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.

Pacers’ Myles Turner fined $15,000 for flipping bird at Sixers fans

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Myles Turner had to know this was coming.

Frustrated after fouling Joel Embiid under the basket and being taken out of the game, the Pacers’ big man flipped off some Sixers fans as he walked to the bench.

Saturday the league announced Turner was fined $15,000 for “making an inappropriate gesture toward the spectator stands.” The league, understandably, is not a fan of its players flipping off fans.

That fine is pretty much the going rate for these kinds of incidences.

Embiid went on to score 40 Friday night in a dominant performance, but the Pacers won the game 113-101.

Why are Lakers saving their young core? Reportedly to chase Anthony Davis.

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Anthony Davis is the target at the top of the Lakers’ wish list.

He’s also at the top of the wish list for the Boston Celtics and about 27 other teams, too. But if Davis is put on the trade block — something that is not likely until this summer, New Orleans is working to keep him — the Lakers and Celtics will be at the front of the line.

Which is why, when reports that the Lakers would not include any of their young core in a trade for Trevor Ariza came out, it fit with the Lakers’ long-term thinking. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN discussed this on a special trade season preview broadcast Saturday morning (transcription via Real GM).

“Here’s the line [the Lakers] have to walk: they’re not going to give away picks and their top young players in some deal that makes them incrementally better this season because they have to save all those assets for Anthony Davis, a big trade this summer either pre or post free agency…

“The absolute dream scenario, people talk about (how) they can trade for Anthony Davis or sign a free agent. The dream scenario is they do both.”

The dream is to sign Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant and get Davis, and while that dream may be a long shot the only chance they have is if they still have their core players to throw in a package.

The larger point also is valid — the Lakers are not going to beat the Warriors come the playoffs this season (assuming the Warriors are healthy) and L.A. should keep its powder dry for bigger battles. And Davis will be the biggest of battles.

New Orleans wants to keep Davis, they are actively trying to be buyers at the trade deadline, not sellers. Sources have told me the Pelicans’ plan is to win as much as possible this season and show Davis they are serious, then come July 1 offer Davis a designated veteran contract extension worth $230 million (or a little more, depending upon the cap). It’s roughly $40 million more than any other team can offer guaranteed. If Davis and his agent Rich Paul — the same agent as LeBron James — turn down that contract then the Pelicans will be forced to consider a trade.

If we get to that point, then all bets are off and the Lakers are all in. Until then, the Lakers are wise just to be patient.

Despite fast start in Toronto, Kawhi Leonard reportedly still eyeing return to Los Angeles

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The Toronto Raptors are making their case to Kawhi Leonard this season — Toronto is 23-8, in first place in the East by 2.5 games, and look like a real threat to make the NBA Finals. Leonard, averaging 26.2 points and 8.2 rebounds a game, is a guy who has returned to the MVP conversation.

Still, the Raptors don’t know if he’s staying, or what he’s thinking, because Leonard doesn’t talk about it in a meaningful way.

“It’s been good so far,” Leonard told NBC Sports of the fit in Toronto. “Like I said, we’ve been winning, everyone’s playing well. Can’t complain.”

Nothing he’s done has slowed the speculation and buzz about what Leonard will do as a free agent next summer… which Leonard is working to ignore.

“I don’t buy into reading media, don’t have no social media, so just focus on what’s in front of me,” Leonard said before the Raptors faced the Clippers last week. “At that time it’s either my family or playing basketball.”

A lot of the speculation around the league has remained that Leonard is headed back to Los Angeles next summer, most likely with the Clippers. Here is what Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN said on a special trade season preview broadcast Saturday morning (transcription via Real GM).

“They can’t change the geography. They can’t change the weather in Toronto. Those were always be things against them in this,” said Adrian Wojnarowski. “Home and L.A. has been the focus for Kawhi Leonard through all of this.”

“Just wear a jacket,” Leonard said about the weather. “We’re in a building. We’re not outside playing in the snow. And it’s good scenery.”

Clippers president Lawrence Frank and other Clippers executives have been a fixture at Raptors games this season, doing their part to recruit him early. They are going to make a strong play for him. So will the Lakers, although I have heard from multiple sources he’s not likely to play with LeBron and in that spotlight.

Nobody knows what Leonard will do next summer, or even what he’s thinking. Leonard doesn’t speak much, and when he does it’s in cautious cliches providing little if any insight. As long as that is the case, the speculation will continue.

Why didn’t Lakers trade for Trevor Ariza? Suns owner reportedly blocked it.

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There were eight teams (that we know of) having some level of contact with Phoenix about getting in on a Trevor Ariza trade. The Lakers were one and — as with all things Lakers — were the most talked about.

But the Lakers were never going to pull off that trade because the Suns’ owner, Robert Sarver, didn’t want it to happen, according to David Aldridge of The Athletic.

Sarver — a very hands-on owner when it comes to basketball decisions — is probably still stung by buying out Tyson Chandler and watching him go to the Lakers and dramatically helping their defense (the Lakers are allowing less than a point per possession when Chandler is on the court). And certainly spiting the Lakers will play well with the Suns’ fan base.

However, the best franchises put aside petty thinking and do what’s best for them. If the Lakers had made the best offer (and we don’t know if it was) then take it. If it makes the Lakers better this season, or even the next few seasons, so what? If you’re the Suns, you’re in a rebuilding process and should be focused on the long term.

That said, the Laker trade was always going to be complicated and hard to pull off, LeBron James wasn’t going to be able to call up Suns GM James Jones and make this one happen. The Lakers wanted to land Ariza but also wanted to send out Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and KCP doesn’t fit with what the Suns wanted (a point guard and young players or draft assets). That means a third team was going to have to get involved, maybe Philadelphia, and possibly even a fourth. The Lakers were not going to trade any of their four core young players, making this trade even harder.

What the Suns got in the trade with Washington was what they wanted: A point guard (Austin Rivers, who is not all that good, as evidenced by his 7.1 PER this season, but is better than anyone the Suns have) and a young wing in Kelly Oubre who fits on the timeline of Devin Booker and the other young Suns. Phoenix did reasonably well in this trade.

Could they have done better? Doesn’t matter, if the owner is shooting down an idea then it’s dead. That’s his prerogative.