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.

Who is next Pacers’ coach? Here are five names being mentioned early

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 29:  Head Coach Mike D'Antoni of the Phoenix Suns reacts to a score against the San Antonio Spurs in Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2008 NBA Playoffs at the AT&T Center on April 29, 2008 in San Antonio, Texas. The spurs would win the game 92-87 and the series 4-1.   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 Harry How/Getty Images)
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Who wants to be the Pacers next coach for three seasons? Five tops.

In explaining why he let a popular and well-respected coach in Frank Vogel go, Pacers president Larry Bird says he doesn’t think a coach should be with a team more than five years because the voice and message gets stale. You hear that Gregg Popovich, your message is stale. As a side note, no doubt that coaches’ agents heard Bird’s words — they want a place their client can succeed and stay long term, Bird seemed to take part of that equation off the table.

So who is up next in the big chair for the Pacers? Not Kevin McHale, but besides him. The amazing Candace Buckner of the Indy Star had five names she has heard, let’s take a close look at them.

• Mike D’Antoni. Forget the year’s thing, the real reason Frank Vogel is out in Indiana (and about to make another team’s defense much better) is he wouldn’t play small and fast lineups as much as Bird wanted. That will not be an issue with Mike D’Antoni, who is currently under contract as a Sixers assistant. Before you say “his team’s stink on defense” remember that his Suns teams were middle of the pack in defensive rating (back then fans and most media members were just starting to talk about pace and per-possession stats, all they saw was the points allowed per game by the Suns). Yes, his first two seasons with the Knicks and his Lakers teams struggled defensively, and that is certainly not D’Antoni’s focus, but part of the issue with those teams’ defense was the personnel.

I believe D’Antoni can coach a contender in this league, but it comes with the caveat that you have to give him his players to fit with his system. He needs to win his way (he tried to adjust in Los Angeles, but that was a disaster all around). If Bird brings him in, he needs to put together a D’Antoni roster.

• Mark Jackson.
The former Pacers star guard helped develop the talent that is winning championships and setting records in Golden State. And he certainly was willing to play fast while getting them to defend. However he comes with concerns: How involved he was in the details of running the team was questioned by Warriors management, he clashed with multiple assistants, and he created an “us against the world” locker room mentality where “the world” included management. Bird has to be sure this someone he can work with.

• Brian Shaw. His Denver teams played fast — third and fourth fastest in the NBA his two seasons there. Of course, they didn’t defend very well, didn’t execute well, and Shaw struggled to relate to younger players, but they did play fast. The Nuggets let him go to bring in someone they thought could develop a better culture (Mike Malone). His assistant coach resume is impressive (being on Phil Jackson’s staff with the Lakers), did he learn and gro from his first time in the big chair?

• Randy Wittman. This is a head scratcher. Not because the gruff Wittman can’t coach — he knows the game and got his teams to defend — but he prefers to play big and slow, and when forced to go smaller and faster this season in Washington his team struggled. If Bird wants to play fast, Wittman is an odd choice. But if he wants and old-school coach, this is his guy.

• Mike Woodson. Another bit of a head scratcher if Bird wants to play fast, but Woodson’s Hawks teams got better each season he was there. The offenses weren’t creating — remember “iso Joe?” — but his teams defended and played smart ball. He could get the job done; the Pacers would play smart under him.

If I were a betting man, I’d have my money on Pacers’ assistant Nate McMillan, a former NBA head coach and someone comfortable with the Pacers players and organization. It would be a smooth transition, and his teams would play faster.

But is he — or any of these guys — an upgrade over Vogel?

NBA releases names of all players invited to NBA Draft Combine, Ben Simmons not on it

DURHAM, NC - DECEMBER 15:  Brandon Ingram #14 of the Duke Blue Devils brings the ball up the court against the Georgia Southern Eagles during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on December 15, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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The NBA Draft Combine has become more and more like the NFL’s version: There’s a lot of talk, the top players don’t take part in the drills, the player interviews are what matter most, and at the end of the day most players don’t actually move up or down that much based on the results.

The leading example of this: The NBA released the names of all the players invited to the combine this season, and projected No. `1 pick Ben Simmons of LSU isn’t on there. He has chosen not to attend. Anther top 10 player in Dragan Bender will not be there, but he has a valid reason as his team Maccabi Tel Aviv is still playing. This year more top names than normal will be in attendance, with the most notable absences from people we know will be in the draft being Dejounte Murray and Domantas Sabonis.

One player who will draw a lot of eyeballs is Zhou Qi, the 7’2″ center out of China, who scouts have not seen much up close. He may not participate in scrimmages.

Here is the full list of attendees:

Ron Baker (Wichita State)
Wade Baldwin (Vanderbilt)
Cat Barber (North Carolina State)
Malik Beasley (Florida State)
DeAndre Bembry (St. Joseph’s)
Ben Bentil (Providence)
Jaron Blossomgame (Clemson)
Joel Bolomboy (Weber State)
Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia)
Jaylen Brown (California)
Robert Carter (Maryland)
Marquese Chriss (Washington)
Elgin Cook (Oregon)
Isaiah Cousins (Oklahoma)
Deyonta Davis (Michigan State)
Cheick Diallo (Kansas)
Kris Dunn (Providence)
Henry Ellenson (Marquette)
Perry Ellis (Kansas)
A.J. English (Iona)
Kay Felder (Oakland)
Dorian Finney-Smith (Florida)
Michael Gbinije (Syracuse)
Daniel Hamilton (Connecticut)
A.J. Hammond (Purdue)
Josh Hart (Villanova)
Nigel Hayes (Wisconsin)
Buddy Hield (Oklahoma)
Brandon Ingram (Duke)
Demetrius Jackson (Notre Dame)
Justin Jackson (North Carolina)
Brice Johnson (North Carolina)
Damian Jones (Vanderbilt)
Skal Labissiere (Kentucky)
Dedric Lawson (Memphis)
Jake Layman (Maryland)
Marcus Lee (Kentucky)
Caris LeVert (Michigan)
Thon Maker (Orangeville Prep/Athlete Institute)
Patrick McCaw (UNLV)
Isaiah Miles (St. Joseph’s)
Jamal Murray (Kentucky)
Malik Newman (Mississippi State)
Georges Niang (Iowa State)
Chinanu Onuaku (Louisville)
Marcus Paige (North Carolina)
Gary Payton III (Oregon State)
Jakob Poeltl (Utah)
Taurean Prince (Baylor)
Zhou Qi (Xinjiang, China)
Malachi Richardson (Syracuse)
Wayne Selden (Kansas)
Pascal Siakam (New Mexico State)
Diamond Stone (Maryland)
Caleb Swanigan (Purdue)
Melo Trimble (Maryland)
Tyler Ulis (Kentucky)
Jarrod Uthoff (Iowa)
Denzel Valentine (Michigan State)
Isaiah Whitehead (Seton Hall
Troy Williams (Indiana)
Kyle Wiltjer (Gonzaga)
Stephen Zimmerman (UNLV)

Steve Kerr on if Stephen Curry will play Saturday: “Probably not”

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 01:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors reacts on the bench during the second quarter of their game against the Portland Trail Blazers during Game One of the Western Conference Semifinals for the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 01, 2016 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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Two days before Golden State heads into Portland for Game 3 of its second-round series, the Warriors practice ended with a relatively intense scrimmage.

Stephen Curry was a bystander.

Well, not exactly, he was working out with a trainer on another court, but he didn’t play in the scrimmage. And he likely will not play on Saturday in Game 3, Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, via Monte Poole of CSNBayArea.com.

Though Curry’s status has been upgraded from definitely “out” to “probable” for Game 3 against the Trail Blazers on Friday at Moda Center in Portland, it’s more realistic that he’ll return for Game 4 on Monday.

Asked if Curry could be cleared for Game 3, coach Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, “Probably not.”

That fits with the original timeline, which was two weeks.

The Warriors are up 2-0 in the series, and regardless of the outcome on Saturday they will want Curry back on Sunday. If the Trail Blazers win at home this becomes the same scenario Golden State faced against Houston, wanting to make sure the Warriors win one game on the road they bring back the once-and-future MVP to the lineup.

Even if the Warriors win Game 3 and have a 3-0 lead, if they can bring Curry back they need to. With all this time off he’s going to be rusty (he looked it in the one part of Game 4 against Houston he did play) and the Warriors need to make sure he shakes that off before the Conference Finals, when the Warriors will need him at full strength regardless of opponent.

Kobe Bryant’s “Dear Basketball” retirement announcement to be made into short animated film

In this photo taken Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant waves good bye to the fans after an NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings in his last appearance at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, Calif. Renamed SleepTrain Arena, the facility has been the home of the Kings since it opened in 1988. The Kings won an NBA-best 61 games in the 2001-02 season behind Chris Webber and Vlade Divac, losing to the eventual champion Lakers in Game 7 of the conference finals. The Kings will play their last game at the aging building, Saturday against the Oklahoma City Thunder and begin play next season at the new Golden One Center built in downtown Sacramento. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
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What’s next for Kobe Bryant after his retirement tour?

Apparently a little more focus on his retirement tour.

Kobe announced his retirement just after Thanksgiving via a “Dear Basketball” poem on The Players’ Tribune. Now Bryant and his new “storytelling” production company have teamed up with Sports Illustrated to turn that poem into an animated short film. From the press release:

Time Inc.’s Sports Illustrated Group and NBA legend Kobe Bryant’s new production company, Kobe Studios, along with Believe Entertainment Group, announced an exclusive multi-platform video production and development project devoted to Dear Basketball, Bryant’s poetic tribute to the game. The collaboration includes the world premiere of Dear Basketball the animated short film on SI.com as well as a series of exclusive SI Films mini documentaries taking viewers behind the scenes of the animation process. Dear Basketball is targeted to premiere in the fall on SI.com….

“Dear Basketball is the perfect tribute to something I’ve loved for so long. Glen and John are two legends in their industries, so to partner with them on the creative process is a dream come true,” said Bryant. “Working with Sports Illustrated on this special project is an amazing opportunity to hopefully inspire fans all over the world.”

I have no idea what a poem about basketball turned into an animated short film is going to look like, but it should be interesting. It’s got to be better than that last Sponge Bob movie.

I guess this is a logical first step for Kobe in this kind of production, playing off his brand and into a topic where he should be very comfortable. I’d sit here and be snarky about it, but we all know we’re going to watch it, right?