NBA Playoffs Heat vs. Bulls Game 3: Advantage, home-court and otherwise

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How many times do you read the word “advantage” in sports? It’s used so frequently even in the face of the obviousness of what it implies. After all, what makes teams “bad” so often is a lack of advantage, or a lack of willingness to exploit that advantage. Josh Smith of the Atlanta Hawks is kept from being an elite player by a reluctance or inability to access his inherent advantage on the floor with his physical tools. In the NBA there’s player, tactical, circumstantial, home-court, and intangible advantage, just to name a few. All will be in play for Game 3 between the Heat and the Bulls.

Player Advantage

The Heat have better players. That’s been pretty obvious from the first two games. There is no denying the fact that what led to the Bulls’ Game 1 victory wasn’t a superior roster, it was a deeper roster hitting on all cylinders, versus the Heat’s design of three players (Wade, James, and one other) playing to the best of their ability. If you rank all players on a scale of one to ten, with one being a D-League fill-in and ten being LeBron James/Derrick Rose, then yes, the Bulls’ final score will be higher. But if you rank all players on a scale of one to a hundred, the Heat’s total will be higher due to Wade and James both being in the 95+ range versus just one 80+ for the Bulls in Derrick Rose. Game 2 showed what happens when the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts for Chicago, and we just stack up players vs. players. This isn’t to say the Heat are a better team. They’re not, nor are they a worse team. These two are about as evenly matched as you’re going to find, a reflection of the Western Conference Finals which display the same trait. But the Heat have better players to rely on.

If Game 3 becomes a matter of “who has more talent” then the Heat win. We saw shades of that in Game 2, even as the Heat showed flashes of team cohesion thanks to Udonis Haslem’s spark. Conversely, if the advantage is defined by what group of players meshes together better, the Bulls have an excellent chance of stealing back homecourt. The best way for the Heat to disrupt the Bulls’ cohesiveness is with individual brilliance wearing them out, and the best way for the Bulls to combat the Heat’s elite superiority talent wise is to get back to swarming them with cohesive, communicative defense. And knock down a few shots, but that’s more tactical.

Tactical

It’s safe to say many underestimated Erik Spoelstra’s defensive chops going into this series. It’s been a much closer defensive bout than anticipated. Were it not for some great efforts on the offensive glass by the Bulls, this series would be in dire shape for Chicago. That isn’t to take anything away from a sound gameplan of making up for their offensive deficiencies by creating extra possessions, it’s simply to point out the Bulls are still trying to find anything resembling a shooter’s touch. And that’s in large part due to how well the Heat have defended. Derrick Rose has been contained with multiple looks, and that’s prevented both of his threats. He hasn’t filled in with efficient scoring, and he hasn’t gotten teammates involved. When he has, they’ve missed semi-open looks, in part thanks to fantastic close-out defense by the Heat. That’s been in part responsible for the offensive rebounding woes (hard to grab a long rebound off a jumper when you’re diving out of bounds after running off the perimeter shooter), but it’s also helped keep the Bulls’ offense under wraps.

This tactical matchup continues in Game 3 with an added wrinkle. The Heat have shown their advantage in their reliance on LeBron James’ special talents, which means Tom Thibodeau has something to plan for as the game gets deep. It’ll be up to the Heat to either adjust with better opportunities for Wade and Bosh, or find new ways of creating space for James, who may not get as many ISO opportunities as he did in Game 2. It wasn’t a flawed approach from the Bulls to rely on Luol Deng who has played spectacularly against James in this series, but having seen James demonstrate that he cares not for Deng’s defense, the Bulls are likely to commit more resources against him.

Circumstantial

How big was three full days off for Udonis Haslem, the savior of Game 2 for the Heat, coming back from injury and  having played long minutes in the Heat win? Getting the extra break definitely favors Haslem, as well as the Heat stars who have to take the most pounding in this series. To be certain, the time off probably helped Derrick Rose’s ankle as well, but with the way the Chicago offense relies upon more personnel for production, the extra hours were a good thing for the Heat. The time off also holds a mental advantage to a degree. A short two day break and the Bulls don’t have to concentrate on the fact they’ve lost homecourt advantage, nor does it allow time for the Heat to bask in their own confidence, which has proven to be their downfall time and time again. How the extra time manifests itself will likely go a long way in deciding who has control after Game 3.

Home-Court

Two things here.

1. The Heat are well regarded as not having a strong home-court advantage due to a docile and late arriving crowd as the fashionable South Beach crowd is not exactly the rabid jumping madhouse of OKC or even the raucous basketball-intelligent crowds in Boston. Some have even argued that with the way the Bulls’ fanbase travels and all the transplants in Miami, this could be an even more divided crowd than first thought.

2. The Heat have not lost at home in the playoffs.

That second figure stands out, considering they faced a Boston crew more than capable of facing down an opposing crowd. Furthermore, the Heat crowd has been surprisingly loud in the playoffs, even with the “white out” one of the more ineffective and lame promotions you’ll find.  So the home-court advantage isn’t as great as it is for say, OKC (who promptly loss home-court last night), but it is definitely an advantage for the Heat. The ability to sleep in your own bed, etc does a lot of good, and that comfort helps put the Heat in a position they want to be in mentally. On the other end of it, though, this is the Bulls’ comfort zone. Attacked, picked against, under bad conditions, struggling to regain home-court advantage in a hostile environment. If any team is well geared mentally to have their backs against the wall, it’s the Bulls.

Intangible

Is Derrick Rose going to have three straight bad games? Is LeBron James really going to shed his non-clutch recent rep? Is Luol Deng really going to be contained this well? Is Carlos Boozer really not going to earn hardly an ounce of that massive contract? Is Udonis Haslem boing to be able to bring the emotional energy for a second straight game the Heat need? Has Mike Miller really become a “defense and hustle” player without a shot? Will Mario Chalmers play that terribly three games in a row? Will Kyle Korver continue to miss open looks? Can Taj Gibson possibly keep up this kind of performance?

And what about Wade?

There’s a mountain of questions that leave you dubious as to either team winning Game 3. Which is why it should be so much fun.

The advantage is clear, both teams have an advantage. Whichever has more or stronger ones will walk away with a Game 3 win.

Team USA keeps top spot in FIBA men’s world rankings, Spain No. 2

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USA Basketball has kept its No. 1 spot in the FIBA world men’s rankings, even after a disappointing seventh-place showing in the World Cup that ended earlier this week.

It’s now nine-years-and-counting in the top spot for the U.S., which has held the No. 1 ranking since winning the 2010 world championship. World Cup champion Spain stayed No. 2, Australia leaped eight spots to No. 3, World Cup finalist Argentina rose one spot to No. 4 and World Cup bronze-medalist France fell two slots to No. 5.

FIBA’s rankings take results from the most recent eight years into account – which means the U.S. is still reaping point benefits from the 2012 and 2016 Olympic gold medals and the 2014 World Cup title.

“In this day and age, basketball in other countries is not a secret,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said after the Americans completed their run in the World Cup. “So it’s not like there’s an epiphany or a revelation to be made. There are wonderful teams and wonderful coaches all over the world. You go compete and the best teams win.”

It’s now expected that the U.S. will retain the No. 1 ranking going into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Several top NBA players, including Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Damian Lillard have said in recent days that they intend to play for the U.S. in Tokyo, where the Americans will try to win a fourth consecutive gold medal.

Most top U.S. players declined to be part of the World Cup team.

“I’m expecting them to be so strong next year,” Spain coach Sergio Scariolo said.

OLYMPIC UPDATE

The new rankings confirmed that European champion Slovenia, which didn’t earn a spot in the World Cup field after many of its top players couldn’t take part in qualifying since those games conflicted with the NBA and Euroleague schedules, will still have a chance to compete in the Olympics – as will seven other teams that found out they’re headed to playoffs next year.

Angola, Senegal, Mexico, Uruguay, China, Korea and Croatia also still have Olympic hopes. Those last eight playoff spots awarded Thursday went to the top two teams from Africa, Europe, Asia-Oceania and the Americas regions who hadn’t either already clinched Olympic berths or spots in the last-chance playoffs.

Japan is automatically qualified for the 12-team Olympic tournament as the host country. The U.S., Argentina, Nigeria, Spain, France, Iran and Australia clinched Olympic spots at the World Cup by finishing as the best teams in their respective FIBA regions – the Americas, Africa, Europe, Asia and Oceania.

That leaves four unclaimed Olympic berths, and 24 teams to compete for them in playoffs next year. There will be four six-team tournaments held from June 23-28, 2020 – winner-take-all, all in this case meaning an Olympic berth. Bidding for sites is expected to begin shortly, FIBA said.

The other 16 playoff spots were awarded based on World Cup placing. They went to Serbia, Lithuania, Greece, Russia, Brazil, Italy, Puerto Rico, Turkey, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Germany, Canada, the Czech Republic, Poland, New Zealand and Tunisia.

MOVING UP

Belize was the top mover in the new rankings, climbing 50 spots to No. 118. Kosovo rose 21 spots to No. 69, Togo went up 21 spots to No. 136, Tunisia climbed 18 spots to No. 33 and Ivory Coast went up 16 spots to No. 48.

STILL SWEEPING

FIBA has four sets of rankings – for men, women, boys and girls. The U.S. holds the No. 1 spot in all four of those rankings, though the race is tightest among the men.

The U.S. men hold a lead of 54.9 points over Spain in those rankings, while the rankings margins held by the U.S. women (310 points over No. 2 Spain), boys (291 points over No. 2 Canada) and girls (155 points over No. 2 Spain) are far more comfortable.

Report: NBA won’t allow Rockets to use Nene’s contract as $10M trade chip

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Update: Shams Charania of The Athletic:

This is a huge blow to Houston. The Rockets are now stuck with an over-the-hill center they can’t trade for value and can’t play much without triggering bonuses that’ll make him way overpaid.

If they had known how this would turn out, they would’ve signed Nene to a one-year minimum contract at most. At least that’d be partially subsidized by the league. Because this is is a two-year deal, Houston is on the hook for the full base salary.

 

 

The Rockets got a valuable trade chip with Nene’s contract.

At least if the deal goes through.

Bobby Marks of ESPN:

Although Nene signed with the Houston Rockets on Sept. 6, the NBA has yet to officially approve the deal. The 10-day delay is a result of the NBA discussing internally whether it should disapprove details in the contract, according to multiple sources.

Nene’s contract includes a low base salary with a massive amount of likely incentives. Houston could count Nene’s full $10 million salary (base plus likely incentives) in a trade. The acquiring team would then owe Nene his base salary plus only the bonuses he actually triggers.

It’s a workaround to the typical salary-matching rules.

The bonuses are tied to individual games played and team games won. Because Nene played 42 games for the 53-win Rockets last season, the bonuses are qualified as likely. Last year’s performance is the default way to determine whether incentives are likely or unlikely.

You can read more about the contract’s structure here.

The NBA’s apprehension is interesting. The Collective Bargaining Agreement specifies a procedure for challenging incentive classification when the league or union believes the prior season is not a fair predictor. Essentially, that side makes a case to an arbiter that the default assumption is “very likely” to be wrong.

However, in a funny quirk here, that challenge system lays out only how the NBA can challenge to turn unlikely incentives into likely incentives and how the union can challenge to turn likely incentives into unlikely incentives. There’s nothing about the NBA turning likely incentives into unlikely incentives, which the league is apparently considering here (and would make Nene’s contract invalid, as there’s a limit on unlikely incentives).

The CBA also prohibits circumventing the spirit of the rules. The league could rule Houston did that here. However, that’s a tough case considering not only does Nene’s contract meet all stated technicalities, there’s a section specifically on challenging these types of details. It just doesn’t apply.

The Heat opened the door for likely/unlikely-incentive shenanigans a couple years ago. We didn’t hear then about the NBA challenging those contracts, and that’s where the official challenge system would’ve applied.

It seems unfair to punish the Rockets’ creativity now.

Doc Rivers: I told Steve Ballmer, if Kawhi Leonard signed with Lakers, Clippers moving to Seattle

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We know what happened: The Clippers traded for Paul George, signed Kawhi Leonard and became championship favorite.

But at one point, Clippers coach Doc Rivers thought the George trade with the Thunder would fall through and Leonard could sign with the Lakers.

Rivers, via Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times:

“The day of the trade at 12 noon the deal was off,” Rivers said. “I was at home in Malibu and Lawrence called me and told me, ‘It looks like he’s either going to Toronto or the Lakers.’ The Lakers part just threw me over. I told him that can’t happen. … I remember I kept telling him, ‘We cannot allow that to happen!’

“I actually told Steve jokingly that if that happens, we’re moving the team to Seattle. It was a joke, but I was actually serious about it. I really believed that.”

Kawhi Leonard cost us the SuperSonics returning!

I don’t know how serious Rivers really was. Leonard joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis on their cross-arena rival would’ve been disastrous for the Clippers.

I’m convinced Ballmer will keep the franchise in Los Angeles. Ballmer’s ties to Seattle through Microsoft are well-established, and he previously tried to buy the Kings to move them to Seattle. But I can’t see him moving the Clippers from such a prime market, especially after going so far to get a new arena built in L.A. At every turn, he has maintained he’ll keep the team in Los Angeles.

Then again, Ballmer also phrased that guarantee as, “I will die owning the L.A. Clippers.” Now, he’s open to changing the nickname. Hmmm…

To be clearer than Rivers: That’s a joke I’m not actually serious about don’t really believe.

Stephen Curry responds to Kevin Durant: We all want to iso, but I’d rather win titles

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After the Warriors lost to the Jazz in December, Steve Kerr said his team didn’t move the ball enough. Kevin Durant said Golden State passed too much.

That public disagreement sure looks more significant now. Not only did Durant leave for the Warriors, he cited offensive style as a reason.

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“The motion offense we run in Golden State, it only works to a certain point,” he says. “We can totally rely on only our system for maybe the first two rounds. Then the next two rounds we’re going to have to mix in individual play. We’ve got to throw teams off, because they’re smarter in that round of playoffs. So now I had to dive into my bag, deep, to create stuff on my own, off the dribble, isos, pick-and-rolls, more so than let the offense create my points for me.” He wanted to go someplace where he’d be free to hone that sort of improvisational game throughout the regular season.

Stephen Curry clearly viewed things differently.

Curry, via ESPN:

“Well, I don’t really care what plays we ran,” Curry said. “We won two championships. And at the end of the day, we had a lotta talent and there was an expectation of us figuring out how to balance all that. And we talked a lot about it throughout the three-year run. It wasn’t always perfect, but I think in terms of, you know, the results and what we were able to do on the floor, that kinda speaks for itself. We all wanna play iso-ball at the end of the day in some way, shape or form. But I’d rather have some championships, too.”

There’s truth to what Durant said. Defenses tighten deep in the playoffs, both because good defensive teams are more likely to advance and scouting committed to a single opponent tends to favor the defense. At that level, elite isolation scorers like Durant are particularly valuable. They can render schemes moot.

The Warriors learned that the hard way in the 2016 NBA Finals. They lost to the Cavaliers, who turned up their defense that postseason. Golden State scored fewer points per possession in its series against Cleveland than the Pistons did in the first round against the Cavs.

Adding Durant made the Warriors’ offense nearly unstoppable in every round. They leaned on their movement-heavy system when possible then turned to Durant isolations in moments of need.

Assessing playoff output is tricky because of varying opponents. But in three years with Durant, Golden State faced nine teams that played multiple postseason series. Eight of those teams had their worst defensive series against the Warriors, each by at least 2.6 points per 100 possessions. Only the 2019 Trail Blazers fared worse defensively against another team. They allowed just 0.2 more points per 100 possessions against the Nuggets than against Golden State.

Of course, Durant missed last season’s Western Conference finals against Portland. His absence was a big reason the Warriors’ didn’t meet their usual offensive standards.

Still, Golden State’s base offense was elite. Infallible? No. But it won multiple big playoff series before Durant arrived. He just took the Warriors to an even higher level.

Though he sometimes chafed at how the Warriors played, Durant also did his part to fit with them. He played his part in running Kerr’s preferred style.

It just seems Durant no longer wanted that safety-valve role. He holds immense respect for individual scoring as a skill. He’ll have a better chance to spread his wings in Brooklyn.

Durant will have a harder time winning a title without the incredible supporting cast he left behind. Curry might have wanted to point that out.

But everyone did their part in Golden State the last few years. That’s why they won those championships.