The NBA Finals matchup that many predicted and nearly everyone looked forward to at the start of the playoffs has finally been realized: the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat will square off in Game 1 on Tuesday in a highly anticipated series that features big names and the best teams in basketball right now. The league MVP and scoring leader will get the chance to state their case for the best player in the NBA, star point guards will have a chance to redeem themselves for recent lackluster performances and key role players will have an opportunity to make a huge impact in a matchup that features little inside presence for either side. With two NBA juggernauts advancing the to Finals, we’re sure to be treated to one hell of a series.
Leading the charge for the Oklahoma City Thunder will be the league’s scoring leader, Kevin Durant. Durant put together four masterful performances to get his team out of a 2-0 hole against the offensively powered San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, as OKC won four straight to advance to the Finals. The Thunder great into a legitimate contender in front of our eyes in that series, because even though Russell Westbrook wasn’t playing his best basketball, OKC’s role players stepped up in big ways to help down a San Antonio team that was known for its depth. Leading the charge for the Thunder bench was the final member of Oklahoma City’s big three, James Harden, whose 3-point shooting, attack-the-rim mentality and formidable beard has thrust him into the spotlight over the course of the season, making him a fan favorite and clear choice for the Sixth Man of the Year Award. Durant, Westbrook and Harden were the highest-scoring trio in the NBA this year and haven’t disappointed as this young team has made its remarkable run through the playoffs, sweeping Dallas in the first round, besting the Lakers in five in the second and pulling off an incredible comeback against the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. In fact, the Thunder downed the three teams that have accounted for the last 13 Western Conference champions on their path to the Finals. With guys like Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins locking down the paint in addition to Thabo Sefolosha’s tremendous defense, OKC has developed a number of lineups that can defend and still put the ball in the hole. Sefolosha, Ibaka, Perkins, veteran Derek Fisher and even Nick Collison have grown into valuable assets because of their ability to chip in points for this high-scoring squad.
Meanwhile, the Heat will be powered by LeBron James, who is coming off his third MVP award and a prolific Eastern Conference Finals against a Celtics team that pushed Miami to a decisive Game 7. LeBron dominated the last two games of the series and is averaging almost 31 ppg in the postseason this year. Backing him up will be Dwyane Wade, who, like Westbrook, is coming off a subpar series and hopes to score much more efficiently in the Finals. Wade all but disappeared in the first half of numerous games against the Celtics and will need to find ways to score if the Heat want to contend with this young and athletic Oklahoma City team; because unlike the last series, LeBron James will not be able to carry the Heat past the Thunder. However, the Heat will receive a big boost from the return of Chris Bosh, who knocked down key shots in Game 7 and looked to be back to normal. If Bosh is 100 percent, the Heat have a much better chance of contending for a title in their second consecutive NBA Finals appearance.
The Heat had a much easier path to the Finals than the Thunder, knocking out the New York Knicks in five games in the first round, followed by the Indiana Pacers in six in the second before finishing off Boston in seven. However, the Heat were also playing without Chris Bosh for almost all of the last two rounds and probably would have advanced much sooner with their third member of the big three on the court. However, as dangerous as LeBron, Wade and Bosh can be, Miami’s role players will really need to step up to contend in this series. Guys like Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem and Shane Battier can’t disappear and have to be ready to step up by knocking down open looks. However, despite the fact that Miami has little offensive presence in the paint and even though Miami’s role players have been completely absent at times, the Heat have a slight advantage because they’ve been in this position before.
In the end, I anticipate this series will be largely decided by each team’s big three. Durant vs. LeBron. Westbrook vs. Wade. Harden vs. Bosh. Whichever side gets the bigger advantage in these matchups will have a much better chance of winning games, but the Finals will also come down to role players. Neither side has much of an inside threat, but if Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins can have a few decent offensive nights, the Thunder will be hard-pressed to lose this series. The Heat’s shooters need to knock down open looks, which is something Miami has struggled with in the postseason this year. Miami may be able to swing one or two games in their favor if LeBron or Wade go off, but don’t forget that Durant, Westbrook and Harden are all more than capable of doing the same. The Thunder are also undefeated at home during the 2012 NBA Playoffs, and with home-court advantage, Miami can’t shy away from the spotlight in the fourth quarter if they want to get road wins in an environment that makes that a real challenge. The Thunder, despite being young, have impressed the world with their ability to take over games in the fourth quarter, which is the exact opposite of what LeBron and the Heat are known for. LeBron can’t defer to Wade down the stretch anymore, because Durant, Westbrook and Harden all show the maturity of a veteran team and can be deadly under pressure.
In the end, I think the Thunder’s home-court advantage, role players and ability to take games over in the fourth will give them the franchise’s first NBA title since 1979 (as the Seattle Supersonics). In two meetings this year, the teams split, with the Thunder winning the first by a large margin and losing the second in a close game. I anticipate this series will give the audience some great moments from big players and that it will be extremely competitive, but the Thunder have looked too impressive on their run to the Finals and are playing the best basketball out of anyone right now. This is a new experience for OKC, but with their talent and the experience of veterans like Fisher and Perkins who have won titles before, I think the Thunder will be able to just focus on playing basketball. And unless they shy away from the spotlight and can’t cope with the pressure of playing in their first NBA Finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder should be hoisting the trophy this year.
Prediction: Oklahoma City over Miami in 6 games