When the Oklahoma City Thunder couldn’t work out an extension with James Harden, they prematurely sent him packing for Houston. Here’s my HoopsHabit article on why that trade was a huge mistake that will haunt the Thunder for years to come.
This is a fun one: Here’s my HoopsHabit article with the best current NBA player at every age.
For you Houston Rockets and NBA history fans out there, here’s a little trip down memory lane with my HoopsHabit article on the five best and worst trades in team history.
After the first full week of NBA action, it’s still hard to tell who going to be worth watching and who’s going to fall off the map. But to provide some context going forward, here are just a few things we’ve learned so far.
1. The Blazers and Rockets are fun to watch again. Why? Well it’s mostly because of rookie sensation Damian Lillard and James Harden’s ridiculously impressive first week in Houston. Lillard has lit it up so far with 19.3 points, 8 assists and 3.8 rebounds through four games. At this pace, Lillard is a frontrunner in the Rookie of the Year race and singlehandedly makes Portland worth watching. Meanwhile, James Harden is having an even more prolific start with his new team. Everyone was impressed by Harden’s opening night when he dropped 37 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals and 1 block, but no one thought he’d follow that performance up with a career high 45 points to go with 7 assists in his second game. The Blazers held him to 24 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists (yes, Harden has been so good so far that people are calling a 24-6-5 statline “holding” him), but Harden looks like a truly dynamic shooting guard and deserves player of the week honors without a doubt. We’re still very early in the season and we might not get to say this for much longer, but at this point, James Harden is the frontrunner in the MVP race. But no, the Thunder made a great trade for their second/third-best player. Speaking of which…
2. A few teams are off to rocky starts and need to develop chemistry. Although the Oklahoma City Thunder are not at the top of this list, it’s undeniable that OKC has struggled without The Beard around. Kevin Martin has certainly done his part providing instant offense off the bench, but Russell Westbrook has struggled mightily in their two losses, shooting 11-for-39 in those two defeats. Serge Ibaka hasn’t been able to get in a rhythm offensively either, which leaves only Kevin Durant and Martin to pull the load offensively. This could explain losses to a San Antonio team without Manu Ginobili and a Hawks squad without Josh Smith, but the truth is, ever since Harden took off for Houston, OKC was doomed in a small way. Martin will play his role off the bench, but the chemistry and offensive stability Harden brought by handling the ball, running the offense and attacking the basket (especially when Westbrook and KD get too trigger-happy with their jumpers) is irreplaceable. Unless Scott Brooks finds a better offense in the fourth quarter other than have Westbrook dribble around for 18 seconds before launching a jumper or turning the ball over trying to feed Durant, this team will continue to struggle.
However, OKC’s struggles pale in comparison to some other teams that were predicted to be contenders this year. Boston is supposed to be Miami’s biggest competition in the East, but lost by 11 to Milwaukee at home and looked just as bad in a narrow victory over the lowly, John Wall-less Wizards. Doesn’t look like much of a contender to me right now. Then again, the Celtics are still trying to adjust to having Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Jared Sullinger in the lineup regularly in addition to missing Avery Bradley. And I expressed early-season concerns about the Celtics last year too, but they turned things around and were one dominant LeBron James game away from another NBA Finals appearance.
Meanwhile, one Western Conference contender has started their season at 0-3: the Denver Nuggets. After two horrendously uninspired and offensively challenged performances to start the season, the Nuggets came to play in their third game. Unfortunately, that game was on the road against Miami and big nights from Ray Allen and Chris Bosh resulted in another disappointing loss for Denver. Ty Lawson has looked timid and isn’t popping open jumpers like he usually does, Andre Iguodala hadn’t looked offensively competent until the Miami game and George Karl isn’t giving JaVale McGee enough minutes for some confounding reason. The only bright spot so far has been Danilo Gallinari, who is proving how valuable he can be when he’s completely healthy. Denver will figure things out if Iggy and Lawson start scoring more, but how many minutes McGee gets could hold this team back unless Karl transfers Kosta Koufos to a bench role. Luckily for Denver, their next game is against the Pistons. If the Lakers could turn things around with all their chemistry issues against Detroit, so can Denver.
And speaking of the Lakers, Los Angeles should be just fine once they figure things out. Despite the fact they won their first game without Steve Nash, the Lakers should be better once he returns, especially if Mike Brown stops trying to make his questionable Princeton offense work. The Lakers have struggled on the defensive end and Nash hasn’t had an impact yet, but Kobe Bryant will always give you 20+ points and Dwight Howard looks like he’s getting back to Superman form after dropping 28 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks on the Pistons. Then again, the Lakers were 0-3 before and their only win of the season is against the Pistons. Not exactly inspiring. However, if Brown realizes his team needs to play more up-tempo with Steve Nash (and use the pick-and-roll for goodness sake) and the Lakers have more time to develop team chemistry, they will still be a contender when May comes around. However, not every team in the NBA is struggling right now, with a few teams trying to step things up this season…
3. Two teams to keep an eye on are the Knicks and Bucks. Right now, the Knicks are the best team in the East. Sure, the inspiration of playing for a city devastated by Hurricane Sandy probably played a big factor in New York’s opening 20-point victory over LeBron James and the Heat, but Carmelo Anthony and company backed it up with two dominant performances against a good Sixers team. The 46.8% 3-point shooting won’t continue forever, but for now it’s an elite force in the NBA. Melo is playing hard on both sides of the ball, Steve Novak is draining threes and J.R. Smith finally looks like he’s worn off the rust from playing in China, shooting 62 percent from 3-point range. But just as vital has been the leadership and intelligence Jason Kidd brings to the lineup. The Knicks may be old, but they’ve got experience and depth now. Here’s hoping Amare Stoudemire doesn’t screw that equation up once he returns (he probably will though).
In Milwaukee, Brandon Jennings is proving why he deserves a contract extension as one of the league’s better point guards by averaging 17 points and 13 assists through two games. He’s outshone leading scorer Monta Ellis so far this season and has been clutch for his team: not only did he hit a game-winning fadeaway 3-pointer to down Cleveland, but he also hit some key shots to help finish off Boston in the Bucks’ opener. And despite back-to-back disappointing performances from Ersan Ilyasova, guys like Mike Dunleavy and Larry Sanders have stepped up to contribute on offense. Whether these kind of role players will continue to contribute all season remains to be seen, but for now, the Bucks don’t look half-bad. However, two of the best teams in the league are still indisputable.
4. The Heat and Spurs are still elite. They may have gotten stomped in Madison Square Garden, but the Knicks certainly had a lot more inspiration going into the game. And after squashing a much better performance from Denver, there’s no doubt the Heat are still a dominant force in the NBA. LeBron James will continue to do it all, Dwyane Wade contributes across the board, Chris Bosh has shown he still has a knack for high-scoring nights and Ray Allen has been superb off the bench. Miami’s defense could use a little work, but it’s still early in the season. Plus, nothing helps a team’s defense quite like playing the offensively inept Phoenix Suns. In the West, San Antonio has raced out to a 4-0 record, the first in franchise history, with two of those victories coming without Manu Ginobili. People forget how close the Spurs were to sweeping the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals last year, but as healthy and youthful as Tim Duncan looks right now, San Antonio should be in the front-running for their conference. So even though Ginobili’s availability has been up-and-down recently, the Spurs are still a tough game every night. But they’re not the only team who have missed a key player lately…
5. The Pacers, Mavericks and Sixers need their superstar back. The Pacers without Danny Granger have been inconsistent at best. Paul George has done well with more responsibility, but not well enough to replace Granger’s scoring. Veteran David West has stepped up on offense for Indiana, but Roy Hibbert’s uninspiring and all-around dismal play in the middle leaves a lot to be desired for somebody who’s 7’2″. In fact, George is leading the team with 10.5 rebounds per game, compared to Hibbert’s 7.8. Narrow victories over the Raptors and Kings don’t give a lot of hope, while a loss to the lowly Bobcats and a blowout loss against the Spurs are even worse. Here’s hoping Granger gets healthy fast, or Indiana will fall very short of the compelling force in the East they were last year.
In Dallas, Dirk Nowitzki is steadily making progress in trying to return to the floor, but it will still be awhile before he’s back in full swing. The Mavericks have actually done pretty well without Dirk at 3-1, as Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo have proved they’re not that hack backups they were last season for their old teams. Even Brandan Wright stepped up with Chris Kaman sitting out with a calf injury, and now that Kaman’s back and getting limited minutes, the Mavs are even stronger in the paint. However, as decent as this team is now, imagine what they could be with Dirk back on the floor. And although Andrew Bynum hasn’t played a game in a Sixers uniform yet, Philadelphia could definitely use him on the floor. Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young have been decent in the post, but Bynum’s presence could elevate the Sixers to a whole new level, especially since Jrue Holiday has been having a breakout season so far. But even without superstars on the floor, these teams can all contend better than the scrubs of the league, such as….
6. The Detroit Pistons might be the NBA’s worst team. At 0-3, with one of those losses coming to the 1-3 Phoenix Suns, Detroit looks awful in all facets. From Rodney Stuckey’s unprecedented/appalling/couldn’t-throw-a-penny-in-the-ocean 1-for-23 shooting to start the season to Greg Monroe’s entirely underwhelming performances, the Pistons could be the new Bobcats for the 2012-13 season. But don’t forget to mention the Sacramento Kings at 1-3 and the Washington Wizards who have yet to win a game. And of course,the Phoenix Suns and Charlotte Bobcats aren’t far behind with only one victory each. But on the uprise are the New Orleans Hornets and the Orlando Magic, who both have two victories so far despite the Hornets’ awful record last year and the Magic’s expected pitfall without Dwight Howard.
Now that all the facts of one of the most shocking trades of the offseason have come pouring in, I thought it was important to separate fact from fiction to determine what NBA fans should think about James Harden leaving Oklahoma City. Was Harden greedy? Or was this OKC’s fault?
In short, it was OKC’s fault. You can gripe about how Harden turning down a $55.5 million deal over four years is selfish considering he’ll only be getting $60 million over four in Houston, but there are a few facts to consider. For those who say that Harden doesn’t deserve a max deal, that’s just downright foolish. Harden was a top 25 player in the league last year, and although many claimed he reaped the benefits of playing against the other team’s bench, often with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, that’s just not true. Harden led the Thunder past the Mavs in crunch time during the postseason last year. He delivered critical blows to a Lakers’ squad that couldn’t keep him from getting to the basket and the free throw line. His consistency balanced out Westbrook’s poor shooting streaks. His chemistry with his brothers in OKC was palpable. He was the third best player on his team, but a lot of championship teams have needed a third, underrated player who could give up shots but still be effective with his minutes like Harden. And even if you disagree with all of that, about half the league would have given Harden a max deal if they had the cap space.
So how is all that OKC’s fault? After all, they did offer him a pretty sweet deal that wasn’t far behind what he’ll be getting in Houston, right? Wrong. Harden originally wanted a five-year deal, but OKC went with four, which would allow him to trade him if they wanted to when the time was right. Much like the Celtics did with Rondo, they tried to convince Harden they wouldn’t trade him if he just agreed to a smaller deal now. They wanted him to take less money with no guarantee he’d stay in OKC for the extended future. When Harden refused and held out for the max deal he deserves, OKC management declined and immediately shipped him off to Houston. And since Houston wants him to sign an extension, Harden will probably get a five year, $75 million deal. Which, as I’ve said, is what he fully deserves.
I was originally disgusted with Harden’s decision to turn down that kind of money and break up OKC’s dynamic young group with so much chemistry. But then the facts came out. And the truth is, this wasn’t his fault. This is on Oklahoma City, a team that said they didn’t want to offer Harden a max deal because it would put them over the luxury tax. But considering their extensive profits last year, paying the measly luxury tax is a small price for keeping a championship-contending group intact.
Like the rest of the nation, I was struck by the three stars of Oklahoma City standing arm in arm as the clock ran out in the NBA Finals last year. That moment was a sad one, but because of the youth of those three, it also seemed like the perfect moment to reflect on later, a time when this talented young dynasty finally broke through and won their first title. Now that moment is wasted. We’ll never see that dynasty happen now. Durant might win a title, but OKC’s path to the Finals will be nearly impossible without the chemistry and bench scoring Harden brought to the team. Kevin Martin can score and Jeremy Lamb will be a fine prospect one day, but neither one of them will provide the chemistry Harden brought. None of them will fit in with Durant and Westbrook the way Harden did. And no one can replace the fan favorite beard that became a trademark symbol of the special unity the Thunder shared. Oklahoma City effectively stepped down as favorites to win the Western Conference and ruined their title chances, possibly for good, by shipping Harden away. The Lakers and Spurs now seem poised to send the Thunder home disappointed once again. Because as talented as Durant and Westbrook are, Harden was an instrumental part of their championship-contending team last year.
As for Harden? He’ll never get the chance to redeem his disappearing act in the NBA Finals last year. He’s extremely talented and I think he can step up as Houston’s top scorer, but he won’t lead the Rockets to a championship. He won’t have a shot at a title in Houston. We will never get to see what might have been with the young Thunder dynasty. We’ll miss out on some truly epic Finals between the Miami Heat and OKC squad hungry for revenge. All because OKC didn’t want to shell out some extra money to continue sporting one of the most exciting, talented and profitable teams in the league. All because their financial motivations outweighed the desire for a championship. This team certainly could have afforded to keep Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Serge Ibaka together. Yeah, they got draft picks, but what message does that send? That it’s ok to change the lineup of a team THAT WAS IN THE FINALS LAST YEAR as long as you leave some light at the end of the tunnel? That saving your organization a measly amount of money for one year is worth wasting your chances at a repeat appearance in the Finals or a few potential championships? You can’t blame Harden for asking for what he deserved. This one’s on Oklahoma City.
After another sloppy start, the United States blew open a big lead in their second Olympic matchup against Tunisia. For the game recap and analysis, click here.
The United States earned a 98-71 win against France in their 2012 Olympic opener, making it clear that it will take a gargantuan effort to knock this team off. However, it also became pretty obvious that this is no ’92 Dream Team. Read the game recap and analysis from Team USA’s Olympic opener here.
Almost four months ago, I wrote The LeBron James Opinion Piece, detailing the King and his journey in the NBA: from his struggles to secure a ring, to the general feelings of dissent, betrayal and hate directed his way from the basketball public, to what his final legacy should be taking everything into account. At that point, LeBron had no rings. He was the most hated player in the NBA, playing on possibly the most hated team in the entire league. And while the LeBron haters certainly won’t let up now that the King has finally won his crown, the rest of the basketball population knowledgeable enough to know a dazzling postseason run when they see one has to at least respect LeBron for his complete dominance throughout the 2012 NBA playoffs. In other words, if you know anything about basketball, you have to admire him and somewhat feel happy for him for winning his first ring.
What made the run truly spectacular was the fact that LeBron finally silenced all the haters and doubters who said he couldn’t come up clutch when his team needed him the most. During the regular season, LeBron would play fantastic for the first three quarters of games and end up with 30+ points to go with other solid statistics, but when the fourth quarter rolled around, he was nowhere to be found. When he passed up a potential game-winning shot to a wide-open Udonis Haslem and cost his team a regular season victory, people criticized him. When he passed up another potential game-winning shot in the All-Star Game with Kobe Bryant egging him on and turned it over, people were ready to abandon ship. But in the playoffs, LeBron James settled the argument over who was better between him and Kevin Durant by coming up big for the Heat down the stretch in the Eastern Conference Finals and the NBA Finals. During the regular season, it was easy to win a LeBron argument; just point out that he didn’t have any rings or that he wasn’t clutch and you’d get someone to laugh. Try making that joke now and you’ll start a heated debate that you’ll probably lose.
However, winning his first ring doesn’t change the fact that LeBron took the easy path to get there. While I’m happy for such a transcendent player to finally win a ring after nine years of putting up with unfair amounts of hype, scrutiny, criticism, expectations, hate and doubt, I still would have preferred him win one on his own, in Cleveland. Yes, basketball is a team game and yes, LeBron’s decision to leave for Miami ultimately proved to be the right one because he got what he was looking for. It’s hard to fault a guy for choosing to play with his friends: one future Hall-of-Famer and his reptilian All-Star counterpart. But ever since LeBron decided to take his talents to South Beach, the culture of free agency and the NBA as a whole hasn’t been the same and probably never will be again. Before The Decision, championship teams were built from good draft picks, smart trades and team chemistry build over the course of a few seasons, all engineered by good management (aka the Oklahoma City Thunder). Now, star players decide where they want to play and which one of their superstar buddies they want to join forces with. In other words, it just doesn’t feel fair or natural. While I applaud LeBron for taking a pay cut and give up money for what should be the ultimate goal (an NBA championship), that mentality is dangerous for the competitive integrity of the game; nobody wants to play pickup at the gym with all the talented players on one side. It looks like that’s exactly how the NBA is starting to function.
There’s no question LeBron and the Miami Heat deserved to win the 2012 NBA Finals. If the Thunder had played the way they did on their run to the Finals, I think they would have challenged the Heat, but because they didn’t show up in full force, there’s no doubt that the best team won the trophy. But the way Miami came to be is nothing short of unnatural. The people of Cleveland still have a legitimate reason to hate LeBron James, ring or no. As a fan and student of the game, I can’t say I was cheering LeBron to victory, even if I did respect and admire his dominance along the way and even if I was happy for him when he finally got his ring. On the one hand, you had the Oklahoma City Thunder, who were built on smart draft picks (Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka), helpful trades (Fisher, Perkins), good management and a rabid fan base. On the other, you had the Miami Heat, who became the most hated team in basketball after LeBron and Chris Bosh settled for smaller salaries just so they could play with their fellow superstar Dwyane Wade. Nobody on the Thunder’s roster betrayed an entire city, let alone make their announcement to do so on national television.
But as easy as it will be for some people to do so, eventually, the world will have to get over The Decision and stop holding it against him. Because as much as that move was an ultimate act of betrayal, holding that grudge against him would mean missing out on being able to appreciate one of the greatest players in NBA history. We looked down on him because he couldn’t win one in Cleveland and he couldn’t rise to a Michael Jordan-level to elevate his team to greatness. We turned on him faster than he turned on Cleveland because we were disappointed that this superstar we loved to cheer for had suddenly admitted he couldn’t do it alone. By taking his talents to South Beach, he basically told the world that he wasn’t going to be the greatest and his legacy would never trump Jordan’s. The Decision cemented that fact. As a news-hungry generation that depends on social media to establish and clarify our thoughts, opinions and expectations, we are always looking for the next Michael Jordan, the next Michael Phelps, the next Tiger Woods. We want to believe that the great sports figures we witness in our lives will be better than the ones we watched as children or heard about from our parents. But the fact is, even with an NBA championship under his belt, LeBron James will never be Michael Jordan. As I wrote a hundred times before this, he never was going to be Michael Jordan. But that’s not the worst thing in the world.
LeBron James isn’t a villain. Now that he’s finally won a ring, people must acknowledge his skills on the court as an NBA champion. Whether they like him or not is irrelevant now because he’s not going anywhere. LeBron will still be one of the most polarizing figures in sports because of his decision to leave the Cavaliers, but hopefully the hate will recede as much as LeBron’s hairline (one more LeBron joke for old time’s sake) so we can all appreciate what this future legend can do on a basketball court. There will always be haters; Kobe Bryant is living proof of that. But let’s keep things in perspective: the worst thing LeBron has ever done was leave a terrible basketball team for a more talented one. Some players in the league have been accused of rape, domestic abuse, gun possession and other serious crimes. Looking at the big picture, LeBron and his rise to the championship really shouldn’t be the enemy. We can be disappointed that LeBron sold out and that it ultimately paid off. We can be upset that The Decision changed the dynamic of free agency in the NBA. And we can be upset that a class act like Kevin Durant wasn’t able to win a title in his first attempt. But this ring forces us to acknowledge the LeBron is a winner who took matters into his own hands, even with two fellow superstars on the floor. And although one ring doesn’t put him the conversation with Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and other NBA all-time greats just yet, he’s getting there. A few more rings and who knows? We might have to mention him in the top ten if he keeps winning. But for now, let’s be clear: LeBron James is not Michael Jordan. LeBron James is not Kobe. LeBron James is still LeBron James. His choice to leave Cleveland will slightly tarnish his legacy forever, no matter how many rings he wins. And while he’s still young and there’s no way of knowing how many titles LeBron will claim before his career is over, keep in mind Bill Russell won more rings than anyone; that doesn’t make him the best player of all time. We can’t say for sure where LeBron will rank on the list of all-time greats yet, but whether you like it or not, the name LeBron James can now be equated with being a winner.
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.