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The NBA Finals begins tonight as the Miami Heat travel to Oklahoma City to take on the Thunder. If you like subplots with your sports, you've come to the right series. Here are just a couple:
- LeBron James, MVP multiple times over, will have his third attempt to get that elusive championship.
- Miami's Big Three has a shot at redemption after losing to the Dallas Mavericks last season and another opportunity to begin their dynasty of not one… not two… not three… NBA Championships.
- Oklahoma City and their group of precocious youngsters on the verge of superstardom (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka and co.) look to make the leap from contenders to champions.
- Eddy Curry looks to go from laughingstock to NBA champion.
Okay, maybe not that last one, but it doesn't get much better than these two teams. To get a better idea of what to expect in this series, I reached out to Dan Devine, a top notch guy that just happens to be the associate editor of Yahoo! Sports' hoops blog Ball Don't Lie. Dan answered some questions that should whet your appetite for this juicy series.
1) Which team impressed you more on its trip to the Finals, OKC or Miami?
My quick-twitch reaction here is the Thunder, but in the second it took me to go from thinking to typing, I switched my answer to Miami. (I'm nothing if not a spineless flip-flopper.)
OKC's looked fantastic through the first three rounds, rolling up a 12-3 record, going 8-0 on their home floor and taking four straight from a wrecking-crew San Antonio offense that hadn't lost in nearly seven weeks before Game 3 of the Western finals. And the narrative thrust of their accomplishment — going through the last two champs and three of the last four — is the kind of thing that looks awful good on the resume.
But this year's Mavs were not last year's Mavs; they had the ninth-least-efficient offense in the league this season and no superhero Dirk. And this year's Lakers were not the back-to-back Lakers; by Pythagorean win expectancy, they played more like a 36-30 team than a 41-25 squad this year, and with no real outside shooting the speak of and a less superhuman Kobe, they needed the Pau Gasol of two years ago, and they're still waiting. The Thunder deserve all the credit in the world for slowing down that Spurs offense and for divining a way to beat an improved San Antonio defense — I swear, the Spurs' D really was pretty good in the first two rounds — but the competition in the first two rounds sounds better than it was.
Meanwhile, the Heat had to beat three of the NBA's 10 toughest defenses — Boston was tops in the league in defensive efficiency, the Knicks finished fifth and Indy finished ninth — and do it with Chris Bosh missing nine games, Dwyane Wade clearly not himself and virtually no bench to speak of. And not only did they do it, but they did it impressively, scoring nearly 106 points per 100 possessions while still remaining stingy on defense, holding opponents below 97-per-100. And while the Thunder have won their 12 games with the world throwing roses at their feet, the Heat have had to do it being called chokers and fakers and pretenders the whole way. Their road was harder; their performance in the face of it all (to me, at least) has been more impressive.
2) Which player represents the biggest potential mismatch for both the Thunder and Heat?
Derek Fisher and Juwan Howard. There's just no substitute for experience, man.
(OK, is everybody gone? Did I effectively drive all the traffic away from your site? Sorry about that. My goofs/gooves don't always land.)
I covered this a bit in my BDL preview — to me, it's Chris Bosh and James Harden. A version of Bosh like the one we saw in Game 7 of the East finals — one who looks almost all the way back from that abdominal strain, who's moving fluidly and actively on both ends of the court, who can make frontline defenders pay and who can finish in the paint far better than any other Miami big man — can give the Thunder major headaches. He can pull Kendrick Perkins away from the basket with his ability to shoot from the perimeter, unclogging the paint for Miami's penetrating wings. Serge Ibaka will match up better with his athleticism, but if he can attack off the dribble and either get Ibaka in foul trouble or force OKC's defense to rotate to him, he could create more open looks or James and Wade.
Similarly, Harden could be a monster for Oklahoma City, especially if Spoelstra keeps Shane Battier in the starting lineup and chooses to keep bringing Bosh off the bench. The Heat then have no second-unit wing defender capable of really putting the cuffs on Harden, who averaged 15.5 points, 5.5 assists and four rebounds in 33 minutes per game in two meetings with the Heat this year, shooting a scorching 61.1 percent from the floor. If Battier does wind up being the matchup, the 22-year-old Harden should be able to use his quickness to beat the older and slower Battier, compromising Miami's defense and either getting to the rim for his own offense or creating perimeter looks for OKC's myriad shooters.
At the start of the series, I don't think either team has a strong answer for the other's third option, but whichever team can find one fastest without opening things up for a bigger gun could find itself with an early series lead.
3) How do LeBron James and Kevin Durant keep the momentum from the conference finals going while being matched up against each other?
For LeBron, it's attacking — continue to use his size and strength to grind Durant down, in the post and off the dribble. When LeBron is looking first and foremost for his offense, and not to set up his teammates, the Heat are a very, very dangerous team. Even if the shots aren't dropping in the early going like they were in Game 6 against the Celtics, he needs to keep attacking; as was the case in Game 7, when his early field-goal attempt numbers were low but he kept a steady march to the free-throw line, those body blows will pay dividends down the stretch.
For Durant, I don't know if he really has to do anything different than he normally does, to be honest. He's averaged 30 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game against James and the Heat over the past two years, shooting 50 percent from the floor, 47.1 percent from 3-point range and 79.4 percent from the line. He's shown he can score on James; hell, he's shown he can score on anybody. He has, for the most part, been the most dominant offensive player on the floor in those four matchups, and has been that through each of the first three rounds of the playoffs. If he just keeps doing what comes naturally, I think that momentum will take care of itself just fine.
4) Who is the most important bench/role player in this series? (And I realize in hindsight that I should have specified “besides the Sixth Man of the Year James Harden”)
Um, see the answer to No. 2? Failing that, whichever first-off-the-bench big — Udonis Haslem for Miami, Nick Collison for OKC — is able to contribute more, and more consistently. While Haslem's got the ring, my money's on Collison, one of the league's best frontcourt defenders, a capable finisher and a sound midrange shooter. Haslem can produce at a bigger and better rate, but he's been erratic this postseason; Collison seems a steadier hand.
5) What is the most important thing about this series that people aren’t talking about?
That Mario Chalmers is good enough to make an impact on both ends against Russell Westbrook if given the opportunity. I don't know if he will, but he can, and in a seven-game series where the top three guys on each side are so evenly matched and in such critical roles, a guy like him could swing a game. We know one thing: He's not scared of taking on a bigger role, for better or for worse.
6) Finally, who wins: Heat or Thunder, and in how many games?
Thunder in seven.
And there you have it. I have to agree with Dan, although every fiber of my being says that picking against LeBron James this time around is just insane. After seeing his Game 6 performance (and what the Big Three did to Boston in the fourth quarter on Saturday night), it seems like LeBron and company are on a mission and won't be denied this time around.
But when all is said and done, I think OKC has the better team. I think their role players will contribute more consistently than Miami's, and when your principle players are so closely matched, that factor is the difference between a championship and a long summer thinking about what could have been. Durant and his “big three” get started on their dynasty before LeBron, and the Thunder will take this series in six games.
No matter what the outcome, this should be an incredibly fun series between two outstanding teams comprised of outstanding players.