NBA Finals: Heat’s Big 3 get back to basics, even up the series

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For the sake of argument, forget about the Durant no-call for a second. Simply put, the Heat won Game 2 of the NBA Finals because all 3 of their best players went back to doing what they do best: playing off of each other, playing with energy, and, most importantly, playing near the rim.

Before Game 2, Erik Spoelstra noted that the Heat took more jumpers and less free throws in Game 1 than they had in the entire rest of the playoffs, and his players got the message, especially the ones that got the team to the NBA Finals. James, Wade, and Bosh scored 72 points in game 2. Guess how many of those points came on 3-point shots? Zero. Guess how many of those points came on shots outside of 15 feet? Just 10. (Bosh and James had one made jumper apiece, while Wade, the worst jump-shooter of the bunch, was able to get 3 outside shots to go.)

LeBron James set his NBA Finals career high for the 2nd straight game because he was determined to get inside — by using his shiny new post game in the first half and his tried-and-true ability to get to the rim from 30 feet away in the 2nd half, LeBron made 9 baskets from inside the paint and shot 12 free throws, all of which he made. And while James’ passing wasn’t as deadly  as it has been in other games, he had some huge plays that weren’t scores in the fourth quarter, notably a bullet pass from the free throw line to Chris Bosh for a wide-open dunk and a beautiful screen that allowed Wade to set up Bosh with another wide-open dunk.

The scary thing about James, and one that he hasn’t realized in Finals past, is that he doesn’t need to be hot like he was in Game 6 of the Miami series to be the best player on the floor — he just needs to use his unprecedented blend of size, strength, speed, and skill to give himself good looks. When LeBron’s hitting jumpers, we all know he’s unstoppable, but things don’t get much easier for the defense when he decides to essentially abandon the jumper entirely and bring each one of his “250” (scouts agree that his actual weight is at least 260, and possibly around 274) pounds to the basket.

James going off wasn’t much of a surprise — after all, 30-point nights have been the norm for him lately. It was Wade and Bosh who really rounded back into form on Thursday night, and each of their contributions were invaluable to the Heat.

Wade finished #3 in PER over the course of the regular season, but it’s been a long time since he looked like himself on the court, and it was an open question whether the 30-year old Wade’s knees were wearing down after a compressed schedule and two straight ultra-long playoff runs.

Right from the opening tip of Game 2, Wade was out to prove that rumors of his knees’ demise were greatly exaggerated. Wade had two assists, two dunks, and one trip to the free throw line in the first quarter alone, and was zig-zagging through the defense, going hard to the rim, hitting the deck all over the place, and generally putting pressure on the Thunder’s defense at every opportunity. Wade still settled for a few too many of the mid-range jumpers that have been costing the Heat points for the last few weeks, but he actually managed to make an acceptable 3 of the 8 outside jumpers that he took in Game 2. Wade nearly cost the Heat the game with a horrible turnover in the waning moments of the fourth, but the Heat should still be encouraged by the fact that the 2006 Finals MVP looked like himself again on Thursday night.

Finally, Chris Bosh made his long-awaited return to the starting lineup in Game 2, and it sure looks like he belongs there. Bosh didn’t play a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination, but he gave the Heat a dimension they’ve been lacking. Bosh missed some easy shots inside and let a few passes bounce off of his hands in the paint, but he attacked Oklahoma City’s defense  off the dribble, gave Wade and LeBron someone to pass the ball to inside, and was an absolute monster on the glass, as he finished with 15 rebounds, with 7 of them coming on the offensive glass.

None of the Big 3 played a perfect, or even a great, game, and without Shane Battier’s 5 3-pointers (one of which was banked in), or a few calls going Miami’s way, the team would be going home in an 0-2 hole. But for now, they’ve got a tie series because the three players who were supposed to win Miami all those rings got to doing what they do best on the game’s biggest stage.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue on Kyle Korver’s playing time: Brad Stevens ‘threw us for a loop’ by not playing Semi Ojeleye

AP Photo/Charles Krupa
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LeBron James is obviously the Cavaliers’ best player. Cleveland’s second-best player? Usually Kevin Love, but Kyle Korver has made a case lately.

So, how did Korver play just 19 minutes, including none in the first quarter, in the Cavs’ Game 5 loss to the Celtics last night? That was his playoff low, besides Game 1 against the Pacers, when he was still recovering from injury.

Blame Boston coach Brad Stevens removing Semi Ojeleye from his rotation.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue:

Well, initially, he’s been putting [Semi] Ojeleye in, so that’s been kind of Kyle’s matchup when he comes in the game. He didn’t play him tonight, so it kind of threw us for a loop.

This won’t slow the talk of Stevens being a genius. He neutralized one of Cleveland’s best players simply by not using a limited rookie.

Still, Lue’s strategy held some merit. Korver is a defensive liability, but Ojeleye’s offensive limitations make it hard to take advantage. Ojeleye’s biggest strength, his physical strength, is of limited utility in trying to stick tight to Korver on the perimeter.

In Games 1-4, Cavaliers with Korver on and…

Ojeleye on:

  • Offensive rating: 111.9
  • Defensive rating: 102.1
  • Net rating: +9.9

Ojeleye off:

  • Offensive rating: 97.0
  • Defensive rating: 109.5
  • Net rating: -12.5

That said, Korver is too good to plant on the bench. Other perimeter options – J.R. Smith, George Hill, Jordan Clarkson and Jeff Green (who actually played fine last night) – are just so unreliable. Lue shouldn’t just wait for the perfect matchup to use Korver.

But will Lue get it, anyway?

Stevens:

We believe in Semi and we think he’s a big, huge part of our team. It would not be a shock if he plays a ton for us in Game 6.

Lue better develop a plan for using Korver in Game 6 Friday, with contingencies based on Stevens using or not using Ojeleye. I wouldn’t trust Stevens’ declaration one bit, and Lue doesn’t want to get thrown for a loop again.

PBT Extra: Rockets showed defense, resilience, can Warriors show same in Game 5?

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Game 4 was an epic game, and the Houston Rockets proved they are a serious threat to knock the Warriors off the top of the mountain. They took Golden State’s big punch to start the game (a 12-0 run) and Stephen Curry haymaker in the third, cranked up their defense, got a great game from Chris Paul, and evened the series at 2-2.

Heading back to Houston, we can expect more of the same out of the Rockets Thursday night — they know a win in Game 5 puts them in a very dominant position in the series.

The question is, do the Warriors have another gear? That’s one of the topics I get into in this PBT Extra. For a few seasons now, the Warriors have been able to play lockdown defense and hit tough shots in the clutch, with Kevin Durant making them especially hard to stop, but in Game 4 when it got tight they looked tired and slow. Houston’s ball pressure threw Golden State off its game, and fatigue had set in for the Warriors. Can they not only go on big runs but slow down Chris Paul, James Harden and the Rockets’ attack?

Thursday night is going to be interesting.

LeBron James recalls six turnovers with striking precision (video)

AP Photo/Charles Krupa
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LeBron James showed off his memory after the Cavaliers’ Game 1 loss to the Celtics, detailing every play of the beginning of the fourth quarter:

He was at it again after Cleveland’s Game 5 loss to the Celtics last night.

Asked about his six turnovers, LeBron perfectly described six turnovers:

The turnover LeBron very noticeably said went off Jeff Green‘s hands was actually assigned to Green. So, that meant LeBron omitted one of his own:

Still, this was incredibly impressive. It was also maybe a little passive-aggressive, the way LeBron notes the ball going off Green’s and J.R. Smith‘s hands.

So, it was quintessential LeBron.

Celtics top Cavaliers in Game 5, setting up Game 7 in Boston?

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LeBron James and a couple Cavaliers teammates left the court well before the Celtics dribbled out their 96-83 Game 5 win Wednesday.

The Cavs are already moving on.

Game 6 will be Friday in Cleveland, and the Cavaliers – down 3-2 in the Eastern Conference finals – must win to avoid elimination. The way Boston has played on the road, it’s even easy to look ahead to Game 7, which is scheduled for Sunday in Boston.

Still, the Celtics bought themselves leeway with their decisive win in Boston tonight. They led by double digits the final 20 minutes, breaking the Cavs’ momentum after two straight wins in Cleveland.

“It’s tough going on the road, playing against somebody else in their house with their crowd,” said Jayson Tatum, who had 24 points, seven rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks tonight. “So, we were just comfortable. We came back home and defended home-court like we have all playoffs.”

Boston is now 10-0 at home this postseason – but just 1-6 away. Fueled in part by that historic split, no game in this series has been close. All five have been decided by at least nine points, and the average margin of victory – 18 – is in the 97th percentile for largest ever in a 3-2 best-of-seven series.

So, just as two big Celtics wins in Games 1 and 2 didn’t deter the Cavaliers, this one likely won’t, either. The Cavs should be heavily favorited in Game 6.

Beyond, if it gets that far? That’s a much bigger tossup.

Teams up 3-2 in a best-of-seven series have won 85% of the time. But Boston is missing a key reason it secured home-court advantage, including a chance to break the 2-2 at home rather than on the road – Kyrie Irving. And LeBron James is downright scary in a Game 7, even on the road.

The Celtics at least took care of business tonight, showing a far greater sense of urgency than Cleveland. Brad Stevens changed his starting lineup, inserting Aron Baynes for Marcus Morris, and tightened his rotation to just seven players until garbage time. Boston ran the floor much harder than the Cavs, decisively outrebounded them and beat them to loose balls. Even in altercations, the Celtics had a man advantage.

LeBron (26 points, 10 rebounds five assists and six turnovers) never made his presence felt in the way usually necessary for the Cavaliers to win. Cleveland’s four other starters combined to score just 24 points, two fewer than LeBron did himself.

After Boston seized control early, the Cavaliers made few adjustments in strategy or effort – as if they’re saving those for later.