5 Things to Watch: Heat-Thunder, a potential Finals preview worth playing

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Best in the East vs. best in the West.

Nope, that’s not right.

The two clearly best teams in the league.

Well, no, not really with how open the West is.

OK, how about just:

A more-probable-than-on-average chance that these two teams will meet in the Finals. There. Sufficiently hedged.

The Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder meet Sunday night in a clash of the titans. It’s probably the biggest game of the Thunder’s season, considering the Lakers’ slip back when the Thunder played them earlier this season. It’s the first of two Sunday games against the best in the East, with Chicago on tap next weekend, though it’s not known if Derrick Rose will be back for that game. But all the stars will be in the rotation tonight, and here’s a look at five things to watch as the Heat face the Thunder in OKC.

1. James Harden, the perfect problem for both sides. 

As our own Rob Mahoney points out at Bleacher Report, the Thunder face a problem of offense/defense with Harden. They are an infinitely better team offensively with Harden on the floor and a phenomenally better defensive team with Thabo Sefolosha on the floor instead. Can Harden check LeBron James or Dwyane Wade? His lateral quickness is limited against good perimeter penetration, let alone James and Wade. Even putting him against Mario Chalmers is problematic because of how Chalmers spaces the floor and can slip out for open threes. But Harden’s playmaking ability can make the Heat’s defense overreact, and if that happens the system breaks down. Harden needs to command the offense and make an impact in the passing lanes for OKC.

2. No role players needed

The over/under in this game is 201.5. Over/under on point scored by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook should be 160. They just don’t get much support, nor need it. If Serge Ibaka, Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Thabo, any role player steps up, that’s going to swing the balance of this game. The stars can almost cancel out one another. It’s the role players that may dictate the win.

3. Overturned

The Thunder have the worst turnover ratio in the league, spitting the ball up 15 percent of the time, and turning their opponent over the seventh least. The Heat are a monster in transition, a Flying Death Machine. The Thunder cannot spit the ball up against this team. Possessions are going to be precious and while both teams can play at a fast pace, each side is so good, you need to not give up easy buckets.

4. Does Oklahoma allow block parties?

Serge Ibaka and Kenrick Perkins have a huge advantage down low, even without offensive talent to be spoken of. Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem are not great offensive finishers at this point, and Perkins and Ibaka are monsters at challenging. Anthony and Haslem need to convert some buckets to get the Thunder help defenders to back off. If Ibaka and Perkins can freelance, they can attack the Heat at the rim and get them to the line where they’re not great. Nick Collison and Cole Nazr Mohammed can help.

5. Bosh space

Of course the big problem for Ibaka and Perkins is trying to guard in space, and the best player on the Heat in face-up mid-range is Chris Bosh. He’s able to raise up and knock down shot face-up and also on the pick and pop. If Lebron, Wade, or Chalmers use the pick and roll to draw that coverage from Ibaka who too often freaks out going for a block, Bosh can slice them up. Bosh has been phenomenal this season, an underrated part of the Heat’s season, and this is a game where he could have a monster day without doing the things he struggles at down low. He can kill the Thunder softly if they don’t adjust. Expect a lot of Collison on him if Ibaka struggles.

Warriors post longest playoff home winning streak in NBA history

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You remember the Warriors’ last home playoff loss.

Golden State hasn’t lost a playoff game in Oakland since signing Kevin Durant. The Warriors went 9-0 at home last year and are 7-0 at home this year. Their Game 3 win over the Rockets last night gave Golden State a record-breaking postseason home winning streak.

The Bulls (1990-91) previously held the record. The leaderboard:

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Are the Warriors atypically good at home? The more accurate answer is they’re just atypically good.

They’re 10-4 on the road the last two postseasons, an incredible mark in its own right. Like most teams, they’re better at home.

That presents a tough challenge for Houston with Game 4 of the Western Conference finals Tuesday in Oakland.

Backed into must-win Game 4, here are three things Rockets must do to even series

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Three years ago, the Houston Rockets came back from 3-1 down in a playoff series to defeat a Los Angeles Clippers (and give that franchise a punch to the gut from which it has not recovered). It was one of the great Rockets’ moments of the last decade.

Houston is not going to be able to do that against these Golden State Warriors. Go down 3-1 after Game 4 Tuesday at Oracle and the series is all but over.

Which means after the Rockets’ blowout loss in Game 3 Sunday night, Houston finds itself in the same must-win spot it did after Game 1. And unlike Game 2, the Rockets will not get helped out by an arrogant Warriors team not playing at its peak — the Rockets are going to need a near perfect game to beat a full-force Warriors team on Tuesday.

Here are the three key areas the Rockets must improve to win Game 4:

1) Just shoot better — finish shots at the rim and hit some threes. It’s rather obvious and simplistic, but it’s the reality: Houston just has to shoot better in Game 4.

The Rockets took a full one-third of their shots at the rim in the restricted area in Game 3, but they struggled with those making just 13-of-27 (48.1 percent). The Rockets took 42 percent of their shot attempts from three but hit just 11-of-34, and they were 7-of-25 on above the break threes. That’s not good enough, the Rockets are going to need at least 15 made threes in a game to win.

“Those are double whammies,” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said of the missed shots at the rim. “It’s like we missed layups first half especially and they go down and score. So in transition, you’ve got to keep them out of transition, you’ve got to make layups. We didn’t do that. When they did miss, we didn’t box out all the time, and then we turned it over 20 times. It’s a formula for losing, and for us to correct that, we can’t turn it over. Got to make layups for shots, and get back.”

To be fair, the Warriors contested shooters well all game, especially guys driving the basket, but still, the Rockets need to knock down more of their shots contested or not. It’s the most basic premise of basketball.

2) Houston has to play faster. D’Antoni said it above, the Rockets and their missed shots let the Warriors get out in transition and control the pace. It’s also a simple fact that the team that controls the pace — the team that gets transition opportunities and gets into its offense earlier in the shot clock — will win the games.

Golden State had 26 transition opportunities to 12 for the Rockets, according to the Synergy Sports stats breakdown.

Or, look at it this way (via Cleaning the Glass), in Game 3, Houston started just10.4 percent of their possessions in transition (and scored a dreadful 0.89 points per possession on those plays). For comparison, in their Game 2 win, the Rockets started 18.7 percent of their possessions in transition. On Sunday night in Game 3 Warriors started 19.8 percent of their plays in transition, nearly one in five trips down the court, and they scored 1.44 points per possession on those plays.

The Rockets need to make more shots and then, even when they miss, get back in transition and not let the Warriors get rolling early in the clock. Houston also needs to defend better and force more Warriors misses, which will allow them to run. It’s all tied together, the Warriors were making shots so the Rockets were taking the ball out of the basket and coming up against set defenses; the Rockets were missing shots that let the Warriors come up fast and forcing the Rockets to scramble on defense (Golden State tears apart teams in those situations). It’s a holistic thing, but the evidence it’s working is which team controls the pace, and the Rockets need to do that in Game 4.

3) Houston needs more out of Chris Paul. It’s easy to point to the Stephen Curry eruption in the third quarter as the time the Warriors ended the game, and there is truth to that. Golden State started the third on a 10-0 run (where Curry had five of those points) and the fire was lit, then Curry started hitting 30-foot threes and quickly the game was out of reach. Those Warriors runs are crushers.

However, to me the turning point in the game was when James Harden went to the bench for his usual rest with 2:46 left in the first quarter — the Warriors outscored the Rockets by nine before the quarter was up (part of an 11-0 run to end the quarter). By the time Harden returned with 9:16 left in the second quarter, the Rockets were down 10, a hole they never could get out of (they were down 11 at the half).

CP3 has to be better in that stretch. The Warriors threw bigger, switchable guards at him on defense — Shaun Livingston, Nick Young, and then Andre Iguodala — and Paul couldn’t get separation and make plays against them. Without Harden, the Rockets offense stalled out, and doing that led to the Warriors getting to push the pace and get their transition buckets. Paul looked slowed at points, reaching on defense and not as explosive as we’ve seen.

This isn’t the Utah Jazz. Harden was off in Game 5 against Utah, but Paul picked up the slack (his 41-point, 10 assist game) and Houston got the win. Against Golden State, both Paul and Harden must have good games for Houston to have a chance. The Warriors are too good, too deep, there is no margin for error anymore.

The Rockets have an elite game in them — we saw the blueprint of what they have to do in Game 2. Houston can do that again. The only question is can they do it in the face of Golden State’s pressure, because the sharks on the Warriors smell blood in the water and will be coming hard in Game 4.

Shaun Livingston crossed James Harden so hard it made Greg Anthony mispronounce “meme” (VIDEO)

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The Golden State Warriors embarrassed the Houston Rockets on Sunday night. Stephen Curry scored 35 points, didn’t miss a shot in the third quarter, and helped the Warriors win Game 3 and take a 2-1 series lead by a margin of 41 points.

Not too shabby.

But it wasn’t just Curry who turned the Rockets into shrinking violets. Shaun Livingston, who added 11 points off the bench while shooting 4-of-4, took his turn putting Houston to task.

During one play, Livingston crossed up James Harden on his way to a wide-open dunk. Livingston’s crafty dribble moves also shook commentator Greg Anthony’s brain up a little bit, so much so that Anthony forgot how to say the word “meme”.

Via Twitter:

Even during a 41-point decimation the NBA is still the funniest league on the planet.

Report: Kings, Hawks could pass on Luka Doncic if Suns don’t take him No. 1

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Luka Doncic or Deandre Ayton?

That’s the question many NBA fans are asking themselves, but according to one report it’s not the only thing several teams in the Top 3 of the 2018 NBA Draft are thinking about.

ESPN’s Jonathan Givony says that while the Phoenix Suns may still be considering taking Doncic with their No. 1 overall pick, the Sacramento Kings (2) and Atlanta Hawks (3) are not.

The Kings and Hawks are reportedly leaning toward taking an American frontcourt player, which would point us toward guys like Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Jaren Jackson, and Mo Bamba.

Via ESPN:

The growing consensus among NBA decision-makers in attendance at Stark Arena in Belgrade is that the teams drafting behind the Phoenix Suns at No. 1, the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks are likely to pass on European prodigy in favor of American frontcourt players. The question remains whether a team will trade up into the top three to snag Doncic, or if he will fall to the No. 4 (Memphis) or even the No. 5 pick (Dallas) after being heavily scouted in the Euroleague playoffs against Panathinaikos and mostly struggling.

The information we’re missing is whether the Kings and Hawks are turned off by Doncic specifically. Is it because they haven’t scouted him as much as the other guys? Is it because of perceived team need? Do they think Doncic has peaked already? Are they worried about less information being available from a Euro prospect? All are possible.

With all the hype around Doncic, it would be shocking to see him fall out of the Top 3. It’s happened before, but both Ayton and Doncic are the guys atop this draft that people are licking their chops to get.

Could we see a team trade up to get Doncic from the Hawks or Kings if Phoenix goes elsewhere? Is this just false information funneled to the media as a means of depressing the market for Doncic or for ferreting out a big trade offer?

The conference finals aren’t even over yet and here we are talking about the incessant drama of the NBA offseason. I love this league.