By Charley Rosen, for NBA.com
Posted Jun 10 2012 11:09AM
Here it is: The thrill-a-minute matchup that even the most casual NBA-watchers will enjoy. And the outcome will undoubtedly be decided by which team's Big Three -- James-Wade-Bosh versus Durant-Westbrook-Harden -- plays bigger.
They must keep LeBron James from going ballistic -- something easier proposed than accomplished. To do so, LBJ must be faced with several different looks on defense. Kevin Durant, Thabo Sefolosha, and perhaps even Nick Collison will be given this unenviable task. In general, though, James should be given enough of a cushion to discourage him from driving and encourage him to shoot jumpers.
Doubling him is dangerous because of his ability (and willingness) to deliver passes to whichever of his teammates are subsequently left unguarded. When LeBron does power the ball into the paint, his kick-out passes similarly take advantage of teammates left open by the collapsing help-defense. To minimize his in-to-out assist-passes, OKC need send only one helper when James penetrates: Serge Ibaka, shot-blocker deluxe. This way, the Heat's 3-point marksmen like Shane Battier, Mike Miller, and Mario Chalmers will not be free-and-clear. However, if Ibaka is matched up with Chris Bosh, then a perimeter rotation will be necessary to stay in touch with the tertiary member of Miami's terrific trio.
OKC must also be wary of LeBron's cutting off cross-baseline screens and winding up with layups -- timely switches are necessary here. Moreover, if/when LBJ guards Durant, the Thunder must make James work every second of every possession. Plus, whereas LBJ is a dynamic run-down defender in the open court and can body-up opponents on the perimeter, he's not as effective playing post-up defense -- which means that KD should occasionally venture into the pivot. For sure, the stronger James will be able to bull Durant several feet farther away from his original set-up spot, but, given KD's vast offensive arsenal from near and far, the advantage in this situation would still favor the Thunder. Otherwise, Durant has to knock down his jumpers in order to stretch Miami's defense and create driving lanes.
Dwyane Wade presents another difficult problem. Similar to the preferred defensive scheme to combat LBJ, D-Wade should be played on the soft side and allowed to shoot all the jumpers he wishes. He'll hit some, miss some, but will theoretically shoot a minimal number of layups/dunks and free throws. Expect the long-armed, quick-footed Thabo Sefolosha to get first crack at inhibiting Wade's explosive offense. Also like James, Wade's defense has to be tested -- primarily by James Harden.
Bosh's return to action has still been hampered by his recent injury to the extent that his offense has been mostly reduced to spot-up shooting. But a variety of screen-and-fades and hand-offs-and-fades give him plenty of space to launch his soft jays. That's why defenders -- Ibaka and/or Collison -- have to stay in touch with Bosh and let the other baseline rotators deal with the penetrations that result from these two tactics. Bosh's ability to shoot from distance will negate the sturdy post-up defense of Kendrick Perkins and will also take Ibaka away from the shadow of the basket. Look for Collison to get lots of daylight here, and also for Durant to take a few turns opposite Bosh. Also, when Bosh is guarding Perkins, the Thunder have to ocassionally stuff the ball into the big man in the pivot. When he's in action, Perkins massive screens are of vital importance, but he has to avoid a tendency to throw body-blocks and wind up in foul trouble.
Chalmers has developed into a bull's-eye long-distance shooter and an opportunistic driver. Russell Westbrook has to judiciously target him at both ends of the court. Westbrook's superior strength and quickness will make the difference, but he cannot risk gratuitous wanderings on defense. Westbrook must bury the many quick-release jumpers that are open on the nether side of high screen/rolls.
Udonis Haslem is a hustler, solid defender, and deadly mid-range shooter. He has to be boxed off the offensive glass, and whoever is responsible for guarding him must retain recovery-distance when helping on the drives of LBJ and D-Wade. The no-holds-barred battle between Haslem and Collison will be a fascinating sidebar to the series -- but Collison must bury an occasional jumper to make Haslem pay for helping elsewhere.
Mike Miller depends on kick-out and reversal-passes to generate the space and time needed to unleash his treys. Again, OKC's quicker-than-a-wish defensive rotations will also have to send somebody into Miller's kitchen.
If Harden can drop his jumpers, then his virtually unstoppable lefty-power drives will be readily available.
The Thunder's defense will be sorely tested by Miami's multi-pronged offense. They will need discipline, anticipation, and a hot-footed game plan. Their secondary defensive rotations must be flawless, Ibaka's presence in the lane must turn layups into jumpers, they have to move quickly from offensive-to-defensive transitions, and they have to control their defensive glass.
On offense, ball-movement continues to be the key. This means that Westbrook can't play with the ball on a string, and that Durant be provided various weakside screens. Also, it's imperative that Ibaka and Sefolosha routinely knock down their uncontested jumpers.
Equally as important, OKC must feast on Miami's turnovers, but this is predicated on using their considerable edges in quickness, speed, and overall athleticism to produce steals, bad passes, misdribbles, and difficult shots. With Perkins on the bench, OKC fields the quickest team in the NBA -- and their warp-speed running game should take advantage of the Heat's penchant for loafing in defensive transitions. If fast-break shots are stifled, then early-offense should produce makeable shots before Miami's defense gets set.
Winning the franchise's first-ever championship is definitely a can-do task.
LeBron has to keep on keeping on. Making his perimeter jumpers, blasting and spining his way to the rim (and subsequently to the foul line), and doing everything everywhere at every time. Here is his third chance to demonstrate that he is indeed an all-time great player who can lead his team to a championship. He should have his way in posting whoever guards him (with the possible exception of Collison). Moreover, LBJ has to cut down on his turnovers. During the Celtic series, he had 27 assists as against 24 turnovers -- but in Miami's losses the totals were ten and thirteen. Also, James simply has to perform better at the stripe. On defense, he must overpower Durant (who doesn't like to be crowded) and get help from his bigs on OKC's trademark screen/rolls.
Like James, Wade's jumpers have to be automatic. At the same time, he has to aggressively attack the basket with his dynamic grab-bag of interior shots. His habitual stretches of invisibility are unacceptable.
Bosh has to be a constant shot-blocking presence at one end of the game, make his jumpers at the other end, and rebound at both ends. Bosh has to make brilliant decisions in countering OKC's fail-safe screen-rolls. He could very well be the X-factor that pushes Miami over the top.
Chalmers has to shoot the lights out, stay glued to (and run with) Westbrook, and cut down on his ill-advised decisions.
Battier's under-the-radar contributions are vital. Yes, he has to drop his treys, but he must also bang and deny Durant on defense. Indeed, Battier's ability to play adhesive deny-defense is Miami's best bet to minimize Durant's offense.
Haslem has to shoot well, seal OKC's bigs off the glass, and make precision defensive rotations.
Since Joel Anthony is Miami's premiere screen/roll defender, look for him to get more playing time than he did against Boston.
In their limited daylight, Miller and James Jones have to make their shots and avoid being chumped on defense.
Miami's quick-footed defense will be sorely tested by OKC's superior quickness. Plus in a race-horse tempo, the Heat can only place.
To fulfill their potential (and LBJ's boasts), Miami has to take care of the ball, jam OKC's screen/rolls and pin-downs, shoot well from beyond the arc, get to the foul line, and get better off-the-ball movement on offense.
Miami certainly has The Finals experience, the skill-set, and the motivation to best the still-young Thunder. But the Heat will have to play with discipline and heart.
1) How many times will Ibaka bite on fakes fifteen feet or more from the basket?
2) Which of the Big Threes will be double-teamed? And when?
3) Will OKC show any zone defense to make Miami beat them over the top?
4) The team that has the best screen/roll defense will win.
5) Which of the two young coaches -- Scott Brooks or Erik Spoelstra -- will make the most effective in-game and between-game adjustments?
Charley Rosen is a former pro basketball player and coach and author of 16 books on basketball.
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