s 3 p.m. trade deadline today, the Celtics were said to be still holding out hope that internal discussions within the Bulls and Pacers would lead to one or both making their best player available.

But short of that, the view from around the league is that the Celts are becoming more and more enamored with the idea of keeping their main assets and using the first-round draft pick they have coming from Brooklyn in June via a swap of positions. (They also have the Nets’ 2018 first-rounder unencumbered.)

Sources continued to say that, while there remains a chance things could change as the deadline draws nearer, Chicago and Indiana are more likely to retain Jimmy Butler and Paul George, respectively. Those All-Star talents have been the Celtics’ two main targets

This could just be the Celtics playing hardball — either through leaks to the media or through conversations with other teams that have trickled out. But Bulpett is well-connected, especially in Boston. This is more likely than most reports of this nature to be accurate, but it’s always difficult to break through the smokescreens this time of year.

The Nets’ upcoming first-rounder is extremely valuable, as they’ll likely finish with the NBA’s worst record. The Celtics could do far worse than keeping that pick.

But Boston’s top players — Isaiah Thomas (28) and Al Horford (30) — are already at ages where they can’t necessarily wait for a 2017 pick, even someone as talented at as Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball, to develop. It makes sense to cash in chips now.

Still, the Celtics’ deep pool of assets mean the window isn’t closing yet. There should be no desperation to make a win now trade.

If Boston keeps its main assets — mainly the Nets picks — past the trade deadline, we’ll just revisit all this again in the summer.

Cavaliers sign forward Derrick Williams to second 10-day contract

Cleveland Cavaliers' Derrick Williams, right, drives to the basket against Indiana Pacers' Rodney Stuckey in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
AP Photo/Tony Dejak
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The Cleveland Cavaliers have signed forward Derrick Williams to a second 10-day contract.

The NBA champions have been impressed with Williams, a former No. 2 overall pick, and it’s likely they will sign him for the remainder of the season when his current contract expires. The Cavs announced Wednesday they signed Williams again. He has averaged 9.8 points and 3.0 rebounds in 22 minutes for the Cavs, who have been bringing him off their bench with their second unit.

Before signing as a free agent with Cleveland on Feb. 9, Williams played for Miami this season before being released.

The Cavs returned from the All-Star break Wednesday and will practice before hosting the New York Knicks on Thursday, just a few hours after the trade deadline.

Hornets’ Miles Plumlee out at least two weeks with leg injury

Charlotte Hornets' Miles Plumlee (18) dunks against the Philadelphia 76ers in the first half of an NBA basketball game in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, Feb. 13, 2017. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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The Hornets are essentially two different teams with and without Cody Zeller.

They’re 22-17 when he plays and 2-15 when he doesn’t. They play at a 62-win pace with him on the floor and a 29-win pace when he sits.

So, with Zeller banged up, Charlotte traded for Miles Plumee. But Plumlee hasn’t provided much, just 3.2 points and 3.8 rebounds in 13.4 minutes per game in five contests.

And now he’ll add even less.

Hornets release:

The Charlotte Hornets announced today that center Miles Plumlee underwent a Magnetic Resonance Image (MRI), which revealed a second-degree calf strain in his right leg. Plumlee will be out for Charlotte’s game tomorrow at Detroit and will be re-evaluated in two weeks.

The Hornets incurred significant long-term costs ($37.5 million over the next three years) to use Plumlee as a short-term bandage. Without him providing even that, this situation looks bleak.

Depending on Zeller’s health, this could turn Charlotte — 2.5 games and three teams out of playoff position — into sellers before the trade deadline. At minimum, it makes the Hornets less likely to buy.