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.

Rumor: Portland coach Terry Stotts could lose job after being swept out of playoffs

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Regular season: Terry Stotts was mentioned as a Coach of the Year candidate after leading the Portland Trail Blazers to 49 wins and the three seed in the West, led by a top 10 defense.

Playoffs: Portland was swept out of the postseason in the first round by Anthony Davis.

The latter part of that is going to lead to some real soul searching and changes coming to the Trail Blazers. That could include Stotts losing his job, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

There is plenty of blame to go around for Portland’s quick exit from the postseason, Stein is right that it’s not all on Stott’s shoulders.

However, this is the third time in four years Portland is out in the first round, and it leads to the question “what is it about their style that makes them so defendable and beatable in the playoffs?” This is a little like Toronto in recent years, where despite a lot of talent they were predictable and therefore defendable in the postseason. How much of that falls on Stotts?

After a period of reflection in Portland, there are going to be changes in the wake of this sweep. Stotts’ job will be part of that discussion, no matter how good a job he did.

That said, if Stotts were to be let go he would hand on his feet very quickly.

After Ricky Rubio’s triple-double, Russell Westbrook promises to “shut that s*** off”

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Ricky Rubio outplayed Russell Westbrook Saturday night in Utah and now the Jazz are up 2-1 in that series.

Rubio did his damage from the midrange — he was 5-of-5 between the key and the arc — on his way to 26 points, to go with 11 rebounds and 10 assists. All series the Thunder have dared Rubio to shoot and to beat them, Saturday he did. It was a stark contrast to Westbrook’s 14 points on 17 shots Saturday with eight turnovers.

When asked about Rubio’s big night postgame, Westbrook was looking ahead to Game 4 and using a little NSFW language (hat tip to Ben Golliver of SI, who loves him some playoff podium video).

There you have it, a personal guarantee.

Rubio struggled some in Game 1, taking 18 shots and mostly the ones the Thunder wanted him to. However, after that he has been better at getting to his spots and taking the shots in rhythm, and it’s worked — he’s averaging 20.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 8 assists per game this series. OKC has been focused on making life difficult for rookie Donovan Mitchell (with limited success) and it’s freed up Rubio to make plays.

More than just slowing the Spanish point guard, Westbrook and the Thunder need to figure out how to get their offense back on track against a Jazz defense that was best in the NBA once Gobert got healthy last season. Oklahoma City lost Game 2 when their big three — Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony — went 0-of-15 in the fourth quarter. In Game 3, OKC averaged 100 points per 100 possessions (well below their season average of 110.2) and Westbrook shot 29.4 percent. Do that again in Game 4 and it will not matter what Rubio shoots, what matters is the Thunder could be looking at a 3-1 deficit. The Thunder need to even this series before it heads back to Oklahoma City.

Gregg Popovich will not coach Game 4 following death of his wife, Erin

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San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will not be on the sidelines again for Game 4 Sunday following the death of his wife, Erin, to a lengthy illness.

Ettore Messina will again coach the Spurs.

Popovich also missed Game 3. His San Antonio Spurs are down 3-0 to the Golden State Warriors in the first-round matchup. None of that matters compared to the loss of a woman he loved and was married to for four decades.

Erin Popovich’s passing has cast a pall over the series, especially with Warriors coach Steve Kerr being very close to the Popovichs dating back to his playing days with the Spurs.

The reaction and sadness about Erin’s passing has reached well beyond this series.

Our thoughts are with the Popovich family in this difficult time.

Anthony Davis’ 47 points, Pelicans sweep Trail Blazers out of playoffs

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Anthony Davis scored 33 of his franchise playoff-record 47 points in the second half, and the New Orleans Pelicans completed a first-round playoff sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers with a 131-123 victory on Saturday.

Jrue Holiday capped his 41-point performance with an 18-foot pull-up jumper that gave the Pelicans a six-point lead with 40 seconds left.

Rajon Rondo added 16 assists, and Davis also had 11 rebounds and three blocks for New Orleans, which is moving on to the second round of the playoffs for only the second time since the NBA returned to the city 16 seasons ago.

C.J. McCollum scored 38 for the Trail Blazers, who responded to a blowout loss in Game 3 by keeping Game 4 close until the final minute. Al-Farouq Aminu scored 27, Damian Lillard added 18 points and Jusuf Nurkic had 18 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out.

Lillard’s difficult driving layup had just tied the game at 60 when the Pelicans briefly pulled away, going on an 11-2 run capped by Davis’ 3.

Soon after, Nikola Mirotic added step-back 3. Davis, who scored 19 in the third quarter, then added a layup while falling down after a hard foul by Aminu, after which Davis flexed both biceps while still sitting on the court.

Holiday’s transition 3 made it 87-72, prompting Portland to call timeout while Holiday walked slowly toward mid-court, nodding and smiling wide as he soaked in the crowd’s adulation.

New Orleans led by 13 to start the fourth quarter, but Portland refused to wilt, opening the period on a 15-4 run that included Nurkic’s hook shot, 20-foot jumper and dunk. McCollum’s transition layup made it 104-102 with nearly nine minutes to play.

Portland got as close as a single point on Aminu’s layup with 5:08 to go, but Davis responded with 12 points over the final 4:56, starting with a layup as he was fouled and a 3-pointer. Holiday scored six points during the final 2:52, starting with his 3-pointer. The pair combined for all but one of New Orleans’ points during that pivotal stretch.

Leading up to Game 4, Lillard spoke of the need for the Blazers to ramp up their intensity and physicality. From the tip, it looked as though they’d done so.

In stark contrast to Game 3, when New Orleans led by 18 in the first quarter, this game was tight and testy.

Anthony and Ed Davis received double technical fouls after bumping one another following one of Anthony Davis’ dunks – and that was just the beginning.

McCollum was called for a flagrant foul when he stormed into the lane behind E'Twaun Moore and grabbed the Pelicans guard by the shoulders to thwart a driving layup attempt. Moore then shoved McCollum and was assessed a technical foul.

And in the final seconds of the half, double technicals were assessed to Rondo and Portland center Zach Collins after Rondo lowered his forehead into Collins’ chest and Collins shoved back.

When halftime arrived, New Orleans led 58-56.