Heat knock Thunder out of rhythm, hang on for close win

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If this is going to be the NBA finals again, I am all good with that. In fact, can we start it tomorrow?

The Thunder and Heat gave us all the Christmas Day gift of what felt as close to playoff game as you are going to get in December— it was physical, intense, even Kevin Durant and LeBron James were jawing at each other by the end of this one.

And just like the last three times the Heat and Thunder played in Miami it was the Heat that came away with the win, 103-97.

This win means nothing if these teams meet again in June — there are no statement games in December. But the game did remind us of a few things.

Miami makes things a struggle for the Thunder like seemingly no other team in the NBA can do. If you watched games from Oklahoma City’s recent 12-game winning streak you would see fantastic ball movement, great spacing and guys getting good looks in the flow of the offense. But the Heat take the Thunder out of that flow — Oklahoma City becomes a team that likes too much isolation and doesn’t move off the ball.

The result is when you need a three to tie the game with 14 seconds left you end up with Durant taking a contested step-back three with LeBron in his face. (As for Russell Westbrook being fouled on that next three… I don’t know. The review was inconclusive. But OKC wouldn’t have needed a three if they had defended on what became a Chris Bosh dunk the play before. One foul never loses you a game by itself.)

Miami raced off to a 13-2 start with LeBron James throwing down dunks to get off to a fast start on his way to a huge 29-point, 8 rebound, 9 assist game. He made a statement that if you are going to have a conversation about the MVP and have Carmelo Anthony and Durant in it go ahead, but you better have LeBron in that mix as well.

The Thunder closed that gap with the three by the end of the first quarter and eventually tied it up 39-39. We had a game the rest of the way.

For Miami we had a Mario Chalmers sighting — he had 20 points and shot 4-of-8 from three. Dwyane Wade had 21 points, Chris Bosh 16.

For the Thunder, it was 33 for Durant in the kind of quality game an MVP has on the big stage. But after that things dropped off a little — Westbrook had 21 points but needed 19 shots to get them, Kevin Martin had 15 but hit just 4-of-10 shots.

The real question I have for Scottie Brooks — why so much Kendrick Perkins, particularly late in the game. Perkins has a role on your team against the Lakers or Grizzlies, but against the Heat he seems lost without a position and was exposed by the Heat.

And with all that, it was a six point final score in a game the Thunder had a shot in. They need to play at their peak to beat the Heat and we didn’t see that on Christmas just like we didn’t last June. Like the protagonist in an action movie, the Heat are going to have to play at a new level to beat the Heat in a series. Oklahoma City may have that in them but their margin for error is small. And we saw too many little mistakes.

But it’s close.

It could be different if they meet in the finals. And if that happens, I’m good with it.

David Stern: ‘Shame on the Brooklyn Nets’

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Brooklyn rested Brook Lopez, Jeremy Lin and Trevor Booker for its final game this season, which had huge playoff implications. Not for the Nets, of course. They were long eliminated from postseason contention.

But the Bulls beat Brooklyn to reach the playoffs over the Heat, who also won that night.

Miami fans were obviously ticked, and they have company in former NBA commissioner David Stern.

Stern, via Sam Amick of USA Today:

“I have no idea what was in the mind of the executives of the Brooklyn Nets — none — when they rested their starting players,” Stern, who still holds the title of Commissioner Emeritus, told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday on the NBA A to Z podcast. “If you’re playing in a game of consequence, that has an impact, which is as good as it gets (you should play your players). Here we are, the Brooklyn Nets are out of the running. They have the lowest record in the sport. But they have an opportunity to weigh in on the final game with respect to Chicago. And they sit their starters? Really? It’s inexcusable in my view. I don’t think the Commissioner maybe can, or even should, do anything about it. But shame on the Brooklyn Nets. They broke the (pact with fans).”

The resting dilemma takes slightly different forms when it involves a team like Brooklyn rather than a certain playoff team, but the underlying conflict remains the same:

The team is better off resting its players.

The NBA is worse off, at least in the short term.

The league was robbed of an important competitive game that could’ve drawn higher ratings. The Nets had just beaten Chicago a days prior, but that was with major contributions from Lopez and Lin. Without them, Brooklyn had little chance and lost by 39.

The Nets weren’t playing for anything, not even a higher draft pick. They owe their first-rounder to the Celtics and already clinched the worst record anyway. Brooklyn was better off resting those veterans at the end of a long regular season.

There’s no easy answer. If the NBA bans resting, teams will sit players and assign to minor or made-up injuries. If the league shortens the season, it will lose revenue.

The best solution is to improve at the margins – provide more rest days (which the league will do next season) and schedule nationally televised games outside of grueling stretches of the schedule. That’s obviously no silver bullet, though. Bulls-Nets wasn’t nationally televised, and Brooklyn had the day off before and the entire offseason off after.

Another potential solution: Shaming teams into playing their top players. Stern is giving that one a go.

NBA looking into Rockets’ owner interacting with referee during game

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Like every Rockets fan — and, let’s be honest, every fan of every team — Leslie Alexander is convinced the referees were screwing over his Rockets.

Except that Alexander is the owner of the Rockets.

And he approached a referee during game play.

The NBA is understandably investigating this, as reported by the Houston Chronicle.

The NBA said an investigation “is underway” into Rockets’ owner Leslie Alexander’s getting up from his courtside seat to have a few words with official Bill Kennedy in the first half.

Alexander appeared to say something to Kennedy during a Thunder possession before returning to his seat. Alexander declined to give any detail beyond he was “upset … really upset.” Rockets guard James Harden said he didn’t see his owner get up. “He did that?” a surprised Harden said after the game. “He’s the coolest guy. I would have helped him.”

The NBA doesn’t let players or coaches cross a line when talking to officials, but they are at least allowed to interact and discuss calls with a ref during a game. It’s something else entirely for an owner to get in the ear of an official during game play.

I’d expect Alexander will see a fine for this.

Whatever he thought of the officiating, the Rockets won to advance on to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs.

Steve Kerr to see Stanford specialists about back issues, is optimistic about return to bench

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If he were not coaching a perennial contender and a team where he genuinely has a deep bond with the players, the GM, and his fellow coaches, Steve Kerr might have walked away from basketball for a while. The pain from spinal fluid leakage from a couple of back surgeries he had two summers ago (the ones that led to Luke Walton coaching the first half of the season in Golden State) would have been too much.

But he tolerated and managed the pain as best he could, until a few days ago when it became too much. Kerr did not coach the final two games of the Warriors sweep of the Trail Blazers and said he would not return to the bench until healthy enough to do so.

Kerr’s next step is to talk to specialists at Stanford University’s medical program, and Kerr is optimistic about the long-term prognosis, he told Monty Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area.

He revealed to NBCSportsBayArea.com that in recent days he has spoken to several people who have experienced the debilitating effects of a cerebrospinal fluid leak and been able to overcome it. He says that because his symptoms have intensified over the past week, in an odd twist, that may make it easier for specialists to trace the precise source.

“That’s what the next few days are all about,” Kerr said, standing down the hallway from the visitor’s locker room. “They’re trying to find it. If they can find it, they can fix it.”

He’ll begin in the coming days by consulting with specialists at Stanford Medical Center, which has some of the more respected surgeons in the world.

Kerr said his spirits have been lifted by other people who went through this, people who told him doctors found the leak and it changed their lives, that they bounced back to 100 percent. He said that the first back surgeries did their job in relieving his lower back pain, but it has led to spinal fluid leakage that is worse than the symptoms the first surgery solved.

Whether a fix can happen to get him back on the bench these playoffs is immaterial, we all hope it happens just so Kerr the person can go back to enjoying his life without chronic pain. He’ll be around the team as much as he can through the playoffs, but there are far more important things going on with him than basketball right now.

 

Thunder’s offseason moves start here: Offer Russell Westbrook $220 million contract

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The narrative of Oklahoma City’s first-round playoff loss to Houston — and frankly its entire season — was about how little help Russell Westbrook was given. Game 5 was the perfect example: The Thunder were +12 when Westbrook was on the court, but he rested for 6:07 and OKC was -18 in those minutes. The Thunder’s role players are young and many — for example, Enes Kanter — are very one dimensional, but that’s because their role was supposed to be much more narrow and defined. Then Kevin Durant left and players were asked to do things outside their comfort zones, or grow up fast, and it didn’t go that well.

Thunder GM Sam Presti has some work to do this summer to tweak that roster, make it more versatile, and design it to fit better around Westbrook (not to mention take some of the load off him).

But the first thing Presti has to do is keep Westbrook — and that means offering him a five-year, roughly $220 million extension. Royce Young if ESPN has the details on how that works.

After signing an extension last summer in the wake of Durant’s departure, Westbrook can sign another in the ballpark of $220 million over five years this summer. Westbrook is signed through the 2017-18 season, with a player option on the following year, but the Thunder would obviously like to have a longer commitment from their franchise player.

The expectation is that they will make the offer, but should Westbrook decline, all that talk of stabilizing the franchise would get a little more wobbly, and with only a year guaranteed, talk of trading him could spark again. It will certainly be alarming for the front office, especially after what it went through with Durant.

It’s hard to imagine Westbrook walking away from that money — it’s about $75 million more guaranteed and one more year than any other team can offer. That’s a lot of cash to leave on the table, I don’t care how much you make in endorsements. (If Westbrook left, signed a max deal elsewhere for four years, then signed a max deal for that fifth year later, he still would get roughly $35 million less than signing with the Thunder now.) Once Westbrook is locked into place, Presti can start looking to reshape the Thunder roster.

But if Westbrook pauses and doesn’t sign, the NBA rumor mill will be moving at the speed of Westbrook in transition. The Thunder wouldn’t want to lose Durant and Westbrook for nothing, it would set their rebuilding process way back, so Presti would have to consider trades. However, because Westbrook is a free agent in 2018, he would almost have a no-trade clause — no team is going to give up much to get him without an under-the-table understanding he would re-sign in that city.

Expect Westbrook to agree to the extension in OKC. Because he likes the team — remember, he signed that extension last summer (which got him a healthy pay raise) — and because it would make him the highest-paid player in the NBA, and that would feed his ego (and pocketbook).

Once he does, Presti’s real work begins.