Oklahoma City Versus Miami PreviewNBA Finals
Oklahoma City (47-19) vs. Miami (46-20)
Season series: Tied, 1-1
Miami can win if…the Heat force enough turnovers and/or missed shots to fuel their transition game. Miami's half court offense--what I call the "clown car" offense because at times it is as disorganized and chaotic as clowns piling out of a car at the circus--cannot consistently get the job done against good defensive teams but if LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are allowed to score dunks, layups and free throws then the Heat are very difficult to stop.
Oklahoma City will win because…the Thunder are a more complete all-around team than the Heat and because Oklahoma City's Big Three (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden) will match--if not exceed--the production of Miami's more celebrated Big Three (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh).
Other things to consider: In my Western Conference Finals preview I should have stuck with the prediction that I made prior to the start of the season when I ranked the Thunder as the top team in the West: "The Thunder have all the necessary ingredients to be a championship team: two star players, a good and versatile supporting cast and the ability to defend all areas of the court; the final challenge for this young team is to put everything together when the stakes are highest and consistently execute at both ends of the court against elite teams in postseason play." The San Antonio Spurs authored a long winning streak that enabled them to snatch the top seed in the West away from the young Thunder and it seemed like perhaps the Thunder needed one more year of seasoning to go all the way--and that assessment seemed right on target when the Spurs jumped out to a 2-0 lead over the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals but then Oklahoma City just overwhelmed San Antonio at both ends of the court with athleticism, energy and poise.
The Thunder proved that they can indeed "consistently execute at both ends of the court against elite teams in postseason play" and their 12-3 romp through the Western Conference playoffs is remarkable in terms of the historical pedigree of the three teams that they defeated: the Dallas Mavericks, L.A. Lakers and San Antonio Spurs combined to win the last 13 Western Conference championships and 10 of the last 13 NBA titles. While it is true that the Mavericks and the Lakers did not have championship caliber squads this season it is still significant that the young, upstart Thunder so convincingly dethroned more than a decade's worth of Western Conference royalty.
The Miami Heat had a much easier path to the NBA Finals both in terms of historical pedigree and actual on court talent. Injuries sidelined 2011 MVP Derrick Rose and perennial First Team All-NBA center Dwight Howard, turning top seeded Chicago and dark horse threat Orlando into first round fodder. Miami's first round opponent, the New York Knicks, is vastly overrated by the media and the general public, while the Indiana Pacers seemed satisfied to win a couple games versus the Heat. The Boston Celtics turned out to be the only team of substance that the Heat faced but the aging Celtics simply did not have enough gas left in the tank to take out the Heat. The Heat's 12-6 record in the Eastern Conference playoffs is solid but not overly impressive, though the absence of Chris Bosh for nine games--during which the Heat went just 5-4--certainly played a role in extending the Indiana and Boston series.
The Heat suffered a disappointing come from ahead loss to Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals, rallied from a 2-1 deficit to beat Indiana in the second round of this year's playoffs and bounced back from a 3-2 deficit to defeat Boston in the seventh game of this year's Eastern Conference Finals; if LeBron James and Dwyane Wade do not understand now how foolish it was to boast about how "easy" it would be to win multiple championships then they will never learn. The Heat are doing less prancing and showboating this season than they did last season when Chicago's Joakim Noah said that the Heat are "Hollywood as hell."
James and Durant are clearly the two best players in the NBA, something that they established over the course of the regular season and reinforced during the playoffs. Their postseason numbers are very similar: James is averaging 30.8 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 5.1 apg while shooting .508 from the field, .275 from three point range and .718 from the free throw line; Durant is averaging 27.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg and 4.2 apg while shooting .505 from the field, .364 from three point range and .870 from the free throw line. The bigger, stronger James is a better rebounder and more versatile defender, while the longer, lankier Durant is a much better shooter. James appears to be more committed than ever to getting into the lane instead of settling for jumpers or passively watching others shoulder the offensive load during crucial moments, while Durant has evolved from primarily being a great shooter into being a great scorer from all areas of the court who is also an above average rebounder, defender and passer.
Coach P.J. Carlesimo unwisely switched Durant from small forward to shooting guard during Durant's rookie season, a mistake that hindered Durant's transition from the college game to the professional game--but the first thing that Scott Brooks did when he took over for Carlesimo was to put Durant back in his comfort zone at small forward. Durant now has a complete skill set at both ends of the court and is thus better equipped to shift positions at times, playing power forward when the Thunder go small and even playing shooting guard at times when the Thunder go big. People who compare Durant to George Gervin may not realize that Gervin spent the early part of his pro career at his natural forward position before sliding over to the backcourt; that is why it was so smart of Brooks to immediately return Durant to the frontcourt until Durant completed his adjustment to the pro game.
A key factor in this series will be how effective the Thunder's big men--Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison--are at deterring James and Wade from scoring in the paint and/or drawing fouls. If the Thunder big men lock down the paint and the Thunder perimeter players do not turn the ball over excessively then the Heat will have serious problems scoring unless Chris Bosh and/or Miami's role players hit a very high percentage of their perimeter shots to punish the Thunder for walling off the paint; Bosh is an excellent face up shooter but the three three pointers he hit in game seven versus Boston are a bit of an aberration and he may not make three three pointers over the entire course of the NBA Finals.
Another important factor will be James Harden's impact off of the bench both early in the game and as a fourth quarter closer. The Heat will have a difficult time matching up with him. The Heat ultimately took out Indiana and Boston by wearing those teams down with their superior energy and then hitting them with quick scoring runs; the Thunder are deeper than the Pacers and the Celtics and thus less apt to get worn down and/or beaten in transition.
It will be extremely interesting to watch the James-Durant matchup. One of those players will earn his first championship ring. Durant's career is on the rise and, unless he plays terribly, he will likely not face heavy criticism if the Thunder do not win in their first appearance on the sport's biggest stage (much like James was not really blamed for Cleveland's 2007 loss to San Antonio in his first NBA Finals appearance)--but if the Heat lose then James will have fallen short in the NBA Finals for the third time and his performance will be very closely scrutinized and critiqued.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:00 AM