By: Shawn Davis
We all know which teams will be playing for the Larry O’Brien trophy so I’m not going to beat you over the head with hyperbole, advanced metrics, PER, or loud – and senseless – proclamations on who needs to win this series more. It’s for the title of “NBA Champion” so kill me if I think that both teams are going to be fighting with every breath to take the gold ball home because to come this far and lose will be as off-putting as the decision was in the Pacquiao-Bradley fight a few days ago. There are just a few things that I’m paying close attention to before the action starts tomorrow night.
Now I’m not one to assume anything but let’s just say I feel comfortable in the thought that Kevin Durant and LeBron James will play each other to a draw. Why? Durant seems to embrace the pressure and exposure that comes with the Finals while James doesn’t seem to have his body controlled by outside forces this postseason. Basically, they both have elevated their play when the time has demanded they “show up” to do so. Their roads to this point have been different yet they are here to put on a great show. I’m excited. (My prediction will come at the conclusion.)
Remember, remember…REMEMBER that this isn’t a one-on-one winner take all game on the blacktop; it’s the Miami Heat vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder. Keep in mind this preview is only valid on the premise of the two marquee stars playing each other straight up, unlike the judges (featuring Timothy Bradley Jr.) vs. Manny Pacquiao.
1. Which Russell Westbrook will appear in this series? Before you roll your eyes this is an inquiry that has solid footing. I’m not one of the talking heads who kill him for being aggressive; he has to be. Look at the OKC starting unit (You done?) and you have to understand that he and Durant are the guys – along with James Harden when he enters – that gets them going. He’s usually a positive in the check column versus his peers at the point guard position because of his size and speed, similar to James in comparison with the league’s other small forwards. There are three glaring drawbacks to his game – and they could doom the Thunder if they bubble up at this point in the season.
First, he has the tendency to take bad shots; the second would be his carelessness with the ball, which leads to turnovers, naturally; and finally there are times throughout the course of the season where he forgets Durant is on this team (and he ignores that by shooting more than the three-time scoring champion). Bad mix there, right? Keep in mind that most young guards struggle in the same categories but only a select few can boast the type of athleticism to rival Westbrook.
What will he do? Who knows, really? Over the last four games of the Western Conference finals he seemed to find the right balance between being aggressive in looking for his own shot and making the right pass at the right time. The magnitude of the spotlight could short-circuit Westbrook and therefore doom his team’s chances. (The NBA Finals can easily melt a young, up-and-coming league darling; re: Orlando Magic, 1995, versus the Houston Rockets. The nation seemed ready to anoint them as a new dynasty while the Rockets swept them off into an afterthought; then Chicago awakened.)
2. Will whatever injury that Dwyane Wade is nursing be the Heat’s undoing? This is huge. Wade hasn’t been the same dynamo, this playoffs, we’ve been accustomed to seeing throughout his career and he looked slower against the Boston Celtics. In Wade’s defense, the Celtics are cunning and their defensive schemes have made many a star look average in the biggest games. Also, he won’t have the fortune of relaxing on defense because there will be large stretches of this series where he will have to check Westbrook. If Miami decides to leave Mario Chalmers on Westbrook, exclusively, I’ll take the OKC point guard to win the NBA Finals MVP trophy. That wasn’t a typo and I’m not drunk…yet.
Also, there’s Harden to account for and his skill set warrants a top-tier defender; Shane Battier, Mike Miller, Norris Cole and Chalmers will try but Wade will have to take the assignment. It’s going to be interesting to see how his legs hold up because the Thunder are going to be aggressive against he and James as they are Miami’s best perimeter defenders.
3. How will Erik Spoelstra deploy Chris Bosh? Since he’s more of a perimeter player than a traditional power forward I’m not sure they’ll deviate too much from his bread-and-butter. Bosh’s ability to shoot forces Serge Ibaka away from the rim, which helps keep the ball from finding its way into the stands. I’m sure Miami wants to get Ibaka on the perimeter so James and Wade can attack the rim with some regularity…but then there’s Kendrick Perkins. Strategically, will Spoelstra use him off the bench in this series?
4. How will Oklahoma City attack Miami’s defense? Maybe that question should be: How will Miami defend the OKC offense? (I like the latter.) It was amazing to see how the Thunder turned the tables to overwhelm the Spurs and make it here. How did they do it? With a few different looks that San Antonio weren’t prepared for. They now feature a wide open set when their best three players are on the floor which puts the defense in all sorts of knots. Either Westbrook or Harden advance the ball up the court, Durant receives the ball right at the top of the key (or behind the three-point line in the middle of the floor) while his counterparts position themselves on the left and right shoulder of the arc – or they shade towards the corners to create space…and havoc.
From there Durant has a few options: He can attack his man off the dribble to get to the rim or take a pull-up jumper, rise up for a clean look at a three, attack (drawing extra defenders) and kick it out for an open shot, he could pass it to Harden while Westbrook sets a pin-down pick for him and then he gets an open shot at the foul line or he could flare out for an open look at a 3-point dagger, etc. Additionally, the Thunder added a wrinkle to their Durant/Westbrook classic pick-and-roll by using Durant/Harden as an option in the two-man attack as well. Miami will be forced to fight through picks as opposed to jumping out to the ball handler because the open guy is the reigning three-time scoring champion. Miami’s defense is based on the fact that they can cover holes quicker than an offense can exploit them – that’s going to get a real test in the Finals.
The stars on both teams could very well play each other even; if that were to hold up then the role players will decide this series. I picked Dallas last year over Miami for that reason (and the fact that Dirk Nowitzki was possessed) so I’m leaning that way here. I trust the depth of the Thunder over whomever the Heat put on the floor to complement their stars because they’re a poorly constructed t-e-a-m. My heart and my head are each going with one team because a compelling case can be made for either side. I don’t like how so many people are taking OKC; that usually makes me want to go the other way.
Oh well, Thunder in 6…or 7.