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.

Kevin Durant brushes off free-agency speculation: “Once that time comes, I’ll make that decision”

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 05:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives on Harrison Barnes #40 of the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on January 5, 2015 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 the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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It goes without saying that with the Thunder and Warriors playing each other for the first time on Saturday night, Kevin Durant free-agency talk has been at an all-time high. The hot rumor this week is that the Warriors are the frontrunners to land Durant this summer, which would shake up the league like nothing since LeBron James going to Miami.

Obviously, all parties were going to be asked about it before the hotly anticipated game. And obviously, all parties were going to downplay it. That’s exactly what happened.

Here’s what Durant said, via the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Rusty Simmons:

“Once that time comes, I’ll make that decision. I’ll sit down and talk to my closest friends and family and figure it out, but right now, I’m just trying to be the best basketball player I can be every single day. I have to be at a high level to lead every day at practices, shootarounds and games, and that’s a tough task. I can’t focus on anything else, other than that.”

Warriors coach Steve Kerr also downplayed the speculation:

“I don’t know why anybody would talk about anything but the fact that we’re 45-4 and have a hell of a team,” said Kerr, who hasn’t addressed rumors about Durant favoring the Bay Area as a future destination with his players. “Why would anybody talk about some different team, future stuff and other players?

“Focus on our team. We’re pretty good.”

On both sides, that’s the appropriate way to respond publicly. Not that this is going to go away anytime soon. They play each other two more times this season, once in Oklahoma City and once more in Oakland, and this is going to get brought up then, too. And just like Saturday, nobody will give a definitive answer. Nor should they. Nobody will know anything until July 1. But until then, it will be impossible to quiet the chatter.

Pelicans shut down Tyreke Evans until after All-Star break

MEMPHIS, TN - NOVEMBER 06: Tyreke Evans #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans dribbles the ball during the NBA game against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum on November 6, 2013 in Memphis, Tennessee.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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the Pelicans have dealt with an inordinate amount of injuries so far this season to nearly every key payer on their roster. Tyreke Evans has missed the last five games with a lingering knee issue, and the team says he’s going to sit out their final four games before the All-Star break, as a precaution to make sure he’s healthy for the second half of the season.

From the Pelicans’ official site:

“We’re probably going to hold him out until after the All-Star break,” Alvin Gentry said during pregame at Quicken Loans Arena. “That gives him a situation where he has almost two weeks where he can rehab it and hopefully get it back. Hopefully he’ll be ready to go right after the All-Star break and we’ll be able to play him for the rest of the stretch (of the schedule).”

Evans initially missed the Jan. 2 game at Dallas due to the injury, then was sidelined again Jan. 18 at Memphis. Against Houston, he only played 16 minutes before being taken out of the game, suffering from the same issue.

“I think it’s just rest,” Gentry said of what it may take for Evans to get past the injury. “It’s one of those situations with tendinitis, where you rest and it feels better. That’s better than having him play two games, then sit out one (and have his status in flux). This may help him be able to play the last part of the season, without sitting out.”

Despite being 18-31, the Pelicans are just six games out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Their resting of Evans could be read two ways—it could be gearing up to make a push for the playoffs, as much of a long shot as that may be; or it could be the first in a series of instances of shutting down or resting key players to try to position themselves for a lottery pick, effectively hitting the reset button after a season as ravaged by injuries as the one they’ve had.

Bulls say Jimmy Butler has knee strain, no timetable for return

<> during the second half at TD Garden on December 9, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Celtics defeat the Bulls 105-100.
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Exhale, Bulls fans. Jimmy Butler‘s left knee injury isn’t as serious as it looked. The injury, which Butler suffered just before halftime of Friday night’s Bulls loss in Denver, looked bad at the time, and Butler had to be carted off the court. But on Saturday, the Bulls announced that an MRI revealed no tear in the knee, just a strain, and he’ll go back to Chicago to get treatment.

An MRI performed today on Bulls forward Jimmy Butler’s left knee confirmed that he sustained a knee strain in the second quarter of last night’s game against the Denver Nuggets.  The timeline for his return to play will be determined by further evaluation in Chicago and his response to treatment.

Butler will not play tonight in Minnesota. Beyond that, it’s unclear. But the fact that it’s just a strain and not anything more serious indicates that he won’t be out long.

Report: NBA considering expanding rosters for greater D-League integration

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 04:  A detail of the NBA Players Association logo with the slogan " THe Players' Union FIghting for You" is seen on Theo Ratliff of the Los Angeles Lakers as Derek Fisher, President of the National Basketball Players Association, speaks at a press conference after NBA labor negotiations at The Westin Times Square on October 4, 2011 in New York City.  (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
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The NBA Development League is in a weird place right now. It’s growing as more teams are placing importance on it and adding single-affiliate franchises, but it’s still not a true minor league. Players don’t make very much money unless they’re already signed to NBA deals, and teams have to have an open roster spot or waive someone they have currently signed to call someone up. Unless you’re sure you’re going to get called up at some point, it’s smarter for fringe players to sign overseas to make more money than go to the D-League.

The NBA is trying to do something about that. According to a new report, the league is interested in potentially expanding NBA teams’ rosters as part of the next CBA to allow for greater integration between the NBA and the D-League, and allow teams to have a couple of so-called “two-way” roster spots.

From Scott Howard-Cooper of NBA.com:

The NBA likes the idea of expanding rosters from the current limit of 15 to as many as 17 as part of the next Collective Bargaining Agreement with the additional spots designated for two-way contracts that will mean more money for some players and more control of select prospects for the parent clubs.

While it will be one of several major issues on the table as the league and the players’ union eventually ramp up negotiations on the new CBA that could end as soon as the conclusion of the 2016-17 season, if either side opts out by Dec. 15, the concept of a contract that would cover the minor leagues as well as the majors is a pressing topic for the hopeful D-League. And since the NBA runs the executive side of the D-League as well as most of the basketball operations for the minor-league clubs, the D-League and the NBA usually speak as one.

The proposal would mean as many as 60 new jobs for players, if rosters do increase by two and depending how many of the 30 NBA teams utilize both spots. That, in turn, would mean a deeper talent pool for the D-League as it grows from 19 teams this season to 22 in 2016-17 and possibly more in what is projected to be the first season of the new CBA. And that would mean more prospects for the NBA to develop without paying major-league salaries.

According to the report, players signed into these two-way roster spots could make as much as $100,000 to play in the D-League (player salaries currently max out around $25,000), which could incentivize players to stay home and play in the D-League rather than pursue overseas opportunities.

The plan is still early enough in the discussion stage that one of the most bottom-line elements — money — has not been settled. According to insiders, though, the thinking is to set the minor-league portion of the dual contract in the neighborhood of $100,000 a season, give or take $25,000.

That would only be for hopefuls with two-way contracts, not all D-League players with salaries that currently peak at $25,000 if they have no NBA deal. Salaries of players sent down with NBA contracts, usually rookies or second-year prospects, would not be altered. But even with a small number of players in the minors impacted, officials figure the chance to make a minimum of $100,000, while showcasing themselves in front of NBA scouts and executives most every game, while getting to be relatively close to home, will convince 60 players to accept a deal in the minors in North America rather than opt for more money overseas.

If the player with a two-way deal gets promoted, he will make the pro-rated minimum of NBA money. If he is sent back down, it will be with the cushion of $100,000 as the floor for the season, not the $25,000, $19,000 and even $13,000 (based on current numbers) others are making in the minors. There is also the possibility those tiers could increase with the next CBA as well.

Obviously, this isn’t going to happen until the next CBA is announced, if then. But it makes total sense, especially as the NBA gets closer to having true one-to-one affiliation. Right now, there are 19 D-League teams, each affiliated with an NBA team—10 as single-affiliates and nine under hybrid ownership models. Next year, the Bulls, Hornets and Nets are set to have their own D-League teams as well. It’s not hard to imagine that within the next few years, all 30 teams will have their own affiliates. And when that happens, there will need to be a mechanism in place for them to call players up and send them down that’s more in line with a true minor-league system like the one Major League Baseball employs. Even if that involves paying D-Leaguers more money and paying for two extra roster spots, it’s worth the trade-off in the long term if more top basketball talent stays in America rather than going overseas.