Ken Pomeroy of College Basketball Prospectus has written at length about the surprising predictive power of preseason picks in college hoops, noting that the Associated Press' preseason top 25 counterintutively does a better job of projecting the NCAA tournament than rankings at the end of the regular season. Something similar has been true in the NBA this season. As Tom Ziller noted on Twitter Saturday, in a certain sense this is the chalkiest NBA Finals matchup in years, as the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder were consensus picks to win their respective conferences in December. Three out of four Basketball Prospectus scribes picked the Heat over the Thunder, as did SCHOENE.
Between then and now, the road has hardly been smooth. Neither team was the top seed in their conference entering the playoffs, and the San Antonio Spurs were the favorites to win the Western Conference Finals right up until Oklahoma City stole Game 5 at the AT&T Center. Even as a No. 2 seed, Miami was a popular pick to win the East, and Derrick Rose's torn ACL cleared a path to the Finals. Yet the Heat still had to win two elimination games, one of them on the road, to outlast the Boston Celtics in seven games and repeat as champions of the Eastern Conference.
The result is an anticipated NBA Finals that features arguably the two most talented teams in the NBA, led by the top two finishers in MVP voting (LeBron James and Kevin Durant) who will likely match up much of this series, as will two of the league's most dynamic guards (Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook). With Chris Bosh returning to the Miami lineup just in time to play a key role against the Celtics, both teams are near full strength. This series should be a doozy.
WHEN OKLAHOMA CITY HAS THE BALL
Pace: 91.8 possessions per 48 minutes regular season (6th NBA), 89.6 (3rd) playoffs
Oklahoma City Offensive Rating: 111.6 points per 100 possessions regular season (2nd NBA), 114.6 (1st) playoffs
Miami Defensive Rating: 101.1 points per 100 possessions (4th NBA), 100.5 playoffs (3rd)
How does the league's second-best offense get even better in the playoffs? By kicking a turnover habit that lasted all season long. During the regular season, the Thunder turned the ball over more frequently on a per-play basis (15.3 percent of the time) than any other team in the NBA. In the playoffs, Oklahoma City's turnover rate of 11.2 percent is the league's second-lowest mark. Part of this has to do with opposition, as none of the three teams the Thunder faced en route to the Finals force turnovers as often as league average. Still, their average opponent turnover rate--weighted for games played in the series--was 12.4 percent, indicating that the Thunder was above average when it came to taking care of the basketball, even accounting for the fact that turnovers are down league-wide in the postseason from 13.8 percent of plays to 13.1 percent.
Oklahoma City's improved ballhandling will be tested in this series against a Heat defense that forced turnovers at the league's second-best rate in the regular season (15.8 percent of plays). Surprisingly, Miami wasn't able to force many miscues from a Boston team that ranked 25th in the league at avoiding turnovers in the regular season (14.7 percent) but turned the ball over on just 11.7 percent of plays during the Eastern Conference Finals.
Whether these atypical trends continue is especially important given how much the Heat's transition game feeds on live-ball turnovers. Using data from NBA.com/Stats, Miami averaged 1.25 points per non-team turnover (which do not include team turnovers like shot-clock violations), second in the league behind the Denver Nuggets (1.27). The Thunder turned the ball over frequently in both regular-season meetings between the teams--16.0 percent of plays in a home win and 18.2 percent of plays during a road loss.
Stopping Oklahoma City starts with Durant, and the Heat has an ideal counterpart in James, who will likely settle into one defensive matchup after rotating between Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce during the last series. Shane Battier could also get some time against Durant to help James conserve energy. Despite those options for Erik Spoelstra, Durant was terrific in the two head-to-head meetings, scoring 58 points on 22-of-41 shooting. When Durant is locked in, denying him the basketball is the only answer because his length allows him to shoot over even an elite athlete like James.
Miami had more success against Westbrook, who shot just 31.0 percent from the field in the two games while averaging 20.5 points thanks to volume shooting. According to NBA.com/Stats, Westbrook made just four of his 14 attempts (28.6 percent) in the restricted area. The Heat's length may give Westbrook difficulty finishing, especially when Miami has two big men on the floor. The Heat used both Wade and Mario Chalmers on Westbrook depending on the other personnel on the floor. Unless Spoelstra wants to give Wade a break on defense, he'll likely match up with Westbrook when both teams have their starters in the game, with Chalmers on Thabo Sefolosha.
Look for James Harden to see a lot of Battier, especially if the latter gives way to Bosh in the Miami starting lineup at some point. Harden's quickness should allow him to beat Battier off the dribble at times, though Battier can use his length to alter shots from behind. Harden attempted just 18 shots in the two games but was efficient with them, scoring 31 points and shooting 61.1 percent from the field.
During the Eastern Conference Finals, the Heat was willing to surrender the three-pointer to role players like Keyon Dooling and Mickael Pietrus in order to focus attention on Boston's stars. While the Celtics took advantage at times, with Dooling hitting half of his 12 three-point attempts and Pietrus making two key shots in the fourth quarter of Boston's Game 5 win, the strategy largely paid off with Pietrus shooting just 3-of-17 from three-point range overall. Miami could do something similar with players like Sefolosha and Derek Fisher in this series.
I'm curious to see how Spoelstra and his coaching staf, with some time to prepare for this series, will defend the Westbrook-Durant pindown play that Oklahoma City used with great success in Games 4 and 6 of the Western Conference Finals. That wrinkle made the Thunder's late-game offense both more diverse and more effective. In a series where several games could be decided in the closing minutes, that's critical.
WHEN MIAMI HAS THE BALL
Pace: 89.9 possessions per 48 minutes (15th NBA), 89.8 (2nd) playoffs
Miami Offensive Rating: 108.7 points per 100 possessions (6th NBA), 110.1 (3rd) playoffs
Oklahoma City Defensive Rating: 104.1 points per 100 possessions regular season (9th NBA), 103.9 playoffs (9th)
When adjusted for level of opposition, the Heat's offense trails only Oklahoma City's during the postseason. Miami faced three of the league's top 10 defenses, playing half the time without Bosh, yet still scored 1.4 more points per 100 possessions than during the regular season. That's testament largely to James' brilliance. He's increased his usage rate to more than a third of the Heat's plays while maintaining a .581 True Shooting Percentage that is far better than the league's .518 average. With Bosh injured and Wade inconsistent, this has been James' team during the postseason.
The Thunder will defend James with Durant, countering strength with length. It will be interesting to see whether James breaks out his improved post-up game at all in this series to try to back down and overpower Durant. Beyond that, James' cutting away from the ball, so lethal in the playoffs, could pay off if Durant's focus wanes at times off the basketball. But Durant did a solid job during the head-to-head meetings, holding James to 51 points on 44 shooting possessions.
By contrast, Wade has been only average in terms of efficiency during the playoffs (.529 True Shooting Percentage), and his usage rate is down slightly. Wade has tended to alternate brilliant performances with subpar ones, which may be connected to the state of his problematic left knee. The extra rest between games in the Finals could work to Wade's advantage. In fairness to Wade, he did deal with double-teams from the Celtics, but his decision-making in the Eastern Conference Finals left much to be desired. The Thunder doesn't have the same kind of airtight team defense to double Wade without surrendering open looks, but Oklahoma City's length could force Wade into turnovers, especially when he's matched up with Sefolosha rather than the smaller Harden or Westbrook.
Bosh's return has been a tonic for the Miami offense, which torched the Boston defense during Games 6 and 7 after he returned to heavy minutes. Bosh's presence has ripple effects on his Heat teammates. Because opposing defenses have to respect him--especially in the wake of his career-high three makes from three-point range in Game 7--the floor is better spaced for James and Wade when Bosh plays. Additionally, the extra scoring threat takes some of the pressure off Wade to put up points. Bosh struggled during the regular season against the Thunder, shooting 10-of-25 (40.0 percent), mostly from the perimeter. Serge Ibaka's shot blocking could cause problems for Bosh in the paint.
Miami's role players struggled during the two head-to-head matchups. James and Wade combined to shoot 47.0 percent, but the rest of the Heat team made just 37.5 percent of its shot attempts. Besides Bosh, Chalmers (5-of-16) was also particularly ineffective.
How much the two teams go small is an intriguing storyline for this series. Both Miami and Oklahoma City took a big man off the floor and put their star small forwards at power forward for much of the conference finals. In this series, because both teams have a surplus of perimeter players and middling wing depth, it's less clear who would benefit. At the very least, expect to see James and Durant serve as backup power forwards while playing extended minutes. James played all 48 in the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals and Durant and Westbrook have regularly played the entire second half.
The lineups on the floor to end games may depend on the flow of action and who's playing well. Spoelstra will surely want Battier on the floor for defensive purposes, but could finish with James at point guard, as was the case during both regular-season matchups. Scott Brooks can go big or small and has multiple options for a smaller lineup, with either Ibaka or Kendrick Perkins in the middle and either Fisher or Sefolosha on the perimeter depending on whether the Thunder needs offense or defense.
The momentum from the conference finals makes it tempting to pick a dominant performance by Oklahoma City. However, the bigger picture offers more support for the Heat's chances. A healthy Bosh is a big part of that, certainly, but over the course of the playoffs Miami has the superior efficiency differential against a stronger schedule. The Thunder was the somewhat better team during the regular season and in head-to-head matchups. Add in home-court advantage and there's ample evidence that Oklahoma City is the favorite, though not necessarily by a significant margin.
The one factor I think could turn this series from a classic into a walkover is fatigue. The Thunder got the longer break between series by virtue of closing out early and has played three fewer games during the playoffs overall. Historically, extra rest has been an advantage. Additionally, Oklahoma City's younger stars may be better equipped to ramp up their minutes over the course of a long season than James and Wade. If the Heat can overcome that, and maybe steal some rest for James early in games, I think we're in for a terrific series.
Oklahoma City in 7
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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