by: Martin Sumners
After a labor related splintered season, the NBA Finals is quite the perfect storm. In a battle of epic meteorological proportions, the Thunder takes on the Heat. But more importantly, this is the matchup that seems to be the one most of the basketball universe wants to see. It has the young, exciting and athletic Thunder trio led by three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant along with Russell Westbrook and James Harden. While the Heat trio led by three-time MVP LeBron James along with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, in the prime of their careers, is just as athletic and exciting.
Last year, the Heat fell in the Finals in six games to the Dallas Mavericks. But the Heat returns with Game 1 in Oklahoma City just three days after winning the East. Perhaps they will be fueled by adrenalin and confidence after coming back from a 3-2 deficit to defeat the Boston Celtics. In Game 6, James led the way with a monstrous 45 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. That forced a Game 7, which the Heat trailed by seven at the half and entered the fourth quarter tied. But with its big three dominating the final quarter by scoring all of the team’s 28 points, the Heat overwhelmed the Celtics 101-88.
However, the Thunder is a newcomer to the Finals and well rested. In contrast to the 1990s when the West was represented in the Finals by eight different teams, the Thunder won the conference by defeating in succession the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs, which were the only teams that represented the conference in the Finals for the last 13 years. And it seems eons ago that it earned the trip to the Finals by beating the Spurs last Wednesday. The Thunder dispatched the defending champs Mavs in a first-round sweep, and despite a few close encounters, won the Lakers series rather comfortably 4-1. The last obstacle was the Spurs, who beat the Thunder twice in San Antonio, which extended its winning streak to 20 before the Thunder rebounded with four consecutive wins.
LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant
Perhaps the most anticipated Finals player matchup in a long, long time. James is billed as the South Beach villain with his free agent departure from Cleveland two summers ago and public relation missteps known as “The Decision” and subsequent premature celebration announcement of multiple title expectations. Durant is cast as the good Oklahoma City Kid humble as tumbleweed who hugs his mother before the final buzzer of the clinching conference title game.
James, with his combo of power and speed, is the more dynamic player who can do so many things well. Durant with the ability to score from the perimeter with sling shot accuracy or languid layups using his lengthy 6′-9″ frame and long arms has shown a more natural ability to close games. But although they may be both listed as small forward, James can guard just about any type of player. Thus, he may primarily guard power forward Serge Ibaka, who is not a great offensive threat, allowing him to roam on defense. So, the load of keeping Durant under wraps might go to defensive specialist Shane Battier.
However, it will be interesting to see if Durant can guard James, because the only other possible defender who could guard James would be 6′-7″ shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha. The problem is that he might be needed to guard Wade. The plan for Durant (or anyone guarding James) will be to alternatively give him room to shoot the jumper that can be inconsistent, or force him to drive into the teeth of the defense with the awaiting shot blocker Ibaka or the enforcer, center Kendrick Perkins.
Sixth Man Matchup
James Harden as this season’s winner of the Sixth Man Award has continued to impress in the playoffs. He almost single-handily closed out the Mavs in Game 4 and made one big shot after another in the Spurs series including the dagger three-pointer in Game 6. If it comes down to a few game ending possessions and Harden is the last man with the ball in his hands, that is not a bad thing for OKC.
The Thunder players have long known their roles, but the Heat may have found a new sixth man in Bosh. He finished the Celtics series coming off the bench after missing two weeks from suffering an abdominal strain in an earlier series against the Pacers. He provides the most consistent perimeter shooter for the Heat. The biggest shot of Game 7 against the Celtics was Bosh’s three from the corner pushing a Heat one-point lead to a four-point lead, which continued to balloon from there. Bosh’s jump shooting keeps the defense honest and allows James and Wade lanes to the basket.
The key to the Thunder defense is the ability of Ibaka and Perkins to control the lane, allowing perimeter defenders to take chances on playing the passing lanes and go for steals. The Heat relies on well-rounded defenders who can easily switch and guard multiple players. To thwart this great half-court defense, both teams will want to get out on the break. Whoever stops the other’s transition offense has a great chance to win the series.
The Heat showed some vulnerability in getting back on defense in its last series, perhaps due to offensive spacing issues that resulted in poor defense on the other end as even the older and slower Celtics were able to get several easy buckets. The Thunder, always well-balanced on offense, get back on defense. Also, they have the ability with quick and young legs particularly in Durant, Westbrook, Sefolosha & Ibaka to track down would-be fastbreaks with a block or steal. The Heat, similarly with James and Wade, possess this recoverability.
Although James seems to have no equal as an all-around player, the Thunder posses too many weapons including the ability to limit Wade with its bevy of perimeter defenders including Sefolosha, Westbrook and a reserve, but well experienced five-time champion in Derek Fisher. The Key for the Heat will be if Bosh can play significantly more minutes than the last series and be similarly productive with his perimeter shooting. If not, the burden on James may be too heavy. The luxury of the trio of Durant, Westbrook and Harden is that they can share the load with any one being able to carry the team and the ability to attack a defense from the perimeter or drives to the basket. If Ibaka can match production he gave in the Spurs series, the Thunder have a clear advantage. THUNDER in 7.