2012 NBA Finals: 50 Observations

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The most entertaining Finals of probably the last fifteen years begins Tuesday night in Oklahoma City. With that here are 50 thoughts, observations, and predictions as the Oklahoma City Thunder face the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals.

1. This is going to be fun.

2. I’m not talking like “oh, hey, we’re going to go to the cabin and play board games with some other couples” fun. I’m talking “seven-day bender in Vegas” fun.

3. These finals feature the best individual talents in the league, at the same position, head-to-head. It’s two dominant players in their primes (or approaching their primes in Durant’s case, how terrifying is that?) going toe-to-toe for the NBA championship. You will not find two better basketball players on the planet than the two leading their teams onto the floor Tuesday night.

4. The “second fiddle” players on each team have a combined 44.5 PER in the playoffs, averaging a combined 44.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and 9.7 assists per game in the postseason. So that’s pretty good.

5. Speaking of, that’s going to be an incredible matchup when they run into one another. Dwyane Wade is still a tremendous defender and yet is wholly outmatched by Russell Westbrook’s speed and athleticism. Westbrook is a tenacious defender but not very skilled and with Wade going to the post more and more, that could get downright nasty for stretches.

6. You’re dealing with two of the best players in attacking in transition, with Westbrook’s top-end speed arguably the best in the league and Wade a master of getting his man out of position for the Euro-step.

7. This cannot be emphasized enough. Transition defense is the most important part of this series outside of turnovers.

8. There’s going to be a 1-to-1 ration on “team that wins turnover battle” and “team that wins the game” in this series. You let either one out with numbers, and you might as well call yourself a cab to get back home or to the hotel. It’s over.

9. But on long rebounds, which there will be a lot of in this series, due to the number of mid-range jumpers the Thunder take and the number of threes the Heat take, that’s where transition defense matters. Ibaka and James on chasedowns (don’t discount Wade’s ability to block shots). Getting out on trailer shooters, something both teams struggle with. It’s going to be a suspense movie every time there’s a break.

10. Trying to establish Harden’s impact is difficult. He’s going to make plays, but how will he react against the help defense for Miami, the best he’s going to have faced? Can he handle that much ball pressure and make the right pass? But on the other end of it, Wade or Battier may go for some of his fakes and once he gets space, the whole offense hits another gear. Big matchup.

11. That sound you just heard was Serge Ibaka swatting a Wade baseline pivot floater into Muskogee.

12. And the sound after that was Ibaka biting harder on a Chris Bosh pumpfake than a squirrel on a nut.

13. Ibaka has to shoot that mid-range jumper. It’s not a matter of hitting it, he’s good enough to hit it i he doesn’t get the yips. But Bosh’s length is going to give im pause. Can’t hesitate. Has to fire.

14. Kendrick Perkins and Udonis Haslem are going to get in a fight. This is not a prediction, it is a fact.

15. Perkins is going to average 4 fouls per game in this series, and most nights I’d take the over.

16. The control for the glass is going to be interesting because you have a series of good rebounders none of whom are dominant physically. Allowing extra possessions to these offenses is a bad plan.

17. The Heat have faced no offense that even comes close to Oklahoma City.

18. The Thunder have faced no defense that resides in the same universe as Miami.

19. The best weapon for Miami might be the trap on Westbrook. If they run the 1-3 pick and roll, clearly you can’t leave Durant open, but if he’s moving right to left towards the wing and Durant’s at top of the key, a help defender can close on Durant and force Westbrook into making either a jump-pass or cross-court pass under durress. That’s where you want him, but if he’s routinely breaking it you have to abandon it.

20. The objective needs to be taking the Thunder out of their comfort zone and trusting the defensive pressure to force mistakes. There’s nothing super complicated about the Thunder’s offense and as a result, there are fewer outlets if the first two options are pressured. Create cross-court passes, entry passes in traffic, dribbles through multiple defenders and the Heat can force their bread and butter, turnovers.

21. The Thunder do not want a physical, half-court series. Perkins said that yesterday in practice. I responded on Twitter with “So you want to die.” Because the Thunder don’t want that Heat defense locked in in front of them. They want them scrambling. You take your chances with the chasedown block.

22. Foul trouble is going to be massive in this series. You have two teams whose players are superstars, who draw a lot of fouls and don’t take many. So what gives? James Harden’s flops are legendary. Dwyane Wade’s even more so. Kevin Durant draws constant calls with the rip through (though new rules adjust it from being a shooting foul, it’s still a foul). LeBron James draws constant calls by being a freak of nature. Udonis Haslem gets caught out of position because of diminished athleticism. Serge Ibaka gets caught out of position because he’s always chasing weakside blocks.

23. So basically, something’s gotta give with the whistles in this series.

24. Derek Fisher is going to do about five things that make you marvel how many times he can make big plays in the Finals.

25. Derek Fisher is also going to do about five things that make you wonder how he can possibly be on the floor at this point.

26. Mike Miller’s played through enough pain to have earned being a Finals hero, right? Right? I wince watching that guy play. Not because he’s bad, but because it physically hurts to watch him play through that much pain.

27. Daequan Cook has “unlikely Finals hero” written all over him. That’s a wing shooter who can nail huge shots and isn’t a nightmare defensively.

28. Joel Anthony was DNP-CD’d several times against the smaller lineups of Boston. He could face the same issue if the Thunder go small with KD at the 4.

29. The Heat aren’t necessarily opposed to that idea, however, since James can play the 4 pretty easily and that eases one of their biggest liabilities, the lack of size.

30. I’m going to miss Boston for one reason only. Hearing Doc Rivers scream “Play together!” over and over again in Mic’d Up segments.

31. Average margin of victory for both teams might be under 6 in this series.

32. A plea: no white outs. Both teams have pulled them in the playoffs. White outs are the Worst. It looks like a tennis match.

33. By contrast, going with the blue-out would be great for OKC. They took grief over using it against the Mavericks with the similar color, but it creates a great visual.

34. Miami needs to go whole hog in this series for Game 4. Break out the black uniforms and give out black t-shirts. Blackout will be more intimidating, as intimidating as a Miami crowd can be.

35. Speaking of, that crowd showed UP vs. Boston in Game 7. So they’ve earned a tiny sliver of credit.

36. Naturally it’s nothing compared to OKC’s. They’re going to need to reinforce the building before Game 1 in Oklahoma.

37. This may break the record for most lobs in the Finals.

38. We’ll have the LeBron 4th quarter narrative break out a least once.

39. We’ll also have the “Russell Westbrook is a 4th quarter ball hog” at least once.

40. Neither will have much to do with what actually happened in the game.

41. Winning Game 1 for Miami would be massive. The Thunder are going to be ballistic in front of that crowd. It could be too much emotion, but honestly, that hasn’t yet in these playoffs.

42. Neither team is “evil.” Neither team is “good.” It’s two teams of professional athletes playing basketball. That’s it.

43. There will be complaints from someone about the lack of defense in this series because they don’t understand pace or offensive efficiency. You can book that.

44. The Thunder would do well to double Chris Bosh on the catch. It’s less about keeping the ball out of his hands and more about the potential force of turnovers from that situation. It’s not that Bosh doesn’t handle it well and more that the angles for the Heat offense get tougher.

45. Shane Battier has had to face Carmelo Anthony, David West, Brandon Bass, and Paul Pierce. So now all he has to do is guard Kevin Durant. Easy. /sends bottle of whiskey to Battier’s hotel room

46. Thabo Sefolosha has had to face Kobe Bryant, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker in the playoffs. So now all he has to do is guard Dwyane Wade or LeBron James. /sends bottle of gin to Sefolosha’s hotel room

47. You know who no one’s talking about in this series? Norris Cole. You know why? Because he doesn’t matter.

48. Mario Chalmers is probably going to surprise some folks. Chalmers is in the opposite position of LeBron. He has no expectations, and everyone thinks he’s kind of terrible, and yet there are three teams in his wake that are going “man, that guy was annoyingly good this year.”

49. If Brooks throws out that “Westbrook-Harden-Fisher” nonsense lineup he toyed with against San Antonio, the Thunder will get outscored by infinity to the power of everything.

50. LeBron. Durant. Let’s begin.

PBT Podcast: What’s next for Boston, Philadelphia, Denver? (And some playoff talk)

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Will Kyrie Irving stay in Boston? If not, what is Plan B?

Is Jimmy Butler back in Philadelphia next season? If he is will Tobias Harris be back?

What are the next steps to turn Denver into a contender?

I get into all of those things with the wise Keith Smith of Yahoo Sports (and Celtics Blog, and Real GM), we break down those three teams recently turned out of the playoffs. We also start off talking about teams actually in the playoffs, particularly Toronto’s comeback in the Eastern Conference Finals, and how those teams can take advantage against the Warriors with Kevin Durant out.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Nikola Jokic’s All-NBA first-team selection shows his meteoric rise

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Just four years ago, Nikola Jokic was a second-round pick still playing in the Adriatic League. Just three years ago, he was battling a struggling Jusuf Nurkic to be the Nuggets’ main center.

Yesterday, Jokic made the All-NBA first team.

Jokic has risen incredibly quickly. Before this season, he had never even been an All-Star.

That makes Jokic the first non-rookie in NBA history to make an All-NBA first team without a prior All-Star season (including ABA All-Stars).

The No. 41 pick in the 2014 draft, Jokic is just the fourth second-rounder to make an All-NBA first team since the NBA-ABA merger. The others: DeAndre Jordan, Marc Gasol and Marc Price.

For most players not immediately deemed to hold first-round talent, it takes a while to build stature in the NBA. Jokic made the All-NBA first team in just his fourth season. That’s way sooner than Gasol (seventh season), Price (seventh season) and Jordan (eighth season):

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The Nuggets didn’t wait for this honor to make Jokic their franchise player. They gave him a near-max contract last summer, and by leading them into the second round of the playoffs, he triggered incentives to reach a max salary.

Denver has built a young supporting cast – mainly Jamal Murray and Gary Harris – to grow with Jokic. The Nuggets also signed veteran Paul Millsap, whose defense complements Jokic’s offensive-minded game.

So much is coming together so quickly for Denver, and Jokic’s honor is just the latest example.

Report: Trail Blazers sign president Neil Olshey to contract extension

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Just after a rumor emerged about the Wizards trying to hire Trail Blazers president Neil Olshey…

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

It’s nice to be wanted. It always adds leverage in contract negotiations.

Olshey has done well in Portland, building a winner around Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum after LaMarcus Aldridge left. But Olshey’s job will get harder now.

Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless each have another season on the expensive contracts Olshey gave them in the wild summer of 2016. That’ll inhibit flexibility this offseason.

Then, Lillard is set to sign a super-max extension that will take effect in 2021. As great as Lillard is, it’ll be difficult building a contender around someone projected to earn $43 million, $46 million, $50 million and $53 million from ages 31-34. There’s so little margin for error, especially if ownership is less willing to pay the luxury tax than the late Paul Allen was.

But Olshey has earned a chance to handle these dilemmas.

Jazz center Rudy Gobert hits super-max criteria for extension projected to be worth $250 million over five years

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Anthony Davis signed a max rookie-scale contract extension in 2015, between his third and fourth seasons. Based on the Collective Bargaining Agreement at the time, the extension called for him to earn a higher salary if he was twice voted an All-Star starter or made two All-NBA teams during his first four seasons. Davis was voted an All-Star starter and made the All-NBA first team in his third season.

Unfortunately for Davis, he missed both honors his fourth year. The All-NBA and All-Star-starter tracks ran independently. Davis couldn’t qualify for a higher max salary by earning one of each.

That cost him $19,683,908 over the four pre-player-option seasons of his extension, which will end next year.

The current CBA’s more significant adjustments to super-max eligibility – changing the years for qualification, using Defensive Player of the Year instead of All-Star starter – obscured a minor tweak. The tracks now run together. A player can qualify with one Defensive Player of the Year and one All-NBA selection. He needn’t achieve two of one category.

So, Jazz center Rudy Gobert – who won won Defensive Player of the Year in 2018 and made All-NBA this year – quietly became eligible to sign a super-max extension in the 2020 offseason. The extension’s highest-allowable value projects to be $250 million over five years. The first four years would follow the structure of the super-max Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers are set to sign.

Newsflash: Gobert isn’t Lillard.

Gobert is elite defensively and underrated offensively. But paying him $50 million per year from ages 30-34 in a league overflowing with good centers? That’s a recipe for disaster for Utah.

But Gobert earned eligibility. That makes it harder for the Jazz to tell him they don’t deem him worthy. That tension is an unintended consequence of the super-max rules.

There is room for negotiation. In this case, Gobert’s designated-veteran-player extension must be for five seasons and have a starting salary between 30% and 35% of the 2021-22 salary cap. But his salary can increase or decrease annually by up to 8% of his first-year salary. The deal can be partially guaranteed.

Still, the lowest possible designated-veteran-player extension for Gobert projects to be $155 million over five years. If fully guaranteed, that’d be expensive for a player of his age. If not fully guaranteed, the Jazz would get savings only by waiving him, and that’d mean dropping the cheaper latter years.

Because he doesn’t have enough experience to qualify, Gobert can’t sign a super-max extension until the 2020 offseason. He met the award criteria, but a player must have seven or eight years of experience. Gobert just finished his sixth year. He’s also under contract for two more seasons – locked into salaries of $24,758,427 next season and $26,275,281 the following year.

So, there’s time to figure this out.

But this is the most uneasy super-max situation so far – unless Gobert just doesn’t insist on the money. Good luck with that.