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.

Worst dunks in All-Star Dunk Contest history? We got that video.

at Verizon Center on February 5, 2016 in Washington, DC. 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.
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The All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest has brought some memorable moments — Dr. J and Michael Jordan gliding through the air, Dwight Howard in a Superman cape, Nate Robinson showing off serious hops, through last season and Zach LaVine re-energizing the event with his athletic throw downs.

But there have been some duds, too — and from some elite dunkers. Here is a highlight mix of the worst, which is almost as much fun as the best. Enjoy, then tune in for hopefully more good than bad from Toronto Saturday night on TNT when LaVine and the dunk contest return.

Reports: Cavaliers look to trade for shooters such as Ben McLemore, Kyle Korver

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 28:  Ben McLemore #23 of the Sacramento Kings shoots a free throw during a game against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center on January 28, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Pelicans defeated the Kings 114-105. 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 Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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The Cleveland Cavaliers have looked at their roster, have seen the Golden State Warriors up close, and are thinking they would like to add a shooter on the wing at the trade deadline.

Multiple reports have the Cavaliers actively looking around on the trade market, although whether they can get anything done before the Feb. 18 deadline remains to be seen. At the top of the list is Sacramento’s Ben McLemore, reports Chris Haynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The Cavaliers, among with a handful of other Eastern Conference teams, have strong interest in trading for Sacramento Kings guard Ben McLemore, league sources told cleveland.com…

The Kings have declined overtures for their young 3-point marksman. But with the direction and state of the organization, external pressure could come into play when it comes to potentially moving talent. It’s widely known within league circles that agents have been pushing to get their clients out of Sacramento with the franchise embroiled in dysfunction and turmoil.

This sounds like a leak from an agent more than something the Kings are open to. McLemore swings between showing promise and being disappointing nightly. He’s athletic, he can defend well, he’s shooting 37.2 percent from three this season, but he also takes mental vacations during games (especially on defense), and he can be a turnover machine. The Cavaliers feel if they can get him in their system they can provide a better environment for development than Sacramento.

There are other options, but they may be just as unlikely.

Houston’s Trevor Ariza, Atlanta’s Kyle Korver and Washington’s Jared Dudley are all on the Cavaliers’ radar, but landing one of those three is highly unlikely.

If Joe Johnson secures a buyout in Brooklyn, league sources are adamant Cleveland would “snatch him up” for the veteran minimum.

The first three would be good fits, but the price for them will be higher than the Cavs want to pay. The Johnson buyout is a possibility (no way they will move that salary at the deadline), but the buyout is not a sure thing — will Johnson leave money on the table just to get out of Brooklyn?

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst threw out interesting names recently.

Tyreke Evans made some sense until his recent injury ended his season and that idea. Omer Asik makes zero sense. He’s a slower, less athletic, far more expensive version of Timofey Mozgov — why would the Cavaliers want him?

John Wall bangs knee in loss to Bucks, puts All-Star Game in jeopardy

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It was early in the Bucks’ win over the Wizards in the final game before the All-Star break for both teams, John Wall was pushing the ball in transition, and he collided with O.J. Mayo and drew the foul.

He also hurt his knee. Wall played through the pain the rest of the game on his way to 15 points (on 5-of-19 shooting) and 10 assists, but after the game questioned whether he could go in Sunday’s All-Star Game, where he is slated to be a reserve. From Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post.

That said, our own J. Michael of CSNMidAtlantic.com says things may not be that bad.

Wall was voted in by the coaches, if he couldn’t go the league would pick a last-minute replacement. But it’s big for Wall’s brand to be seen on that stage, coach Tyronn Lue can limit his minutes if needed, so I would bet on him being in the game.

Thunder beat Pelicans; teams mourn Ingrid Williams’ death

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Basketball didn’t matter much to Kevin Durant on Thursday night.

Thunder assistant coach Monty Williams’ wife, Ingrid, was involved in a car crash Tuesday night in Oklahoma City and died Wednesday. Monty Williams coached the Pelicans last season before coming to Oklahoma City to help new coach Billy Donovan, so as his two most recent teams met, both played with heavy hearts. A moment of silence was observed before the Thunder’s 121-95 victory.

Durant was distraught earlier in the day while discussing the situation after the team’s shootaround, and he said it remained fresh in his mind after the game.

“We love the game so much, but that’s not really what’s important,” Durant said. “It’s definitely something that we love to do, but relationships, family – those things – that’s what’s most important in life, not the latest trends or the fashion world or all that stuff. It’s cool and all that stuff, but the stuff that lasts forever is relationships, family and love.”

Donovan wasn’t sure how his team would deal with all that happened. Durant scored 23 points, Russell Westbrook had 23 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds, and Serge Ibaka added 18 points.

“I really appreciated all of our guys, the way they all have handled a really difficult situation these past 24 hours and being able to go out and play,” Donovan said.

Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday each scored 23 points for the Pelicans. Davis, who was emotional on Twitter after learning of the death, still was disappointed in the way the Pelicans played.

“We’ve got to go out there and still compete,” he said. “Go out there and play. We had a job to do tonight.”

Oklahoma City has won 14 of 16 heading into the All-Star break to join Golden State and San Antonio as the only teams with at least 40 wins. The Thunder don’t feel much needs to change to compete for the title.

“No switch-up, just enhance and get better at what we do.”

The Thunder led 62-53 at halftime behind 18 points from Westbrook and 17 from Durant.

Westbrook got his 10th assist on Ibaka’s 3-pointer that gave the Thunder a 79-65 lead. He had his ninth rebound with just under 3 minutes to go in the third quarter before heading to the bench for his usual rest and the Thunder ahead 86-68. Oklahoma City led 95-74 at the end of the third quarter.

Oklahoma City’s backups expanded the lead early in the fourth quarter, and Westbrook didn’t return.

“I don’t know what we can take out of it other than we competed like crazy in the first half,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said. “Tried like crazy in the second half, but when they got separation, it was really difficult.”

The Thunder found an escape from pain through playing.

“Basketball, the effect it has, it allows you to forget about things a little bit, and it also brings you together as a group,” Durant said. “Thankful for that.”

 

TIP-INS

Pelicans: Shot 53.5 percent from the field in the first half, but just 43.2 percent for the game. … Were outrebounded 50-31 … Committed just nine turnovers. … Norris Cole scored 15 points.

Thunder: Shot 52.3 percent from the field. … Thunder G Andre Roberson remained out with a right knee sprain. … Anthony Morrow scored 10 points. … Enes Kanter finished with 11 points and 12 rebounds.