Thursday will mark the seven-month anniversary of the NBA Players Association rejecting what was labeled a “final offer” from the NBA owners to end the (at that point) 137-day lockout. Many believed the chances of a cancelled NBA season were 50-50. Better than 50-50. I say this without even an ounce of hyperbole – it was one of the five most depressing days of my life. I had half a mind to go home and drink a bottle of turpentine. 11 days later, a deal was reached and the season unofficially started (which, coincidentally could be exactly seven months before season ends, if the Finals end in six games). I say this without even an ounce of hyperbole – it was one of the five happiest days of my life. Seven months ago, I never thought we would reach this point. But we did. The NBA Finals are here. Let’s break it down:
-- When Miami has the ball --
Advantages for Miami:
Miami offers a unique challenge to Oklahoma City’s defense, one that no other team OKC has faced thus far presented: they’ll force Kevin Durant to play defense. In Round 1 against Dallas, Durant spent most of his time matched up against Shawn Marion; in Round 2, Matt Barnes or Metta World Peace, and in Round 3, Stephen Jackson or Kawhi Leonard. For the most part, he just had to be aware of their location on the floor and make sure not to lose track of them while playing help defense. He rarely defended the point of attack. Against Miami, did just that more often than not, matched up against LeBron James. Durant has all the physical tools to be a Scottie Pippen-like defender someday, but he’s nowhere close right now. This season, Durant was passable at defending pick-and-rolls, ranking 68th in the league in opponents Points Per Possession (PPP) on those plays, but it won’t be good enough to really slow down LeBron. Furthermore, when Durant is spending a great deal of time defending the point of attack, he’s expending much more energy on defense. It will be interesting to see how effective he can be offensively if he needs to sustain a higher level of energy on defense.
The other half of the screen-roll combo for Oklahoma City’s defense isn’t much better. Serge Ibaka has struggled in screen-roll coverage this year, and if you remember back to last season’s Western Finals, Ibaka was absolutely hopeless in containing Dallas’ high screens, and Dirk ate him alive. Granted, Chris Bosh isn’t nearly as dominant as Dirk was last summer, but he’s certainly good enough to exploit Ibaka’s weakness, especially when both teams go small. Ibaka ranked outside the top 200 (240th overall) in opponents PPP when he was the primary defender, and his only real defensive strength comes when he’s able to roam off his man to help his teammates. If Bosh is on the floor, Ibaka will have to guard him. If LeBron and Bosh play at the 4 & 5 spots, respectively, with Durant and Ibaka at the corresponding spots for the Thunder, a LeBron/Bosh high screen will pull Oklahoma City’s only shot blocker away from the rim, which is exactly what Miami wants.
When that happens, Oklahoma City isn’t just susceptible to dribble penetration from the ball-handler on the high screen, they’ll have to keep their eyes out for cutters and secondary penetration as well. Mario Chalmers has done a tremendous job this postseason of attacking the basket at the first sign of a crease before the defense can rotate back to him following a high screen-roll. In the Boston series, he was able to take advantage of Rajon Rondo’s gambles. On plays where Chalmers attacked the basket from a spot-up position, he was 9-15 from the floor and also drew four fouls. When he’s matched up against Russell Westbrook, who can be similarly undisciplined at times, he should have plenty of lanes to the basket. Ditto for Dwyane Wade, who has made a living this postseason, (particularly in the last three games of the Indiana series) on his dives to the basket from the weak side. Whoever is being guarded by Westbrook will have ample opportunities to either attack the basket with secondary penetration or by diving straight to the rim.
One last thing that might be worth mentioning: Miami was able to get a disproportionate amount of looks at corner threes during the two game regular-season series. During those games, 44% of Miami’s three-point attempts (20 of 45) came from the corners, compared to just 33% in the rest of their games. The corner three is the most efficient shot on the floor, and you rarely see smart teams like Oklahoma City surrender a large number of them. If Miami continues to get looks from there, that could be trouble for the Thunder.
Advantages for Oklahoma City:
The lineup that Miami used to close out Game 7 against Boston was Wade, Battier, LeBron, Bosh, and Haslem. Oklahoma City will probably be hoping to see as much of that lineup as possible, because it allows them to hide Durant defensively. They’ll be able to throw Thabo Sefolosha at LeBron, then either Westbrook or James Harden at Dwyane Wade. It’s not an ideal matchup but it will certainly save Durant some energy, which he’ll definitely need. As a matter of fact, there really isn’t an ideal matchup for Oklahoma City at all here – Sefolosha is much better suited to guard Wade and Harden doesn’t have a prayer of checking LeBron.
It’s anyone’s guess how much time, if any, Joel Anthony sees on the floor in this series. Since so much of Oklahoma City’s offense is built on the high screen-roll, Anthony, who is one of the better screen-roll defenders in the league, might see some action. However, Miami’s best defensive lineup for this series (Wade, Battier, James, Haslem, Anthony) might be one of their worst offensive lineups. It remains to be seen how Miami strikes that balance.
The one personnel advantage that Oklahoma City has in defending the point of attack comes from Nick Collison. When he played in the San Antonio series, he did a fantastic job of bottling up the Spurs high screens, getting to the point where San Antonio simply stopped using Collison’s man as the screener. Collison is probably OKC’s best bet to check Bosh, but like with Joel Anthony, he’s a limited offensive player, so Scott Brooks will need to find the right balance.
-- When Oklahoma City has the ball --
Advantages for Oklahoma City:
Miami is such an outstanding defensive club primarily because they prevent their opponents from getting easy shots at the basket. Despite their lack of size, teams shot just 57.7% at the rim against The Heat this year, which was 2nd-worst in the NBA, compared to a league average of 62.6%. On shots 3-9 feet from the hoop, Miami’s defended them just 22nd-best, but offset that by allowing the fewest attempts from that zone, just 9.1 per game.
Basically, Miami says “in order to beat us, you need to make jump shots.” Unfortunately for them, Oklahoma City is the best jump-shooting team in the NBA. The Thunder shot the highest percentage of any team on shots 16-23 feet from the basket, at 42.6% (league average was 38.1%), and they were 11th in 3PT% at 35.8%, a figure that jumps to 37.4% in the playoffs. In the bare-bones sense of where Miami wants Oklahoma City to shoot versus where Oklahoma City wants to shoot, the Thunder wins that matchup, and in a big way.
From a personnel perspective, Oklahoma City has an advantage when Shane Battier is matched against Kevin Durant. Battier is well-equipped to guard players like Carmelo Anthony and Paul Pierce, and did a fine job against each of those players this postseason, but he’ll struggle against Durant, who can simply shoot over him. I’m also doubtful that Battier will have the quickness to keep up with James Harden, so the question remains how much value he brings to the court in this series.
Another element to watch for will be Oklahoma City’s ball movement. For most of the season they were essentially an isolation offense that relied quite a bit on one player creating a shot off the dribble. They were last in the league in AST% (percentage of possessions that end with an assist) during the regular season, and while some of that has to do with their propensity to draw fouls (no assists for foul shots), their overall ball movement wasn’t much to write home about this year. Normally, Miami eats up those types of offenses (like they did against New York in Round 1), but the Thunder seemed to flip a switch in the Western Finals and all of a sudden started moving the ball incredibly well, to the point where they had 27 assists in Game 4. If this continues, Miami’s defense will be forced to cover more ground and The Thunder will have a much easier time scoring.
Advantages for Miami:
In addition to the fact that Durant will be forced to expend more energy on defense (which, in theory, would hurt his offensive game to at least a small degree), I would expect that Durant will be forced to work harder on offense as well. While he has faced tough defenders in the first three rounds in Marion, World Peace, Barnes, Leonard, and Jackson, going up against LeBron James, almost universally regarded as the best all-around defensive player in the game, will be a new challenge altogether.
Durant often struggles to get opens when he’s matched up with a player of superior strength. People usually don’t recognize this, and instead blame Westbrook for forcing bad shots. When Durant is open, Westbrook gets him the ball and it’s a whole different experience. If Durant is matched up against LeBron for extended stretches, my guess is that Durant will have difficulty getting to his spots, which will leave Westbrook forced to score from isolation. If Dwyane Wade happens to be guarding him, that’s bad news for Westbrook, as Wade was the fourth-best isolation defender in the NBA this season, surrendering just 0.48 PPP in those situations.
As a matter of fact, the Wade-LeBron combo is far and away the best defensive wing combination that Oklahoma City has faced thus far (and probably ever will face). Against Dallas, The Thunder could attack Jason Terry or Vince Carter. Against Los Angeles, Westbrook ran amok against Ramon Sessions, and against San Antonio, neither Tony Parker nor Gary Neal were particularly strong defensively. Miami’s perimeter defense doesn’t really possess a weak link that will constantly be exposed (unless for some inexplicable reason, Erik Spoelstra opts to play James Jones, Mike Miller, and Terrel Harris all at the same time). Scott Brooks will need to come up with creative ways to get Durant, Harden and Westbrook open, because the likelihood of them beating Wade or LeBron in 1-on-1 situations is slim.
Two Other Big-Picture Notes:
Strength Vs Strength
According to the play-tracking data from Synergy Sports, Oklahoma City is the #1 offense on plays where shots come from isolation situations, players coming off screens away from the ball, and plays where the screen-roll ball handler ends up shooting. Amazingly, Miami is the #1 defense in all three of those categories. Those are the plays to watch for. Whoever executes better on those plays will likely end up winning the series.
Oklahoma City has the home-court advantage in this series, which seems like a rather big deal considering they haven’t lost at home in the playoffs (they’re 8-0). Granted, Miami started last year’s postseason 9-0 at home (including Game 1 of the Finals) before losing Game 2 and Game 6 on their home court. Miami, meanwhile, has been pretty good on the road this postseason, going 4-4, including getting a close-out win on the road in Game 6 against Indiana and coming up with a victory in a must-win Game 6 in Boston. Because of the 2-3-2 format of the Finals, the team without Home-Court Advantage basically needs to win two games on the road to win the series. Only two teams, the 2004 Pistons and 2006 Heat have swept all three home games in the middle of the series, which is fewer than the number of ROAD teams that have swept those three middle games (1990 Pistons, 1991 Bulls, 2001 Lakers).
Since the switch to the 2-3-2 format, only seven teams in 27 years have bucked Home-Court Advantage to win the series. In six of those seven instances, the road team managed to get a split of the first two games (only the 2006 Heat came back from a 2-0 deficit). Unless the Heat plan on repeating their 2006 run, they’ll need to win one of the first two games in Oklahoma City to have a realistic shot of winning the series.
In last year’s Finals, Miami enjoyed home-court advantage and held most of the matchup advantages. The experts favored the Heat, as did Las Vegas. The reason Dallas won was because Rick Carlisle put on a coaching clinic, trusting assistant Dwayne Casey’s zone defense and inserting J.J. Barea into the starting lineup, which flipped the board and allowed Dallas to keep their best offensive lineup on the floor without losing anything on defense.
Like last year’s Finals, most experts, Las Vegas, and many of the big-picture factors favor one team, although this time, it’s Oklahoma City, not Miami. However, also like last year’s Finals, my guess is that this series will also likely come down to coaching. Despite what you might hear from the mainstream media and fans, Scott Brooks and Erik Spoelstra are actually two of the best coaches in the league. They identify problems and make adjustments as well as basically anyone not named Popovich, Carlisle, or Rivers. In the Los Angeles series, Brooks threw the curveball of fronting LA’s post players during crunch time, a look they really hadn’t shown all season, and it completely flummoxed the Lakers. Spoelstra, after losing Games 2 and 3 to Indiana, completely re-calibrated Miami’s offensive spacing on screen-rolls without Chris Bosh, and they won the next three games in fairly convincing fashion. These are far from two coaches who just roll the ball out for arguably the two most talented teams in the league.
This series likely won’t be won on Tuesdays, Thursdays, or Sundays on the floor. This series will be won on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, when the coaches find where to attack the opposing team.
This series will be decided by which team’s small ball lineup better exploits one-on-one mismatches. Oklahoma City will likely go small in crunch time, utilizing James Harden (for offense) and Thabo Sefolosha (for defense) on the floor at the same time. As previously noted, however, when they do so, they leave themselves vulnerable at the rim. Miami has dominated the rim so far this postseason, and I don’t see any reason why that wouldn’t continue.
Miami in 7.
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