After being written for dead in two consecutive series, the Heat are right back where they were a year ago; in the NBA Finals ready for a shot at the title. The Thunder, on the other hand, are new to the last round of the playoffs but their first Finals appearance since relocating to Oklahoma City has been a masterpiece three postseasons in the making. A first round exit in 2010 was followed by a trip to the Western Conference Finals last season so it’s no surprise that OKC has taken the next step in their playoff evolution.
Many people hoped for and expected this matchup way back on Christmas Day when this crazy, unpredictable season got started. The TV ratings should be great and the buzz will be noticeable but are we in store for a classic series and snore-a-thon? Let’s find out.
Who’s Shooting the Rock?
It’s a true battle of the Big 3’s as a majority of the scoring in the Finals will come from six players. If the Heat can get 65 points or more per game from LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and the newly healthy Chris Bosh they will win this series. If, however, they fall short of this number it will be difficult for the Heat to generate points. Why? Because Miami’s supporting cast is predicated on hitting threes. When Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller, Shane Battier and company aren’t feeling it from down town the Heat might as well be playing 3 on 5 offensively. Wade will be the key towards hitting or missing the 65-point threshold. Expect James to have another big series and Bosh to contribute 13-15 points per game. Wade, however, is an enigma. We could just as easily see him be brilliant like he was in Games 4-6 against Indiana or miserable like he has been in most first halves in the playoffs.
The Thunder need similar output from their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Westbrook is the X factor much like Wade is for Miami. A good Westbrook performance is too much for any opponent to overcome. Bad Westbrook though takes and misses too many shots, leaving Durant as a complimentary, passive observer. The role player that could ease the burden on this Big 3 is Serge Ibaka. He usually has wide-open mid-range jumpers at his disposal due to the attention Durant, Westbrook and Harden receive. If he is hitting these shots it is impossible for the defense to adjust.
Handicapping the Heat on defense is simple; when the King and D-Wade are on the floor they are an utter nightmare to score against, especially on the perimeter. When either of those guys is off the court though it becomes much easier to exploit Miami’s huge deficiencies at point guard and center. We saw this Jekyll and Hyde situation in the Boston series. The Celtics were just as likely to put up a 30-point quarter as they were to struggle to score 30 points in a half. Overall, I expect the Heat defense to play well especially with Bosh once again offering some protection at the rim. The Thunder, however, will have their moments when they are simply unstoppable.
Oklahoma City, on the other hand, is consistently average on defense. None of the Big 3 are particularly good defenders with Durant being the best of this mediocre bunch. On the bright side, Thabo Sefolosha has stretches where he is a shut down defender on the perimeter and the combination of Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins do a good job of protecting the rim. Defense won’t be the reason the Thunder win the title but it won’t be the reason they lose it either.
Game On the Line Time
James needs to be the guy Miami depends on in late and close situations. James’ timidness and Wade’s confidence in this area too often flips the script though. When you cut through all the analysis and storylines in this series, who takes home the 2012 title really boils down to how the Heat handle the last two minutes of close games. If James leads and everyone else follows Miami will win. The problem is believing that this will actually happen based on the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
The main man for the Thunder late in close games is Durant when Westbrook stays out of the way. OKC has a Plan B though in The Beard. Harden has shown the ability to hit treys and score at the rim when all else fails in pivotal late game possessions.
Leader of the Pack
Erik Spoelstra won’t get any credit if the Heat win this series but at least critics will have to leave him alone and get him off the chopping block. Spoelstra is a good coach in an impossible situation. If Miami wins everyone credits the talent. If they lose everyone assumes it’s Spoelstra’s fault because of the presence of the Big 3. Imagine going to a job where your only form of recognition is criticism. That is Spoelstra’s work life on a daily basis.
Scott Brooks is treated similarly in Oklahoma City but he has garnered some newfound respect after his work against the Spurs. Brooks deftly went small after San Antonio exposed his normal lineup in the first two games of the series. He also realized that making Tim Duncan a scorer and not a passer is a great way to slow down the Spurs offensive juggernaut. Both of these mid-series adjustments were a big reason why the Thunder swept the last four games of the Western Conference Finals. Expect him to do a good job fixing any problems that arise early in this series.
I know it sounds cliché but this series will come down to home court. These teams are as close to even as you can get. The Thunder, however, have a great home court advantage as witnessed by their 7-0 record at Chesapeake Energy Arena. I expect the Heat to take a 3-2 series lead back to Oklahoma City but the Thunder will ride the energy their tremendous home fans provide to consecutive wins and the city’s first professional sports championship. Don’t expect anyone in Seattle to watch or attend the parade.
Thunder in 7