NBA Finals Preview

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 And then there were two.

After a myriad of dramatic moments—which included season-altering ACL tears, 8th seed upsets, 27-point comebacks, buzzer beaters, and great individual performances—14 teams have fallen by the wayside, and we’re left with an elite representative from each conference. It’s a Finals match-up that many have wished for since the season began—and you can include David Stern among them.

In the Miami Heat, we have the most reviled team in the NBA, and possibly in all of sports. A team that is despised, fairly or unfairly, for the crudely manufactured way it was constructed, and for the obnoxious fanfare that followed the coming together of the Big 3. Re-watch The Decision, the “Yes we did” chants, and the “Not 1, not 2 not 3, not 4” quotes, and you’ll get the picture.

Leading the most hated team in sports is LeBron James—possibly the most divisive superstar since Wilt Chamberlain. A player who is a 3-time MVP, capable of on-courts feats that other players can only dream of. A guy who inspires awe for what he can do, and ridicule for what he apparently doesn’t do. No player in NBA history has been held to a higher standard—“Hey LeBron, guard the other teams’ best 3 players, play 45 minutes, drop a 35-10-10, oh, and make sure you have enough left in the tank to hit the game winning shot!” Such is the life of LeBron James.

LeBron’s antithesis, in the eyes of his haters, is Kevin Durant—the anti-LeBron playing for the anti-Heat. Durant is a fantastically gifted player in his own right. He can score from anywhere on the court—leave him open from 30 feet and you’ll pay dearly. He’s the 3-time scoring champion, a player with a level of poise and composure that belies his 23 years, a class act on and off the court, and a guy who is plain scary in clutch situations.

Don’t tell fans of the Seattle SuperSonics this, but Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder are the good guys in this narrative. They play in a small market, drafted smartly, took their time crafting a championship-caliber team, and displayed none of the arrogance and chest thumping on show in South Beach. If you hate the Heat, according to this narrative, you love the Thunder.

So, it’s LeBron vs. Durant, Wade vs. Westbrook, Big Market Glamour vs. Small Market Grit, Good vs. Evil (a bit of a stretch), but most importantly; the most highly anticipated NBA Finals in recent memory.

How Did We Get Here?

No team reminds us of that wise adage, ‘don’t become a prisoner of the moment’, more than the Heat. We’ve written their obituary twice in this postseason—after Game 3 against the Pacers, and again, after Game 5 against the Celtics. When they lose, according to the critics, they’re a fatally flawed team with no heart—when they win, they’re unbeatable. In reality, the Heat are a very good team, with supreme individual talent, but they’re a team with flaws that have inevitably been exposed over the course of a grueling post-season.

Miami breezed past an overrated Knicks team in 5, but ran into a tough, gritty Pacers group that exploited their weaknesses inside. It didn’t help, of course, that Chris Bosh went down in Game 1 of that series. LeBron and Wade came to the rescue, however, playing 3 of their greatest games in Heat colours, to help Miami win in 6.

Against the Celtics, Miami struggled against a desperate, extremely well coached team that had little to lose. LeBron was stellar throughout, averaging 30 and 10 for the series, and playing one of the greatest playoff games ever in Game 6 (No hyperbole, that performance was masterful!). His partner-in-crime, Dwyane Wade, had one too many ‘invisible man’ performances in the 1st half of games, however, and the Heat struggled because of it. But with the return of Chris Bosh, the Heat had too much firepower for a banged-up, tired Celtics team, and prevailed in Game 7.

OKC’s run to the Finals was far smoother. In defeating the Mavericks, Lakers and Spurs, the Thunder beat 3 teams that have combined to win the last 13 Western Conference Finals—talk about a changing of the guard!

Crucially for Scott Brooks’ team, they managed to cut out their two major weaknesses from the regular season. One being turnovers, which they led the league in, and the other (related to turnovers) being a lack of ball movement.

Not that the Thunder haven’t faced their share of adversity. Even though they swept Dallas and won in 5 against the Lakers, OKC were in plenty of close games down the stretch. Durant, Westbrook and Harden all hit massive shots in the first two rounds, turning around games in which they trailed late. If they haven’t always been good for the first 36 minutes, they’ve been brutally efficient in the last 12. OKC’s high-powered, explosive offense has meant that they are never truly out of games.

After losing the first 2 games to a great Spurs team, OKC made critical adjustments (Sefolosha on Parker was huge), and stormed back to take 4 straight and close out the series. In dismantling San Antonio, OKC displayed the type of balanced scoring that makes them practically unbeatable. Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha knocked down big shots (Ibaka went 11 for 11 in Game 4!), while the bench chipped in with some valuable scoring. Doubling Westbrook and Durant now comes with its perils.

The Match-up

In the Eastern Conference Finals, Miami were up against a Celtics team with limited rebounding, no shot blocking, and players who struggle to create off the dribble. Miami will face a much different proposition in the Finals

Down the stretch in Game 7, the Heat’s advantages against the Celtics were emphatically underscored. Wade and James were able to drive down the middle of the lane and score with ease. The Celtics, other than a tired Garnett, had no one who could effectively protect the paint.

Against the Thunder, Miami won’t have such an easy time throwing down uncontested dunks. OKC have the top shot blocker in the NBA in Serge Ibaka—a player who protects the rim and forces opposing players to overthink around the basket.

The Thunder’s centre, Kendrick Perkins, also isn’t afraid of battling inside. The Heat aren’t the biggest team and don’t generate many offensive rebounds. Perkins and Ibaka have the potential to create havoc on the boards in this series. And if either of those two players run into foul trouble, OKC has an able deputy at the 4 and 5 spot:the hard-nosed Nick Collison.

Like the Heat, OKC’s biggest strengths are on the perimeter. Whereas the Celtics struggled to create shots without Rondo’s orchestration, the Thunder have 3 of the best shot- makers in the league. During the regular season we saw a little too much isolation from OKC, but in the post-season they seem to have found the perfect balance between going one-on-one and facilitating.

Russell Westbrook, long accused of running around like a headless chicken (or dribbling like one), has matured in that regard. In Game 4 of the Spurs series, Westbrook rode Durant’s hot hand and wasn’t concerned with getting off his own shot. A more composed Westbrook could be a major headache for Miami.

For the Heat, LeBron James has been the definition of composure. He single-handedly won Game 6 of the Celtics series, staving off what would have been a disastrous playoff exit.

James has been sensational all playoffs, averaging 30 and 10, while shooting over 50% from the field. He’s more than fulfilled his end of the bargain for the Heat, and now needs some consistent help from the rest of his team if he’s going to win his first ring.

That help needs to come in the form of Dwayne Wade. Wade will likely be guarded by Sefolosha, and will no doubt be in for a tough time, but he needs to be engaged from the beginning if Miami are to have any chance in this series. The Heat cannot afford to fall behind against OKC. Making up 10-point deficits against Indiana and Boston is one thing, but the Thunder have the ability to bury teams if they get on top early. The Heat need a zoned-in Wade from the tip-off.

The other member of the Big 3, Chris Bosh, is also a major key to Miami winning the championship. In Game 7 against Boston, Bosh was fantastic, channeling his inner-Dirk Nowitzki to knock down 3 huge trifectas. Bosh’s range creates major problems for the opposition. He keeps defenders honest on the pick-n-roll, with his ability to knock down that mid-range jumper, and will make OKC think twice about doubling LeBron or Wade. His shooting may also have the effect of drawing Ibaka away from the rim, opening up driving lanes in the process. Bosh is a big X-factor for Miami. If he can provide major production at both ends, they may have a chance.

Prediction

The games in this series will be decided by the narrowest of margins. The two best players on the planet, James and Durant, will likely put up huge numbers. The problem for Miami, however, is that LeBron will likely have to play out of his skin in every game for his team to have a chance. He’s been fantastic since the playoffs began, and at times, that’s only JUST been enough for his team to win. LeBron can win games on his own, but it’s unlikely, and unfair, to expect him to take down OKC in an entire series.

OKC simply has better balance than the Heat. Durant has the luxury of deferring to his other superstar teammates (Harden and Westbrook) who are in much better form than Wade and Bosh. At the same time, the Thunder’s bench offers much more in the way of scoring and rebounding, and this will tip the balance in their favour. Also, expect home court advantage to be a factor. OKC’s fans are the nosiest in the league and can create a legitimate psychological edge for their team.

Ultimately the Thunder have too much depth, and are playing with a drive not seen since Jordan’s Bulls were tearing it up. LeBron will fight all the way, but Durant and OKC will prevail in 6.

 

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