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.

Called out by LeBron James, reporter Kenny Roda defends himself

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LeBron James reacted to the Cavaliers’ Game 3 loss to the Celtics by jawing with a fan and saying he was glad Cleveland lost.

The peculiarities didn’t end there.

LeBron called out Kenny Roda of WHBC for asking a question.

For full context, the earlier times LeBron addressed his individual performance and both of Roda’s questions are included in the above video. So is the funny look LeBron shot someone (Roda?) after the press conference. Here’s the noteworthy exchange:

  • Roda: “For you, you said it was just your game. Couldn’t get into a rhythm tonight, is that what it was? Based on their defense or just not feeling it or or what?”
  • LeBron: “Nah, I was just pretty poor. I mean, what do you want me to say? It sees like you only ask questions when we lose. It’s a weird thing with you, Kenny. You always come around when we lose, I swear. Yeah, OK.”

Roda:

“You cover us only when we lose” is a too-common complaint in high school sports. It’s odd to see LeBron employ it, though saying Roda asks questions only when the Cavs lose is a wrinkle that adds plausibility to LeBron’s claim. Still, it’s tough to believe.

Even if LeBron is right that Roda asks questions only when Cleveland loses, so what? Asking a question isn’t a sign Roda is happy the team lost or is trying to rub it in. Players tend to be testier after losses (case in point), and asking question then can be more difficult. If Roda puts himself out there after only losses, kudos to him.

LeBron’s struggles were the dominant storyline in Game 3. Getting him to expand on what went wrong was a worthy goal. Roda’s question probably wasn’t distinctive enough to get more out of LeBron after his first two responses about his performance, but the inquiry was on the right path. Asking a vague question on a topic already covered vaguely is only a minor offense.

LeBron understands the media better than most. This was a weird time to pick a public battle, which makes me think this was more frustration than ploy.

Stephen Curry: Dewayne Dedmon’s screen was ‘dirty play’ (video)

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Late in the Warriors’ Game 3 win over the Spurs on Saturday, San Antonio center Dewayne Dedmon appeared to initiate knee-to-knee contact on a screen of Stephen Curry.

Curry, via Chris Haynes of ESPN:

“I know he’s not a dirty player. I’m not going to try to mess up his reputation, but I feel like that was a dirty play,” Curry responded to ESPN. “Luckily no one was hurt.”

Golden State is clearly trying to gain equal footing in the dirty debate after Zaza Pachulia injured Kawhi Leonard – and gain the moral high ground by not calling a player dirty and bringing the consequences that invites.

But this isn’t the same as Pachulia’s double-slide closeout under a fading shooter.

It’s much easier to assign intent when watching in slow motion. Innocuous actions tend to look deliberate when viewed at partial speed, because we subconsciously believe players process their movements at the same rate we process their movements – but slow motion gives us an advantage.

Dedmon’s screen was probably illegal, but dirty? I’m not sure. I don’t know his intent, but executing that move intending to injure Curry would require incredible precision. Maybe Dedmon tries that often, usually misses and just happened to strike here. But I don’t see enough to assume this was a dirty play

LeBron James on Cavaliers’ Game 3 loss to Celtics: ‘I’m glad it kind of happened the way it did’

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After two dominant wins in Boston, the Cavaliers appeared on track to cruise into the NBA Finals.

Cleveland responded by getting upset by the Celtics at home in historic fashion.

LeBron James struggled in Game 3, and he even verbally sparred with a fan after the game. But he didn’t sound completely dismayed by the situation.

LeBron:

We’ve got to be a lot better. It’s the postseason. You win some, and you lose a couple maybe. But you want to – how can you be better from game to game? Like I said, they was better today than we were, and we have to figure out a way to be better than them in Game 4.

But we look forward to the challenge. I think it’s great. What happened, I mean, it hurts. It’s a loss in the postseason. But I’m glad it kind of happened the way it did. Let our foot off the gas a little, didn’t keep the pressure on them like we’ve been accustomed to.

But we have to play a lot better. We have to play a lot better in Game 4.

It’s odd to hear a player say he’s glad to lose, especially in the playoffs. But LeBron has a history of strange comments following postseason losses. This wasn’t a season-ender, but but he was so out of sorts last night.

He’s also probably right. It’s better for the Cavaliers, now 9-1 in the playoffs, to experience overcoming a postseason loss now rather than in the NBA Finals. Still up 2-1 on Boston and the better team, the Cavs have the luxury of learning lessons without significant fear they’ll lose the series.

2017 NBA Draft Prospect Profiles: Is Markelle Fultz really worth the No. 1 pick?

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
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Markelle Fultz is the best prospect in the 2017 NBA Draft, which is not exactly something that you would’ve seen coming had you known him as a sophomore in high school.

That was the year that Fultz failed to make the varsity team at DeMatha (Md.), one of the nation’s best high school basketball programs. From there, he developed not only into a point guard, but into one of the nation’s best high school players, eventually landing in the postseason all-star games and on the Team USA U-18 roster that competed in the FIBA Americas event.

Fultz committed to Lorenzo Romar early in the process and maintained that commitment, even as he watched a Washington team that failed to make the NCAA tournament lose Andrew Andrews to graduation and Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray to the NBA Draft. As a result, and in spite of the fact that Fultz was putting up insane numbers, the Huskies couldn’t even crack 10 wins with Fultz at the helm, and it eventually cost Lorenzo Romar his job despite the fact that the favorite for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, Michael Porter Jr., had already signed to play for him.

How will NBA teams weigh that?

Fultz put up ridiculous numbers, but he did it on a team that was the laughing stock of the Pac-12 come February. Is that guy worth the pick?

Height: 6′4″
Weight: 185
Wingspan: 6′10″
2016-17 Stats: 23.2 points, 5.7 boards, 5.9 assists, 41.3% 3PT

STRENGTHS: Fultz is an unbelievably well-rounded offensive player. I’m not sure what there is that he can’t do on that end of the floor. He shot 41.3 percent from beyond the arc last year and better than 50 percent inside the arc. At 6-foot-4, he’s big enough — and physical enough — to take smaller defenders into the post and score in the paint or simply shoot over the top of them off the dribble, and he does so effectively. His 6-foot-10 wingspan, huge hands and explosion on the move means that he can finish in traffic, whether it be with a dunk over a defender — his extension in the lane is reminiscent of Kawhi Leonard — or a finish around the shot-blocker; Fultz has terrific body control, and when combined with his length, allows him to finish contested layups at weird angles.

He’s more than just a scorer, however, as he averaged 5.9 assists last season with a higher assist rate (35.4 vs. 31.4) and lower turnover rate (15.4 vs. 18.9) than Lonzo Ball. That’s startling efficiency considering that he played such a major role on a team with so few options around him. Since 2012, only six guards have bettered his usage rate and offensive rating: Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Nate Wolters, Erick Green, Kay Felder and Jawun Evans.

Fultz is excellent leading the break in transition but may be even better operating in ball-screen actions — according to Synergy, more than 30 percent of his possessions came in the pick and roll last season, and he averaged 1.011 points-per-possession, which was in the 93rd percentile nationally. He is patient, he’s ruthless if you switch a bigger defender onto him and he has terrific vision, whether it’s driving and drawing a help defender, finding the screener rolling to the rim or popping for a jumper or spotting an open shooter on the weak side of the floor.

Ideally, that’s the role that Fultz would play in the NBA, as a ball-dominant lead guard in the mold of a James Harden or Russell Westbrook or John Wall.

But Fultz is also big enough and long enough to share a back court with a smaller guard — Isaiah Thomas? — because he will be able to defend shooting guards. He’s also a good enough shooter that he would be able to play off the ball offensively in that same scenario, meaning that he not only has the ceiling to be a new-age franchise lead guard in the NBA, he has the potential to be a multi-positional defender.

In theory, he’s everything NBA teams are looking for.

WEAKNESSES: The biggest concern with Fultz is on the defensive end of the floor. While he has the tools to be a plus-defender and has shown the ability to be a playmaker on that end — he averaged 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks, many of which were of the chasedown variety — but it was his half court defense that was a concern.

In a word, he was far too lackadaisical on that end of the floor. Whether it was being late on a rotation, getting beat on a close out because his feet were wrong, getting hung up on a screen, switching when he shouldn’t because he didn’t want to chase a player around a screen, failing to sit down in a defensive stance, etc., it’s not difficult to watch tape and find examples of the mistakes that Fultz made. How much of that was playing on a bad team for a coach that didn’t hold him accountable defensively, and how much of that is who Fultz is as a player?

To be frank, my gut says it was more of the former than the latter, but there also is a concern that Fultz’ approach to the game is too casual. He’s the kind of player that needs to grow into a game as opposed to being a guy that takes games over from the jump, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a guy who projects as a lead guard and a distributor.

The bigger issue with Fultz is that he lacks initial burst off the dribble and there are questions about whether or not he can turn the corner against NBA defenders. His game is awkward when you watch him, but that’s because he has this uncanny ability to get defenders off balance. Hesitation moves, hang-dribble pull-ups, splitting the pick-and-roll, euro-steps in traffic. Some might call it crafty or slippery, but the bottom-line is this: Fultz is able to get by defenders because he has them leaning the wrong direction, and once he gets a step on you, his length — both his strides and his extension — make it impossible to catch up.

But he’s not a Russell Westbrook or a John Wall in the sense that he’ll be able to get by any defender simply due to his explosiveness, and that is where the questions about his jumper come into play. If Fultz is going to consistently be able to get to the rim, that jumper is going to have to be a threat, because Fultz’s arsenal won’t be as effective if defenders can play off of him.

On the season, his shooting numbers were impressive, but those percentages took a dip against better competition and on possessions where he was guarded (1.020 PPP, 57th percentile) vs. unguarded (1.636 PPP, 94th percentile), although that may be a result of being on a team that had no other option for offense.

Put another way, Fultz is a tough-shot maker, and there is reason to wonder if he’ll be able to make those tough shots against NBA defenders.

Markelle Fultz is defended by Lonzo Ball (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

NBA COMPARISON: There really isn’t a perfect comparison for what Fultz could end up being as an NBA player. James Harden is probably the most apt considering that they are roughly the same size with the same physical dimensions, they both are ball-dominant scorers that can see the floor, they both likely needed a smaller guard in the back court with them because, despite their physical tools, they both lack that mean streak defensively.

But comparing any rookie to a guy that could end up being the NBA MVP after a season where he averaged 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 boards is probably unfair. Perhaps D'Angelo Russell is more fitting, at least in the sense that it limits some of the expectations.

Whatever the case may be, if Fultz reaches his ceiling, he’ll be a franchise lead guard that has an entire offensive built around him. If he decides that he wants to play on the defensive end of the floor as well, he could one day be a top five player in the league.

OUTLOOK: Fultz has the potential to be the face of a franchise at the lead guard spot. His skill-set — the scoring, the ability to operate in pick-and-rolls, the efficiency — and ability makes it easy to picture him one day ending up playing a role similar to that of Harden or Westbrook or Wall. At the same time, I find it hard to envision a world where Fultz doesn’t one day end up averaging 20 points and six assists. It’s hard not to love a prospect where their floor is a bigger, more athletic D’angelo Russell.

When a player has the least risk and the highest ceiling of anyone in a draft class, it’s no wonder they end up being the consensus pick to go No. 1.