Tuesday, June 12, 2012

NBA Finals Preview: Heat vs. Thunder

Miami is here for two reasons: Chris Bosh's return and LeBron James' renewed openness to failure.

Both recovered in different ways. Bosh rested and conditioned himself during his injury layoff where he's now feeling more springy than the lockout-beaten players he shares the court with. James breathed in the quietness of playing for himself, accepting who he needs to be on the Miami Heat.

LeBron James and Kevin Durant will see a lot of each other in the Finals.
We know the Thunder. They pressure teams by having the unprecedented offensive trio of Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Kevin Durant bleed matchup advantages. Their defensive malleability forced the Spurs to post up Tim Duncan, which is no longer a strength. It forced the Lakers to be more Kobe Bryant-centric than ever, effectively shutting down Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.

Even with the hyper Westbrook and the youthful Serge Ibaka, OKC is more of a constant than Miami has been over the past two years. Bosh's energy status and James' focus are the two biggest variables heading into the NBA Finals.

The Heat may be the only team capable of matching up with OKC's offensive talent. James, arguably the league's best perimeter defender, can match up with Durant, while Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers have the size and length to defend Westbrook and Harden. They also have Bosh's strong pick-n-roll defense behind them. When Harden makes those long strides to the rim, he'll have a much harder time gliding by Bosh as opposed to the relatively slower-footed Gasol and Duncan.

Still, OKC's firepower comes from all angles. When their trio diverts defensive attention away from role players like Ibaka, Derek Fisher, and Thabo Sefolosha, those guys hit shots. Fisher and Sefolosha are shooting 38.2 percent and 36.8 percent from 3, respectively, and Ibaka is shooting 55.6 percent from the field while shooting many assisted mid-range jump shots.

Miami's offense vs. OKC's defense will decide this series. When it becomes Ibaka/Durant/Harden/Sefolosha/Westbrook vs. Bosh/James/Battier/Wade/Chalmers, Bosh needs to score efficiently from 18 feet. If he does, James will have room to maneuver with or without the ball, leading to ball movement and swing passes. A stagnant Miami offense will get swallowed up by OKC's length and team speed.

Bosh's play and James' focus will determine who wins that offense/defense interaction. Based on Bosh's 19 points on stellar jump shooting in game 7 against Boston, it appears he is ready for the challenge.

That leaves us with James. If James plays aggressive basketball- without fury, fear, angst, worry, or the pursuit of always making the "right" play- and allows himself the possibility of failure, the Miami Heat are the favorites. He played conservatively in last year's Finals which limited the effects- positive and negative- he could have on his team. But that isn't what the Miami Heat need.

Based on his play against Boston, LeBron James understands.

Pick: Heat in 6

Sunday, June 10, 2012

LeBron James Gave Us A Throwback

LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal are two of the most physically gifted individuals in NBA history. They are bigger and faster and stronger than everybody else in NBA history at their respective positions.

They make it look easy, even though it's not. James finished an Eastern Conference Finals where he averaged 33.6 points, 11 rebounds, and 3.9 assists while shooting 58.7 percent True Shooting against the best defense in the NBA. And he did that while banging with Kevin Garnett on switches, slowing down Paul Pierce in isolation, and helping on the unpredictable Rajon Rondo.
The series against Boston is reminiscent of another great seven-game Conference Finals from 10 years before: the Los Angeles Lakers vs. the Sacramento Kings. It was arguably Shaq's greatest moment.

Dealing with numerous minor injuries and with his team down 3-2 to Sacramento, Shaq delivered menacing dunks, an alpha attitude and- yeah, check this out- excellent free throw shooting. He told the team to give the ball to him and let him set the tone for game six, and he did just that. Overall, he averaged 38 points, 15 rebounds and 3 blocks per game while hitting 75 percent of his free throws in the two victories.

Return to 2012. Dealing with enormous pressure and with his team down 3-2 to Boston, James delivered confident dagger jump shots, an alpha attitude, and big-man rebounding. He set the tone with a legendary game six performance. Overall, he averaged 38 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists while shooting 59.5 percent from the field in the two victories.

They're both out-of-normal-NBA-court-dimensions stars, but dealing with adversity took more than being a physical specimen; it took brains and heart. James understood that to beat Boston, his team needed Shaq-like aggression from him. If he had failed, so be it, but at least he would have went down trying.

Shaq went on to win his third straight Finals MVP in 2002; perhaps LeBron wins his first this year. OKC is a powerful team, but a King-Mode LeBron- like a Superman-Mode Shaq- can overcome anything.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

ECF: Heat vs. Celtics

It's The Big Three vs. The Big Three 2, Round Two. Miami slayed the beast of the East in last year's five-game semifinal series. Now they reconvene in the Eastern Conference Finals with a bevy of intriguing matchups and variables.

Miami Heat (2) vs. Boston Celtics (4)

Chris Bosh needs to at least occupy Kevin Garnett.
The only reason Miami is even here is because Dwyane Wade and LeBron James went all Shaq & Kobe on the Indiana Pacers last series. Over the final three games against Indy, James averaged 32.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 8 assists per game on 61.3 percent True Shooting and Wade averaged 33 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game on 64.4 percent True Shooting. Ridiculous.

But that isn't sustainable against Boston. Kevin Garnett can roam around since Miami doesn't have a big man to attack with. Remember how Roy Hibbert was supposed to do that in the Indiana series but didn't because he's an overrated, plodding, soft big man who didn't deserve to be an All-Star this year? Well, KG can get it done. Boston's playoff-leading defense (94.2 defensive rating) should stifle their new opponent.

Miami's stingy defense should do the same against Boston's anemic offense. With Avery Bradley hurt and Rajon Rondo being a poor shooter - save for the final five minutes of game seven against Philly (Poor Doug Collins)- Miami's playoff-leading ability to force turnovers will provide them with easy transition buckets. LeBron James has shut down Carmelo Anthony and Danny Granger this postseason and has shut down a healthy Paul Pierce in the playoffs before; handling a hobbled Pierce won't be a problem. And for all the talk of Boston's success from behind the arc against Miami this season, the Heat's playoff opponents have shot below 30 percent from 3-point land in the playoffs. Miami is paying attention to closeouts in the playoffs.

Kevin Garnett will get his; he's the matchup advantage Boston has to milk. Rondo is smart enough to get him the ball.

The big variable here is the health of Chris Bosh. Does he play? If he plays, can he give 60-70 percent of his average performance? They need him to at least be a presence, at least pull a Willis Reed by occupying the other team's frontcourt despite an injury. KG has historically owned Bosh, but if he can simply be enough of an offensive threat to deflect attention from Wade and James, they can take care of the rest.

Miami is the superior basketball team, and if both teams were fully healthy, it'd be an easy call. The Bosh injury plays, however. After watching him cry last year following the NBA Finals loss, one must believe he'll fight through pain and try to help his team. Two-and-a-half solid games from him is really all Miami needs.

Pick: Heat in 6