Oklahoma City Thunder Westbrook reacts with Durant and Harden as they lose to the Miami Heat during Game 3 of the NBA basketball finals in Miami

NBA finals Game 4: Five things the Thunder need to do to win


Miami has made its statement. Nobody ever questioned their talent, the questions were how LeBron James would deal with being back on the biggest stage, and secondly, would they bring consistent effort that they had lacked all playoffs?

LeBron has been the series MVP so far and for two games in a row the Heat have played at a sustained level of intensity they rarely have through the playoffs.

The ball is in the Thunder’s court to adjust for Game 4 Tuesday night. And they better do it now because they are down 2-1 and no team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA finals. Oklahoma City needs to play with real desperation, and they need to execute better.

Here are five keys for OKC if they are going to tie this series up.

1) Protect the paint. In Game 3 it looked like a Miami conga line to the rim. The Heat were getting into the paint on cuts and penetration — they finished the game with 35 shots at the rim, plus all that action got them 35 free throws. Miami will win every time that happens.

In Game 3 Serge Ibaka made the adjustment and stayed with Shane Shane Battier at the arc rather than leave him to protect the paint, and for most of the game Battier was less of a factor (9 points). But having the league’s best shot blocker out at the arc does the Heat no good. I still think the Thunder need less Kendrick Perkins and more Ibaka (he didn’t play the fourth quarter of Game 3). Pairing them hasn’t really worked.

Also, the Thunder are hinting at zone (or zone-like defense) and that could work well, too — anything that makes the Heat a jump shooting team.

2) Would the real James Harden please stand up. Harden is the Thunder’s best playmaker late in games, a guy who is a threat to score or set others up. But in his quest to set others up these finals he has not been himself — 2-for-10 shooting last game with two key turnovers. In the finals he is averaging just 11.7 points on 40.7 percent shooting and he’s had one good half. He is the Thunder’s X factor this series and he has to be at his best. Harden needs to be a little selfish, get some buckets and draw the defense, then set guys up. OKC needs the All-Star level James Harden.

3) Scott Brooks needs to change rotations to what works. Put simply, if Kevin Durant gets in foul trouble, don’t sit Russell Westbrook at the same time. You need the scoring against the Heat, and they are already a good defensive team happy to muck things up and play ugly. You’ve got to find a way to keep Ibaka near the basket where he is a shot blocking threat. Brooks has been out-coached by Erik Spoelstra this series. The Thunder need the coach that made moves Gregg Popovich couldn’t match.

Which ties into….

4) Kevin Durant can’t get in foul trouble. This falls in part to Brooks because he has Durant trying to guard LeBron and that has been part of the foul trouble. Brooks needs to put Thabo Sefolosha on LeBron (he’s the Thunder’s best defender and Dwyane Wade isn’t healthy and is not as big a threat). Durant has to be part of this as well — recognize how the game is being called and if it’s tight on the perimeter then be more careful, avoid contact. You can’t help your team from the bench.

5) Get out and run. Half court ugly games will not work for the Thunder, they need to get out and go. Russell Westbrook needs to push the pace. It has to start with better defense and stops, but then they need to turn that into some easy baskets. In the paint. If the Thunder want to win, they need to set the tempo for Game 4.

51 Questions: Do the Phoenix Suns finally have a playoff formula?

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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

Do the Phoenix Suns finally have a playoff formula?

It has been five years since the Phoenix Suns made the playoffs, tying the franchise record for longest playoff drought. It’s the fourth longest active drought in the NBA (Timberwolves at 11, Kings at nine, and Pistons at six).

Think about it this way: The Magic, Sixers, and Jazz have been to the playoffs more recently than the Suns.

Phoenix hasn’t bottomed out on a rebuild, they’ve actually been pretty good — they surprised everyone and won 48 games two seasons ago, then had 39 wins last season when things went very wrong and injuries crushed the team after the All-Star break. However, in a deep Western Conference pretty good isn’t good enough.

Suns management and ownership wants that to change. They want back in the playoff dance. Now.

It’s why they went hard after LaMarcus Aldridge this summer, coming in a surprising second to a Spurs team that nobody was likely to catch in that chase.

This summer the Suns made other moves to address needs. They went out and got Tyson Chandler as a free agent. The first reaction was he was there to provide a shot blocking and defensive quarterbacking, two things the Suns sorely lacked. However, just as importantly, they needed a vocal locker room leader, a vacuum that was part of the problem in Phoenix’s implosion last season.

The Suns also needed shooting, they went out and got Mirza Teletovic and drafted Devin Booker.

It’s easy to think the Suns regressed because they lost a lot of talent since the last trade deadline — Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas, Gerald Green, Brandan Wright — but they believe the pieces they have now fit together better.

Phoenix believes it can make the playoffs; it thinks it finally has the right formula.

Maybe. They will be in the mix. But a four things have to happen to make that a reality.

First is Chandler has to lead a defensive renaissance on this team. Last season they were average, 17th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, but Chandler can help change that. First, he gives them defensive rebounding that they lacked. He gives them a quarterback that they needed to call things out and have everyone on the same page (reports of how he talks on defense are already pouring out of camp). And he helps protects the paint — that means Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, and P.J. Tucker can pressure the ball more and take risks out on the perimeter knowing Chandler can erase some mistakes.

The second is an obvious one: Bledsoe and Knight need to be able to work well together. They are going to share playmaking duties, and both are going to spend time working off the ball, both need to be ready for that mental adjustment. We haven’t seen that much yet, we need to see how it works out.

Third, there needs to be shooting to space the floor. Bledsoe is a penetrator who is a career 32 percent from three, while Knight shot just 31.3 percent from three after being traded to the Suns (likely due to ankle injuries that required off-season surgery). Those two men will be running the pick-and-roll with Chandler, who sets a good pick, rolls hard and can finish, but doesn’t have shooting range. The Suns other two starters are likely P.J. Tucker, who is not a huge threat from three but shot a respectable 34.5 percent from there last season, and Markieff Morris, who is a career 32.8 percent from three.

If I’m an opposing defense, what’s to keep me from going under picks and packing the lane against the Suns? Phoenix needs Knight to return to the guy who is a career 36 percent from three, they need Morris to improve from the outside, and they need guys like Teletovic and Booker to play key minutes and space the floor at times.

Fourth, and finally, they need the potentially volatile mixture of an unhappy Morris and a coach in Jeff Hornacek in the last year of his contract not to combust. Everyone is saying all the right things at the start of camp, and this is why guys like Chandler and Ronnie Price were brought in, but there is the potential for things to go sideways, especially if some early losses pile up.

The biggest hurdle for the Suns in ending their playoff drought is they are in the Western Conference.

Even if all four of things mentioned above go right for them — if they run and hit more threes plus play better defense — this is likely a 45 win team (give or take a few, and probably take). The problem is that in the West that may not be enough. Barring injuries, there are likely seven lock playoff teams in the West — Spurs, Warriors, Clippers, Rockets, Thunder, Grizzlies, and Pelicans. That leaves the Suns battling teams such as the Jazz, Mavericks and maybe the Kings for that final playoff spot. It may take more than 45 wins, and things are going to have to break the Suns’ way to get there.

Maybe Robert Sarver gets his way and the playoff drought ends this season, it’s more likely than snow in Phoenix this winter. But I wouldn’t bet much on either happening.

LeBron says “get it done” message was for both Cavaliers, Thompson

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Everything LeBron James does and says gets magnified and scrutinized.

So when he put out this photo on Instagram standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Tristan Thompson and the caption “get it done” it seemed a message to the Cavaliers.

Get it done!!!! Straight up. #MissMyBrother @realtristan13

A photo posted by LeBron James (@kingjames) on

LeBron clarified that on Sunday, saying this has become a distraction, and the message was for both sides to bend, as reported by Dave McMenamin of ESPN and Chris Haynes of the Plain Dealer.

When Thompson didn’t sign the qualifying offer he surrendered a lot of leverage, the Cavaliers don’t have to raise their five-year, $80 million offer — but reportedly they still would, a little. Thompson and his agent Rich Paul have pushed for a max contract, but that’s not happening.

At some point, the two sides will come to an agreement. For the Cavaliers, this is a distraction, their star is unhappy with that, and ultimately if they are going to make a title run they need the energy and rebounding Thompson brings (even if it is just off the bench). For Thompson, he can’t make up a year of lost salary, he has to come in and start getting paid at some point.

The two sides will get it done. Eventually. Likely before the season tips off.