When the Miami Heat finished off Boston in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, every basketball fan’s eyes lit up. Because unlike years past, that vast majority’s dream matchup in the Finals was going to happen: the young, athletic and resilient Oklahoma City Thunder were going to take on LeBron James and the Miami Heat for a chance to win an NBA championship. You really couldn’t script a better matchup: the two best superstars in the game, LeBron and Kevin Durant, were going to engage in a high-powered matchup for the ultimate bragging rights of 2012. Star point guards were going to clash in Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook. And complementary stars like Chris Bosh and James Harden were going to back up this star-studded matchup as another interesting factor to take into account. The two best teams were about to meet at center stage, and we were all going to be treated to an epic showdown between two seemingly unstoppable forces.
The Thunder, despite being so incredibly young, swept the defending champion Mavericks, throttled the Los Angeles Lakers in five and regrouped from a 2-0 deficit against the unstoppable San Antonio Spurs to win the Western Conference Finals. They showed great poise, couldn’t be stopped on the offensive end, and were unbeaten at home. Role players like Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, Derek Fisher and Nick Collison were stepping up on both ends of the floor and the big three of Durant, Westbrook and Harden were the highest-scoring trio in the league. Simply put, their inexperience hadn’t shown one bit.
The Heat on the other hand, had plenty of problems to deal with. Miami easily advanced past the Knicks in five games in the first round and LeBron played like a man possessed throughout Miami’s postseason round, but the Heat had some trouble getting by the Indiana Pacers once Bosh went down with an abdominal tear. Fortunately, Wade woke up and LeBron carried his Bosh-less team past the Celtics with a transcendent Game 6 performance in Boston. That game extended the series to Game 7, which the Heat won at home, but there were still a lot of questions surrounding this team and its ability to win a championship. Was Bosh going to be 100 percent for the Finals after looking a step slower against the Celts? Was Wade going to disappear as he had a few times in the postseason, or would he rise to the occasion and backup LeBron? And most important of all, would the King play at the same high level under the exact same pressure he’d fallen to twice in his career? Could LeBron really keep playing at such an elite level in the Finals against a quality fourth quarter team like the Thunder that would force him to either be clutch or face the wrath of the media and public again? Heading into the Finals, the Thunder had home-court “advantage” (I hate the 2-3-2 Finals format) and it seemed like if they played the way they had on their trip to the Finals, even LeBron wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.
So how did Miami come out on top, and in such convincing fashion? There were many factors to take into account. The truth is, in this series, the Miami Heat were the better team. There’s no questioning that. But it’s also true the Thunder didn’t make things any easier for themselves. I would go as far to say that if the Thunder hadn’t been rattled at playing on the big stage with zero experience, this series would have been extended to at least six games. Because there’s no denying the Thunder were playing superior team basketball heading into the NBA Finals. But on the big stage, only Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook consistently showed up for OKC, with Durant averaging 30 ppg on nearly 55 percent shooting to go with 6 rpg. Russell Westbrook had an incredible Game 4, but it still resulted in a loss and the rest of the series, Westbrook took too many shots and missed a good deal of them. Oklahoma City’s “point guard” catches a lot of criticism for his reckless style of play and his tendency to take more shots than he should, and I’ve always defended him, because you get a mixed bag with Westbrook; one night he’s missing shots and playing with reckless abandon, but for the majority of the season, Westbrook was a huge part of why the Thunder looked so unstoppable. Unfortunately, it continued to be a combination, despite averaging 27 points, six rebounds and six assists per game. He scored a decent amount of points and racked up rebounds and assists, but it still wasn’t good enough on this stage. Because although Durant and Westbrook played at an acceptable level, the first major problem for the Thunder was that no one joined them. The Thunder’s supporting cast in general was severely lacking after stepping up in the Western Conference Finals. Ibaka, Fisher, Sefolosha, Perkins and Collison all struggled to put points on the board consistently. These role players were monumental in Oklahoma City’s dominant run to the Finals and without them stepping up like Miami’s reserves, it’s surprising the games were as close as they were.
The second major problem for the Thunder was 3-point shooting, an area where they usually excelled. Oklahoma City couldn’t knock down the 3-pointers they were so accustomed to sinking, shooting just 30 percent from beyond the arc (30-for-105). The Heat on the other hand, shot an astounding 42-for-98 from downtown (43 percent). When a good 3-point shooting team makes ten less threes than the opposition over the course of a series, you can tell things aren’t going well.
The third huge problem for the Thunder was coaching. Scott Brooks was completely out-coached by Erik Spoelstra, who opted to go with smaller lineups so Ibaka and Perkins wouldn’t have a field day in the paint. Only able to play one big man at a time for extended period of time, Brooks had to go small as well and the Hear were able to spread OKC’s defense thin with perimeter shooters as Brooks stubbornly tried double-teaming LeBron despite the fact that his superior passing freed up wide-open shots for his teammates. Brooks also couldn’t find anyone capable of slowing down LeBron James. Granted, LeBron was a man on a mission, but Brooks’ lineups drew a lot of questions. Sefolosha started off just fine on him, but either got in foul trouble or was subbed out because of his lack of offensive contribution. James Harden was too small and was struggling on the offensive end anyway. And Kevin Durant, the biggest driving force behind OKC’s offense, got in immediate foul trouble as LeBron exposed his advantage in both size and speed while revealing how average a defender he is. Brooks never even tried putting the bigger Ibaka on LeBron as a way to prevent him from attacking the basket, which is exactly where the King killed OKC’s defense. Ibaka would have forced LeBron to settle for jumpers, or at least make him think twice about driving in the paint. But instead, Brooks continued his double team schemes that left open red-hot perimeter shooters like Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier and Mike Miller while letting Nick Collison sit on the bench for way too long.
But the biggest problem was that the magical beard of James Harden, OKC’s Sixth Man of the Year, seemed to lose its power on the big stage. No one was more disappointing than Harden, who failed to have any significant impact other than a prolific first half in Game 2, which still resulted in a loss. Harden averaged only 12 ppg on 37 percent shooting in the Finals, failing to reach double digits in three of five games. Without a third scorer to back up Durant and Westbrook, the Thunder’s once mighty offense had problems reaching triple digits.
But give credit to the Heat; a lot of the problems I just described were caused by stifling defense and LeBron’s indomitable will. OKC would have greatly benefitted from switching Ibaka to LeBron, but eventually the King’s desire to win would still have been to much for the slower Thunder power forward to handle. Kudos are deserved for Miami’s role players, who were apparently bluffing for the entire regular season so they could unleash an unprecedented barrage of threes on the unsuspecting Thunder. Shane Battier had a huge offensive impact throughout the series and Chalmers and Miller each had their own breakout game that proved to be too much for a Thunder defense that was already spread thin trying to handle LeBron, Wade AND Bosh. Making that many more 3-pointers than a prolific long-range team tipped the scale in Miami’s favor and the role players stepping up provided a huge advantage for Miami. Before the series, I predicted the Thunder’s strong supporting cast would give the Thunder a lot of leverage because up until that point, Miami’s reserves hadn’t done much. But it was the exact opposite; guys like Battier, Chalmers and Miller took turns being the third scorer that the Thunder never had because of Harden’s disappearing act.
Wade didn’t have the most impressive series of his career, but his numbers were nothing to scoff at (22 ppg, 6 rpg, 5 apg). But then again, he really didn’t need to take over with LeBron at the helm. But Bosh was actually a big part of the reason why the Heat came out on top, even if his contributions didn’t translate on the stat sheet. Bosh clogged up the middle defensively in a way that Udonis Haslem hadn’t. When Durant finally did get around LeBron or Battier’s defense of the perimeter, he had to rush his shot to avoid the double team or attack the basket through three guys, which resulted in quite a few charges for Miami. Bosh’s contributions on the offensive end were big as well, providing more help in the paint that the Thunder didn’t get out of Ibaka or Perkins. And with the Heat’s role players on point, all LeBron had to do was finish the job, which he did with a vengeance.
A lot was made about the quality of officiating during this series. There were definitely times were every 50-50 call seemed to go against the Thunder and they were grossly out-shot from the free throw line in Games 3 and 4. But in Games 1 and 5, the refs were fairly consistent and although that questionable no-call at the end of the Heat’s big Game 2 road win may have swung momentum in Miami’s favor, the officiating gripe wasn’t substantial enough to say it had a dramatic effect on the outcome of the series. When it came down to it, this was LeBron James’ championship and he earned every bit of it. Experience played a much bigger factor in the series than I ever anticipated, and combine that with the annoying 2-3-2 format, it’s no wonder the Heat walked away with rings in five games. The Thunder will be back and they now have the Finals experience and pain of losing that will make them tough to stop. But for now, the team to beat will be Miami until somebody finds away to slow the King down.