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.

Isaiah Thomas is up for a Cavaliers vs. Celtics playoff clash

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Isaiah Thomas says he has moved on from the trade this summer that caught him off guard, shipping him from Boston — where he was a fan favorite — to Cleveland.

Sort of. Like a lot of sudden relationship ends, Thomas says he’s moved on, but it doesn’t sound like he totally has yet. Look at what he told Sam Amick of the USA Today in an interesting Q&A.

“I’ve put it behind me, and I’ve continued to try to do that… But other than that, every day that I’m in the gym or that I’m on the court or in the weight room or doing whatever I have to do to get back to who I was, and get back to being 100 percent healthy, yes I do use it as motivation.”

Thomas has yet to set foot on the court as a Cavalier, spending the start of the season rehabbing a hip injury. He’s expected back next month.

It’s very early in the NBA season, we’re not at 20 games or even Thanksgiving yet, but it has become evident that the Cavaliers have some legitimate defensive concerns, and that the Boston Celtics are a legitimate threat to them.

That would set up a series between Thomas’ old team that he’s still a little angry at, and his new team in Cleveland. And Thomas is good with that.

“Oh, that would be lovely. That would be the story that God made, and it probably will work that way. It always does. It always works – I’m not going to say in my favor, but it seems to always work out no matter what the circumstance is. That would be a special moment. If they make it there, and we make it there, and then we clash, and then you never know what’s going to happen. But I’ll be ready for whatever happens.”

Not enough NBA players use the word “lovely” anymore.

But I’m with Thomas, I want to see that series, too.

Cavaliers’ Derrick Rose out two more weeks due to sprained ankle

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With Isaiah Thomas still rehabbing, the Cleveland Cavaliers have had to lean more on Derrick Rose at the point, when he is available (he’s only played in half of Cleveland’s games). More Rose has not been good for Cleveland’s defense, and it’s forced Tyronn Lue to play Kevin Love more at center just to have enough shooting on the floor, so there are driving lanes for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

Now we will have to see what Lue and the Cavaliers do without Rose for a couple more weeks. Rose will be out for a couple of weeks with his sprained left ankle, the team announced Friday afternoon.

“Due to continued symptoms, the ankle will be immobilized in a boot for the next week and he will also undergo an extended treatment process over the next two to three weeks.”

Rose has averaged 14.3 points on 47 percent shooting this season in Cleveland.

With Rose and Thomas out, Cleveland has gone with Iman Shumpert technically as the point, although LeBron handles the playmaking duties. He brings some size to the position, but he can’t defend quick point guards well (not that Rose could). This new lineup has won the Cavaliers a couple of games in a row, although that has been far more about their offense making runs rather than their struggling defense (last in the NBA) stepping up.

It’s been tough to get a feel for this Cavaliers team and what they really are this season, in part due to all the injuries. This simply adds to that mess.

The Cavaliers take on the slumping Clippers Friday night.

Nets’ D’Angelo Russell has arthroscopy knee surgery, will miss time

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D'Angelo Russell has played well since being traded across the country and handed the keys to the Brooklyn franchise. He has averaged 20.9 points and 5.7 assists per game, been a more efficient shooter (he’s only hitting 29.7 percent from three, but he is getting to the line more than he used to, is knocking it down from the midrange, and his true shooting percentage is at 53.9, about the league average). He may not look like what teams hope for out of a former No. 2 overall pick, but he’s played well.

Now the Nets will need to get by without him for a while — what was sold as a “knee contusion” by the team has turned out to require surgery, the team announced Friday.

While there is no timetable, it likely means a month to six weeks he is out. It depends on what they found and what was done in his knee, details we don’t yet have.

The Nets are already without Jeremy Lin, who is out for the season with a ruptured patela tendon. Spencer Dinwiddie will start at the point with Russell out, and guys such as Caris LeVert and Isaiah Whitehead will need to carry more of the shot creation load.

Brooklyn is 5-9 on the season, and while not a good team they are better than many projected (and better than Sixers fans were hoping). This is undoubtedly going to be a step back for an offense already 23rd in the league.

 

Report: Adam Silver quickly shot down check of his interest in being NFL Commissioner

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Being commissioner of the NFL is a tough job right now. Television ratings are down, which is due to big picture sports viewing trends far, far more than a controversy about players kneeling during the National Anthem. Although a lightning rod issue with the President involved certainly doesn’t help. Then there are real concerns about brain damage in players long term, and how that is keeping participation from younger generations down in the sport.

Not that Roger Goodell has done a particularly good job handling any of it, which in part is why there is a palace coup trying to take place and force him out, led by Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones.

If Goodell is forced out – and that’s still a big “if” — the next question becomes who steps in. Someone reached out to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to see if he was interested, reports Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham of ESPN (hat tip Boogiewonderland13 at NBA Reddit). That went nowhere fast.

The owners, though, have considered other successors. A confidant of one owner reached out to gauge whether Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, would be interested in running the NFL, to which Silver immediately said no.

Silver is too savvy to want to step into that job right now. Silver is, by his nature, a consensus builder as a commissioner — as opposed to the more dictatorial David Stern — and good luck trying to find a consensus among these bickering NFL owners.

Silver is going to ride out a fairly lengthy term as NBA Commissioner, then retire into some fairly healthy consulting/speaking fees. He’s in a good spot. He’s too smart to blow that to try and appease Jerry Jones.