Jun 15, 2012 10:58 AM EDT
For all the drama in the final minutes of Game 2 of the NBA Finals, the first few were the real story. The Miami Heat raced out to a 18-2 lead, creating a massive buffer they used to hold off the Oklahoma City Thunder in a 100-96 victory.
"That was the game. We can't start off that slow, especially at home," said Kevin Durant.
Erik Spoelstra made a critical adjustment between Games 1 and 2, moving Chris Bosh back into the starting lineup in place of Udonis Haslem. With a starting frontcourt of Bosh, LeBron James and Shane Battier, Miami spread out the Oklahoma City defense, creating driving lanes for their stars and open jumpers for their role players.
Because LeBron and Dwyane Wade are more comfortable attacking the rim than shooting from the perimeter, floor spacing is vital to the Heat's offense. That's why Miami has been playing only one big man since Bosh's injury in the second round, as an extra perimeter shooter brings two players out of the paint and gives LeBron and Wade more room to finish or pass out of a double-team.
And with Bosh on the floor instead of Haslem, who has struggled with his jumper throughout the postseason, Oklahoma City can't cheat off any of the other three Miami starters. Bosh's ability to space the floor at 6'11, 235 and occupy the opponent's best frontcourt defender away from the basket completely changes the Heat's offense.
"[Starting Bosh] spreads the floor. It gives us more gaps to get to the paint," said Wade. "We're glad he's back to playing his regular minutes; that's going to be key for us the rest of the way."
Almost as important as his jump-shot is his offensive rebounding ability, since Bosh's 7'3 wingspan and soft touch make him far more dangerous on the offensive glass than the Heat's more offensively-limited big men. Serge Ibaka can't stay attached to Bosh when he is roaming defensively, and Bosh took advantage with seven offensive rebounds in Game 2.
But, as dangerous as he is offensively when he is playing as a center, he’s nearly as vulnerable on the other end of the floor. He doesn't have great lower body strength or lateral quickness, and a Bosh, Battier and LeBron frontline doesn't have a defensive anchor in the low block.
Unfortunately for the Thunder, none of their big men can consistently score with their back to the basket. Posting up Kendrick Perkins, a 6'10, 270 defensive specialist, plays right into Miami's hands, even when he’s being defended by the much smaller Battier. Despite playing only 20 minutes, Perkins still led the team with three turnovers.
His post defense was essential to eliminate Andrew Bynum and the Lakers in the second round, but there's no real place for him on the floor in The Finals. He's a non-factor offensively and he doesn't have the same foot-speed as Ibaka or Nick Collison to help and recover on the Heat shooters. In essence, he's an elite cornerback playing against a triple-option offense which only passes 3-5 times a game; his skill-set just isn’t very useful in this series.
Offensively, he affects the game in precisely the opposite way Bosh does, allowing Miami to clog the lane and force Oklahoma City to take contested jumpers. Battier liberally helped off of Perkins, which allowed him to get in position for his favorite defensive move: running across the lane in order to instantly fall to the ground.
In the fourth quarter, with Perkins on the bench, the Heat’s small-ball lineup wasn’t nearly as dominant. Instead, when playing lineups that featured James Harden and only one big man, Oklahoma City spaced the floor as effectively as Miami, resulting in a thrilling finish where Durant had an open 10-foot shot to tie the game in the final moments.
In the 2011 NBA Finals, the Dallas Mavericks beat the Heat by playing through their two 7’0; in the 2012 Finals, for the first time, Miami is facing an opponent with the talent to beat them at their own game. But, in a series this close, the Thunder are going to have a hard time winning three more 50/50 games if they continue playing from behind like they did in Games 1 and 2.
Yet, instead of focusing on the match-up difficulties Spoelstra's adjustment gave his team in the first quarter, Scott Brooks pinned their slow start on intangibles: "I just think we were missing shots. We didn't come out with the defensive toughness, the disposition that we need to play with. We have to do that first, and then if it doesn't work, we'll think about [changing our starting line-up]".
In a championship series, basketball games are decided by the individual matchups on the floor and the adjustments coaches make to their lineups to exploit them, not by who tries the hardest or who wants to win the most. At this level, in the biggest games of their lives, everyone is coming out ready to play. Effort isn’t the issue; execution is, and that depends in large part on the personnel the coach puts on the floor.
If Oklahoma City is going to regain control of the Finals, Brooks will have to adjust to Spoelstra's adjustment and tweak his starting lineup. Do that and the "disposition" he wants will take care of itself.
Jun 12, 2012 10:47 AM EDT
The NBA Finals rarely features two teams with as much talent as the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat. In the previous generation of the NBA, the only series that comes close is 2010, when the Boston Celtics faced the Los Angeles Lakers in a classic seven-game match-up.
The difference is, by 2010, both Boston’s Big Three and Kobe Bryant were already on the downside of their careers. In contrast, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka are still in their prime. Their average age is a little under 25-years-old.
With several key players from the 2012 Olympic qualifying pool (Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Derrick Rose) injured, there’s a good chance half of Team USA’s 12-man roster will be playing in the series. Ibaka, meanwhile, will have a huge role on a Spanish team with the most talent of any international squad in the modern era.
In many ways, the series between the Heat and the Thunder represents the future of the NBA. The stars of both teams learned the game on the AAU circuit, where the only way to win national competitions was to play with, rather than against, other elite players. Now, in the biggest national competition of them all, they’re playing in a series that essentially pits two AAU All-Star teams against each other.
Both play a similar type of athletic, uptempo basketball. Neither has a traditional low-post scorer, and both are more dangerous in transition than the halfcourt.
It’s not a style many of the league’s older teams are comfortable with. The Thunder beat the Mavericks, Lakers and Spurs, veteran teams built around interior scoring, while the Heat advanced past the Celtics and Indiana Pacers, who tried to neutralize Miami’s athletes with slick passing and precise execution in the halfcourt.
Very few teams are foolhardy enough to try to beat the Heat at their game and even fewer have the personnel to do it. Of course, you can say the exact same thing about the Thunder, which is why a Finals between the two has been so eagerly anticipated.
Both use conventional lineups with an offensively limited big man at the center position. But while there’s little point to playing a slow floor-bound center who can’t score (Kendrick Perkins) so he can defend some combination of Udonis Haslem/Joel Anthony/Ronny Turiaf, Anthony could have a big series as a help defender while Haslem’s jump-shooting would be a huge bonus for Miami.
Ibaka is Oklahoma City’s best shot-blocker, which is why Bosh’s ability to stretch the floor as a jump-shooter is such a weapon. That was the dilemma Bosh gave Boston when he returned from injury in the last round, since his return meant they needed Kevin Garnett to be in two places at once defensively. Perkins isn’t fast enough to defend Bosh outside of the paint, so the Thunder may turn to Nick Collison, a better match-up at 6’10, 250 who would allow Ibaka to stay at the rim.
On the perimeter, the big decision Erik Spoelstra is going to have is who Wade defends. At 6’4, 220 with a 6’11 wingspan, he has the size and athleticism to bother either Westbrook or Harden, but the Heat don’t have an obvious matchup for the other. Spoelstra will have to determine whether he’d be better off putting Shane Battier and Mike Miller on Harden or Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole on Westbrook.
Scott Brooks is going to have to make a lot of strategic decisions as well. He has to recognize his normal starting five with Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha is much easier for Miami to defend. At the end of games, he’s been able to get away with playing Derek Fisher, but the aging spot-up shooter is a defensive liability who can be attacked off the dribble.
The Thunder have been good enough so far to get away with his utilization of subpar lineups, but it could bite them in this series. There’s no question who the first seven players in crunch-time will be; the coach who can dictate the matchups and keep the other three players he wants on the floor will have a big edge.
At the same time, it’s much easier to adjust when you have a huge advantage at the small forward position, which Brooks and Spoelstra have enjoyed throughout the playoffs. The ability of Durant and LeBron to play all 48 minutes while dominating at either forward position has been an ace in their team’s respective pockets. They will be the toughest individual matchup of the other’s careers.
Both teams are built around their superstar 6’9 forward, and not since Shaq vs. Hakeem in the 1995 Finals has the primary offensive option on one team defended the other. Durant has the edge in length while LeBron has the edge in weight, and the player who can use his physical advantage to better score with his back to the basket will give his team the most important edge of the series.
LeBron is a better defender and more well-rounded player than Durant at this stage of their careers, while battling against a player who has more than 40 pounds on him will wear down Durant’s legs as the Finals progress. That’s why I’m taking Miami in six games in what should be a thrilling and historic series.
Jun 10, 2012 8:36 PM EDT
When the Boston Celtics assembled their Big Three in the summer of 2007, a 35-year-old Shaquille and Zydrunas Ilgauskas were the second-leading scorers on Dwyane Wade and LeBron James’ teams respectively. Five years later, Boston’s run was ended in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals by a Big Three of the Miami Heat they influentially helped create.
The NBA was a much different place the year before Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce. The San Antonio Spurs were rarely challenged en route to their third championship in five years, steamrolling a 51-win Utah Jazz team and a 50-win Cleveland Cavaliers team while going 8-1 in the final two rounds of the playoffs.
With three All-NBA caliber players in their prime, San Antonio had dominated the NBA, winning three titles and finishing inches short in 2004 (Derek Fisher’s 0.4 shot) and 2006 (Dirk Nowitzki’s and-1 in Game 7). The Phoenix Suns, who never played enough defense, were the only team with comparable talent, as most of the league’s top players were on one-man squads.
Garnett, Pierce and Allen were no exception; all three missed the 2007 playoffs. None had ever played with a true equal, and they had combined to make only three career Conference Finals appearances: Allen in 2001, Pierce in 2002 and Garnett in 2004.
In Boston, they formed a trio better than the sum of its parts. Garnett, one of the most athletic and skilled 7’0 of all-time, anchored the defense, while his passing ability was the perfect offensive complement to two knock-down shooters. On the perimeter, Pierce and Allen had complementary games, despite both being 6’5+ wings with career averages of 20+ points on 45% shooting. Even though he lacked elite athleticism, Pierce was an dominant isolation scorer. Allen, one of the best three-point shooters in NBA history, didn’t need to play with the ball in his hands.
Just as importantly, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge held on to Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins as he built his team. Rondo, an elite athlete and passer at the point guard position, got his Hall of Fame teammates open shots while they spaced the floor for him. Perkins had the bulk to defend the low-post, which gave Garnett the freedom to roam the floor defensively and cause havoc.
Blowing away the conventional wisdom that teams needed time to gel before they won a title, the Celtics went 66-16 in the regular season and 16-10 in the playoffs to win the 2008 championship. Ainge dramatically raised the bar the previous summer; the rest of the NBA has spent the last five seasons catching up.
The Lakers responded first, acquiring Pau Gasol, an All-NBA seven-footer, when they still had Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum. But the Lakers, one of the longest and most skilled teams in NBA history, still came up short against Boston in the 2008 NBA Finals. In their second season together, Boston raced out to a 43-12 record before Garnett suffered a serious knee injury. Los Angeles took advantage to win the 2009 NBA Finals, but they still needed more talent if they were going to overcome a healthy Celtics team.
That summer they acquired a fifth All-Star caliber player in Ron Artest, a 6’7, 260 former Defensive Player of the Year. The 2010 Finals were a dramatic rematch of 2008, with Artest’s defense on Pierce and Perkins’ untimely injury in Game 6 proving the difference. The amount of talent was mind-boggling: the Lakers countered Boston’s five former or future All-Stars (Rasheed Wallace and what had become the Big Four) with three of their own, a future Sixth Man of the Year (Odom) and a PG with five rings (Fisher).
The two teams, primarily made up of players drafted from 1996-2001, won five of six conference titles from 2008-2010. It was a wake-up call to the top players from the 2002-2005 drafts, who were on comparatively punchless squads that repeatedly came up short. In the 2010 playoffs, Wade averaged 33/6/7 on 54% shooting and lost to Boston in 5; LeBron averaged 29/9/8 on 50% shooting and lost in six.
Wade, LeBron and Bosh received a lot of criticism for their unprecedented decision to team up in the summer of 2010, but one of the driving forces behind “The Decision” was a Celtics team with an almost unprecedented amount of talent. Rondo, after making the last three All-Star and All-Defensive teams, has a chance to be a Hall of Famer, which would make Boston the first team since the 1980’s with four future Hall of Famers playing major roles.
In an alternate universe where the Big Three ended their careers in relative anonymity on fringe playoff teams, the last four years of NBA history would have to be completely rewritten. Now, after barely surviving a lockout, the league is poised to enter the dawn of what could be a spectacular era of basketball.
In 2007, LeBron James played on the NBA’s biggest stage with four starters who had combined for two All-Star appearance in their careers. To get by Boston in 2011 and 2012 and return to the Finals, he needed a supporting cast with 15. “The Decision” may end up changing the NBA and the 2010’s could end up rivaling the 1980’s, but none of it would have happened without the Celtics.
Jun 07, 2012
There’s a reason LeBron and Wade thought so highly of Chris Bosh that they brought him along to the Heat, and there’s a reason why he’s made the All-Star team seven times in his nine-year career. Miami needs that Bosh now more than ever.
Jun 05, 2012
The Spurs won the first post-lockout title around a 22-year-old Tim Duncan. While San Antonio has done their best to adapt to a new era, Oklahoma City has a chance to define it as they did 13 years ago.
May 31, 2012
The Blazers were the second biggest winners from the lottery, as they now own the sixth and 11th selections and have a wealth of options at their disposal. Here we outline several strategies.
May 29, 2012
While most of the discussion of the 2011 NBA Finals centered around whether LeBron shrunk from the moment, the sheer toll of all those minutes and the exhausting two-way effort he put into them must have had something to do with his subpar performance.
May 26, 2012
If Tim Duncan continues his quest for a fifth ring, he will need to earn it. With Parker/Westbrook and Harden/Ginobili likely a draw, San Antonio’s best chance of winning the series is Duncan, who will need to outplay Ibaka in the low post.
May 24, 2012
The 76ers are one win from the Eastern Conference Finals, but going from “good” to “great” is the hardest jump to make in the NBA and they don’t have the personnel to do it. Here's why drafting Evan Turner instead of Cousins, Favors or Monroe in 2010 was their 'big' missed opportunity.
May 22, 2012
The window is far from closed for the Lakers, but Kobe Bryant must decide if he rather chase Michael Jordan's six titles, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's scoring record.
May 18, 2012
While the Spurs used to win with suffocating defense, age has forced them to become a jump-shooting team that depends on ball movement and superior offensive execution to win.
May 16, 2012
When the Miami Heat were able to defeat the Indiana Pacers in Game 1 despite losing Chris Bosh in the first half, it reinforced the popular notion of Bosh as a “soft” and somewhat superfluous player in South Beach. However, while he’s not as good as either one of the Heat’s superstars, his absence leaves a gaping hole in Miami’s frontcourt rotation.
May 14, 2012
The second round is where we begin to fully see how wide the gap is between 'good' and 'great' teams. This year's second round shouldn't be any different, with all four favorites predicted here to win in five games.
May 09, 2012
JaVale McGee's combination of offensive efficiency and defensive dominance for the Nuggets is almost comparable to what Tyson Chandler is doing with New York.
May 07, 2012
Dallas may have a drastically different roster surrounding Dirk Nowitzki next fall. The Mavericks' lack of sentimentality as an organization has allowed them to remain relevant for well over a decade, as 2012 will be the third time the franchise has rebuilt the roster around Nowitzki.
May 03, 2012
At every position on the floor, the Grizzlies have at least one player who can create their own shot, defend and shoot. While they don’t have a transcendent superstar, they have the personnel to exploit teams who surround their All-NBA players with one dimensional players.
May 01, 2012
Josh Smith is a textbook example of the type of multi-dimensional big man who have followed in Kevin Garnett’s footsteps. And for all Garnett’s wisdom and savvy, he no longer has the foot-speed or the explosiveness to handle Smith one-on-one, which is one of the main reasons why Atlanta will win the series.
Apr 27, 2012
The first round begins this weekend, when eight best-of-seven series featuring sixteen teams commence. There’s no way to watch all of the games, so here’s a viewer’s guide for the ones to watch and the ones to skip:
Apr 23, 2012
The MVP goes to the far and away best player in the NBA, while the Knicks have two players honored. The Cavaliers, Thunder, Celtics and Jazz also take hardware.
Apr 19, 2012
Two years ago, Utah was a capped-out veteran team with a frustrated star eyeing free agency. Now, thanks to Kevin O’Connor’s shrewd long-term planning, they have one of the NBA’s most promising young core all while remaining in playoff contention.
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