NBA Finals Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Miami Heat

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SEASON RECORDS

Miami 66-16 (First seed in East)
San Antonio 58-24 (Second seed in West)

PLAYOFF RECORDS

San Antonio 12-2 (swept the Lakers 4-0, beat the Warriors 4-2, swept the Grizzlies)
Miami: 12-4 (swept Milwaukee 4-0, beat Chicago 4-1, went 7 to beat Pacers)

SEASON SERIES

This was the most meaningless 1-1 season series ever. The first game was the Thursday night national television game where Gregg Popovich sent Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili home early (it was the second night of a road back-to-back) and got the team a $250,000 fine for embarrassing David Stern. Next time these teams met the Heat rested LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but the Heat were sensible enough to lie to the league office in advance about why they had to sit. So no fines.

KEY INJURIES

Both teams are playing through some minor injuries, but nobody is expected to miss games. Dwyane Wade will be the biggest question mark — he looked grounded through six games of the last round then suddenly reminded everyone of his old self in Game 7. So which Wade shows up this series?

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession) – PLAYOFFS ONLY

Miami: offense, 108.4 (1st in postseason); defense 97.6 (4th in postseason)
San Antonio: offense 106.5 (2nd in postseason); defense 95.4 (1st in postseason)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES:

Spurs ball movement vs. Heat pressure defense. If you saw Game 7 Monday night when the Heat wiped the floor with the Pacers, you see what Miami’s athleticism and pressure can do to even a good offense. Miami is big, athletic and they use that to force turnovers (which become alley-oops going the other way). But do you really think Tony Parker is going to melt from that? San Antonio’s ball movement could break the Heat’s pressure not totally unlike Dallas did to them in the finals two years ago. If Miami’s traps disrupt the Spurs ball movement Miami wins. But if the ball moves to open shooters and Danny Green or Matt Bonner are knocking down threes, advantage Spurs.

LeBron James vs. Kawhi Leonard. No one man stops LeBron James… but one man can make his life more difficult (Paul George did a respectable job last round). . Kawhi Leonard will be the best defender LeBron will see these playoffs, and if Leonard can just make LeBron have to really work for his points, that’s a huge plus for the Spurs. The help defense behind Leonard also needs to be sharp — Tim Duncan is smart about this, but Tiago Splitter can be a step slow at times, he does that this round and he’s in a LeBron poster.

Who controls paint/can the Heat rebound? Gregg Popovich is a smart man, he was taking notes on what the Pacers did to push the Heat to a seventh game — Indiana worked the ball inside, drew fouls to get to the line and dominated the offensive glass. The Spurs don’t have the raw size of the Pacers, but Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan are both smart, aggressive and a still bigger front line that will be able to hurt the Heat inside. In the games it won the Pacers grabbed around 40 percent of their missed shots as offensive rebounds, if the Spurs can keep that number above 30 percent they will give the Heat fits this series.

OUTLOOK

This is a great matchup on paper because San Antonio should do things that really bother the Heat.

For one, they are strong inside, too. While San Antonio doesn’t have anyone the size of Roy Hibbert they do have two legitimate, physical big men in Splitter and Duncan and the Spurs will get points inside. The Spurs can play physical; they just dusted the physical Grizzlies in four games.

What is more, Tony Parker is going to be a real problem for them. Miami has struggled at times against teams with top point guards — and right now Parker is playing at an MVP-like level. He’s averaging 23 points on 47.percent shooting (37 percent from three), plus dishing out 7.2 assists per game these playoffs. If he can get past the first-line of defense and into the paint the Heat will be in trouble. If he can deal with the aggressive traps of the Heat and move the ball to open shooters (who hit their shots) the Heat could be in trouble.

For the Spurs, the question these playoff was always could they beat a very athletic team? They didn’t last year, falling to the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. But this year, due to the Russell Westbrook injury, the most athletic team the Spurs faced getting to the finals was Golden State, and while they have a couple good athletes on the roster they don’t compare to the Heat that way.

How does San Antonio deal with that? Which is another way of asking, what do they do when the Heat hit that extra gear they showed in Game 7 (and a couple other times against the Pacers)?

PREDICTION

Heat in six. The Spurs have a shot in this, they have the tools to exploit the Heat’s weaknesses and we know they are not going to melt down in the moment. But in the end this is a close series where a handful of times the Heat will hit the turbo button and go play on another level that the Spurs cannot stop. That will be enough to put Miami over the top.

PBT Podcast: Former Bull B.J. Armstrong talks Jerry Kraus, triangle, Derrick Rose, more

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Three-time NBA champion — turned agent and podcaster in his own right — B.J. Armstrong joins me in this latest podcast and we get into a lot of different topics: late Bulls’ GM Jerry Kraus, the triangle offense in today’s NBA, his being an agent for Derrick Rose heading into free agency, his time in the elite eight with Iowa, and there’s even a Luc Longly story.

We also get into how Armstrong is busy post playing days, both as a Wasserman basketball agent and as a podcaster, he has a new show with Ric Bucher. He’s also working with a company called Cycle where he gives 24-second talks on NBA topics.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (just click the button under the podcast), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out our new PBT podcast homepage and archive at Audioboom.com.

Courtside seats you can afford: NBA ventures into world of virtual reality

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Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams is banging on Houston’s Clint Capela — elbows extended, using those arms, his strength, and his backside to seal off like it’s a box-out. It’s the kind of surprisingly physical off-the-ball pick (with a little hold) that only those wealthy enough to have courtside baseline seats usually get to appreciate up close.

Adams’ pick works, it keeps the lane open — and Russell Westbrook explodes into that space for the kind of slam you can feel in those courtside seats.

Except you’re not courtside. Not even close.

You’re sitting on your couch, wearing the virtual reality headset that transports you to the baseline to Oklahoma City, via a camera attached to the stanchion behind the basket.

It’s a new view, a new way to experience an NBA game that the league is embracing, and while it’s still a work in progress it’s also something that shows a lot of promise.

“A lot of people see the (NBA virtual reality) commercials and think it’s cool, which it is, but until you experience it you don’t know,” said Bruce Bowen, the retired NBA champion who is now part of the virtual reality broadcast team on NBA games. “You don’t get the opportunity to experience things like this, when it comes to basketball and the best players in the world utilizing their athleticism, utilizing their grace, and seeing it come to life quite as it does.

“It just so happens that we did a game in Dallas, and Michael Finley — a friend of mine as well as a teammate of mine in San Antonio (Ed. note: he’s now in the front office in Dallas) — he watched the rerun. So after his game, he went and watched it and he was raving about it, about how this is truly special, and that you don’t think it’s going to turn out the way it does but it’s truly remarkable.”

The NBA is embracing virtual reality — and we’re not just talking about training referees, or teaching point guards to make better decisions. The NBA has become the first major professional sports league to broadcast weekly games that can be watched in virtual reality from a headset in your home. They did the same thing at the All-Star Game with the All-Star Saturday night events.

“It’s an unreal experience where you can put the VR headset on and look around and feel like you’re there,” Stephen Curry told NBCSports.com of his experience with the NBA’s virtual reality. “I know that technology is only going to get better and more impactful in the game of basketball, and sports in general.”

“I think our sport has some innate advantages,” says Jeff Marsilio, the Vice President of Global Media Distribution for the NBA. “We sometimes joke around that if we were to start over and build a sport for virtual reality, it would end up looking a lot like what our sport does today. …

“We’ve got huge players who are so incredibly athletic and you can get close to them with virtual reality.”

The league has partnered with NextVR to bring that courtside experience to fans. NextVR is a company that has experience broadcasting live events in virtual reality (including The Masters, among many others). I got the chance to test the technology at All-Star weekend. Like a lot of virtual reality tech, it is a work in progress in terms of smoothy watching the game, but it also new perspective that few fans get to experience. It is immersive; you feel like you’re much closer to the action than with a traditional broadcast.

It works like all VR does — if Westbrook drives and kicks to the corner to Victor Oladipo, you can turn your head to follow the ball and the field of vision pans with you.

To watch requires a virtual-reality headset and a Samsung phone with the NextVR app downloaded, or Google’s Daydream (which has other features from the NBA we will get to soon). If you have League Pass you can jump right in. If not, the cost is $6.99 per game, and there is about one game available per week.

NextVR puts together that broadcast, which has its own announcers and graphics.

“The adaptation in the broadcast is ‘look left, look right,’ really having to direct your audience, whereas in a regular telecast somebody is watching the game, you don’t have to say ‘look left at this,’” Bowen said. “What you’re doing now is directing the viewer to certain things that catch your eye. ‘If you look right you’ll see there’s a dispute going on between two players,’ or ‘this guy is coming right at you.’ Just helping them in certain situations.”

“It’s very similar to a live broadcast. The signal is produced in a truck (on site),” said David Cole, co-founder and CEO of NextVR. “The difference is there’s outbound signal from all of the available cameras, and that gives us the ability to allow you to choose the camera position you want.”

Soon, if fans want to watch from the courtside camera in the middle of the court, you’ll be able to have that view all game (even if a player checking in blocks your view for a while, just like people in actual courtside seats deal with). There are eight cameras usually at each game, and a handful will be set up by the end of the year so that you can stay just with that camera. If you want to know what it’s like to sit in courtside baseline seats — and you don’t have five grand to blow on one game — this is almost like being there.

“When we started experimenting with David and NextVR, we thought the ultimate was just the pure courtside seat experience,” Marsilio said. “And what we discovered in this experimentation phase is that’s a great core to build upon, but you really need to pull in some of the more traditional elements from things like television.”

Things such as having the score easy to see, or having replays of a dunk or block.

However, this presents a challenge. If a graphic pops up on your television at home while watching a game, you don’t think twice about it. However, if you are in an immersive environment where the goal is to make it seem like you’re in a courtside seat, then a graphic starts to take over that field of vision, it can take you out of that experience.

Which leads to the next challenge for the VR experience — social media. For many fans watching an NBA game is a two-screen experience, one with the game on and one — a phone, tablet, or laptop — with Twitter or another social media platform open. That has become part of the NBA community, almost like watching a game at a bar 20 years ago (but smarter and funnier… usually).

“We’ve demonstrated a number of different social integrations into the experience … you can opt to receive messages right now, so you can opt to text and that kind of thing in the environment right now,” Cole said.

“But it’s something we’re being incredibly studied and measured about right now because we can blow your sense of presence, that covenant with the view that says ‘this is just like being there and this is real.’ If you choose to have that different kind of information inserted and knock yourself out of that, that’s one thing. But when it just happens because someone sends you a message or a Tweet pops up or something that blows you out of the experience, it’s very disrupting. And we may not get you back.”

It’s a fine line to walk, and with the NBA on the cutting edge, the league is treating these experiments as a learning experience.

“That sense of presence you’re in danger of disrupting, it also gives it the potential to be the most social platform, because if you can give people the experience of being present together, you can give them the sense of watching together,” Marsilio said.

The NBA also partnered with Google Daydream for another way to integrate VR into the sport. Daydream has set up several experiences where a famous NBA player — the one I watched had Robert Horry — was sitting in a comfortable leather chair with a comedian/host in another chair, both in a loft-like environment, and on the big screen behind them is a classic NBA game. Throughout the experience, Horry and the host joke and talk about the action, telling stories and giving insights on the game.

“The chief opportunity for us is our live game, no question, but a close second is just getting our fans closer to our players,” Marsilio said. “Letting them experience that sense of presence of these players they admire so much. And you can feel like you’re hanging out, kind of watching the game together.”

Of course, the NBA will eventually look to sell advertising through these broadcasts — never forget that this is a business first. The key is to make those ads immersive and part of the experience, not just something to be watched passively.

“There is a huge amount of potential,” Cole said. “Whether they are cutaways (during breaks in the action) or insertions in another way — sponsored instant replay, sponsored graphics — there are options. …

“The one difference between us and a traditional linear broadcast is we have a 360-degree world to sell ads into.”

The NBA seems well positioned to bet on VR as the NBA’s demographic skews younger than the other major American sports leagues and is filled with early adopters. According to NextVR, the addition of mobile capability has already broadened the platform’s audience by a wide margin, proving there is potentially a large group for the NBA to reach.

“NextVR does not disclose viewership numbers however, we have seen an increased amount of time spent in headsets immersed with NBA content since the beginning of our partnership,” Cole said. “We also continue to receive extremely positive feedback.”

That feedback has the league pushing to get more people to put on the headsets and sit courtside. At a much more affordable price than the actual seats.

Three Things We Learned Thursday: DeMar DeRozan is getting buckets, leading Raptors

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If you were too busy to catch the NBA Thursday night, what between the NCAA tournament and watching birds get high, it’s alright, we’ve got your back. Here are the three big takeaways from Thursday night around the league. 

1) DeMar DeRozan is developing into more than just a scorer, but he still does that too. With Kyle Lowry out, the Raptors are asking a lot more of DeMar DeRozan. He is delivering. He is leading. He had 14 of the Raptors first 20 points Thursday night, shot 67 percent in the first half, and dropped 40 on Heat in Raptors win. This is the second straight 40-point game for DeRozan.

With Dion Waiters out, the Miami Heat are asking a lot more of Goran Dragic. They are not getting it, the team lacks a leader (Hassan Whiteside did have 16 points and 14 boards). That led Heat to a loss Thursday and going 3-2 on a homestand, now they head out on the road for six of their last 10 and the schedule gets tougher.

Miami still has the eight seed in the East, but they are just one game up on Chicago (which has a much easier schedule the rest of the way) and Detroit. If the Heat are going to make the postseason, they need wins on the road. And leadership. And scoring, because Waiters is still in a walking boot.

Toronto remains just half a game back (one in the loss column) from the Washington Wizards in the battle for the three seed. It matters, whichever team ends up fourth gets Cleveland in the second round. Nobody wants that.

2) Clippers fall to Mavericks, that’s gotta sting. Dallas has been a solid team since getting healthy, they are 9-6 since the All-Star break with a top-10 defense in that stretch. They’ve got some fight in them — especially J.J. Barea, who got tossed for a Flagrant 2 Thursday night for going to the head of Blake Giffin.

Still, if you’re the Clippers and trying to rack up wins and get home court in the first round (and make sure the Thunder don’t pass you in the standings in the final 10 games) this is the kind of game you need to win. That’s not going to happen with a sloppy, turnover-filled performance. Not when Devin Harris is atoning for his mistakes by picking Blake Griffin clean on the penultimate possession of the game, sealing the win.

Dallas played with some fire, the Clippers were not sharp, and the Mavs get a 97-95 win that is a blow to the Clippers.

3) Break up the Nets, they have won two in a row.
The Brooklyn Nets aren’t playing terribly. For them. Since the All-Star break, they are 6-9 with an offense ranked in the middle of the pack in the NBA (which is a big step forward), and with a 126-98 win over the Suns the Nets have won two in a row.

Maybe the most interesting thing in this game is the Suns’ rolled out the youngest starting lineup in NBA history: Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker, Derrick Jones Jr., Marquese Chriss, and Alex Len combine to have an average age of 21 years, 14 days (via the Elias Sports Bureau). So for Suns fans looking at a high draft pick this fall, there is that bit of hope.

The Nets were never going to be good this season, but injuries — to Jeremy Lin in particular, but Brook Lopez and others have battled them as well — have robbed them of some wins and dignity. Finally healthy, the Nets are playing decent enough hoops to be respectable. That said, don’t worry Celtics fans, they are still five games worse than the Lakers, Brooklyn will have the most ping-pong balls in the lottery.

Teamwork: Spurs take ball length of court without one dribble, get and-1 (VIDEO)

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This is about the most Spurs thing ever.

As San Antonio was trying to seal away its win over Memphis Thursday night, Kawhi Leonard made a steal on a lazy pass and from there it started — five passes push the ball up the court in a textbook fast break that ends with an and-1 bucket.

San Antonio got the win 97-90 behind 23 points and eight rebounds from LaMarcus Aldridge.