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.

Raptors’ Norman Powell had a couple monster dunks Monday (VIDEO)

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“Give all praise to Norman Powell with his energy, his athleticism, his passion, just everything he brought to us this series.”

That was Kyle Lowry talking about what his Raptor Norman Powell, who put up a career playoff best 25 points in the Raptors’ Game 5 win. Powell played good defense on Khris Middleton and drained some deep threes to help Toronto pull away in this one. Lowry was so impressed after the game at a press conference he told the media to ask Powell questions, not him.

Oh, and Powell threw down some huge dunks, too. Just check out the video.

Pacers offseason plans has Paul George question hanging over it

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The questions started less than an hour after the Indiana Pacers season officially ended.

Will Paul George commit to playing for the Pacers beyond next season? Will Jeff Teague re-sign with his hometown team? What does Indiana really need to become a championship contender?

Nobody wants to learn the answers more than George.

“If we want to win, (Cleveland is) a team that we have to work toward stacking up against,” he said following Sunday’s 106-102 loss to the defending champion Cavaliers. “At some point, if we want to be serious as a team, we’ve got to look at how we can match up against them.”

Obviously, that starts with George. At 26, the four-time All-Star has already played in two conference finals, won an Olympic gold medal – and been eliminated in the playoffs by LeBron James‘ team four of the last six years. George is signed through next season and Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird has already promised George would get a max deal.

If George makes an all-NBA team, as expected, the value of that deal could jump by roughly $75 million.

That’s a lot of money to leave on the table if he decides to test free agency when his contract expires following the 2017-18 season.

But there was enough concern that George might go anyway that there were rumors he could be dealt at the trade deadline. And lingering uncertainty could affect what the Pacers do this offseason and there will certainly be more trade speculation about George, with his hometown Los Angeles Lakers likely in any discussion.

So far, George isn’t saying anything about his thoughts.

“I’m not even at that point yet,” he said.

The one thing Indiana can’t afford – getting nothing in return for their best player.

Bird declined to discuss George on Monday while in New York to deliver the Pacers’ bid to host the 2021 All-Star Game. Bird’s problem is this: He can’t do much until the NBA draft, which is two months away, or until free agency opens in July.

That gives George roughly two months to produce an answer.

While George hasn’t said what he wants to see from the organization, he seemed to enjoy being reunited with longtime friend and 2010 draft mate Lance Stephenson. And re-signing Teague may help, too.

But will it be enough to convince George the Pacers are moving in the right direction?

“You take a year like last year, with that group, we felt like if you added a couple pieces to that group we’d have something again,” George said. “We’ll see what moves the team makes and how it stacks up going forward.”

TEAGUE TIME

Teague has repeatedly told reporters all season how much he’s enjoyed playing in his hometown. He was the only player on the Pacers roster to start all 86 games this season.

Bird made it clear last summer after acquiring Teague that the Pacers were trying to sign him to a contract extension. But there’s still no deal and now Teague is on the verge of becoming a free agent and getting a lucrative contract because of changes to the salary cap.

“I love Indiana, man, you know me – born and raised. I’ve got the tattoos on my arm. I’ve wanted to play for the Pacers my whole life,” he said.

UNDER CONTRACT

Many expected the Pacers to be one of the top four teams in the East after making so many moves last season.

Instead, under first-year coach Nate McMillan, Indiana never really got in sync with the exception of a seven-game winning streak at midseason and the five-game winning streak that got them into the playoffs. He doesn’t anticipate going anywhere this offseason.

“I do have a contract for next season,” he said.

TURNING THE CORNER

The Cavs’ series exposed one significant flaw in Myles Turner‘s game – strength. Turner got shoved around inside through each of the first three games before finishing the series with a flurry Sunday.

McMillan made it clear even before Indiana’s final playoff game that Turner must get stronger so he can be a more physical player next season.

More AP NBA: apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Warriors put up historic 45 in first quarter on way to 128-103 Game 4 rout, sweep of Blazers

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This game was never in doubt. Much like the entire first-round series.

Golden State had Kevin Durant back and he hit a pull-up three to open the game, and pretty soon the Warriors had stretched the lead to 12-0 on a Klay Thompson three (and eventually were up 14-0).

That led to the Warriors putting up a historic 45 points in the first quarter, tying for the most points in an NBA playoffs first quarter ever. The Warriors were up 23 after one, and never looked back on their way to a 128-103 Game 4 rout, completing the sweep of Blazers.

There’s not much to analyze here, this game is was similar to so many games over the past couple seasons where the Warriors overwhelmed their opponents. Portland fought, but this was not going to be their game or their series. Here are some highlights.

Stephen Curry had 37 points, Draymond Green 21, and Klay Thompson had 18.

Damian Lillard had 34 points for Portland.

It may have been a disappointing ending to the season for Portland, but the team found a center late this season in Jusuf Nurkic who balances out what Lillard and C.J. McCollum bring on the outside. The Blazers have to figure out how to become a better defensive team this summer, but they took a step forward after the All-Star break that they can build on.

The Warriors will get some rest before taking on the Jazz or Clippers in the next round.

Hawks battle back to knot series with Wizards, 2-2

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Paul Millsap shoved Markieff Morris out of the way, grabbed an offensive rebound in the middle of the paint and pushed through a shot while Marcin Gortat bumped him to the floor.

The Wizards knocked down Atlanta. They didn’t stop the Hawks.

Millsap and Atlanta showed plenty of fight, topping Washington 111-101 in Game 4 Monday to tie their first-round series 2-2 after falling behind 2-0.

Have the Hawks seized meaningful momentum? History says no.

Teams that have won the first two games of a best-of-seven series at home then lost the next two on the road have won 81% of the time. The Wizards’ regular-season superiority still speaks loudly, and up to two more home games – starting with Game  5 Wednesday – also help.

Still, credit Atlanta for making the series competitive after digging such a big hole.

Millsap (19 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and two steals) soundly outplayed Markieff Morris (nine points on 3-of-10 shooting, -10) in the latest round of their personal feud. Millsap also got plenty of help with seven Hawks scoring double digits.

Kent Bazemore (16 points, seven assists and three steals) played meaningful defense and hit a couple big shots. Jose Calderon (10 points, five assists, +29 in 20 minutes) provided a huge spark. Dwight Howard (16 points and 15 rebounds) asserted himself for the first time this series. Taurean Prince (11 points on 5-of-7 shooting) picked his spots well. Dennis Schroder (18 points on 6-of-15 shooting) had his ups and downs. Tim Hardaway Jr. (15 points) at least offset some of his defensive shortcomings.

This was a total team win.

Washington, on the other hand, got little outside its starting backcourt. Bradley Beal (32 points) thrived, and John Wall (22 points and 10 assists) was still good in an off-by-his-standards performance. But the Wizards crumbled when either sat – especially with both on the bench in the late third/early fourth quarters. Erasing those few minutes with staggering would’ve helped, though it wouldn’t have been the answer tonight.

This has become a far less certain series than Washington hoped, but the Wizards don’t need a wild fix. They just need their top players to play better. Maybe going home will help.