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Court Vision

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• Couper Moorhead of the Heat’s official web site examines the development of LeBron James’ post game, complete with video analysis and insight from David Fizdale, the Miami assistant who works most closely with James (and Dwayne Wade) on post play. Great read.

Beckley Mason analyzes the film from last year’s Finals and says that the difference between LeBron James’ post game then and now is not where he’s catching the ball, but what he’s able to do with it afterwards.

• John Hollinger notes that while the Heat have tightened up their three-point defense considerably in the postseason (a reversal that may or may not be linked to Miami’s extended use of smaller lineups), the Thunder have shot far more ineffectively from deep than we would’ve expected in this series. James Harden has missed some great looks, and Hollinger notes that Thabo Sefolosha is just 2-of-10 in the Finals. Sefolosha is so important to the Thunder — provided that teams actually have to guard him. He can defend both Wade and James, and in the regular season, Sefolosha nailed 31 of his 71 three-point attempts. That’s a small number of attempts, and that hit rate — 43.7 percent — represents a huge outlier in Sefolosha’s career as an otherwise below-average three-point threat. Before this season, Sefolosha hadn’t shot better than 33 percent from deep in any season since 2006-07 (his rookie year). In these playoffs, he’s shooting 33 percent exactly. We could simply be seeing some regression to the mean.

Really enjoyed this line from Ken Berger’s piece about LeBron, on the threshold:

At 27, Michael Jordan had one league MVP award, no championships and no Finals MVPs — not even a trip to the Finals. If James and the Heat avoid something that has never happened in Finals history, blowing a 3-1 lead, LeBron at 27 would have three league MVP awards, three trips to the Finals, one championship and, unless LSD infiltrates the voting, one Finals MVP.

That’s not really the point, but it is a fact. Jordan won his first title and Finals MVP in his first trip to the Finals, at age 28 in 1991. It was in his seventh season; James is in his ninth. If James finishes the job — Thursday night, or back in Oklahoma City — this won’t be revisionist history. But perhaps it will be the strongest proof yet that the perception of James’ first eight seasons was a case of previsionist history, if I may.

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  • Published On 3:36pm, Jun 21, 2012
  • Keys to Game 5 of the NBA Finals

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    James Harden (13) was no match for LeBron James in Game 4. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

    When LeBron James announced on that infamous July day that he would join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, I’ll admit: I was worried it would just be too easy for them. It hasn’t worked out that way, for lots of reasons we can get into later. If the Heat clinch the title in Game 5 on Thursday night, they will have had to work hard for it — harder, perhaps, than they or anyone else expected two years ago. And that is cool.

    Below are a few things to watch as the Heat chase the ring, with a focus beyond the obvious issues we’ve already beaten to death — the “X-factor” role players, Oklahoma City’s late-game yips and Thunder coach Scott Brooks’ decisions about when to go small and which two players to place alongside stars Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. (He must choose Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka or Nick Collison for the big-man spot, and Thabo Sefolosha, Derek Fisher or the forgotten Daequan Cook for the last guard spot.)

    Dealing with LeBron’s post game

    Perhaps there really is no better answer than treating Harden like the cow fed to the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, but the Thunder must try to find one. If James is allowed to operate in the post as he did in Game 4, surrounded by three-point shooters and with Bosh at times pulling Oklahoma City’s lone big man away from the rim, the Thunder are toast. They could try extending Sefolosha’s minutes and using him as James’ nearly full-time defender, a move that might make things harder for Oklahoma City on the other end because of Sefolosha’s shaky shooting. They could try Durant on James more often and risk foul trouble. They could send hard double teams. They could instruct Brooks to step onto the court, Erik Spoelstra style, and work as an extra defender. They could try a zone, though they rarely used one in the regular season, and the Heat ranked among the league’s most efficient offenses against the zone, per Synergy Sports.

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  • Published On 11:33am, Jun 21, 2012
  • The evolution of a star, and a team

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    LeBron James’ efficiency from the block has lifted the Heat to within one win of a title. (NBAE/Getty Images)

    Zoom out from all the noisy storylines about Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks’ lineup choices, the Thunder’s alleged crippling inexperience in the moment and whatever Magic Johnson says about point guard Russell Westbrook. Only then can you see the one big reason why the Heat are a victory away from an NBA title: In a series in which offense has triumphed over defense, the Heat’s offense has been a little better than Oklahoma City’s.

    The Heat have scored 107.7 points per 100 possessions in this series, a number better than their regular-season mark and one that would have ranked only behind San Antonio’s. Oklahoma City, for all its struggles against a Miami defense taking away the first option on almost every possession, has scored a robust 105.8 points per 100 possessions. That mark would have ranked fourth for the season, even if it does represent a step down from OKC’s insane scoring totals through the first three rounds of the playoffs. The Thunder have made crucial mistakes in the last two games, but they also found a way to gut out points against the best defense they have faced, one that’s forced them into uncomfortable places. That shows grit and poise, even amid the late-game issues.

    In a series so close, all those little things matter enormously. It matters that the Heat have outscored Oklahoma City’s starters by 17 points in a four-game stretch in which the total margin is just five points (in Miami’s favor). It matters that Nick Collison vanished for long stretches in Game 4 after providing the best combination of offense and defense among Oklahoma City’s three core big men. It matters that Thunder point guard Derek Fisher, the veteran leader on a team whose youth is apparent, has wasted crunch-time possessions with terrible shots in each of the last two games. It matters that Dwyane Wade, seemingly unqualified for first-option duties, has managed to hit just enough nutty shots to keep Miami (almost) afloat when LeBron James sits. It matters that Chris Bosh has supplied great help defense.

    But what matters most is that the Thunder cannot stop LeBron on the block. James has evolved into the dangerous post-up presence that everyone clamored for him to become since he entered the league nearly a decade ago. If Oklahoma City cannot find a better answer than leaving James Harden to die in the paint against James, it will have a hard time extending this series beyond Thursday.

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  • Published On 12:11pm, Jun 20, 2012
  • What to watch for as Thunder defense seeks to control Heat in Game 4

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    The Thunder flipped the Western Conference finals after Game 2 with some defensive adjustments that helped turn San Antonio, the NBA’s best offensive team, into something close to league average over the the final four games.

    The most obvious adjustment was having shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha defend point guard Tony Parker. But the Thunder in general amped up their help defense, packing the paint earlier and more aggressively against the Spurs’ pick-and-rolls. The strategy left holes in other places, but it was aimed at forcing San Antonio away form its first option and toward those second, third and fourth options — openings the Thunder were confident they could close well enough with their elite athleticism.

    The Heat are a much different offensive team than San Antonio. Miami runs its fair share of high pick-and-rolls, but those players are not quite the centerpiece of the offense, and Miami cannot space the floor with the same level of three-point shooting always lurking around the perimeter for the Spurs. Miami’s half-court offense is increasingly built around LeBron James’ post game and various corner-based sets designed to get James and Dwyane Wade the ball on the move below the foul line.

    And yet, in Game 3 of the Finals, the Thunder made a similar decision on defense to pack in more aggressively than they had in Games 1 and 2. If they replicate that strategy on Tuesday in Game 4 — and they probably should — Miami will have to respond by cutting away from the ball and spacing the floor properly, so that James has the best chance at creating a clean passing lane and an open jumper for a role player.

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  • Published On 1:28pm, Jun 19, 2012
  • The difference between coming through and choking in the clutch

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    Here’s a video of LeBron James, in crunch time, during Miami’s Game 5 loss to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals — a defeat that pushed the Heat one loss from elimination and spawned 48 hours of media coverage about how the league MVP would face perhaps the most pressure of his NBA career during Game 6 in Boston:

    *****

    And here’s James again, in crunch time, during Miami’s Game 3 victory in the NBA Finals. This is about a minute before Dwyane Wade’s cough-up to Thabo Sefolosha that gave the Thunder a fleeting chance at a miracle comeback:

    *****

    This is the difference between success and failure in the NBA, between a player quaking in the moment — failing to use his left hand on the right side of the rim — and a player rising to the occasion under stress. The line can be very, very thin.

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  • Published On 11:22am, Jun 19, 2012
  • Heat defense up to the task in Game 3

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    The Heat are forcing Kevin Durant to hesitate with the ball, a primary reason behind the Thunder’s offensive struggles. (NBAE/Getty Images)

    The Thunder came crashing down to a Bobcats-like level of productivity in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, ending a remarkable streak of scoring efficiency that amounted to one of the great runs of offense in postseason history. Before Sunday’s 91-85 loss in Miami, Oklahoma City had scored at a points-per-possession rate that would have ranked in the top five during the regular season in nine of its last 10 games, according to NBA.com. In six of those games, its scoring rate would have led the league.

    Stretches like that just don’t happen in the playoffs, when the competition is tougher, the pace slower, the defense more attuned. We knew going into this series that Miami’s frantic athleticism would represent by far the toughest challenge for the Thunder offense in the postseason. But it took three games for the Heat’s defense to register a clear win — even if the signs of a slowdown began to emerge in Miami’s Game 2 victory. That leaves us with two questions:

    • What are the Heat doing well?

    • How can the Thunder adjust (if they even need to)?

    The answer to the first question is pretty easy: The Heat are just better, faster and smarter defensively than Oklahoma City’s other playoff opponents. That begins with LeBron James’ defense on Kevin Durant, especially on plays in which the scoring champion comes off picks for catch-and-shoot chances. After Game 1, when James largely guarded other players, Henry Abbott of ESPN.com wrote of how little time Durant requires in order to score. That isn’t the case anymore. The Heat are making Durant hesitate, hold the ball and go to work against a defense loaded up against him. The stagnancy of those plays has infected the rest of Oklahoma City’s offense, which also is struggling to rediscover the pick-and-roll attack on which it thrived in the regular season.

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  • Published On 12:53pm, Jun 18, 2012
  • Thunder need to change starting lineup

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    Kendrick Perkins’ lack of scoring ability has helped allow the Heat to swarm Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on defense. (Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/MCT)

    It is very hard to turn the Oklahoma City Thunder, the league’s second-best offensive team in the regular season and the best in the playoffs, into the equivalent of the Sacramento Kings or New Jersey Nets on offense. But that’s what happened all season when the Thunder starting lineup of Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha was on the floor. That five-man group scored 100.5 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would have put the Thunder between the Kings and Nets at 24th in the league, according to NBA.com’s stats tool.

    But that group was fantastic defensively, holding teams to about 93 points per 100 possessions, which is to say it turned every opponent into the Bobcats. That was the trade-off: Playing three non-scorers in Perkins, Ibaka and Sefolosha sabotaged the offense, but it also boosted the defense and kept the Thunder’s bench dynamic intact. It was an imperfect balance, just as it had been in previous seasons with former Oklahoma city forward Jeff Green starting, but it worked.

    Problem: It hasn’t worked in the playoffs, and it has fallen on its face as the competition has gotten better. Playoff opponents have outscored the Thunder starters by about 4.5 points per 100 possessions, with all the damage coming via the Spurs in the Western Conference finals and the Heat in the Finals. The Thunder starters actually outplayed the Mavericks’ and Lakers’ in the first two rounds, but they have been unable to keep up with better teams that play a smaller, quicker style and put more shooting on the floor.

    The trend reached its nadir in Game 2 of the Finals, when the Heat outscored Oklahoma City by 17 points over about 13 minutes combined at the start of the first and third quarters. It is time for a change. Coach Scott Brooks bristled at the idea that he might change his starting lineup, and that’s his style; he’s stubborn about his lineups and loyal to his guys. In the pre-Perkins days, he kept running Green out there for huge minutes despite multiple seasons of evidence that Brooks’ starting units just did not work. But playoff series against truly elite competition call for major adjustments. Brooks just watched the Spurs insert Manu Ginobili into the starting lineup, and the Mavericks famously swung last season’s Finals by promoting J.J. Barea when the stakes were highest.

    If Brooks is going to start the same five players in Miami, he at least has to come with a quicker hook on one of his big men. There is just no reason to keep this unit — any unit, really — on the floor for nearly seven minutes when it’s clear an opponent is eating it up.

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  • Published On 11:55am, Jun 15, 2012
  • Key questions for Heat-Thunder Game 2

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    Here’s a look at some of the major questions going into Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night (9 p.m. ET, ABC):

    What is Miami’s defensive game plan?

    LeBron James didn’t guard Kevin Durant too much in Game 1. (Noah Graham /NBAE via Getty Images)

    This applies to both individual matchups and the Heat’s general philosophy. Coach Erik Spoelstra deployed LeBron James as an all-purpose play destroyer in Game 1, having him guard every position on the floor in an effort to limit Kevin Durant without actually forcing James to exhaust himself defending the three-time scoring champion one-on-one full time. (That job went largely to Shane Battier.) James started on center Kendrick Perkins and spent chunks of the game defending the Thunder big men who would be the most likely screeners for Durant, a strategy that allowed him to switch onto Durant once those picks came.

    The Thunder gradually adapted by changing the identity of the screeners to push James out of the play entirely and running all sorts of counters designed to produce mismatches. They also ran a ton of high pick-and-rolls for point guard Russell Westbrook early. After Westbrook and power forward Serge Ibaka combined to burn the Heat’s trapping defense, Miami began switching those plays in the second half, too.

    Nothing really worked. And no defense has worked against the Thunder all season, especially in the playoffs. Miami might be outsmarting itself with all this trickery, but it’s also possible that sticking James on Durant — and Battier on either a Thunder big man or a limited offensive player such as shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha — just isn’t an option given the possible fatigue factor for LeBron. Is there a middle ground somewhere? It will be interesting to see what Spoelstra has up his sleeve.

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  • Published On 12:10pm, Jun 14, 2012
  • Flexible Thunder offense making history

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    With Kevin Durant stymied by the Heat defense early in Game 1 of the Finals, the Thunder turned to the pick-and-roll game of Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka to maintain their historic scoring pace. (Andrew D. Bernstein /NBAE via Getty Images)

    The Heat can adjust in a lot of ways after losing to Oklahoma City 105-94  in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday. They can change their basic defensive assignments, including having LeBron James guard Kevin Durant more often, and cut down on the whirlwind of switches that made tracking matchups a nearly impossible task in real time during Game 1. They can start Chris Bosh, extend the rotation, approach their offense with better commitment to getting good shots and lean more heavily on bigger or smaller lineups.

    But the bottom line of these playoffs is this: Nobody can stop the Thunder scoring machine, and until someone can begin to even limit it just a little for 48 minutes, there is really nothing else to discuss. The Thunder are blitzing everyone, adapting to every defensive strategy and putting themselves in the running for the unofficial title of greatest postseason offense in NBA history.

    Three games from the title — three long, arduous games — the Thunder are averaging 113 points per 100 possessions, a whopping 9.7 points better than the league average during these playoffs, according to Basketball-Reference. Since the league adopted the three-point shot in the 1979-80 season, only one team has scored in the playoffs at a rate that far above the league average: the 2004-05 Phoenix Suns, who put up an astonishing 118.2 points per 100 possessions over three playoff rounds, nearly 10.5 points better than the league’s postseason average that year.

    It would seem unlikely that Oklahoma City, which is facing an elite defense for the first time in these playoffs, will score enough to catch that Phoenix mark. But it doesn’t matter. In an era of faster, more sophisticated defenses, the Thunder are threatening to pull off an even stronger version of what Dallas accomplished last year: proving that an all-world offense and a “pretty good” defense is a perfectly fine way to win a title in the modern NBA. Read More…


  • Published On 11:59am, Jun 13, 2012
  • Finals preview: When Miami has the ball

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    Chris Bosh has come off the bench in all three games since returning from an abdominal injury. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

    I’ve provided my big-picture analysis and a Finals prediction (Oklahoma City in seven) in this SI.com roundtable, and given a list of things to watch when the Thunder have the ball. Now we shift to the other side of the floor. Here’s a look at some key factors when the Heat have the ball:

    Big vs. small

    This is one of the fundamental questions looming over the series from the Heat’s perspective: Do they want to play primarily with LeBron James at power forward, as they did for much of Chris Bosh’s absence, or do they want to play with two big men on the floor, as they did during their monster run to finally quash the Celtics in Game 7 on Saturday? Both sorts of lineups will obviously see major time, and coach Erik Spoelstra might just end up splitting the 48 minutes between them.

    But beginning immediately with his choice of starting lineup, Spoelstra has a chance to force the issue in this series. If Spoelstra goes small, with Bosh or Udonis Haslem as the only big man among the starters, Thunder coach Scott Brooks will have to decide whether he’s comfortable playing extended minutes big against small. He could still match up guards Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha and small forward Kevin Durant against three Miami perimeter players — James and guards Mario Chalmers and Dwyane Wade — but one of his big men would have to float around the three-point arc defending Shane Battier.

    The Thunder are a dynamite small-ball team when they remove one big man and shift Durant to power forward, but the Heat with James are every bit their equal. In the regular-season matchups, a tiny two-game sample size, the Heat were plus-19 against Oklahoma City in about 17 minutes with James at power forward, with 15:30 of that time coming in Miami’s April 4 win, per these game flows.

    Going small also offers Miami better spacing for its more motion-based offensive sets. The Heat’s core offense includes a lot of plays in which Wade or James comes off screens in the corner and darts toward the middle. Bosh can serve as the trigger man on those plays by holding the ball above the foul line and making the first key pass. If he’s doing that and the Heat have no other big man on the court, the Thunder will have to stretch their defense very thin to contain that action. Helping far off Bosh is a no-no, given his top-shelf jumper, and helping off anyone else involves leaving a shooter (Battier) or shooter/driver (Chalmers) with space to work.

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  • Published On 1:25pm, Jun 12, 2012


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