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2012 NBA Finals Breakdown

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.

 

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