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.

Hayward, Johnson, good ball movement lift Jazz past Clippers 98-94, Utah up 3-2

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LOS ANGELES — Chris Paul is the best player on the floor in the Los Angeles vs. Utah first round series. He’s also the best playmaker on either team, a guy who can survey the court and quickly decide whether he should score or what teammate he can set up. He also gets the Clippers points and plays solid defense.

However, for lengthy stretches of the game, he’s the only playmaker on the court for the Clippers. He has to be Mr. Everything.

Utah has multiple guys they can lean on to create looks — George Hill, Gordon Hayward, Joe Johnson — and with that has come better team ball movement and open shots.

It also came with a crucial Game 5 win over Utah, 98-94, putting the Jazz up 3-2 heading to Utah for Game 6 on Friday night. Utah has the chance to advance past the first round for the first time since 2010, when Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer were at their peaks, and Jerry Sloan was still patrolling the sidelines.

Gordon Hayward is Utah’s big star now, and he returned from missing Game 4 with food poisoning. This time he made the Clippers sick, with 27 points on 9-of-16 shooting, plus he made the little plays like a tip-out offensive rebound to Johnson late in the game that turned into a key made three for the Jazz.

“Hayward killed us early,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought Hayward set the tone tonight in the first six or seven minutes of the game (Gordon had 11 first quarter points on 4-of-6 shooting).”

The Clippers often use Blake Griffin as a secondary playmaker, because he has good handles and is a strong passer. However, with Griffin out for the rest of the series with a foot injury that will require surgery, the Clippers are stuck. Backup point guard Austin Rivers returned to the Clipper lineup, but he could only play 16 minutes. Too much of the time it felt like CP3 against the world to create shots for the Clippers. That’s rough against a long, disciplined Jazz defense.

Meanwhile, the Jazz were moving the ball and getting better looks — if guys such as Joe Ingles (0-of-4 from three) or George Hill (1-of-7) had knocked down their shots, this game may have been decided much earlier. Utah’s drive-and-kick game was in full force, and with Griffin out the Jazz have nobody who can check Joe Johnson effectively.

“That’s beating us off the dribble way too much and making us rotate,” Rivers said. “Also, we did a good job — we took the ball out of Joe (Johnson’s) hands… by doing that they’re going to get open threes. And listen, we were fortunate tonight with them being on the road, their role players didn’t make some of those.”

That’s what the first half felt like. The Jazz pushed the pace at times, moved the ball well in the half court, exploited mismatches, and largely got better looks than the Clippers, but missed enough good shots that the game was always close. It was 21-19 Clippers after one, led by six points from Paul Pierce nailing a couple open threes. By the half the Jazz had a small 46-43 lead behind 14 from Hayward on 5-of-8 shooting. But neither team was able to take control.

The third quarter was just ugly basketball — it was slow, physical, and Utah missed shot after shot. So did both teams — Utah “won” the quarter 18-15 to have at 64-58 lead after three. Still, it just felt like Utah was playing better and just missing looks.

Utah pushed the lead to 11 in the fourth after some threes started to fall, but the Clippers went on their own 11-0 run sparked by Paul to tie the game up 69-69. Staples Center was getting loud. But out of a time out the Jazz scored five quick points off well-designed plays, and order was restored (as far as Utah was concerned). From there Utah just held on.

Hayward finished with 27 to lead the Jazz, followed by Rodney Hood who came off the bench with 10. Utah had six players in double figures.

There was little pretty about this game, or for that matter the series. It’s become slowed down and grinding. It’s not a style the Clippers thrive in, but they’re going to have to find a way — or pick up the pace — by Friday night, or their season will come to an end. Then the questions will begin.

Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley get weak double techs for trash talking (VIDEO)

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Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley had no love lost during Tuesday night. The Houston Rockets closed out the Oklahoma City Thunder, 105-99, but that didn’t stop Brodie and Beverley from getting one of the weakest double technical foul calls we’ve seen during these playoffs.

The two squared off midway through the fourth quarter, with both players seemingly OK and a bit incredulous after getting techs for what amounted to trash talk.

I’ll let you be the judge for yourself whether it was worth of a tech.

Via Twitter:

The double technical foul is definitely one of the dumbest calls in the NBA.

Houston goes on to face the winner of the series between the San Antonio Spurs and the Memphis Grizzlies.

Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills lead Spurs by Grizzlies for 3-2 series lead

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) Kawhi Leonard had 28 points and the San Antonio Spurs rebounded from two discouraging road losses to beat the Memphis Grizzlies 116-103 on Tuesday night and take a 3-2 lead in their first-round series.

San Antonio shot 14 for 28 on 3-point attempts, two off its postseason record, including 5-for-7 shooting by Patty Mills.

Mills finished with 20 points and Tony Parker added 16.

Mike Conley had 26 points and Marc Gasol added 17 for the Grizzlies, who have lost nine straight postseason games in San Antonio.

With each team winning on its homecourt, Game 6 is Thursday night in Memphis.

The Spurs went on an 11-0 run shortly after switching Leonard onto Conley defensively, holding the Grizzlies scoreless for 2:46 midway through the first quarter.

But it was the few times either team had success defensively.

San Antonio shot 53 percent from the field and Memphis shot 52 percent in a surprisingly explosive game between teams renowned for their defense.

Conley had seven points during a 17-3 run bridging the third and fourth quarters to pull Memphis within 87-83 with 9 minutes remaining.

The teams exchanged baskets over a 3-minute span before consecutive 3-pointers by Mills helped break the game open for San Antonio.

After failing to score in the first four games, Manu Ginobili had six points in 33 seconds in the first quarter and finished with 10 points.

James Ennis III had 11 points and Andrew Harrison added nine, as both took advantage of Leonard leaving them to help defensively during the second and third quarters.

TIP-INS

Grizzlies: Conley and Gasol are the only Memphis players to score in double figures in all four games. . Zach Randolph had nine points and six rebounds Tuesday after averaging 17 points and 9.7 rebounds in the previous three games. Randolph was held to six points and three rebounds in Game 1. . Tony Allen remained out with an injury to his right leg after being kicked in the calf during Memphis’ regular-season finale against Dallas. . Ennis was 4 for 9 from the field in scoring 11 points after averaging 7.0 points in the previous four games.

Spurs: San Antonio’s franchise record for 3-pointers made is 16 against Miami in the 2013 NBA Finals. . Leonard has scored in double figures in 25 straight playoff games, the longest streak in franchise history since Tim Duncan had 26 from 2011-2013. . The Spurs have lost three straight only once this season, dropping their final three games of the regular season after clinching the second seed. They have lost two straight on four occasions, including back-to-back losses in Memphis in this series. . Dewayne Dedmon returned after missing Game 4 due to an illness. . Ginobili’s eight points in the opening quarter are the most he scored in any quarter of a playoff game since scoring nine in the 2014 NBA Finals.

Watch Houston’s Eric Gordon yam it down over Thunder forward Jerami Grant (VIDEO)

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Eric Gordon is a leading Sixth Man of the Year candidate for the Houston Rockets for one reason: he can shoot the lights out.

But that didn’t stop Gordon from surprising a few folks during Tuesday night’s closeout Game 5 against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Gordon scored just eight points in Houston’s 105-99 win, but two of those points came on a thunderous dunk over Oklahoma City’s Jerami Grant.

Via Twitter:

Wasn’t expecting him to get up like that.

Houston will go on to play the winner of the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies series.