Heat' James goes in for a dunk during the first half of Game 4 of his NBA first round playoff series against the Bucks in Milwaukee

Heat, Spurs took (relatively) easy paths to NBA Finals


Before going any further, I want say reaching the NBA Finals is hard. Really, really hard. Any team that makes it this far deserves a lot of credit.

But sometimes it’s easier win a conference than other times.

There are a couple objective ways to measure the difficulty of the path a team takes to the Finals. One is the seeding of opponents in the first three rounds, and another is the record of opponents in the first three rounds.

By the first, the Spurs had the easiest path the Finals in 24 years. By the second, the Heat had the easiest path in 25 years.

By opponents’ seeds

The Spurs beat a No. 7 seed (Lakers), No. 6 seed (Warriors) and No. 5 seed (Grizzlies) to win the Western Conference. The seeds of San Antonio’s three opponents total 18. No team team has reached the Finals with its opponents’ seeds totaling that large a number since 1989.

Since the NBA instituted its current four-round format in 1984, only four Finals teams have such a high number in this stat:

1. 1987 Lakers, 20

2. 1989 Pistons, 19

3. 1984 Lakers, 18

3. 2013 Spurs, 18

Two of those three teams preceding San Antonio – the 1987 Lakers and 1989 Pistons – won the Finals. This might be somewhat random, but it also makes sense. A team that enters the playoffs as a high seed is more likely to win a championship, and that team is also guaranteed one series against a low seed. Also, by possessing a high seed itself, that’s one fewer possible high seed the Finals-bound team can play.

By opponents’ records

The Heat beat the 38-44 Bucks, 45-37 Bulls and 49-32 Pacers – opponents with a combined winning percentage of .539. The last Finals team with three opponents that had such a low winning percentage was the 1988 Lakers.

Since 1984, just five Finals teams have faced opponents with a worse combined record:

1. 1987 Lakers, .480

2. 1984 Lakers, .496

3. 1985 Lakers, .528

4. 1988 Lakers, .533

5. 1984 Celtics, .537

6. 2013 Heat, .539

Miami’s opponent winning percentage is pretty remarkable, considering expansion has raised the bar for the lower seeds. Now with 30 teams, assuming conference parity, a median team is a No. 8 seed. In 1988, when there were just 23 teams, a median team was a No. 6 team, meaning below-median teams filled the bottom two seeds.

Four of the five teams that reached the Finals with worse opponents winning percentages than the Heat won the title, and the Lakers lost in 1984 only when facing a team also on the list, the Celtics.

Again, this could be random, but it also makes sense. Teams with good records get more series against teams with worse records. Also, every game a team wins – a sign that the team is good – is a game a potential playoff opponent doesn’t win.

So, an easy path to the Finals might actually bode well for teams once they get there. If that holds true for the Spurs and Heat, we should be in for a heck of a series.

Also, in case you’re wondering, the most difficult path to the finals, by either measure goes to the 1995 Rockets. Entering the playoffs as the No. 6 seed, Houston beat the No. 3 Jazz (60-22), No. 2 Suns (59-23) and No. 1 Spurs (62-20) to reach the Finals, where it defended its title by beating the Magic.

Five Takeaways from NBA Monday: Why do Rockets often lack energy?

Dwight Howard, James Harden, Arron Afflalo
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This season the Eastern Conference has been deeper and a little better than the West — and that was on display Monday night when the Bulls beat the Spurs, and the Hawks beat the Thunder. Two wins showing the East is for real. Pistons fans told me on Twitter they should be in the Monday night big win mix also, and while I like Detroit (check out our discussion of them in the latest PBT podcast) beating Houston is no longer impressive. Our man Dan Feldman was at that game in Detroit and wrote this first takeaway from that game — what is wrong with Houston’s energy level?

1) Why have the Rockets so often lacked energy this season? “Talking about it is not going to do nothing,” Dwight Howard said. “There’s no Xs and Os that we can draw up. Talking about it in meetings is not going to do nothing. We’ve just got to go do it. We haven’t so far, and something has to change.”

“That’s a good question,” James Harden said in his entire answer, effectively ending the interview after a 116-105 loss to the Pistons dropped Houston to 7-11.

For what Howard provides in vague frustration and Harden in mystery, Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff believes he has uncovered what ails his team.

Bickerstaff pinned much of Houston’s defensive regression on its offensive finishing. As he explained, when the Rockets get all the way to the rim and miss, it’s too easy for opponents — with a Houston player under the basket and a loose ball getting kicked out — to run for easy shots.

The Rockets are attempting 39.2% of their shots in the restricted area, up from 34.7% last season. But they’re shooting just 58.6% there, down from 60.4% last season. Those extra misses at the rim have added up. But Bickerstaff believes his team will regress up to the mean.

“We play a certain style of basketball that we believe works,” Bickerstaff said. “It’s worked for us in the past. We’ll continue to play that way. We’ll continue to be aggressive getting to the paint, getting to the rim. We’ve just got to be stronger in our finishes, and things will change for us.”
—Dan Feldman

2) Bulls execute better than Spurs down stretch (you read that right), pick up big win. With two of the top six defenses in the Association coming into the game, you had to expect San Antonio/Chicago was going to be ugly, gritty, and come down to execution in the clutch. Let’s be honest, that sounds like a recipe for a Spurs win. But on Monday night all those things went the Bulls way — Chicago didn’t score a field goal the final six minutes of the game and still won 92-89. The pairing of Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic played better defense than we’d expect, and the Bulls as a team kept the Spurs from looking Spursian — San Antonio was 2-of-14 from three and seemed to rely more on beating guys one-on-one (specifically Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker) than most games. The Bulls offense late is too much Derrick Rose and he can’t carry a team like he once did (although Butler couldn’t do much do to Leonard’s defense). But it was enough for one night — this was a huge home win for the Bulls.

I have been hesitant to buy into Chicago this season as the potential second best team in the East, they look like the same old Bulls to me. However, the bottom line now is they are 10-5 and have beaten the Spurs, Thunder, Cavaliers and Pacers. That has to get you into one of the top tiers.


3) Atlanta’s team ball beats Westbrook/Durant Thunder for a day. It’s not as simple and clean as that headline makes it sound, but this game had that feel. The Hawks looked like Spurs northeast on Monday night, with ball movement that had them shooting 57 percent in the first quarter and opening up a double-digit lead. Then as happened all game one of the Thunder stars would spark a run — sometimes Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook other times — and the game would be tight again. It went back and forth like that all night. It was Westbrook who had the fourth quarter push (17 of his 34 in the final frame) to make things interesting, but Jeff Teague finishing in traffic late (he ended the night with 25) and Kent Bazemore making the defensive play of the night was enough. Big win for the Hawks.

4) Stephen Curry game winner keeps Warriors perfect. The Utah Jazz play big, their success is based around a front line of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert (two bigs who are quick), and they were not going to go small and try to match up with the Warriors. Good for them. The Jazz were going to be the Jazz and go down swinging, and Favors had 23 and Gordon Hayward had 23. And it was not enough. Draymond Green was Mr. Energy. And when the game was on the line late, Curry could create the sliver of space he needs to knock down the game winner to make Golden State 19-0.

5) DeMarcus Cousins is back, drops 31 on Dallas and Sacramento gets the win. The Sacramento Kings with DeMarcus Cousins in the lineup are 6-5 on the season and a dangerous team. It’s the 1-7 without him that holds them back. Cousins had 16 fourth quarter points (31 points, nine rebounds and six assists on the night), and that combined with some impressive defense down the stretch got the Kings a much-needed win. That defense late has to be the most heartening thing for Kings fans — they have been bad on that end of the floor. A little Cousins and a little defense and suddenly things look much better in Sacramento. Now they just have to do it consistently. And keep Cousins healthy.

Gasol gets double-double as Bulls beat Spurs 92-89

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CHICAGO (AP) — Pau Gasol punctuated his big block on LaMarcus Aldridge with a triumphant yell.

The ugly final four minutes went to Gasol and the Chicago Bulls.

Gasol had 18 points, 13 rebounds and three blocked shots, and the Bulls snapped San Antonio’s five-game winning streak with a 92-89 victory over the Spurs on Monday night.

Jimmy Butler scored 14 points and reserve Doug McDermott had 12 for Chicago, which was coming off a 104-92 loss at Indiana on Friday night. Joakim Noah contributed eight points, seven assists and 11 rebounds despite battling foul trouble in the final minutes of the opener of a four-game homestand.

“Everyone contributed tonight in a positive way,” Gasol said. “Jo was outstanding and almost had a triple double off the bench with his energy, making plays offensively as well as defensively. Everyone really contributed and it was good to see.”

Gasol rejected Aldridge on a drive with 1:06 left, and then hit one of two foul shots on the other end for a 90-89 lead. After Manu Ginobili missed for San Antonio, Butler hit two free throws with 10.6 seconds to go.

The Spurs had one last chance, but Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker each missed 3-point attempts in the final seconds. Parker’s try was partially blocked by Derrick Rose, who finished with 11 points and six assists.

“We had a play for Kawhi, and an option for Manu, it just didn’t work out,” Parker said. “That happens sometimes. It was good defense by Chicago.”

Leonard had 25 points and eight rebounds for San Antonio, which had won nine of 10. Aldridge added 21 points and 12 rebounds, and Parker had 13 points and nine assists.

The Spurs had just one field goal in the final four minutes.

“We are not good offensively, and may not be until March,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “Offense will take a while. We have a lot of guys getting used to each other, and how to play together.”

The Spurs led 73-70 after three quarters, but the Bull opened the fourth with an 11-2 run. Tony Snell sparked the surge with a 3-pointer and a driving layup.

Chicago played without guards Kirk Hinrich and Aaron Brooks. Brooks has a left hamstring injury, and Hinrich is recovering from a hip pointer.

“It was one of those nights where everybody that stepped out on the floor not only contributed but contributed in a big way,” coach Fred Hoiberg said.



Spurs: Tim Duncan had 12 rebounds, but San Antonio was hurt by a 51-47 deficit on the boards. … The Spurs went 2 for 14 from 3-point range, compared to 6 for 16 for the Bulls. … San Antonio went 13-3 in November.

Bulls: Noah played in his 557th game with Chicago, passing Dave Corzine for ninth on the franchise list. … The Bulls had an 8-4 record in November.


Stephen Curry’s step-back three beats Jazz, Warriors now 19-0

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Credit the up-and-coming Jazz, they played well and were a fantastic stylistic match against Golden State. Utah played big, slowed the game down, limited transition looks, hit key shots (Derrick Favors was fantastic with 24, Gordon Hayward had 24), and were the right mix of gritty and smart.

And Golden State still won.

Stephen Curry got the sliver of daylight he needed in the last minute to step back and drain the three that proved to be the game-winner. Draymond Green was the other stud in this game — 20 points, nine boards, seven assists, plus his hustle plays were the difference down the stretch.

Golden State is 19-0, a record start, and they made the plays they needed to make. But Utah made them work for it.

Report: Sixers’ Jahlil Okafor to be shadowed by security guard now

2015 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot

In the run-up to the NBA Draft, there were no questions — at least publicly — about Jahlil Okafor‘s character. But of late there has been a run or incidents since then: He allegedly had a gun pulled on him outside a club in October; in November he was ticketed for driving more than 100 mph on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge; then he had an altercation with a guy outside a club in Boston that the police in that city are now investigating.

Okafor publicly apologized for the incidents. Multiple times.

The Sixers are making sure a security guard follows Okafor around when he steps out now, reports Chris Broussard at ESPN.

After being involved recently in a few embarrassing and potentially dangerous off-the-court incidents, Philadelphia 76ers star rookie Jahlil Okafor will now be accompanied by a security guard whenever he goes out, according to league sources.

The request for security came from Okafor’s handlers, who asked the 76ers to make a security guard available to their first-round draft pick out of Duke. The Sixers did not return a phone call seeking comment, but two sources said the club will honor the request.

Earlier in the day a source had wondered to John Gonzalez of CSNPhilly.com why there wasn’t already security around the young core of the team when they went out.

Another front office member for another team questioned “why the Sixers won’t surround those guys with security.”

“Damn near every team does that,” the executive said, “especially with their top guys. I guess the Sixers know more than everyone else again.”

The Sixers head of security is supposed to be notified when players went out. Apparently that was not happening.

Okafor is 19, has money, and (at the very least) is putting himself in situations where bad things are more likely to occur.

We all made a lot of mistakes at that age, maybe not as potentially serious, but the bottom line is 19-year-olds don’t make good decisions. This is a Sixers team lacking in veteran leadership in the locker room, and while it’s debatable how much that would help in the wee small hours of the morning when Okafor seems to find trouble, it couldn’t hurt.

This is a smart move by Okafor’s friends/posse/handlers/whatever you call them. Get in his face now, tell him he can lose a fan base whether he’s scoring 17.5 points a game a night or not. Tell him to grow up. Then have someone around him to make sure he does the right thing (or those looking to draw him into trouble are kept away).