PBT NBA Finals preview: Miami Heat vs. San Antonio Spurs (part deux)

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SEASON RECORDS

San Antonio Spurs 62-20 (No. 1 seed in West)

Miami Heat 54-28 (No. 2 seed in East)

KEY INJURIES

San Antonio Spurs: Tony Parker sprained his ankle in Game 4 against the Thunder and aggravated it in Game 5, by the second half of Game 6 Gregg Popovich shut him down. He says he wants and plans to play in Game 1 of the Finals, but how explosive he is, the Spurs need the Full Parker in this series.

Miami Heat: Nothing of note (Chris Andersen returned from his injury and with five days off should be good to go in Game 1).

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS IN PLAYOFFS (points per 100 possession)

San Antonio Spurs: Offense 111.2 (second in playoffs); Defense 101 (second we in playoffs)

Miami Heat: Offense 113.7 (first in playoffs); Defense 102.8 (fifth in playoffs)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1. Miami will go small, can the Spurs adjust? Last year in the Finals Miami had much more success with it’s small lineups, putting in three point shooters in to get enough floor spacing (remember they started Mike Miller). As we saw against the Thunder, it is likely Gregg Popovich has to match that by not playing Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan together (even though the Spurs defense is much better when they are paired), and we can expect to see a heavy dose of Boris Diaw (which allows the Spurs to “go small” without really going all that small). Miami’s real weapon here is Dwyane Wade — his knees did not let him perform up to a high level last Finals, this season Eric Spoelstra had him on a knee maintenance program of rest all season long and it has paid off. Vintage Wade, even in just four or five games, would be a big boost for Miami.

2. Spurs ball movement vs. Heat pressure defense. Miami’s defense is all about using their athleticism to force turnovers and pressure teams into poor decisions, which then become transition points for the Heat going to other way. No team is better suited to counter this than the Spurs with their ball movement — but they struggled at points against Oklahoma City when the Thunder cranked up the athleticism and defense pressure. The Spurs need to be more consistent this series.

Two key things to watch when the Spurs are on offense. First, how does Manu Ginobili handle the pressure (especially if he gets more time as the defacto point guard with Parker having a bum ankle)? Last Finals he struggled, he was out of control and missed some big plays, and it cost the Spurs. San Antonio needs the Ginobili from the last series to show up.

Second, how does Chris Bosh work on the pick-and-roll? San Antonio will drag him out to be the big defending in that situation and he has to contain Parker, Ginobili and the rest of them and not let them get into the paint. Once there and with the Spurs ball movement even the athletic Heat can’t rotate fast enough to stop a clean-look shot.

3. Kawhi Leonard on LeBron James. Last series for six games Kawhi Leonard went under picks and gave LeBron the jump shot, and LeBron took the bait. He hit a decent number of them at times, but he was passive. Game 7 was different, LeBron consistently still attacked in that situation. It’s not just Leonard on LeBron for the Spurs — he is a team-wide focus — but the same defensive principles will be in place. If LeBron is attacking and getting inside the Heat will be effective and efficient on offense, if he is settling for jumpers the Spurs win. LeBron’s going to get his, Leonard just has to make that happen from the outside, he has to make LeBron work for his buckets. Pretty much the exact same rules apply to Dwyane Wade.

PREDICTIONS (from the PBT staff)

Kurt Helin: San Antonio is a better team than they were a year ago, Miami is not playing as well as last year’s version. Plus, the Spurs have been forced to raise their level of execution to a much higher place just to get to the Finals (Miami was not nearly tested the same way). I would take the Spurs in 5 if not for two words: LeBron James. Even so, Spurs in 7.

Brett Pollakoff: The Heat have the game’s best player in LeBron James, and picking against him at this stage of his career implies at least a certain amount of foolishness. With that being said, the way the Spurs used an entire team effort to close out the Thunder on the road reminds us that Gregg Popovich’s system might simply be destined to out-execute the defending champs in a rematch of last year’s epic seven-game series. Spurs in 7.

Dan Feldman. Spurs in 7. San Antonio is slightly better and Miami slightly worse than last season, when the Heat won the series by a razor-thin margin. Honestly, I’m leery about picking against LeBron and hardly confident in my pick. This one could really go either way.

New Orleans Saints fire Pelicans’ team physician

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The Pelicans have been crushed by injuries the last few years.

Why? That’s an incredibly complex question.

But the New Orleans Saints – who share an owner (Tom Benson), a front-office leader (Mickey Loomis) and other staff with the Pelicans – have found culprits for their own injury woes.

Mike Triplett of ESPN:

The Saints have fired team orthopedists Deryk Jones and Misty Suri, per source, after it was discovered that CB Delvin Breaux has a fractured fibula and will require surgery expected to sidelined him for 4-6 weeks. Breaux was originally diagnosed with a contusion

Suri is a Pelicans team physician.

Scott Kushner of The Advocate:

Fairly or not, Suri – after the Saints deemed him unacceptable – will be in the crosshairs if he keeps his job with the the Pelicans and their injury woes continue.

Rumor: LeBron James ‘100 percent’ leaving Cavaliers next summer

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Chris Sheridan was ahead of the crowd in 2014, reporting LeBron James would likely leave the Heat for the Cavaliers – which obviously happened.

But Sheridan called it a “90 percent chance,” a small – but large enough – hedge. He also said LeBron would announce the decision on LeBron’s personal website. Of course, LeBron revealed his choice in a Sports Illustrated essay.

So, maybe Sheridan knows what he’s talking about. Maybe he doesn’t.

But the longtime NBA writer just fanned the flames of the already hot LeBron-leaving-Cleveland rumors.

Sheridan:

There have already been plenty of warning signs about LeBron’s relationship with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, which didn’t restart in a great place.

It’s entirely believable LeBron would leave Cleveland, in large part due to Gilbert.

But it’s also fun to speculate about that salacious storyline.

Maybe Sheridan or his source got carried away for that very reason. Or maybe they know something.

Neither possibility should be discounted.

Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant betting odds favorites to win MVP

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Unlike the early projections for the NBA title next season, the MVP race seems wide open.

Russell Westbrook put up ridiculous numbers on his way to the award last season, but now he is going to share the rock with Paul George. James Harden made a legitimate case and would have won most seasons, but now he will have the ball in his hands less with Chris Paul running the show.

Who is going to win? Westbrook and Golden State’s Kevin Durant are the early betting line favorites, with these odds courtesy of online gaming site Bovada.

Russell Westbrook (OKC) 7/2
Kevin Durant (GS) 9/2
Kawhi Leonard (SAN) 13/2
LeBron James (CLE) 15/2
James Harden (HOU) 8/1
Giannis Antetokounmpo (MIL) 17/2
Steph Curry (GS) 11/1
Anthony Davis (NOP) 16/1
Paul George (OKC) 25/1
Chris Paul (HOU) 25/1
Isaiah Thomas (BOS) 25/1
DeMarcus Cousins (NOP) 33/1
Karl-Anthony Towns (MIN) 33/1
John Wall (WAS) 33/1
Blake Griffin (LAC) 40/1
Nikola Jokic (DEN) 40/1
DeMar DeRozan (TOR) 50/1
Joel Embiid (PHI) 50/1
Kyrie Irving (CLE) 50/1
Damian Lillard (POR) 50/1
Draymond Green (GS) 60/1
Ben Simmons (PHI) 66/1
Gordon Hayward (BOS) 70/1
Carmelo Anthony (NYK) 75/1
Jimmy Butler (MIN) 75/1
Andrew Wiggins (MIN) 75/1
Kevin Love (CLE) 100/1
Kyle Lowry (TOR) 100/1
Kristaps Porzingis (NYK) 100/1

Yes, it is far too early to discuss this. As a voter, I don’t even start to make a list of serious candidates until midway through the season (then that list evolves as the season wears on). But it’s fun to speculate about.

To me, the smartest bet on the board seems to be Kawhi Leonard — he could have won last year, and if anything the Spurs are going to ask more of him this season. I think Harden has a chance to win it this season even with CP3, same with Westbrook, but it feels less likely. It’s hard to imagine one Warrior being picked above the others for the award. If Giannis Antetokounmpo finds his jumper it could happen, but that feels more like something a couple seasons away. Same with Karl-Anthony Towns being in consideration.

If you’re going to bet on Kevin Love, just donate that money to charity where it will do some good.

If Jeff Hornacek doesn’t work out with Knicks, is David Blatt next in line?

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It’s not fair to judge Jeff Hornacek of his first season as coach of the New York Knicks. Phil Jackson made some poor roster decisions — don’t hire a coach that likes to play fast then go sign Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah — and then there was the on again, off again, on again triangle offense looming over everything.

This season Hornacek will sink or swim on his own terms, and his ability to develop Kristaps Porzingis into a true franchise cornerstone and put Tim Hardaway Jr. and other young players in good positions around them.

If not, is former Cavaliers coach David Blatt lurking? Frank Isola of the New York Daily News says it’s something to watch.

Blatt, who has enjoyed tremendous success abroad, owns an impressive resume. No question about it. But you know the old saying, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. And Blatt has connections with people in high places inside the Knicks front office, namely team president Steve Mills and newly hired front office executive Craig Robinson…

Mills is going to give Hornacek every opportunity to succeed in New York but Mills, who is said to have strong opinions about how the team should be coached, also wants to see results. That begins with Hornacek repairing his relationship with Kristaps Porzingis, who did not connect with the head coach last season and ultimately skipped his exit meeting with Jackson, Hornacek and Mills in April.

Repairing that relationship with Porzingis is crucial. We’ll see if Hornacek can do that and get this team moving in the right direction.

Blatt wants to return to the NBA, but his he the guy to connect with Porzingis? Blatt’s problems in Cleveland had far less to do with Xs and Os than it did relationships with players — Blatt was saying he wanted to team to play faster long before Tyronn Lue said that when he took over, but Lue could get players to buy in and listen. Blatt couldn’t. Blatt came in expecting to be handed respect, touting his European resume (that NBA players shrugged at), and demanding deference rather than building partnerships with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Blatt came off as needing to be the smartest guy in the room, always. Basically, Blatt could not handle the player/power dynamic in the NBA (coming out of Europe, where coaches have absolute power, like an American college coach). Has he learned how to deal with it?

Before we get to that question, Hornaced gets his shot. The real test for the Knicks comes after Christmas, when they spend most of a couple of weeks on the road (due to the Grammys coming to Madison Square Garden), it’s a tough couple of weeks, and the team could struggle in that stretch and not recover. Hornacek has to have the team playing well enough, and buying in enough by then, to survive that trip. Do that and he will stick around. If not, the sharks are circling.