Heat-Thunder Game 1: Who has been here before? Poised OKC pulls away for win.

44 Comments

Miami is the team in its second consecutive trip to the NBA finals, the team that talked about its new attitude, how it learned from last season, about LeBron James’ new glare, and was more comfortable on the stage.

But like they did throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs — and like they did last finals — the Heat took plays off, quarters off in Game 1. And that costs them. The Thunder are just too good to coast against.

Miami had a 13-point first quarter lead and watched it evaporate under some pressure from the Thunder in the second half. OKC played better defense and the Heat became jump shooters, shots they missed. Meanwhile Kevin Durant was knocking down his jumpers on his way to scoring 23 of 36 in second half, as the Thunder scored on 21 of the last 29 possessions.

The result was a poised Thunder team pulling away from the Heat, winning 105-94 to take a 1-0 series lead in the NBA finals. Game 2 is Thursday night.

One game does not a series make — the NBA finals have a long history of teams losing the first game and coming back to win the series. Including Dallas last year.

But this game looked like the Heat have played all playoffs long. So far that has been good enough. It will not be anymore.

In the first half Miami got great performances from its role players — Shane Battier had 13, Mario Chalmers had 10 and the Heat were 6-10 from three from three. LeBron James had 14 but a quiet 14. Dwyane Wade was making good decisions.

Yet at the half, the Heat were only up 7, 54-47. You knew a Thunder run was coming. If you watched the Heat all season you knew a slump was very possible.

And you didn’t have to wait long. The Thunder came out with a lot more defensive intensity in the third quarter, they went on a 9-3 run and the game was tied. Miami shot just 33 percent for the quarter.

And that let the Thunder get out and run — they won the fast break points this game 24-4. Running is supposed to be the Heat’s thing, but they ran into a team as athletic as they are.

“They pounded us on the break and that led to everything else,” Chris Bosh said. “We’re going to have to figure out how to stop this team’s fast break because that really gets them going, especially here on their home court.”

One way to do that is to make shots — the Heat didn’t in the second half. They started to settle for jump shots. Credit the Thunder and particularly Thabo Sefolosha for that — he shut Wade off (7-of-19 shooting) and spent key stretches on LeBron (11-of-24 shooting).

Meanwhile, Durant and Russell Westbrook owned the show. Westbrook had 12 of his 27 in the third, Durant had 17 of his 36 in the fourth. The Heat defense wants to take away your passing lanes and force you into isolation basketball, it’s their design. But it doesn’t really work against the Thunder because Westbrook and Durant thrive in that setting.

“We’re a better defensive team than we showed tonight,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game. They need to prove it.

Each quarter the Thunder seemed to get more comfortable on the stage and with the matchups. The Heat did their coasting thing again.

If that doesn’t change, three out of the next five games in this series will look a lot like this one.

Raptors’ Jonas Valanciunas offers advice to Ball brothers on Lithuania

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Lithuania is a hoops-mad country.

The Baltic nation has fewer people in it than the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area, yet it has three players in the NBA right now — Jonas Valanciunas, Donatas Motiejunas, and Mindaugas Kuzminskas — and has put 11 players in the league total (such as Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Arvydas Sabonis, and Sarunas Marciulionis). The country has won three bronze medals in the Olympics ( 1992, 1996, and 2000). It’s Lithuanian league also has been the launching pad for Celtics’ Aron Baynes to make the NBA.

Now the Ball brothers LiAngelo and LaMelo are headed there on professional contracts.

One of those players — the Raptors’ Valanciunas, had advice for the Ball brothers, speaking to ESPN.

“They’re getting themselves into a great opportunity. Lithuania is beautiful country… We have great basketball history. We’re such a small country, but we have many, many great players. Our basketball school is good., so they chose a really good school. They just gotta work hard — it’s all about working. You can be as good as you can be by working. Talent is one thing, but work you put in, that’s gonna show up.

“If they have any problems, let me know. I can help them out.”

Good luck finding anyone around the NBA who thinks this ends well, especially those who know the Ball family. They are sending a college freshman and a high school junior to a small city in a former Soviet bloc country with a very different culture, that will be a major adjustment. The coach doesn’t speak English and his former American players have not spoken highly of him. The Lithuanian league itself has men — far more physically developed than the Ball brothers — and is known for a physical style of play. It’s also known as a league where the players have a reasonably high hoops IQ and don’t like undisciplined players.

But if LiAngelo and LaMelo have any problems, they can call Valanciunas.

Paul George on return to Indiana Wednesday: “For whatever reason, I’ll be booed”

Getty Images
1 Comment

This week is the Oklahoma City Thunder’s “you can’t go home again” week of the schedule. On Saturday night, Carmelo Anthony will return to New York where Knicks fans should welcome him with cheers and open arms — he meant a lot to that franchise in recent years — but may very well not.

First up, however, Paul George returns to Indiana in a Thunder uniform Wednesday night.

There’s little doubt how he will be greeted by Indiana fans, who felt betrayed by a man they stuck by through recovery from a severe injury. George knows what is coming,

Here are the key lines from PG13:

“Boos. I honestly wouldn’t think it would be any other way. The Pacers fans outweigh the Paul George fans. That’s what I’m looking forward to. For whatever reason, I’ll be booed, but I’m gonna embrace that. I’m gonna thrive on that.”

For whatever reason? You asked to be traded and fans take that personally. There is no loyalty in sports — I have no problem with players asking out because teams show no hesitancy in dumping players they no longer have a use for (and fans are almost always good with that) — but he had to know how this would be taken in Indiana.

What George might want to worry about is stopping the red-hot Victor Oladipo (he averaged 35.7 points per game last week), because he and the Pacers are playing better than the Thunder right now.

Kawhi Leonard returns Tuesday on minutes restriction

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Spurs have been the Spurs this season, going 19-8 with an elite defense and offense that’s good enough to get them wins, thanks to LaMarcus Aldridge playing at an All-Star level.

Starting Tuesday, they add Kawhi Leonard back to the mix.

He will return to the lineup against Dallas, but will be on a minutes restriction, coach Gregg Popovich said on Tuesday. He would not say how many minutes, although around 20 seems a logical starting spot.

Leonard is one of the five best players in the NBA (and that may be selling him short). He averaged a career-high 25.5 points a game last season, he’s arguably the best perimeter defender in the NBA, and he finished third in the MVP voting last season.

However, there are going to be adjustments. LaMarcus Aldridge has been the focal point of the offense, but he could see fewer touches, particularly in crunch time. Kyle Anderson could see fewer minutes, and Rudy Gay may as well because Popovich liked some small-ball lineups last season with Leonard at the four. A lot of players will see their rotations change.

That said, it’s the Spurs. Do we really expect them to be anything but an incredibly good regular season team? One that is about to get better?

 

 

 

Pelicans’ Tony Allen out 3-4 weeks with fibula fracture

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The injuries just keep hitting the Pelicans. Guys like Solomon Hill and Alexis Ajinca are out for extended periods of time. Anthony Davis has missed four of the team’s last six games and is questionable for Wednesday night due to a left adductor injury.

Now comes the news that reserve guard Tony Allen will be out three to four weeks due to a nondisplaced left proximal fibula fracture, the team announced Tuesday. This is the part of the bone near the ankle.

Allen has played a limited role for New Orleans off the bench this season, averaging 12.4 minutes a game, and averaging 4.7 points. His reputation is that of a defensive stopper, and when he is on the court this season the Pelicans’ defense has been 5.6 points per 100 possessions better. However, father time has started to catch up with him and he is not the defender he once was.

Expect the minutes to bump up for Jrue Holiday and E'Twaun Moore with this injury, which is not a bad thing as they have played well (they were knocking down threes against the Rockets Monday like they were named Curry), plus Ian Clark could get a little more run.