2012 NBA Finals: 50 Observations

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The most entertaining Finals of probably the last fifteen years begins Tuesday night in Oklahoma City. With that here are 50 thoughts, observations, and predictions as the Oklahoma City Thunder face the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals.

1. This is going to be fun.

2. I’m not talking like “oh, hey, we’re going to go to the cabin and play board games with some other couples” fun. I’m talking “seven-day bender in Vegas” fun.

3. These finals feature the best individual talents in the league, at the same position, head-to-head. It’s two dominant players in their primes (or approaching their primes in Durant’s case, how terrifying is that?) going toe-to-toe for the NBA championship. You will not find two better basketball players on the planet than the two leading their teams onto the floor Tuesday night.

4. The “second fiddle” players on each team have a combined 44.5 PER in the playoffs, averaging a combined 44.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and 9.7 assists per game in the postseason. So that’s pretty good.

5. Speaking of, that’s going to be an incredible matchup when they run into one another. Dwyane Wade is still a tremendous defender and yet is wholly outmatched by Russell Westbrook’s speed and athleticism. Westbrook is a tenacious defender but not very skilled and with Wade going to the post more and more, that could get downright nasty for stretches.

6. You’re dealing with two of the best players in attacking in transition, with Westbrook’s top-end speed arguably the best in the league and Wade a master of getting his man out of position for the Euro-step.

7. This cannot be emphasized enough. Transition defense is the most important part of this series outside of turnovers.

8. There’s going to be a 1-to-1 ration on “team that wins turnover battle” and “team that wins the game” in this series. You let either one out with numbers, and you might as well call yourself a cab to get back home or to the hotel. It’s over.

9. But on long rebounds, which there will be a lot of in this series, due to the number of mid-range jumpers the Thunder take and the number of threes the Heat take, that’s where transition defense matters. Ibaka and James on chasedowns (don’t discount Wade’s ability to block shots). Getting out on trailer shooters, something both teams struggle with. It’s going to be a suspense movie every time there’s a break.

10. Trying to establish Harden’s impact is difficult. He’s going to make plays, but how will he react against the help defense for Miami, the best he’s going to have faced? Can he handle that much ball pressure and make the right pass? But on the other end of it, Wade or Battier may go for some of his fakes and once he gets space, the whole offense hits another gear. Big matchup.

11. That sound you just heard was Serge Ibaka swatting a Wade baseline pivot floater into Muskogee.

12. And the sound after that was Ibaka biting harder on a Chris Bosh pumpfake than a squirrel on a nut.

13. Ibaka has to shoot that mid-range jumper. It’s not a matter of hitting it, he’s good enough to hit it i he doesn’t get the yips. But Bosh’s length is going to give im pause. Can’t hesitate. Has to fire.

14. Kendrick Perkins and Udonis Haslem are going to get in a fight. This is not a prediction, it is a fact.

15. Perkins is going to average 4 fouls per game in this series, and most nights I’d take the over.

16. The control for the glass is going to be interesting because you have a series of good rebounders none of whom are dominant physically. Allowing extra possessions to these offenses is a bad plan.

17. The Heat have faced no offense that even comes close to Oklahoma City.

18. The Thunder have faced no defense that resides in the same universe as Miami.

19. The best weapon for Miami might be the trap on Westbrook. If they run the 1-3 pick and roll, clearly you can’t leave Durant open, but if he’s moving right to left towards the wing and Durant’s at top of the key, a help defender can close on Durant and force Westbrook into making either a jump-pass or cross-court pass under durress. That’s where you want him, but if he’s routinely breaking it you have to abandon it.

20. The objective needs to be taking the Thunder out of their comfort zone and trusting the defensive pressure to force mistakes. There’s nothing super complicated about the Thunder’s offense and as a result, there are fewer outlets if the first two options are pressured. Create cross-court passes, entry passes in traffic, dribbles through multiple defenders and the Heat can force their bread and butter, turnovers.

21. The Thunder do not want a physical, half-court series. Perkins said that yesterday in practice. I responded on Twitter with “So you want to die.” Because the Thunder don’t want that Heat defense locked in in front of them. They want them scrambling. You take your chances with the chasedown block.

22. Foul trouble is going to be massive in this series. You have two teams whose players are superstars, who draw a lot of fouls and don’t take many. So what gives? James Harden’s flops are legendary. Dwyane Wade’s even more so. Kevin Durant draws constant calls with the rip through (though new rules adjust it from being a shooting foul, it’s still a foul). LeBron James draws constant calls by being a freak of nature. Udonis Haslem gets caught out of position because of diminished athleticism. Serge Ibaka gets caught out of position because he’s always chasing weakside blocks.

23. So basically, something’s gotta give with the whistles in this series.

24. Derek Fisher is going to do about five things that make you marvel how many times he can make big plays in the Finals.

25. Derek Fisher is also going to do about five things that make you wonder how he can possibly be on the floor at this point.

26. Mike Miller’s played through enough pain to have earned being a Finals hero, right? Right? I wince watching that guy play. Not because he’s bad, but because it physically hurts to watch him play through that much pain.

27. Daequan Cook has “unlikely Finals hero” written all over him. That’s a wing shooter who can nail huge shots and isn’t a nightmare defensively.

28. Joel Anthony was DNP-CD’d several times against the smaller lineups of Boston. He could face the same issue if the Thunder go small with KD at the 4.

29. The Heat aren’t necessarily opposed to that idea, however, since James can play the 4 pretty easily and that eases one of their biggest liabilities, the lack of size.

30. I’m going to miss Boston for one reason only. Hearing Doc Rivers scream “Play together!” over and over again in Mic’d Up segments.

31. Average margin of victory for both teams might be under 6 in this series.

32. A plea: no white outs. Both teams have pulled them in the playoffs. White outs are the Worst. It looks like a tennis match.

33. By contrast, going with the blue-out would be great for OKC. They took grief over using it against the Mavericks with the similar color, but it creates a great visual.

34. Miami needs to go whole hog in this series for Game 4. Break out the black uniforms and give out black t-shirts. Blackout will be more intimidating, as intimidating as a Miami crowd can be.

35. Speaking of, that crowd showed UP vs. Boston in Game 7. So they’ve earned a tiny sliver of credit.

36. Naturally it’s nothing compared to OKC’s. They’re going to need to reinforce the building before Game 1 in Oklahoma.

37. This may break the record for most lobs in the Finals.

38. We’ll have the LeBron 4th quarter narrative break out a least once.

39. We’ll also have the “Russell Westbrook is a 4th quarter ball hog” at least once.

40. Neither will have much to do with what actually happened in the game.

41. Winning Game 1 for Miami would be massive. The Thunder are going to be ballistic in front of that crowd. It could be too much emotion, but honestly, that hasn’t yet in these playoffs.

42. Neither team is “evil.” Neither team is “good.” It’s two teams of professional athletes playing basketball. That’s it.

43. There will be complaints from someone about the lack of defense in this series because they don’t understand pace or offensive efficiency. You can book that.

44. The Thunder would do well to double Chris Bosh on the catch. It’s less about keeping the ball out of his hands and more about the potential force of turnovers from that situation. It’s not that Bosh doesn’t handle it well and more that the angles for the Heat offense get tougher.

45. Shane Battier has had to face Carmelo Anthony, David West, Brandon Bass, and Paul Pierce. So now all he has to do is guard Kevin Durant. Easy. /sends bottle of whiskey to Battier’s hotel room

46. Thabo Sefolosha has had to face Kobe Bryant, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker in the playoffs. So now all he has to do is guard Dwyane Wade or LeBron James. /sends bottle of gin to Sefolosha’s hotel room

47. You know who no one’s talking about in this series? Norris Cole. You know why? Because he doesn’t matter.

48. Mario Chalmers is probably going to surprise some folks. Chalmers is in the opposite position of LeBron. He has no expectations, and everyone thinks he’s kind of terrible, and yet there are three teams in his wake that are going “man, that guy was annoyingly good this year.”

49. If Brooks throws out that “Westbrook-Harden-Fisher” nonsense lineup he toyed with against San Antonio, the Thunder will get outscored by infinity to the power of everything.

50. LeBron. Durant. Let’s begin.

CJ McCollum on Carmelo, Kanter trade: “Stay woke, it’s a business”

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The most insane NBA offseason in recent memory got weirder this week when Carmelo Anthony was traded from the New York Knicks to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and a first round draft pick.

The trade has made many of us wonder just what the on the court play will look like in Oklahoma City this season with a high usage set of players in Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and now Carmelo.

Meanwhile, Kanter had made comments earlier in the week about expressing his appreciation for the fans in Oklahoma City. Having been traded just a few days later, that apparently didn’t sit right for some people. Or at the very least, it appeared to be a teaching moment.

Via Twitter:

There’s no doubt about this fact, and it is hard to try to refute McCollum here. This is the nature of the league and there is no such thing as complete loyalty — at least in the sense of how most people understand it interpersonally — between employers and their employees in the NBA.

Teams are going to trade players to make sure they can win the most games and maximize their profits. Likewise, players should take the biggest contract they can get if they feel that is in their best interest.

In any case, we are all excited to see what kind of shenanigans happen in Oklahoma City next year.

Paul George on Thunder: “This feels like a championship team”

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They have an MVP, top-five NBA player. They have another All-NBA player who is a strong wing defender. They now have an aging all-star who still can get buckets with the best of them. There is a strong collection of role players who can help form a solid defense.

On paper, there’s a lot to like with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Paul George realizes that, as he said to Sam Amick of the USA Today.

“This feels like a championship team,” George told USA TODAY Sports. “I’m in a good place. I know Russ (Westbrook) is in a good place. Melo is motivated more than ever…You put us three together, who all have something to prove still, (and) we’re going to be a special team. We have a young group, a lot of talent here, an unbelievable coach (in Billy Donovan), (and) as you see, a front office that’s willing to do whatever it takes to improve the team. It just has all the makeups to be a great organization and a chance to put championships together.”

Championships? Plural? That implies the team would stay together, and sorry Thunder fans, but that is far from a sure thing. First, financially there is no realistic way Oklahoma City can afford to sign Russell Westbrook and Paul George max deals (which they both will get) and keep Anthony if he opts into the final year of his contract for just shy of $28 million.

OKC is a small market team that simply would lose a lot of money to keep the band together, and this ownership group traded James Harden out of fear of a massive luxury tax bill. (They will pay a tax bill of about $24 million for this season if the roster stays as is.)

Also, George’s camp made it very clear during the run-up to his trade he plans to test free agency and has a strong lean to the Lakers next season. He may be more likely to stay in OKC now after the trade, but how much more?

However, George is right, this team does look like a roster that could contend for a title most years — and maybe be in the mix this year. We will put aside the Warriors challenge for a moment (they are still the clear favorites if they stay healthy) and get to the big question for the Thunder:

Will their big three learn to sacrifice, learn to mesh, learn to play together as a team as a championship team does fast enough? The 2008 Celtics did, but that team of veterans has been the exception. It took LeBron’s Miami Heat two seasons to learn how to win, and the same when he came back to Cleveland. OKC doesn’t have two seasons, they have to do it fast. It’s possible, but not easy.

George is right, this is an excellent Oklahoma City team. The Thunder are now right in the middle of that second tier in the West with Houston (another team that has to learn to mesh and sacrifice) and the Spurs. That’s a great place to be.

Is it a place George wants to stay? That question will hang over the Thunder all season.

 

Mark Cuban: Trump has “got to be able to take the blowback” from comments

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President Donald Trump used the bully pulpit of his office to, well, bully — he fired shots at the NFL over its concussion protocols and players kneeling during the national anthem. Then he rescinded his invite to the White House to the Warriors after Stephen Curry said he would vote not to go.

Sports stars fired back. LeBron James called Trump a bum, Chris Paul asked if he didn’t have better things to worry about, and the Warriors said as a team they would use their time in Washington this season to “celebrate equality, diversity and inclusion — the values that we embrace as an organization.” Even supporters of the President, such as Patriots owner Robert Craft, rebuked the president for his comments.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told NBC News in an exclusive interview for Meet the Press Trump has to be a big enough man to handle people standing up to him.

“If the president’s going to say something condemning a person, an industry, a sport, then he’s got to be able to take the blowback that’s going to come back,” Cuban told NBC News in an exclusive interview for “Meet the Press.”

“So LeBron [James] and Steph and any athlete, any owner, it’s an open door now, and so they have every right for the same reasons to be able to say whatever’s on their mind,” he said. “Now we’ll be able to see if he can take it.”

Unlike previous presidents of both parties, Trump is not good at letting criticism of him and his administration roll off his back to stay focused on his agenda. It’s more personal with him, and that is something Warriors coach Steve Kerr said is a problem for him, and the nation.

Bottom line, NBA players are not going to back off — their base isn’t going to push back against them for their comments. Most are going to nod their heads in agreement. The NBA fan demographic is not the NFL’s. This storyline is far from over.

Three questions the Indiana Pacers must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season: 42-40, swept in the first round

I know what you did last summer: Larry Bird resigned then the Pacers traded Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, a horrible deal that got the summer off on the wrong track. Indiana also swapped Jeff Teague, C.J. Miles and Monta Ellis for Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison and Cory Joseph in order to prevent bottoming out. The Pacers picked T.J. Leaf (No. 18), Ike Anigbogu (No. 47) and Edmond Sumner (No. 52) in the draft.

THREE QUESTIONS THE PACERS MUST ANSWER:

1) Will Indiana escape its unsatisfying track? The Pacers are headed toward winning 30-something games, missing the playoffs and picking in the bottom of the lottery. It’s a miserable place to be.

Be just a little better, and they could make the playoffs in the lowly Eastern Conference. Be just a little worse, and they could land a premier draft pick.

Either direction is preferable to the apparent status quo.

The Pacers clearly don’t want to tank. Hence, their offseason strategy. But if the season goes south quickly, they could embrace losing by trading veterans and/or giving more minutes to young players.

Competing for the playoffs is a little trickier, but Indiana has enough veterans where that could take care of itself. The odds are against it, but this team is capable of sneaking in with the right breaks.

2) Can Victor Oladipo handle the expectations thrust upon him? Oladipo didn’t choose to return to the basketball-crazed state where he starred in college. He didn’t ask to be the Pacers’ main return for Paul George.

But here he is.

Oladipo is a solid player, and at 25, he might still be improving. He’ll have to in order to justify the George trade (and maybe even his four-year, $84 million contract extension that kicks in this season).

No longer playing with Russell Westbrook should help. Oladipo regressed while trying to play a spot-up role next to the Oklahoma City superstar last season. Indiana needs Oladipo to be more aggressive with the ball, a role that better suits him. Whether he’s good enough to handle those responsibilities on a good team is another question entirely, though.

3) Will Myles Turner break out? With George gone, Turner is now the Pacers’ franchise player (ignoring how the team might market Oladipo, who returns after starring with the Hoosiers).

Turner has all the potential to be a modern rim-protecting, 3-point-shooting center. He can get more comfortable beyond the arc. He must fine-tune his defense. But all the future looks bright for the 21-year-old.

He was intriguing as a rookie then even better last year. How steeply Turner continues to ascend will play a major role in whether Indiana exceeds expectations this season – and how its rebuild looks beyond.