Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett

Four teams that could head off a Lakers vs. Heat NBA final

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It’s the consensus of prognosticators (and me as well) — the NBA finals will be the Miami Heat vs. Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James. You can already sense David Stern drooling like a Pavlovian dog thinking about the television ratings.

What teams could destroy David Stern’s dream?

There are four. While we could argue that each of these four need a little luck or for the Heat/Lakers to come back to them, we could say the same for the Heat and Lakers. Fact is you don’t win an NBA title without some breaks going your way.

So here are the four most likely teams to get in the way, two West and two East.

Oklahoma City Thunder. They remain the next best team in the West, even after the James Harden trade. (I think they take a step back after trading away a key playmaker, the Sixth Man of the Year and an Olympian and trying to fill his minutes with Kevin Martin. Long term with the picks and Jeremy Lamb we can debate the trade impacts, but the Thunder did not get instantly better Saturday night with this move.)

The Thunder have improved each year because their players have improved and gotten more experienced. That will happen again. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are going to take steps forward after their Olympic experience — and the Lakers will struggle to stop Durant, even with Dwight Howard in the paint. OKC gets Eric Maynor back and that gives them depth at the point guard spot and another playmaker. They have Kendrick Perkins to match up with Dwight Howard and Serge Ibaka to slow Pau Gasol. Westbrook can hamper Steve Nash.

The Thunder are not as good a team without Harden, but they are still very good and still match up with the Lakers as well as anyone.

Los Angeles Clippers. You can argue the San Antonio Spurs should fit here, but the last couple seasons showed me that while they are awesome in the regular season you can scheme for their weaknesses come the playoffs. The Clippers are a team on the rise. They have the single best pure point guard in the game in Chris Paul, and he is in a contract year so expect big things. They added some depth with Jamal Crawford, and while I’m not his biggest fan he is an upgrade over what they had. Eric Bledsoe is coming into his own off the bench. They have solid veterans like Caron Butler and — once he gets in shape — Lamar Odom. Oh, an they have the force of nature that is Blake Griffin. Paul is just figuring out how to use all those pieces.

The key for the Clippers in the playoffs is DeAndre Jordan. Last season he got benched for Reggie Evans when the going got tough. That’s not good. The Clippers need Jordan to take a huge step forward because they need his athleticism to combat Howard if they face the Lakers. If Jordan is in foul trouble or just plain old ineffective, the Lakers would run them over without slowing. But Jordan and his growth — scoring and putting pressure on Howard on both ends of the floor — changes the dynamic. He makes it possible. But it’s asking a lot of him to make that leap.

Boston Celtics. They came within a game of getting the Heat last season, and while they racked up a 3-2 lead in the series with Chris Bosh out it still shows they were close. Then Boston got better this summer — Jason Terry is better right now than Ray Allen. Not over their careers, maybe not now as a pure shooter, but Terry brings far more shot creation and versatility to the Celtics. Boston also gets Jeff Green back and he gives them real depth off the bench. Jared Sullinger should let Kevin Garnett rest more.

Boston must have a healthy and rested Garnett to have a shot at the Heat — he is the heart of their defense has to play as well or better than last year to have a shot. Rajon Rondo has to step up his game and get his squad more easy looks offensively against a swarming Heat defense. Boston cannot show their age. The good news for Celtics fans is Boston matches up well with Miami considering its defense, Paul Pierce and his ability to score, and now some punch off the bench. It’s not easy, but the Celtics have a puncher’s chance in a series with Miami.

Indiana Pacers. If you’re going to beat the Heat, the best way to do it is with size — Indiana has that in Roy Hibbert. One of the key turning points in the playoffs last season was when the Heat fell behind the Pacers because of the play of Hibbert and they had to adjust their style and step up their play. The Heat had that other gear.

To best the Heat Pacers need George Hill and Paul George to take steps forward with their game (both would be key in the finals, particularly on defense), David West to keep being himself, Granger to be steady in the big moments and Hibbert to become a dominating force. The Pacers lack the kind of superstar player the Heat have two (or three) of, but they have great balance, good depth and the size that could give the Heat fits. They just have to play nearly flawless basketball (and hope the Heat do not).

Warriors would show historic perseverance with Game 7 win over Thunder

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 28:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors drives against Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the fourth quarter in game six of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 28, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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The Warriors went an NBA-record 73-9.

And the Thunder massively outplayed them in Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference finals.

No, Golden State wasn’t at full strength. But Oklahoma City reached a level the Warriors hadn’t all season. Even if Golden State had hit peak performance, I’m not sure that would’ve been enough. The Thunder were that good.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were their superstar selves. Steven Adams defended inside and out. Serge Ibaka hit timely shots and moved well defensively. Andre Roberson made open 3-pointers and cut. Dion Waiters read the floor to make the right shot or pass. And everyone rotated correctly throughout entire defensive possessions.

Oklahoma City was awesome, handing the Warriors 28- and 24-point losses.

But Golden State rallied to force a Game 7 tonight. If the Warriors win, they’ll become just the eighth team in NBA history to lose multiple games by more than 20 in a series and still win it. The seven to do it:

  • Houston Rockets lost to Los Angeles Clippers by 25 and 33 in 2015 second round
  • Atlanta Hawks lost to Miami Heat by 29 and 26 in 2009 first round
  • Houston Rockets lost to Phoenix Suns by 22 and 24 in 1995 second round
  • Philadelphia 76ers lost to Boston Celtics by 40 and 29 in 1982 Eastern Conference finals
  • Denver Nuggets lost to Milwaukee Bucks by 31 and 28 in 1978 Western Conference semifinals
  • Los Angeles Lakers lost to Milwaukee Bucks by 21 and 26 in 1972 Western Conference finals
  • Minneapolis Lakers lost to St. Louis Hawks by 34 and 30 in 1959 Western Division finals

The Warriors never stopped believing in themselves, even when getting routed. That mentality has them one game from a comeback for the ages.

Masai Ujiri: Raptors No. 1 goal is to re-sign DeMar DeRozan

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 12:  DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors runs up the court during the first half of an NBA game against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Air Canada Centre on April 12, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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DeMar DeRozan sounds like he wants to re-sign with the Raptors.

But does Toronto want to give max money to someone who 39% from the field and 15% on 3-pointers in the playoffs?

Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, via James Herbert of CBSSports.com:

This is probably the right course. I don’t know whom the Raptors could get if they lets DeRozan walk, but if he signs elsewhere, they would have just about $19 million in cap space – less than a max salary. I doubt they could land a better replacement.

I’m not sold on DeRozan as a playoff player, though he legitimately took the next step this regular season. But I’d rather keep him, hope he learns to handle the challenges of the postseason and possibly use him in a trade down the road. It’ll cost a max salary if DeRozan isn’t willing to take a discount, but that beats the alternative of losing him for nothing but cap space.

Report: Tyronn Lue urged Cavaliers GM not to fire David Blatt

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 17: Cleveland Cavaliers Associate Head Coach Tyronn Lue (L) talks with Head Coach David Blatt (R) against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the second half of their game on December 17, 2015 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Thunder 104-100. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images)
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At 30-11, the Cavaliers had the best record ever while firing a coach during a season. Cleveland was the first team in a decade to fire a coach that took it to the NBA Finals the year prior.

Maybe firing David Blatt was the right move, but on the surface, it seemed outrageous.

Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com:

In speaking with numerous sources close to “The Call,” cleveland.com learned the details. There were no initial pleasantries. Griffin got right to the point — David Blatt was being relieved of his duties.

Lue’s response was candid and immediate.

“This is f—– up, Griff.”

That didn’t prevent Griffin from calmly asking Lue if he could take over. Hired as the associate head coach a year and a half earlier, becoming the head of a franchise was Lue’s eventual goal. But this didn’t seem right.

Lue pleaded with Griffin, arguing for several minutes that firing Blatt was an excessive move for a team carrying a conference-best 30-11 record. Griffin listened to Lue’s pleas. When they ended, he told Lue the decision has already been carried out.

Griffin circled back to his original question.

“What’s done is done. I’m asking you if you can lead this team?” It had taken a few minutes, but Griffin got the response he sought.

“Yeah, I can f—ing lead this team.”

Griffin then congratulated him.

I’m not sure I buy all this. It’d look bad if Lue undermined Blatt in any way.

But the Cavs asked for this situation when they hired the runner-up in their head-coaching search to assist the winner. Lue didn’t have to do anything for that call to happen. The situation opened the door for it.

And it worked out. Lue has done a masterful job guiding the Cavaliers back to the NBA Finals. We’ll never know how Blatt would’ve done if he remained on the job, but Lue has set an excellent bar. I’m not yet sold Lue is a great head coach, but for this team – and the difficult task of communicating with LeBron James and elevating Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, who’d be featured stars on many teams – Lue has been aces.

Seven questions that will shape Game 7 between Thunder, Warriors

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 24:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder defends against Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors in the third quarter of game four of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 24, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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There are no more secrets. There are no major adjustments — at this point both teams know what they want to do and what the other team will try to do, it’s a simple matter of execution. Except it’s not going to be that simple. Here are seven questions that will shape the outcome of Game 7.

1) Are the Thunder moving the ball or relying on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook too much in isolation? Don’t take my word for it that the past couple of games the Thunder have fallen back into bad habits, listen to coach Billy Donovan from after Game 6: “That hasn’t been us the last month and a half. Thought we got a little stagnant coming down the stretch.” The Warriors are a good a defensive team — with good man defenders like Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala — and if you’re predictable you’re defendable. The Thunder have become predictable and isolation heavy, especially when games get tight. That works during the regular season — they have Westbrook and Durant after all — but they need to do better in Game 7. The Thunder must move the ball, the best barometer of that is whether Dion Waiters and Andre Roberson are getting touches and points. If so, the Thunder are much harder to guard and much more likely to win.

2) Are the Warriors’ threes falling?
Look at the Warriors’ shot chart from Game 6.

Warriors Game 6 shotchart

Golden State shot just 48.1 percent at the rim and were 2-of-16 from three feet to the arc. The Thunder blocked 10 shots and grabbed 16 offensive rebounds — on a lot of levels did a lot of what they needed to do to win. The Warriors three-point shooting — particularly Klay Thompson and his record 11 threes — wiped that out. If Golden State is hitting from deep, they are next to impossible to beat. The Thunder need to chase Warriors’ shooters off the arc, then say a little prayer the Warriors don’t just keep hitting from deep anyway.

3) Which small ball lineup wins the battle? For most of this series, the Thunder had out Warriored the Warriors — Oklahoma City’s small lineups (where Durant plays the four) had outplayed Golden State’s small lineups. It seemed foolish to call the Warriors small ball lineups the “death” lineup, except that it was getting them killed. Golden State needs Andrew Bogut this series. That said, in Game 6 the death lineup — Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, Green — was +12 in 11 minutes. It worked again. Both teams are going to go small for stretches, whichever team has more success doing so will have a huge leg up in this game.

4) Which team controls the glass? Oklahoma City is the naturally better rebounding team, arguably the best rebounding team in the NBA, with a big front line of Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka, and Enes Kanter (plus Westbrook is a great rebounder for his position, as is Roberson). However, in the Warriors three wins they are +4 total on the glass — they have either hung with or bested the Thunder on the boards. Golden State needs to have that rebounding focus again (while still finding a way to get out in transition) and limit the Thunder’s second chance points — if OKC can dominate the glass they will be flying to Cleveland for Game 1 Thursday.

5) What random role player steps up with a huge game? It’s a Game 7 tradition: Some player nobody expects ends up immune to the pressure and has a big game. Stars can get tight standing in this bright a spotlight, and role players can win the game for their team. Will it be Iguodala making it happen on both ends for the Warriors? Will it be Waiters knocking down threes? Will Shaun Livingston have the game of his life? Maybe it’s Kanter’s night. Somebody is going to step up.

6) Is Stephen Curry the MVP version of himself? Is Kevin Durant? In Game 6, Curry was just okay in the first half, and the Thunder were up by double digits and seemed in control of the game for much of the first 24 minutes. In the third quarter Curry scored 11 straight Warriors points in one stretch, then in the fourth he had a couple of key threes and had the ball in his hands making plays when the Warriors pulled ahead and won. That Curry needs to show up again, and not just for part of the game. Credit the Thunder defense for making Curry struggle — their smooth switching on defense with long and athletic players — has given him fits. But no defense can contain Curry when he’s on (and healthy, which I’m still not convinced he’s 100 percent).

Kevin Durant was 10-of-31 shooting in Game 6 — he was off, and like any shooter that did not stop him from firing away. That’s the mentality he needs to have, that also cannot happen in Game 7. The Thunder need the MVP Durant (and the good Westbrook) to fuel their offense — he has to be scoring, he has to be passing when the double comes, he has to play great defense. He has to be an MVP.

7) Can Oklahoma City get over the disappointment of not closing out the series at home? Game 6 was a punch to the gut of the Thunder. That was their chance to close out the Warriors at home, Oklahoma City controlled the game early but never could put Golden State away, then got beat in the fourth when Klay Thompson got hot and the Thunder became predictable. Durant said Sunday that if they enter the building Monday acting like it’s a funeral, they will lose. He’s right. But can they forget about Game 6 and get back to the things that got them a 3-1 series lead, or is their head still going to be in Sunday night, especially the first time something goes wrong?