NBA finals Game 5, Thunder—Heat: Five things to watch

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By the fifth game of an NBA series, there are not a lot of surprises left. There is no magical adjustment or lineup that hasn’t already been tried. The coaches have played their cards, made their tweaks, figured out the matchups they want and don’t want.

It’s about execution.

That’s where we stand heading into Game 5 Thursday night, with the Heat up 3-1. Miami stands on the doorstep of its first championship of the Big 3 era, LeBron James stands on the doorstep of winning a ring that has been nine seasons in coming. But crossing that threshold is another matter — closeout games are hard (right Andrew Bynum?) and the Thunder have been in every game late. This has been an entertaining series and Game 5 will be no different.

Here are five things to watch Thursday night.

1) LeBron James in the post. Miami has essentially played LeBron at the four this series and the Thunder do not have an answer. He will back down smaller players and score, he will pull bigger players away from the rim then drive by them, and if you bring the double team he is a fantastic passer (a dozen assists in Game 4). Poor James Harden has gotten this impossible task most of the time and the Thunder need to look for other answers because James is destroying them by getting to his spots right now. One answer might be to front him and deny him the ball, as the Heat have done to Kevin Durant.

2) How does Miami do while LeBron rests? In the wake of LeBron cramping at the end of Game 4, expect coach Erik Spoelstra to try and get him some rest in this game. That is when the Thunder need to pounce (or if you are the Heat, they need to hang on). Miami struggles to create as good of looks when LeBron sits, the Thunder need to get some stops and turn them into easy buckets in transition.

3) James Harden needs to be aggressive. He is he Thunder’s matchup nightmare and he has been hesitant, missed shots (4-20 shooting the last two games combined) and been turnover prone at times. Friend of this blog Sebastian Pruiti has a great breakdown over at Grantland you should read, but the bottom line is Harden used to attack, look for his shot and create for others off that. He needs to get back to that Thursday night.

4) Oklahoma City needs some easy buckets in transition. Miami is a very good halfcourt defensive team and even with guys like Durant and Westbrook the Thunder will struggle to score a lot against it. The Thunder need to pick up the tempo and run. That starts with their defense — they need some stops, but then they need to turn those stops into some easy points on the break. Like they did in Game 1.

5) Who wins the rebounding battle? Basketball is a simple game we can sometimes make complicated. Steve Perin pointed out a simple but revealing correlation at SBN — the team that has won the rebounding battle has won each game. Chris Bosh has been great on the boards for the Heat the past few games, Durant’s rebounding numbers have been down. It’

Kevin Durant gets into Twitter debate with reporter over White House comments

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Kevin Durant became the latest Warrior — joining Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston, that we know of — to say he would not visit President Donald Trump’s White House as NBA champion. Which is all kind of moot because it’s unlikely the White House invites them and outspoken Trump critic/Warriors coach Steve Kerr and his players any way. (The White House’s biggest concern should be that Kerr accepts the invitation and uses that platform to challenge the president’s policies and style in front of him.)

Durant’s comments led to plenty of talk on sports talk radio and around the sports world online about whether a player or team should decline an invitation from the president. It’s not a new debate, Tom Brady denied that politics is why he didn’t visit Barack Obama’s White House (although I’m not sure many believed him), but KD’s on a big stage now so it became a talking point.

Former ESPN reporter Britt McHenry questioned a player not visiting the White House, and Durant responded, leading to a little Twitter back-and-forth.

Durant had previously Tweeted in response “by doing the opposite, I am inspiring more people” but that Tweet was deleted.

There is no one correct way to protest a person/policy/action, McHenry may see things differently, but Durant has chosen to stay away. That’s valid — traditionally these “champions to the White House” things are tedious photo ops with a few bad jokes thrown in. Having a hoops fan/player in Obama in the White House made the NBA visits more entertaining the past eight years, there was some trash talk, but still, they are largely just a public relations moment. If KD doesn’t want to play the PR game with Trump, that’s a legitimate response.

This has all been a tempest in a teapot. Until/unless the White House actually invites the Warriors to come, it’s all kind of moot.

Dwight Howard on Hornets’ coach Clifford: “It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you”

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Dwight Howard‘s game is much better than his reputation among fans.

He’s not the Defensive Player of the Year/All-NBA/MVP candidate level player he was back in Orlando, but Howard is still one of the best rebounders in the game, he’s strong defensively, and he’s an efficient scorer inside. He’s a quality center, if he plays within himself and is used well. His perception as a guy who does not take the game seriously and held back Houston and Atlanta in recent years has validity (he plays better in pick-and-roll than on the move, but wants the ball in the post), but the idea he is trash is flat-out wrong. He’s still good.

Howard wants to change his reputation, rewrite the final chapters of his career, and told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Steve Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets are the place that is going to happen.

“The other places I was, the coaches didn’t really know who I am,” Howard told ESPN. “I think that they had perception of me and ran with it. Cliff knows my game. He knows all the things that I can do. I’m very determined to get back to the top. It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you. They aren’t just saying it; they believe it. It really just pushed me to the limit in workouts: running, training, everything. I want to do more.

“In Orlando, I was getting 13-15 shots a game. Last season, in Atlanta, it was six shot attempts. It looks like I’m not involved in the game. And if I miss a shot, it sticks out because I am not getting very many of them. But I think it’s all opportunity, the system. I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Howard averaged 8.3 field goal attempts per game in Atlanta, which is about five a game below his peak. Last season 75 percent of Howard’s shots came within three feet of the rim — is is not there to space the floor, however, he can still move fairly well off the roll and is a good passer for a big.

Last season, 28 percent of Howard’s possessions came on post ups, and he averaged a pedestrian 0.84 points per possession on those. On the 21 percent of shots he got on a cut, he averaged a very good 1.36 PPP. When he got the ball back as a roll man (again on the move), it was 1.18 PPP. The challenge long has been Howard is better on the move but doesn’t feel involved unless he gets post touches, and if he doesn’t feel involved and engaged he’s not the same player.

Maybe Clifford can make this all work with some older plays where Howard feels comfortable.

Charlotte, with Howard in the paint and on the boards, should get back to being a top 10 NBA defensive team, not the middle of the pack as they were last season. Clifford is better than that as a coach, and Howard is an upgrade in the paint (on both ends). Charlotte should be a playoff team again in the East.

But it all will come back to Howard. Fair or not. And Wojnarowski is right, this is Howard’s last best chance to write the ending he wants to his career.

Friday afternoon fun: Watch James Harden’s 10 best plays from last season

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James Harden had a historic season in Houston.

Since it’s Friday afternoon and your sports viewing options consist of watching guys about to be cut from NFL rosters try to impress, why not check out Harden’s best plays from last season. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.

Mavericks sign Jeff Withey to one-year contract

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Jeff Withey‘s ex-fiancée accused him of domestic violence, but he was not charged.

That frees him to continue his basketball career, which he’ll do in Dallas.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks could use another center, even if they re-sign Nerlens Noel. Salah Mejri is the only other true center, though Dirk Nowitzki will now play the position.

Withey is a good rim protector. Just don’t ask him to do anything away from the basket.

Dallas annually brings excess players to training camp and has them compete for regular-season roster spots. Whether or not his salary is guaranteed, Withey will likely fall into that competition.