Six months after the entire season was under threat of cancellation, the NBA is set to deliver an excellent Finals matchup between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat. This will be a battle between a homegrown roster and a free-agency centered, top heavy ensemble. It’s an outcome many observers had expected – and desired – before the season.
Here are five aspects to watch for in this series:
1. Battle for NBA supremacy: In the minds of most, the top two players in the league are LeBron James and Kevin Durant. For as much as James has done in these playoffs, stuffing the stat sheet on both ends of the court, Durant’s scoring prowess, improving all-around game and intangibles are too much to pass up – especially when it matters most in crunch time. At 27, James has four years and three Finals appearances on Durant. Given his “King” moniker, his self-imposed pressures and expectations, James has much more at stake in these Finals, a moment of truth after last year’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks. Round after round, Durant convincingly helped his team past recent heavyweights – the Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs with much improved production from when he came up short last season at the hands of Dallas as well.
For many years, we dreamed of a James versus Kobe Bryant Finals. Now, in this lockout-shortened season, James against Durant clearly fits the bill of a supreme matchup of individual talent.
Beyond the biggest individual matchup, this year’s title could propel either franchise into a potential dynasty run. When James teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in 2010, he said things are “going to be easy,” and he had to believe it ultimately would be once his team won one championship, that just a lone ring would lead to a bunch of them. For their part, the Thunder have positioned themselves as a title favorite for the next decade, and there’s a notion that their success could be ahead of schedule. Oklahoma City has dealt with its growing pains and failures, and now, this team – built on 20-something stars, hard work and a team-first concept – deserves all the accolades.
2. Two-guard clash – youth and athleticism vs. banged-up experience: Despite the fact that Wade’s production has been widely inconsistent throughout the 2012 Playoffs, one would be hard-pressed not to include him in the argument for best shooting guard in the game. However, that’s the realm James Harden has also entered and seems poised to further climb – the realm he appears destined to one day surpass Wade, sooner rather than later. Wade has title experience and eight All-Star appearances, but his health comes and goes, sending him a totally different message than his mind. Over the years, the mid-range jumper he perfected en route to the 2006 title has regressed mightily, leaving him a creaky slasher who exhibits an outside shot that is usually more cold than hot. The Heat play your-turn-my-turn for long and key stretches, and at this stage in his career, Wade doesn’t look suitable and up to the task as he and James implement that style.
While Wade seems to be entering the downside of his career, Harden is the up-and-comer ready to seize the moment, seize this terrific two-guard duel that promises to have both men defending each other down the stretch of games. It is Harden who has knocked down some of the Thunder’s most clutch shots of this postseason. He is the 22-year-old athletic sharpshooter who won Sixth Man of the Year, accepting the reserve role to provide balance for his team, and has improbably cracked not only the Thunder’s big three, but also the league’s top tier. Thabo Sefolosha is primed to be a difference-maker in this series as well, having had success using his length and size while guarding Wade in recent years, including as a rookie in the 2007 playoffs when the Bulls swept the Heat.
3. X-factors with something to prove: Within each team’s big three, one star often receives unfair criticism and is overlooked at times: Russell Westbrook and Bosh. Some observers believe Westbrook looks for his own offense too much instead of being a traditional point guard, while others say Bosh is the soft third wheel who, in Shaquille O’Neal’s mind, is not even part of Miami’s big three. But why should Westbrook limit himself and succumb to the pass-first guard so many want him to be when he is the second-best scorer at his position, when he possesses so much talent that allows him to get to wherever he wants on the court? The Thunder immensely need his offense, and he fills up the box score more often than not. Earlier this season, Derrick Rose acknowledged that he and Westbrook receive criticism for being high-scoring point guards. But he didn’t agree with it – and rightfully so, because these types of offensive guards have re-shaped the game to some degree and must be utilized up to their full potential, not limited.
For all the knocks Bosh receives, he is a critical member of the Heat’s three-headed monster. On a team that consists of James and Wade, it is Bosh whom Erik Spoelstra believes is the team’s most important piece. In many ways, that’s an accurate assessment. The Heat lack effective frontcourt bodies and need Bosh’s jumper to open the floor. James orchestrated the Heat’s offense in the series-clinching Game 7 win over the Boston Celtics, but Bosh hit all the critical shots – most of which jumpers, including three 3-pointers – off the bench and was the game’s most valuable player. After battling Tony Parker in a grueling six-game series, Westbrook will have an obvious advantage at point guard against the Heat. Bosh has been a reserve in his three games since returning from an abdominal strain, and the Heat could very well keep him in that role. Spoelstra gave no indication of his plans on Saturday night, but leaving Bosh as is would provide a bench presence – “Like Jason Terry,” James explained to reporters – the Heat have not had in the big three era. Bosh’s coaches and teammates seem open to the idea of keeping him as the sixth man, and why fix what isn’t broken? Both Bosh and Westbrook have had their low postseason moments over the past two years, but a title would put an end to all the criticism.
4. Will the Thunder’s frontcourt flex its muscles?: In the Thunder, the Heat will face a front line they haven’t quite seen yet in these playoffs. The New York Knicks, aside from Tyson Chandler, had timid front-court personnel; the Pacers had the size and mindset to rattle the Heat, although they couldn’t stick to the game plan and became more perimeter-based as the series wore on, and struck by various injuries, the Celtics’ big men battled defensively but sometimes appeared too small and struggled to grab the important rebounds at crucial junctures. However, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka are relentless enforcers who execute their roles to perfection. Perkins plays the part of the mean, grizzled veteran who has already celebrated a championship, while Ibaka is the athletic big man who leads the league in blocks and throws down vicious dunks. Then, there is Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed, who are well aware that they have six fouls apiece to put to use. The Thunder are a disciplined team that knows they have to win inside – on the glass, on the floor.
There has been plenty of trash talk between the two squads’ frontcourts over the past couple years, whether it was Durant calling out Bosh for being a “fake tough guy,” Perkins pointing the finger toward James for trying too hard to be liked by everyone or the countless altercations during the regular season. Ultimately, actions will have to speak louder than words, and the Heat are averaging slightly more rebounds than the Thunder in this postseason. Still, the Thunder have an advantage up front on paper, with the high-energy defensive-minded duo of Perkins and Ibaka leading the way.
5. Heat desperately need this championship more: While Durant (23), Westbrook (23) and Harden (22) are in their early 20’s, Wade, Bosh and James are 30, 28 and 27, respectively. Win or lose in this Finals series, the Thunder are a team on the rise, a cast made up of players who will remain in their prime for the considerable future. Their upside likely has not even been tapped, a scary thought for the remainder of the league for many years to come. However, the Heat are under the microscope, under the level of scrutiny, that is unmatched in professional sports. For them, a second straight Finals collapse – anything short of victory counts as just that – would be devastating. Unlike the Thunder, Miami’s time has to be now.
Now is when James can begin collecting the handfuls of rings he promised. Now is when he and the Heat can cash in on what they knew would need to be done when the big three formed: A ring to cleanse themselves of the hate, the criticism, the doubt, creeping in from the outside. For all intents and purposes, James cannot enter the 10th year of his career as a three-time MVP who is still searching for that elusive title, still figuring out how to step up in big moments. Wade will only have more mileage on his ailing knees next season. This is the Thunder’s first journey to this depth, and a loss would fuel expectations for next year, with the understanding that they also have a ceiling that will probably be reached in due time.
Prediction: Thunder in 7.
The bottom line: Oklahoma City’s road to the Finals appeared to be a more severe test than Miami’s, and that, along with homecourt advantage, should help these young, yet affable and wise-beyond-their-age, Thunder. Scott Brooks is fresh off likely the best coaching job of his career, out-tasking Gregg Popovich. Ultimately, it is up to the stars to carry their team. A year ago, Dirk Nowitzki, Terry and the Mavericks dispatched the Heat due to superb late-game efforts. James has been the postseason’s best player, but the Heat will need to be more than a one-man crew against Durant – the best clutch option in this series and possibly in the entire league – Westbrook and Harden. But, at this point, it is tough to heavily rely on the ailing Wade and Bosh. The Thunder’s three stars are healthy and hungry and contain the firepower needed to put yet another dent in the Heat’s armor.