The NBA Finals came to an end last night. As the Golden State Warriors locked up their first championship in forty years, I was instead watching a last-place baseball team in action. A family outing to Miller Park for a Brewers-Royals game was on the agenda. So as luck would have it, the clinching game is the one of the Finals I happen to miss. After looking through the boxscore, here’s what stands out…
*From a lineup standpoint, I thought Cleveland did the right thing and went big. Timofey Mozgov got his minutes and produced, with 17 points/12 rebounds. The Cavs crushed the Warriors on the glass, 56-39. Golden State won by using pace and turnovers to get more shots. The Warriors only turned it over nine times, while the Cavs had sixteen. Golden State took more shots from the field (85-82) and more from behind the arc (34-26) to make up the difference.
*Everything comes back to LeBron on an individual basis and in spite of the 32 points, he was 13-for-33 shooting. That’s just too many misses. He got a nice outing from J.R. Smith who drilled four treys, but it was LeBron who committed six turnovers and LeBron who went 2-for-10 from three-point range. And the turnovers combined with poor shooting behind the arc are the reason Cleveland lost this basketball game.
Yes, he needs help—a lot of it–but as harsh as it sounds to say this about a 32/18/9 stat line, the numbers behind that glittering façade weren’t’ superstar-like.
*Can we finally stop the national lovefest for Matthew Dellavedova? A decent player who battles hard somehow got turned into a national celebrity because Steph Curry had some off-shooting nights at the right time.
Dellavedova, who has a good outside shot and should have been able to loosen up the lane for LeBron a bit, did not attempt a three-pointer and scored just one point. Curry meanwhile shot a respectable 8-for-19 and scored 25 points. The MVP closed the Finals with 62 points in the final two games. No, Matthew Dellavedova does not have his number and on offense, he’s not exactly the next Chris Mullin.
Okay, how about we talk about the champs? Andre Iguodala scored 25 points and was named MVP of the Finals. For the time being we’ll set aside whether LeBron deserved the award and just say that of the Golden State players, Iguodala was clearly the most deserving choice. The voters agreed, as he got seven of the eleven votes, and LeBron got the other four.
Iguodala was the one Golden State player who was engaged from the moment the Finals began. They fell behind by 15 points in the first quarter of Game 1 and it was Iguodala who came off the bench, started taking the ball to the rack, started harassing LeBron and got his team going. He did it repeatedly throughout the series. The only thing he didn’t do was make his free throws, but that’s picking nits right now.
Draymond Green took three games to get going, but once he found his rhythm, the Michigan State product was on a roll. He went for a triple-double last night, 16/11/10.
I was a Golden State doubter all year, right to the end. But there’s no room for doubt anymore. 67 wins and an NBA title, and winning the Finals in spite of a poor series form their second-best player in Klay Thompson. That’s team-wide excellence.
And for the Bay Area it continues a run of excellence in sports. While Golden State is located in Oakland, they’re also the chosen team of the city of San Francisco, which now has the World Series champs and the NBA champs, Madison Bumgarner and Steph Curry. If fans of the troubled 49ers are looking for hope going into the NFL season, they can hope some of the good mojo rubs off.
Congrats to the Warriors and to the fans into the entire Bay Area.
After spending the first three games wildly jacking up threes and mostly missing, the Golden State Warriors came back last night in Game 4 with a more comprehensive team approach that looked a little more like actual basketball, and the results spoke for themselves—a 103-82 win that tie up the NBA Finals 2-2 and regained homecourt advantage for the Warriors.
Steph Curry didn’t immediately come out and take over the game, which proved to be a good thing. Golden State got other players to step up. Draymond Green played his best game of the Finals, shooting 6-for-11 and scoring 17 points.
David Lee continued to give quality minutes off the bench in Green’s stead and Harrison Barnes chipped in 14. The boxscore tells you Shaun Livingston only had seven points, but watching the game, the impact of the reserve guard seemed much greater.
But no Golden State player has been better in these NBA Finals than Andre Iguodala.
Iguodala is the only Warrior defender who has come anywhere close to defending LeBron James. Iguodala ignited Golden State in Game 1, aggressively taking the ball to the hole and getting them going after a slow start.
Last night, he got in the starting lineup as head coach Steve Kerry sat down center Andrew Bogut and went with a smaller, faster lineup. Iguodala scored 22 points and hit some back-breaker shots when Cleveland was in striking distance in the fourth quarter.
Above all though, Iguodala is the only Golden State player who seems to be aware that this is the NBA Finals. His aggressiveness on both sides of the floor has lifted his team and if not for his presence, his team would surely be down 3-1 and might even be finished right now.
With Golden State moving the ball much better than the first three games—which is to say they were at least attempting more than one pass before launching a shot—Curry was able to lie in the weeds and then strike in the fourth quarter. With the Cavs closing to within three and the crowd at Quicken Loans Arena roaring, the MVP guard drilled a couple big threes. He finished with 22 points and shot an efficient 8-for-17.
Cleveland just looked out of it, and even though they scored the game’s first seven points, you could see the problems immediately. The patience they had shown offensively was gone. It was as though the Cavs had forgotten what put them in such a good position and they began to play the Warriors’ style of game.
It wasn’t likely to work under any circumstances, but with J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova combining to go 3-for-22 from behind the arc, there was absolutely no shot. LeBron looked out of it much of the night as well. His 20 points came on 7-for-22 shooting and an already sluggish night surely turned worse after he took a nasty fall into a cameraman in the first half and ended up with a couple cuts on his head.
The narrative for this year’s NBA Finals has been cast as a choice between the best player or the best team. Do you take LeBron James to carry the Cleveland Cavaliers on his back to their first NBA title? Or will the 67-win Golden State Warriors, easily the league’s best, to bring home their first crown since 1975?
I won’t dispute that this storyline is the core question of the Finals, but there is a little more to it than that.
We need to begin by dispelling a popular misconception about Golden State, one that I regrettably held for far too long, and it’s that they were just a jump-shooting team. The Warriors are also the NBA’s best defense, as measured by efficiency (which tweaks the stats for pace of play).
The rebounding over the course of the regular season was spotty (12th in rebound rate), but Draymond Green goes to the glass, and when Andrew Bogut is playing well, Golden State can match up inside.
Golden State’s consistency throughout the year and again in their run through the league’s tougher conference playoffs, make them a known commodity at this level. Cleveland is harder to get a hold on.
It’s tough to make too much of some of the Cavs’ questionable regular season numbers—for example, their 20th ranking in defensive efficiency. We know it took them half the season to really get going. They were 19-20 at one point. There were growing pains in making the new pieces fit and LeBron took a couple weeks off to get rest and pace himself for the long haul.
Conversely, how much can we read into their strong run through the Eastern Conference playoffs? They played the Boston Celtics, a sub-.500 team. The Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks should have presented better challenges, but it’s apparent today that the Bulls were coming undone by internal dissension and the Hawks suffered injuries very early in the conference finals.
It’s nothing Cleveland has to apologize for, but there’s no point in denying that the Cavs are about to make a huge leap in quality of completion.
That’s the path each team has come and the question marks that lie within those paths. What about the matchup itself?
The NBA Finals resume on Thursday night in Miami, and for the second time in four games the Miami Heat are going to face something right next door to a must-win game. LeBron James stepped up and took over in Game 2 and the big question now is whether he’ll do it again in Game 4. My answer is this—of course he will, but the real question should be how much James alone will matter.
There’s a lot of lessons that can be learned from an epic Game 6—not the sixth game of last year’s NBA Finals that haunts the San Antonio Spurs and looms large over this year’s Finals. I’m talking about the biggest night of LeBron’s NBA career, in June of 2012.
The Heat had just lost a Game 5 at home to the aging Boston Celticsand were faced with elimination at Game 6 in the Garden. Game 5 was notable for Paul Pierce drilling a monster three-pointer in the closing moments and coming to the bench after a timeout and shouting “I got the (cajones) to take that shot!” Whether Pierce was drawing a comparison between himself and James, no one knows, but the media didn’t hesitate to make the comparison.
What happened next is part of NBA lore. LeBron came out at the Boston Garden and silenced a raucous crowd, drilling 45 points, leading the Heat to a blowout win and then they won a tighter Game 7 at home. Miami goes on to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games to win LeBron’s first championship, then repeats the feat at last year’s epic Finals. Thus, Game 6 at the Garden was perhaps the seminal moment of LeBron James’ career in the NBA to date.
But if you watched that game—and as a Celtics fan, I certainly did—then the narrative of how “James just took over and there was nothing that could be done to stop him” should ring demonstrably false. Not because James wasn’t truly spectacular. But because Boston could have won the game anyway.
When I think of Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, I think of a night when the quality of basketball was very poor. No Celtics player, much less the team as a whole, had anything remotely approaching a good game. No Heat player outside of James, had a good game. In fact, here’s a brief clip of what I wrote here at TheSportsNotebookthe following morning…
…had the Celtics been able to play cohesive offensive basketball and hit their shots this would have been anyone’s game regardless of James’ heroics. When you consider all the great players on the floor last night, along with the magnitude of the game, it seems more than a little odd that James would be the only one to even play well…
To me, the implications of that for this year’s NBA Finals are clear. The San Antonio Spurs cannot worry about whether LeBron is going to go off. I fully expect him to in Game 4, and if the Spurs get a third win, I expect James to be great in any game going forward. The issue is how the Spurs play and whether James’ supporting cast helps him out.
Let’s take Game 2, when James responded to his cramping of Game 1, with a big-time 35-point performance, including several big shots down the stretch. The fourth quarter of that game was also marked by the Spurs getting away from their offensive flow, going one-on-one, blowing defensive rotations (resulting in a wide-open three for Chris Bosh, whom LeBron immediately found), and missing free throws.
If the Spurs simply avoid making those errors, they would have won that game in spite of LeBron’s heroics. And that’s the message they must have going forward, and it’s also the message that Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh must have going forward.
San Antonio is a better team—by a lot—than the Celtic team of 2012 was. The Miami Heat team we see this year is not as good as that ’12 version was. If the focus of the Spurs is playing smart basketball on both ends and making sure that any explosion from LeBron doesn’t extend to Dwayne Wade and Bosh, then San Antonio will win the championship. If Wade, Bosh and the rest of the Heat supporting cast take this same lesson to heart and give James the help any great player needs (yes, including Michael Jordan), then Miami can get a three-peat.
In short, it’s the nine players on the floor not named LeBron James that we need to give more attention to in the balance of these NBA Finals. That’s the lesson of recent history.
Before the NBA Finals began it had the feel of a heavyweight fight. After a Game 1 that was well played on both sides, I wrote that it was going to live up to that. It still has the feel of a heavyweight fight, only now we’ve watched each team show they can land a haymaker. San Antonio answered Miami’s Game 2 rout with one of their own last night, a 113-77 blitzing in the Lone Star State.
If you saw the game or have even casually checked in on the highlights, you know that the Spurs were absolutely lights-out from three-point range. Danny Green, who has been the team’s best player in the Finals, was a surreal 7-of-9, while Gary Neal hit 6-of-10. The team as a whole nailed 16/32 from behind the arc. To call this the key to the game would be to understate it.
But it’s also important not to overlook some other good things the Spurs had going for them. Tim Duncan got active in the offense early, and while his final scoring totals were pedestrian, with 12 points, he set an early tone. And had his team not been insanely hot from downtown, you have to assume Duncan would have seen more of the ball in the second half.
Furthermore, San Antonio really stepped up on the glass. With Duncan grabbing 14 boards and Kawhi Leonard crashing for 12, the Spurs repeatedly beat Miami to the punch and outrebounded the Heat 52-36. It’s looking like Miami’s Game 1 rebounding advantage was a mirage and that San Antonio has re-asserted control of the interior.
The importance of Duncan’s early offensive activity and the control of the glass also can’t be overstated. Because while the three-point bombing was the key to Game 3, it’s the latter two factors that are going to be the key going forward and head coach Gregg Popovich had to like what he saw—that is, presuming Popovich ever likes what he sees. I had to laugh in the fourth quarter when Miami “cut” a 27-point lead to 21 and Popovich immediately took a timeout, looking absolutely disgusted with his team. I think I’m moving Pop right up there with Bill Belichick as my favorite active coaches in sports.
LOOKING AHEAD FOR THE HEAT
Where does Miami go from here? We begin by putting this loss in perspective. The game was bigger to San Antonio than it was to the Heat. As long as Miami picks up one win this week in Texas, they still have a good shot to win a seven-game series on their home floor. I’m not saying last night was must-win for the Spurs, but they have to win two of three at home, and beating the Heat twice in a row, while possible, is a tall order.
If I’m the Heat, the first thing I want is for LeBron James to quit shooting three-pointers. Yes, I know he’s a good shooter from long range. I also know that the Spurs are more than happy to let these Finals come down to a referendum on LeBron hitting the trey. Better that than him driving to the basket or posting up. It’s not necessarily wrong for James to shoot five treys like he did last night. But when it comes in the context of him not going to the basket, nor being hot (he only made one), it has to stop.
James played hard, as he always does, and his 11 rebounds are reflective of that, but he’s playing the game San Antonio would prefer.
Ultimately, Miami simply has to be more aggressive defensively. One of the reasons San Antonio was so hot from downtown is that outside shots are easier to hit when there’s not a hand in your face or some sort of duress. As a general rule, I wouldn’t expect teams to repeat 50 percent shooting from behind the arc, especially not when taking 30-plus attempts. But if it’s going to be straight catch-and-shoot with no pressure, professional basketball players can certainly hit half their treys. I find it disturbing that Miami seems unable to bring championship-level intensity for consecutive games. It doesn’t mean they can’t win this series—the 1988 Los Angeles Lakers had the same problem and won a seven-game Finals. But is yet another argument against the Heat’s invincibility and historic greatness.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
It was a great Tuesday in San Antonio, but it’s going to be an awful Wednesday, pending the results of Tony Parker’s MRI. The point guard went to the sidelines with a bad hamstring and didn’t return. We don’t know if he could have played had the game been close, and we don’t know if the MRI is merely precautionary. But if Parker is going to be a shell of himself, then the Spurs won their last game of the season last night.
The positive side to San Antonio’s win is that Thursday night is not a must-win spot. If Parker’s hammy comes back in-between—not healthy, but a little on the sore side—Popovich may have to hedge his bets, and let Parker gather himself for Sunday night and Game 5. That’s not a worse-case scenario, but this is the downside of competing this deep in the season with veterans. Eventually the body breaks down.
At the start of this series, I expected these Finals would be tied 2-2, with each team winning a road game. Even if Parker is in pristine health, the guess here is that Miami bounces back, although the run of blowouts should end. Game 4 will go Thursday (9 PM ET, ABC). TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary returns Friday morning.
This is no longer the Indiana Pacers or the Oklahoma City Thunder. That’s the loud and clear message the San Antonio Spurs sent the Miami Heat last with the Spurs’ 92-88 win to open the 2013 NBA Finals. Whereas the Thunder in last year’s Finals, and the Pacers in this year’s Eastern finals, were susceptible down the stretch, San Antonio showed they can close games.
The Heat, in effect, went from batting against Jose Valverde in the bottom of the ninth—a good enough closer, but inconsistent—to batting against Mariano Rivera, and after Danny Green hit a big trey to give the Spurs an 88-81 spread with 2:12 to play, the veteran team was able to make enough plays on both ends in the final two minutes to secure the win.
After falling behind 9-2 to start the game, Miami seemed more or less in control for the better part of three quarters, but San Antonio kept hanging around and then the Spurs improved defense—something that was stressed here in our NBA Finals Preview earlier this week—really locked down and they won the fourth quarter 23-16.
Both teams actually played good defense, with neither getting to 45 percent from the floor, and while it seemed like the three-point shooting was good as I watched the game unfold, the box score told a different story—San Antonio was 7-for-23, while Miami was 8-for-25, neither even good enough to hit the minimum 33 percent threshold a team has to make for the shot to be justifiable.
HEROES & GOATS
If we’re looking for heroes for San Antonio it starts in a very predictable place, and that’s Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. Parker was an efficient 9-of-18 for 21 points, the final basket of which literally beat the shot clock by a fraction of a second and sealed the game with five seconds left. Duncan had 20 points and 14 rebounds, and was the key reason the Spurs won points in the paint by a 40-34 margin.
If we’re looking for goats for Miami, Chris Bosh stands out above them all. He insisted on shooting threes, including a big miss when the Heat had the lead down to 90-86 in the closing minute. I agree completely with ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy—it’s not that Bosh can’t hit that shot. I wouldn’t be surprised if he comes out Sunday night and knocks down three in a row if given the chance. But I know that, among all the little subplot matchups going on in the Finals, if I’m Gregg Popovich, I’m more than happy to let this championship end up as a referendum on Bosh shooting threes. He went 0-for-4 in Game 1.
LeBron James was also cold from downtown, going 1-for-5. Though James shooting the trey is more logical than Bosh, I’d still vastly prefer to see him going to the basket. James was exceptionally aggressive on the boards, with 18 rebounds and ensuring Miami won this battle, 46-37. It included a big put-back that cut the Spurs’ lead to two in the final minute. The MVP also did his usual job passing the ball, with ten assists. But I was expecting to see him get more assertive in the fourth quarter, take the ball to the hoop and get to the line, and that didn’t happen.
Green was the unlikely hero for San Antonio—well, maybe unlikely is too strong a word, but at the very least he was a little bit of a dark horse. His trey with 2:12 left was one of four he connected on, giving the Spurs’ offense the third component they needed to get over the top.
UNSUNG HEROES & GOATS
Now we’ll reverse sides and look at those from Miami who got it done and those from San Antonio that should feel relief. Let’s start with Ray Allen for the Heat. The veteran sharpshooter knocked down three of four behind the arc, and along with Mike Miller made Miami look at least a little bit like the regular season team that was razor-sharp from outside. Dwayne Wade looked like something close to his old self and was both efficient and active
Let’s also include LeBron here. I mentioned him in the previous section, because he was too passive offensively in the fourth quarter, but when you slap up an 18/18/10 night, you aren’t the reason your team lost.
For San Antonio, I was exceptionally disappointed with the play of Tiago Splitter, who managed only two rebounds. I don’t think the Spurs can win this series of Splitter doesn’t rebound better. I’m also going to lean toward putting Kawhi Leonard in this category. This might be unfair—he did have ten rebounds, and he drew the defensive matchup with LeBron, but he went 0-for-4 from three-point range. It doesn’t bother me that Leonard doesn’t score, given his imposing responsibilities in the nitty-gritty areas, but don’t go launching four treys if you’re expending yourself at the other end of the floor. San Antonio has plenty of people who can deliver from long range.
THE SUBTLE STAT EDGES
San Antonio might not have won the rebounding battle the way Indiana did, the Spurs did two things exceptionally well that made the difference in a close game. They hit their free throws. Trips to the line were fairly even, 18-17 for San Antonio. But the Spurs turned that into a 15-12 scoring margin. That’s hardly a huge deal in a normal game, but in one where every edge counted, three additional points on only one extra attempt was a swing vote.
Then there are the turnovers. Miami got used to Indiana handing the ball over left and right, but with Parker running the show, San Antonio was nearly flawless. They only had four mishaps. Miami had nine turnovers—hardly a bad number, but not good enough in this game.
A HEAVYWEIGHT FIGHT
Anyone who wasn’t convinced this is a true heavyweight fight has to believe now. The game’s crucial play—Parker’s basket alluded to above that represented the final points—came as it looked like Miami had him trapped and was going to get a shot clock violation. It was great team defense on the part of the Heat. But Parker has the presence of mind to not simply get off a shot, but keep his composure and square himself up as he literally got off the floor, keeping his dribble and beating the clock by a margin so close that it took a couple different replay angles to confirm it. That’s the fraction that seems to separate these two teams right now.
I expect Miami to win on Sunday night. The biggest reason is just the natural ebb and flow of a series and that it’s tough to imagine the favorite losing the first two games on their home floor. I look for a more assertive LeBron, and while I’m not looking for a Bosh revival, he simply can’t be as bad as he was on Thursday night.
Game time is 8 PM ET on ABC. TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary resumes on Monday to shake it all out.
The road that started on Christmas Day came to an end last night in South Beach last night, as the Miami Heat won the NBA championship in decisive, indeed anti-climactic fashion, in taking apart the Oklahoma City Thunder 121-106 and wrapping up the Finals in five games.
Oklahoma City had a chance in the early part of the third quarter with the deficit only at five, but it has to be noted that Miami had control of the general flow of play from the outset and as soon as the Thunder threatened to make a game of it, the Heat opened up and the rout was on before the third quarter was over.
Last night’s win was so thorough I won’t spend too much time going through the specifics. Though Miami is generally at its best when they are not shooting threes, the rules go out the window when someone gets as hot as Mike Miller did last night. The reserve hit seven of eight from behind the arc on his way to 23 points. Closer to the rim, Chris Bosh hit 9-of-14 for 24 points, as the Heat shot 51 percent from the floor, the biggest reason for the win.
The Thunder had a rough shooting night, hitting only 41 percent and Russell Westbrook went cold, going 4-for-20. But for as much grief as Westbrook has taken in this series, his Game 4 performance when the Finals were still in serious doubt was an epic and no one could fault his effort last night. And certainly no one could fault Kevin Durant, who dropped 32 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, but he was the only one his team who played well.
Oklahoma City is a very talented team—in fact, I still think the most talented. But they became the latest evidence of the NBA truism about needing to lose before you can win. It happened to them in the Western Conference Finals last year against Dallas—another team the Thunder were better, but less experienced then. And it happened on the biggest stage this year. I know OkC fans are upset about the officiating—it obviously didn’t matter last night, but there were gripes to be had in Games 2, 3 & 4, all narrow Miami wins and just reversing one of them would have put this series back in Oklahoma City with the Thunder holding homecourt.
But the Thunder also made some bad decisions of their own in key moments. Furthermore, an ironclad rule I adhere to when it comes to complaints about the officials are that you have to earn the right to do it—you can’t melt down. If OkC would have played another tough game last night, gone to the wire and seen Durant again mugged in the paint without a whistle, then sure, light up Twitter, shout at the TV set, do whatever you do. But championship teams don’t melt down in the biggest moments. And last night, with the season on the line and a chance to win and reclaim homecourt with a quarter and a half to play, meltdown is exactly what the Thunder did. In the end, they were a team not ready to win.
The organization has some decisions to make, with James Harden and Serge Ibaka coming up on free agency, but as long as Durant and Westbrook are around as the core, they have the opportunity to get back here again next year and a lot more years after that. And next time they’ll be the team that’s paid its dues.
Now let’s move on to the 2012 NBA champions and a guy named LeBron. His 26 points last night were below his Finals average, but not only was he pulled in the final minutes when the celebration began, but he had 12 assists. I’ve said it in these pages many times—the man is an excellent passer and it’s time to start acknowledging his willingness to develop and use this part of his game is a huge reason his team won a title. I know most reasonable basketball observers have, but for the casual NBA fan, please just start tuning out this silly stuff about whether he does or doesn’t take a game-winning shot. We didn’t see the passing skills of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson as something to be suppressed. When Michael Jordan gave up Finals-winning shots to John Paxson (1993) and Steve Kerr (1997) we didn’t see it as a sign of weakness. LeBron’s winning a ring won’t quiet his critics on this front—undoubtedly things will shift to pointing out that he didn’t actually hit a game-winning shot per se in the Finals (a stupid argument) and that one ring is not nearly enough in light of the expectations when he came to Miami (a more reasonable point). It’s up to the fans to just not feed into this line of analysis.
Which brings us to the Legacy Of LeBron. Now TheSportsNotebook takes great pride in its historical development, and one thing you learn on going through past seasons and champions is that there’s a reason the Hall of Fames wait five years before induction. Putting something in historical perspective the morning after it happens just doesn’t work. Will this be the first of several rings over the next ten years for LeBron and Miami? Or will Oklahoma City, younger and now battle-toughened knock Miami off each of the next couple years and then see Dwayne Wade and some of James’ supporting cast—hardly a strong suit to begin with in spite of Miller’s show last night—start to fade. If you take the longer view, it’s not unreasonable to think this could be James’ only ring. Nor is it unreasonable to think they could win three of the next four. Let’s wait and see, and then do some historical perspective.
I’m not a LeBron James fan—I rooted against Miami in each of their playoff series and only against the Celtics did I have a direct rooting interest in the other team. But nor am I a hater, and as I watch him play and see the things he says and does, I find myself increasingly wondering why people dislike the guy so much. He plays the game the correct way—he involves his teammates, he plays tough defense and does the unflashy things that win championships. Yes, I get the city of Cleveland loathes him for leaving via free agency. But why does that affect the rest of the country so thoroughly? Because James made his free agent announcement on a half-hour ESPN special? Because the Heat introduced him and Chris Bosh, along with Dwayne Wade, at a gaudy press conference, replete with talk of championships? As ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy pointed out last night, not only has LeBron apologized on this front, but the apologies are for things that are hardly capital crimes.
Let’s take “The Decision.” I thought the half-hour show for his announcement was silly when it was announced, and I didn’t watch it, seeing only clips of it later. My response now as the same as it was then—“So what.” I reject the notion that this was somehow a major diss to Cleveland. In fact, the only diss Cavaliers fans should be riled up is the diss owner Dan Gilbert gave to LeBron the years he was there, as the awful job of assembling a supporting cast was completely exposed when James left town. LeBron’s carrying of a terrible Cleveland team to the 2007 NBA Finals was a bigger achievement than last night’s win and Cleveland fans should thank him for the memories. At the very least, fans outside the city shouldn’t be all carried away.
The gaudy press conference has all the earmarks of Heat team president Pat Riley. I read Riley’s motivational books back in the 1990s along Showtime, his story of the 1987-88 Lakers. The coach is a believe that to have the will to win a championship you must feel no slack—and what better way to make sure you’re new free agents feel all the pressure than construct an opening sure to incite animosity throughout the league. We already know that the design of the press conference was a team decision, not one by the players and I’d bet that it was Riley’s idea, with a Machiavellian sort of motivational ploy—get everyone to hate you, tell them that you have to win and let that eliminate any slack you might feel. As for LeBron himself he got carried away talking about how many championships he was going to win, but even that had the feel of integrating into the whole ridiculous display to begin with.
So we have a then 25-year-old who plays the game the right way, works hard, but announced a free agent decision on TV and got a little swept up in hubris on the day he joined his new teammates. For this he’s Public Enemy Number One. I don’t get it. And it seems even sillier when you factor in he’s openly admitted not handling things well, to having shown immaturity, to accepting responsibility well beyond the scope of anything he did wrong. Contrast LeBron’s willingness to admit he’s wrong to someone like Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds. Then come and tell me the Heat star is really all that’s wrong with the sports world.
Because I’m not a Miami fan per se, because I like conference rival Boston and because it tends to be more fun to root for an underdog, I doubt I’ll be rooting for the Heat too many times in the immediate future. But it’s not an anti-Laker animosity, which is purely on principle. I respect LeBron, not just as a player, but for his effort to take some minor mistakes and set them right. For all those reasons he deserves the ring and the celebration he got last night.
Oklahoma City came out and threw the first punch in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, getting out to a 17-point lead in the first quarter against the Miami Heat. But the Heat counterpunched in the second quarter to essentially even things up and then a combination of OkC being stone cold from behind the three-point line and Miami being smarter down the stretch produced a 104-98 win for the Heat to give them a commanding 3-1 series lead.
With the exception of the first half of Game 2, Oklahoma City has gotten absolutely nothing from James Harden, the sixth man who plays starters’ minutes and whose shooting is desperately needed. He went 1-for-5 behind the arc last night and there were clean, wide-open looks that were nowhere close to finding the bottom of the net. Harden struggled to a 2-for-10 night from the floor and only eight points and there is zero chance the Thunder will win if he’s not contributing. Kevin Durant was also cold from long range, at 1-for-5, but Durant still put together a 28-point night with some good shooting from two-point range. But the lack of three-point shooting from the team as a whole—they missed 13 of 16 from trey range—and the lack of anything from Harden, all served to negate a brilliant performance from Russell Westbrook who dropped 43 points on the Heat, with a dazzling display of drives that Miami knew was coming and was powerless to stop.
What Miami did exceptionally well was get everyone involved in the offense and the credit for that starts with LeBron James. He had “only” 26 points, but delivered 12 assists. This is a facet of his game that doesn’t get nearly the credit it deserves and why it often makes sense for him to pass off in a key situation. James excels at getting the ball in the post and if he’s not able to score, to find an open man. When Larry Bird did it over and over again for the 1980s Boston Celtics, he got the nickname “Larry Legend.” When LeBron does it, it’s somehow an act of weakness. But there’s nothing weak about getting Mario Challmes involved to the tune of 25 points, many of the same kind of drives to the basket that Westbrook excelled at. There’s nothing weak about getting Dwayne Wade enough touches for him to knock down another 25.
Miami still shot too many threes—26 in all, and the makes that stick out in your mind don’t make up for the number of ill-advised attempts on possessions that could have put the Thunder away. They made 10, which is good enough to justify the trey attempts per se, but only if you don’t count the lost opportunities to do something in the lane. But it would be a three from LeBron that would be a dagger late in the game. It was a shot Oklahoma City has to give up—you can’t give him a drive to the basket—and he nailed it.
So is this series over? No team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals, but in fairness, most teams in that spot don’t have two home games in the bank like Oklahoma City would if they can win Thursday night. And while I picked the Thunder to win this series, I was clear that I felt they needed to pick up one win in South Beach and that as long as they took the series back to OkC it was essentially even, even if they trailed 3-2. But the flip side is that I thought the win would come in either of the last two games. And it’s one thing to come home 3-2 coming off a Game 5 loss where you can regroup and get ready for one final push. Winning three in a row, regardless of venue, is obviously much more difficult.Even if the series is extended back to Oklahoma City, I’d place the Thunder’s odds of winning at 35-40 percent rather than the even money I’d have given if they won last night.
And then there’s the further factor of wondering what chance Oklahoma City has on Thursday night in Miami. It’s clear that the Heat’s intangibles—championship experience, even if it came in defeat—are playing a huge role down the stretch, so while there’s every reason to think the Thunder will make Game 5 another good one, what basis do we have for confidence in their ability to execute in the end game? If they didn’t win when Westbrook turned in one of the great Finals performance in league history, how’s it going to happen otherwise? Players like Harden, in their first Finals, are unlikely to suddenly turn it on.This has all the markings of being OkC’s learning year, while it’s Miami’s championship year.
So while I give the Thunder more a chance than I would almost anyone else in this spot, it’s hard for me to say it’s any better than 1 in 10 right now. I expect to see the end of the NBA season on Thursday night.
The Miami Heat took a 2-1 series lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals with Sunday night’s 91-85 win in South Beach. If there’s a word we can sum it up in, it would be aggressiveness. The Heat aggressively hit the boards and won the rebounding battle. As is often the case, that led to free throws and Miami had a solid edge in attempts from the charity stripe, 35-24. And with the Heat hitting their free throws while the Thunder missed, the actual scoring edge in this area ended up at 31-15, and was the decisive factor in the Miami victory.
It can be tempting for OkC fans to gripe out officiating inequities when you see numbers like this and this was the second straight game that foul trouble on Kevin Durant proved decisive—the Thunder star picked up his fourth early in the third quarter at a time when the Thunder had pulled out to a 10-point lead. Because I was watching the end of the U.S. Open last night while following the basketball score online, I can’t comment specifically on any foul call prior to the latter part of the fourth quarter. But after a few years of reading box scores, both college & NBA, I can safely say there’s a definite correlation between rebounding and free throw attempts. Maybe it’s because of fouls on second chances, but I think often its intangible—both are the fruit of aggressive play. The same mindset that helps a team hit the boards also helps them drive to the basket and not settle for threes.
And for the second straight game Miami did not settle for threes. They only attempted 13, a prudent number. LeBron James scored big baskets down the stretch by driving. He ended up with 29 for the game and also had 14 boards. Chris Bosh had 11 rebounds. Meanwhile, Kendrick Perkins was the only Thunder player who showed an interest in crashing the glass, with 12 boards. Serge Ibaka had only five, and that number needs to be improved or this series will not return to OkC.
Game 4 goes on Tuesday night and I think the winner of this game will win the championship. As long as the Thunder pick up one win in Miami they’re at least even money going home—the historical track record suggests a 3-2 margin in favor of the underdog makes a series basically even heading into Game 6 and the last two years have borne that out. While Dallas got the road clinch in Miami last season, the Lakers beat Boston two straight in 2010. But none of the favorites who got the series back home ever fell behind 3-1 and that’s an area the Thunder don’t want to test. If they keep Durant out of foul trouble they’ll win. If not, they’re at the mercy of Miami to shoot themselves into a loss. That’s often a reasonable hope, but the last two games have shown a Heat squad intent on playing like a champion. I believe OkC is going to win on Tuesday and claim a title in seven games, but they’re on a dangerous brink right now.
The second game of the NBA Finals followed a similar pattern as the first—a strong start by Miami followed by a second-half comeback from Oklahoma City. But this time the comeback was much more grinding, the Thunder only got one chance to tie the game and the Heat played with more discipline on the offensive end. It added up to a 100-96 win for Miami to even the series.
Miami finally figured out how to integrate the three-point shot into their lineup. They got a big game from Shane Battier behind the stripe, as he hit 5-for-7, including a banked shot at a point in the fourth quarter when the lead was down to four. But the Heat didn’t allow Battier’s success to turn the rest of the team into long-range gunners and they kept their trey attempts at a modest 14. That in turn meant LeBron James and Dwayne Wade were driving the ball to the basket and they combined for 56 points, including several clutch baskets in the lane and off the dribble.
It was Oklahoma City airing it out from downtown, as the easy fast break baskets that keyed Game 1 were no longer available and Kevin Durant spent extended periods on the bench in early foul trouble. Russell Westbrook struggled in the first half, to the point that ABC analyst Magic Johnson called it the worst half by a point guard in the Finals he’d ever seen. Strong stuff from someone who knows a little bit about playing point guard in the Finals.
But both Westbrook and Durant got going in the second half, and they combined for 59 points. Durant buried several key shots, including a cold-as-ice three-pointer that cut the lead to 98-96, a shot set up by an intelligent extra pass from Westbrook. OkC got the ball back with a chance to tie, and a terrible no-call kept Durant from going to the line. The Thunder got a rough break on the officiating last night and they were also uncharacteristically average from the free throw line themselves. 19-of-26 isn’t terrible, but OkC can do better than 73 percent. They didn’t, and that—along with the 47 percent Miami shot from the floor because they drove to the basket—are the biggest reasons this series is tied heading to South Beach on Sunday night.
Oklahoma City grabbed the first game of the NBA Finals with a riveting second half, as they caught the Miami Heat from behind and pulled away down the stretch to a 105-94 win and hold serve on their home floor.
To look at the box score of this game you don’t see a lot of differences, save for OkC shooting 51 percent from the floor to Miami’s 46 percent and in either case that’s a good offensive showing for each team. What it doesn’t factor in just how much the Thunder defense controlled the second half. The Heat hit early three-point shots, with Shane Battier knocking down 4-for-6 and Mario Challmes hitting 2-for-4. As TheSportsNotebook opined in yesterday’s series preview, that’s too many treys for Battier to be taking and the early makes proved to be fool’s gold, as he took an ill-advised one at a key point in the fourth quarter and the Heat in general defaulted to the three-ball at too many key moments when they had a chance to keep the Thunder from pulling away. This team has got to find a way to ride the hot hand outside from these role players early while not letting it distract them from their focus at bigger points later in the game.
On an individual level, the big difference you see is that Russell Westbrook is much better than Dwayne Wade at this point in their careers, and allowing that Wade’s probably not 100 percent. To watch it in person made it look like a huge mismatch. To double-check the box score shows it’s probably not quite as bad—Westbrook dazzled with 27 points/8 rebounds/11 assists, while Wade was merely good, with a 19/4/8 line. But of the three best players on the floor, it’s the Thunder, not the Heat, who have two of them and that’s a circumstance Miami is accustomed to.
Ultimately, to bring back a point alluded to in yesterday’s preview, Miami simply looked like a team that spent two weeks hitting against the knuckleball (the Boston Celtics) and is now seeing a pitcher with serious gas. On the positive side, perhaps they’ll have mentally caught back up to the new speed that the Finals have to be played at for Game 2. But on the negative side, they got nice games from the role players, Oklahoma City was sloppy and presumably nervous in the first half and everything was set up for the Heat to get a road win, but they didn’t do it. OkC turned up the pressure, got a big defensive performance from Thab Sefolosha and some key rebounds from Nick Collison, erased a seven-point deficit and finally took over in the fourth quarter. If the Thunder don’t waste in future games with nerve issues, what does that say for the future of this series?
I haven’t mentioned the stars, LeBron and Kevin Durant, because they were both great, and when both stars are great, they aren’t the decisive factors. LeBron dropped a 30/9/4 line, while Durant was even better at 36/8/4. If I’m a Heat fan, I can allow James being outscored by Durant. But LeBron is normally a better rebounder and passer, yet the rebounds/assists line was virtually even and it seems like Durant’s biggest passes came on the biggest possessions. The positive side is that only rarely did King James settle for airing up three-point shots and the aggressiveness at the hoop he showed in the Boston series carried over to this one. It’s just now the caliber of the opponent has exponentially increased.
Is Game 2 on Thursday a must-win either way? You can make the case for both teams. If Miami loses, they’re obviously in a 0-2 hole and would have to come back to the raucous arena in Oklahoma City no matter what. On the flip side if the Thunder lose, they give up homecourt advantage. Because I think getting a road win is normally necessary for any team, even one with homecourt advantage. I’m still inclined to think Miami needs a split here in these first two games—I know they won the 2006 NBA title after losing two on the road, but a three-game sweep in your own arena is tough to do against the league’s best and the road wins are easier to get earlier in the series than they are at the back end.
The NBA Finals tip off tonight, as the Oklahoma City Thunder host the Miami Heat. For all the difficulties the Heat encountered in each of the last two series, for how good the Spurs looked in the West, it almost seems like this was still the matchup that was supposed to be happen, as LeBron James and Kevin Durant each go for their first ring. TheSportsNotebook previews the Heat-Thunder final battle…
You can look at the scores from Oklahoma City’s playoff run and those of Miami and presume the Heat are more defensive-oriented, while the Thunder are geared to offense. That would be false. The Western Conference has faster teams—and frankly, most would say better teams—than the East. If you factor in pace of the game, the defensive numbers come out fairly equal, with Miami still slightly better, but even that can wiped out once you adjust for strength of schedule. If you listen to the media, you might presume the Heat like to get out and run the break. That would also be false. Miami ranks about the middle of the league in terms of game pace, while Oklahoma City does play at a fast clip. LeBron James will undoubtedly fill the lane for some big dunks that will get on SportsCenter, but both he and his team are at their best when running a good halfcourt offense.
Running a good halfcourt offense does not mean indiscriminately firing up three-point shots. If you saw the highlights of Miami’s Game 7 win against Boston, you saw LeBron’s 30-foot trey, along with Chris Bosh stepping up to hit 3-of-4 from behind the arc. You may recall Shane Battier knocking some three-pointers down. But the volume of threes the Heat are shooting must come down in this series. In the seven games against the Celtics they shot 155 times behind the arc. They only made 32 percent. Simple math says you have to hit one percentage point higher just to break even on the shot and simple math can’t factor in for what’s lost by not having LeBron and Dwayne Wade take the ball to the basket.
Miami had only one game in the conference finals where the three-ball was an asset, and that was Game 6, when they hit nearly 50 percent. That was also the only game they kept their attempts under 20 (16 in all) and made sure guard Mario Challmes, the best shooter on the team got a disproportionate number of attempts, as he hit 3-for-4. Call me crazy, but I see a trend there. Miami can’t get lazy on offense and jack up threes against Oklahoma City, because unlike the previous series, they aren’t going to chase down nearly as many long rebounds.
Oklahoma City is strong on the interior, with Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins working the glass and their athletic ability is significantly higher than what Miami just faced. The Celtics were the equivalent of old Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield floating everything up there. This is the equivalent of the Heat having to turn around face Josh Beckett’s fastball one day later. Oklahoma City pushes the tempo and they do it with efficiency—even after you adjust for the pace, they still finished second in the league in offensive efficiency, and in the Western Conference Finals, they beat the team that finished first. The area I’m watching with OkC is how well they defend in the halfcourt.
San Antonio shot 45 percent or better three times in the six-game series, the benchmark I generally use to see how well a defense is playing. If Miami get hit 45 or better consistently, the Thunder are going to have problems, particularly when you factor in that made shots take them out of transition opportunities. The positive for OkC here is that only one of those 45+ games from San Antonio took place in the final four matchups of the series when the Thunder suddenly had everything click. And none took place on their home floor, where they get to open and close the Finals.
The LeBron-Durant showdown is getting the hype and while these are both immensely talented small forwards playing very well right now, there are some differences. Durant is a better pure shooter—a reason he can be more confident taking shots in the end game. LeBron’s a better rebounder, and a little bit better passer, a reason people shouldn’t knock him so much when he gives up a shot at the end.
Russell Westbrook and Dwayne Wade represent another battle. The Thunder guard is playing better right now and is younger, as Wade fights what are obviously nagging injuries. But the flip side is that Wade, as he demonstrated down the stretch in Game 7 has a proven champion’s ability in these moments, while Westbrook still has to show he can make it through an entire playoff run without allowing a bad shooting night to affect the rest of his game. If Miami wins this series, Wade needs to outplay Westbrook.
Each team’s third best player brings us to the stylistic differences between the two. For Oklahoma City its James Harden, the shooting guard who officially comes off the bench, but plays starters’ minutes. Harden is the three-point shooter that the entire Miami team thinks they are—he hits 45 percent behind the arc. Whereas Miami has Chris Bosh, who is obviously healthy again, and just as obviously can’t let his 3-for-4 from three-point range in the Celtics finale become fools’ gold. Bosh is the only consistent answer Miami has in the post and he has to play well for the Heat to execute in the half-court.
If it’s just about the Big Three, I would give a slight edge to Miami, not so much for anything to do with LeBron or Durant, then for the fact I’d prefer an inside-oriented team rather than a perimeter one. But of course we play five-on-five and Oklahoma City is much better at filling in its role spots than Miami. Serge Ibaka is a defensive force at power forward and able to kick in some help offensively, as a surprise 26-point night against the Spurs proved. Perkins hits the glass hard and does dirty work inside, and also has a championship ring as a starter with the 2008 Celtics. They both combine to give the Thunder a substantial edge on the interior, an edge that will get even bigger if Bosh decides the Finals are a time to hone his three-point shot. Whereas with Miami, they’re waiting for Challmes to get untracked in the backcourt. He’s got to have more games like Game 6 where his three-point shot can consistently open up the lane. He’s got to hit better than 70 percent of his free throws, something Wade and LeBron also need to improve on.
Therefore, if Miami wins we need to see them play good halfcourt defense, assume their solid defensive numbers against the East can translate into play against the West. They need to run the halfcourt offense and not play street ball, where they start launching three-pointers, and instead get LeBron and Wade driving to the bucket and Bosh hitting some jumpers either on post-up or near the elbow.
For Oklahoma City to win, we need the kind of defensive effort they brought to the last four games of the San Antonio series, we need Ibaka and Perkins to close those possessions with the rebound and we need Westbrook to realize that even if he doesn’t shoot well, he can still distribute the ball.
Both of those are realistic scenarios. Oklahoma City opens as a decent favorite at (-160), meaning you have to bet $160 to get a profit of $100 if you take the Thunder. You can bet Miami at (+140), meaning a simple $100 bet returns $140 in profit. We’ve got a situation where a betting line underdog playing without homecourt advantage is the team with all the pressure on them, which brings us to the final intangible that I think is going to decisive. Is Oklahoma City going to be just happy to be here, while Miami is determined to shut the critics up? In the end, that’s the only reason I would have to pick against the Thunder. They’re the one team that can match Miami in star power, they have better role players and they have the homecourt edge. But no one’s going to call them a failure if they lose. Their motivation will have to come from within.
I don’t make final predictions based on these kinds of intangibles because I have no way of knowing the mindset of each team or even how that mindset will affect their play. I know what I see on paper and when I’m watching the games. I like the Thunder to win the first two games of this series at home. Then for Miami to take two of the next three (remember in the Finals, it goes 2-3-2 for homecourt), with OkC coming home to close out a championship in Game 6.