The Oklahoma City Thunder have two of the best 10 players in the NBA with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. But after another unproductive and uneventful offseason, the Thunder saw every Western Conference contender get better. Here’s my HoopsHabit article on whether or not OKC’s title window is shrinking.
The Lakers opened their promising 2012-13 season up on a pretty underwhelming note: with a loss to a Dallas Mavericks squad without Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman. Kobe Bryant played through some foot pain, Dwight Howard played after having back surgery this summer and Steve Nash and Pau Gasol were both perfectly healthy. So what went wrong? And how worried should Laker fans be about such a disappointing and downright bad first game at home?
To sum it up quickly, not very worried at all. Yes, it’s true the Lakers went 0-8 in the preseason. And yes, there were a lot of evident problems on the floor that Dallas was able to take advantage of. But there wasn’t anything that can’t be fixed by the time April rolls around. But for the sake of being thorough, let’s walk through why the Lakers looked so terrible tonight.
- Coaching – I’ve defended Mike Brown in the past for his focus on defense, but his implementation of the Princeton offense for a team with Steve Nash is just plain stupid. Nash is a point guard who needs to get out and run on the fast break. The pace of the offense needs to be up. The Lakers should be shooting with 10-12 seconds on the shot clock and dominate the tempo with fast plays. The Princeton offense is slow and dull. Slowing down the speed of the game completely negates Nash’s impact as an effective point guard, rendering him useless. Nash only had seven points and four assists. I can’t remember the last time I saw such an appalling statline for Nash. Steve Blake had more assists for crying out loud. It also hurts the impact Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol could be having: both big men are efficient at running the floor and Howard in a half-court offense allows teams to foul him and send him to the line, where his dismal free throw shooting (3-for-14 last night) hurts the team. This team’s entire starting five is comprised of superstars who have all been the best player on a team at some point in their careers. Not being able to get a win at home with Howard, Nash and Kobe against an injury-depleted Mavs team goes beyond a lack of team chemistry; that’s just poor coaching and management of your personnel.
- Health – Mike Brown certainly has to change a lot of things to get the most out of his star-studded lineup, but he can only do so much while two of the Lakers’ biggest pieces are still healing. Although Kobe and Howard both played in LA’s opener, you could tell they were either rusty or still ailing. Kobe didn’t play as many minutes as we’re used to, although he still finished with 22 points on 11-of-14 shooting. Meanwhile, Howard looked like he was completely out of rhythm. He finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds, but his appalling free throw shooting and a few easy missed shots show he’s not quite back in his groove. Credit Brandan Wright, Elton Brand and Eddy Curry for their defense, but Howard still has to get back into the flow.
- Chemistry – Even if they were healthy and had proper coaching for their star-studded personnel, the Lakers need time to develop their chemistry. Steve Nash has to find his place in the offense and free up looks for his teammates. Howard has to figure out what his role on offense is. The offensive pace has to speed up. Kobe has to relinquish some ball control to his All-Star point guard. Pau Gasol was really the only one last night who needs to duplicate his performance every night (23 points, 13 rebounds, six assists).
So all in all, it makes a lot of sense for LA fans to be upset. That was an ugly loss to a team that’s not very good and it wasn’t pretty to watch (no offense Maverick fans, but if you think a Dallas team without Dirk or Kaman will beat LA a few months down the road, you’re dreaming). But as frustrated as fans must be with such an anticlimactic opening night, it was still only game one. There are bound to be some speed bumps before this superstar cast finds its groove. There’s still a long season to go and Laker haters are kidding themselves if they think this is the LA team we’ll see all year. However, one stat is pretty telling and it’s one that the Lakers may not be able to help down the road: Darren Collison had 17 points for the Mavs tonight. Now Mavs fans were very excited for this acquisition, but I never really was. Here was a guy who was a scrub behind George Hill in Indiana. So if Steve Nash, an eternal defensive liability, is giving up 17 points to Darren Collison, what’s going to happen in the playoffs when the Lakers meet up with Russell Westbrook or Ty Lawson? Just something to think about.
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.
There are some nights when winning is an option and a necessity. And then there are some nights when the other team won’t be denied and nothing can be done to stop it. After an assertive Game 5 performance that won LeBron James his first NBA championship, the Heat taught the Thunder exactly how helpless that feels. On a night where nothing went Oklahoma City’s way, the Heat took matters into their own hands and buried the Thunder with one of the more dominant third quarter runs in NBA Finals history. Between LeBron James putting up a triple-double and the Heat knocking down 14 3-pointers, the young and inexperienced Thunder had no chance as Miami closed out the series with a 121-106 win to end the series in five games on their home floor.
After taking a 3-1 series lead, history wasn’t on OKC’s side, as no team in NBA Finals history has ever comeback from that deficit to win the title. But Miami provided the exclamation point on that stat with an unstoppable shooting display in the third that stopped the Thunder’s comeback in its tracks and put the game out of reach before the fourth quarter even started. LeBron James was magnificent throughout and showed greater maturity and poise in Miami’s clincher, notching 26 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds in an all-around impressive performance. But even more key was Miami’s 3-point shooting. After averaging just six 3-pointers per game during the season, the Heat dropped an astounding 14 on the Thunder in Game 5, led by Mike Miller’s incredible 7-of-8 shooting night from beyond the arc. Miller, who hadn’t made a 3-pointer in the entire series, finished with 23 points off the bench and provided the same critical spark from 3-point range that Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole had given throughout the series. It almost seemed like the regular season was just one gigantic bluff from Miami’s reserve players, who suddenly became unstoppable 3-point threats in the Finals. Battier hit three threes to finish with 11, Chalmers hit two and added 10 points and Cole added his only triple to completely sink Oklahoma City’s hopes of sending the series back home for Game 6.
Make no mistake, although the officiating was an issue at times during this series, it wasn’t in Game 5; the Heat definitely earned their championship and proved themselves to be the best team of the 2012 NBA Playoffs. LeBron James capped off one of the more magnificent postseason performances we’ve seen in the last decade with a triple-double that proved himself to be clutch in addition to illustrating how valuable experience is at this stage. And although the focus was all on LeBron, Dwyane Wade deserves a lot of credit for the Heat’s convincing victory over the Thunder in this series. Wade finished with 20 points and eight rebounds in Game 5, a huge lift for Miami after he struggled at times during the Heat’s postseason run. And Chris Bosh, the third member of Miami’s big three, showed just how important he is by clogging up the paint and finally finding his shooting touch. Bosh had 24 points, seven rebounds and two blocks, dominating Kendrick Perkins in the paint and making it difficult for Russell Wesbrook and Kevin Durant to score in the paint. Finally, Erik Spoelstra completely out-coached Scott Brooks. I’ve been one of many who have criticized Spoelstra for being an ineffective coach, but against the Thunder, his rotations were superior, forcing the Thunder to play small which gave the Heat a huge advantage on the perimeter. Between Miami’s big three playing consistently great basketball and Miami’s role players stepping up and hitting a multitude of perimeter shots, the Thunder had no chance.
Oklahoma City had a memorable run and looked like clear favorites in this series, but had problems scoring on Miami’s stifling defense under the immense pressure of playing in their first NBA Finals appearance. Experience was definitely a huge factor, as the Thunder looked like a very different team from the one that steamrolled Dallas, LA and San Antonio on their way to the Finals. Kevin Durant led all scorers with 32 points and and 11 rebounds, but it still wasn’t enough as Westbrook struggled after his amazing 43-point performance in Game 4. Westbrook finished just only 19 points on 4-of-20 shooting. Durant also didn’t get much help from James Harden, OKC’s Sixth Man of the Year who shied away from the spotlight for the majority of the series. Harden finished with 19 points, but most of them came in garbage time when the outcome of the game was all but decided. Derek Fisher showed up, adding 11 points off the bench, but Serge Ibaka joined Harden with another underwhelming performance of nine points and four rebounds. Perkins and Nick Collison only had two apiece and Sefolosha put up a goose egg, meaning the Heat had a huge advantage in their supporting cast, an aspect of this matchup that was supposed to be an area of leverage for the Thunder. But when it came down to it, no one but Durant and Westbrook had a consistent impact and the Thunder never had a third player step up and score like Harden did during the regular season. With Harden struggling and the rest of Oklahoma City’s reserves failing to step up, Miami’s perimeter shooters had a tremendous impact and were big-time support behind LeBron’s transcendent series. The Thunder needed to hit threes and they needed to stop one if not two members of the big three (especially if their role players were going to disappear) to win, but were unable to do either for the majority of the series.
In truth, the game was a blowout from the second quarter on. But somehow, the Thunder were only down by ten at half, despite giving up a staggering 59 points in the first half. And coming out of the locker room, the Thunder made their intentions clear by cutting the lead to five just a few minutes in. But then the turning point of the game arrived, and although it was just a small fast break turnover, it proved to be the catalyst for LeBron and the Heat to take control and win the NBA title. Down by five, the Thunder had a fast break opportunity after Durant blocked LeBron, but instead of passing to Westbrook on the wing, Durant tried to dribble through two defenders and lost the ball. The turnover led to another three from Mario Chalmers, which fired up the crowd and stopped the Thunder’s run and momentum. Then Wade blocked a Sefolosha 3-point attempt and Shane Battier knocked down a three to extend the lead back to 11. From then on, the Heat could not be stopped. Whether it was LeBron attacking the basket with little resistance or Miller knocking down 3-pointers, the Thunder’s defense couldn’t stop the Heat’s relentless attack in the third as they dropped 36 points and five 3-pointers.
I incorrectly predicted that the Thunder would take the NBA Finals in six games, but the inexperience of OKC and the indomitable will of LeBron proved to be too much, especially when coupled with that annoying 2-3-2 Finals format (yes, I will keep complaining about it. Why have the entire postseason in the 2-2-1-1-1 format and then switch it up and give so much of an advantage to the away team? I’m not saying Oklahoma City would have won under the other format, but we might have been treated to one or two more fantastic clashes between these two teams if the format made sense). The Thunder are an extremely young team and if they can somehow hold on to James Harden and Serge Ibaka, they have nowhere to go but up. The Thunder have advanced further into the postseason each year for the past four years: they didn’t make the playoffs in 2009, they lost in the first round in 2010, they lost in the Western Conference Finals in 2011 and they lost in the Finals this year. If they keep improving with their young and talented lineup, we could have a dynasty on our hands, especially now that they have experience and the pain that comes with losing in the championship. At the end of the day, however, the 2012 NBA Finals were about LeBron James. LeBron silenced a lot of critics by sealing his dominant playoff run with a triple-double to win his first championship, if only for one night. After nine years in the league filled with scrutiny, doubters, hype, ridicule, haters and unrealistic expectations, LeBron finally won himself a championship ring. While many will still point to the Decision and call him a sellout for taking a much easier path to the Finals, the fact remains that LeBron cemented his place among the greats with well-earned NBA Finals and MVP trophies. The Thunder have a promising future, but the best player in basketball finally got his ring, and hopefully the LeBron haters will be quiet for a little while. And as LeBron James said himself, “It’s about damn time.”
After a furious second half rally that won Game 1 at home, the Oklahoma City Thunder were flying high and had a 1-0 lead on the series. Three games later, they’re fighting to keep their championship hopes alive by becoming the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals. Miami took Game 2 on the road after a questionable no-call at the end of the game before proceeding to defend home-court in two straight games. Because of the pesky 2-3-2 Finals format (which gives WAY too much advantage to the away team, by the way), the Heat have the prime opportunity to end the Thunder’s impressive season and give LeBron James his first Larry O’Brien trophy on Miami’s own floor. Obviously, Oklahoma City doesn’t want that to happen, but history isn’t exactly on their side since the previous 30 teams to attempt such a monumental comeback in a series have all failed.
Heading into Game 5 in Miami, with the Heat having a chance to close out the NBA Finals at home, do the Thunder really stand a chance? They’ve lost three in a row now and don’t look like the same team that came back from a 2-0 deficit against the Spurs to win the West. No team has EVER won the NBA Finals after trailing 3-1, and since the Finals format was changed to the 2-3-2 format in 1985, no team has even extended the series to Game 7. Oklahoma City has come back from two games down before in these playoffs, but this time they’ll have to win an elimination game in Miami, where the Heat are now 10-2 during the playoffs this year. Then they would have to go back to Oklahoma City and face the team that has physically outmatched them, the only team that has beaten the Thunder in Chesapeake Arena. And they’d have to do that twice. The odds are certainly not in the Thunder’s favor, but if OKC somehow does get the win in Game 5 on the road, I don’t know any Miami fan that will be comfortable with the series shifting back to Oklahoma City, where the Thunder have only lost one game in the postseason. For the Thunder, James Harden absolutely has to show up. The Thunder have been so terrific throughout the playoffs up until now because they’ve had a third scorer to back up Durant and Westbrook, but they haven’t enjoyed that luxury in the Finals so far. Harden’s been completely absent in this series after thrilling spectators all year long with his 3-point shooting, relentless attacks to the basket and of course, the beard. But so far, Harden’s shied away from the spotlight on the big stage and the Thunder have been losing games. That’s got to change for Oklahoma City to take Game 5 on the road.
But the improvements don’t stop there. Westbrook has to hit shots like he did in Game 4’s memorable performance, and although no one can expect another legendary performance like this, he needs to consistently hit shots. Kevin Durant needs to take over in the second half like his did in Games 1 and 2. Believe it or not, 29 points isn’t good enough for Durant. He needs to completely dominate from beyond the 3-point line and in the paint. Superstars need to step up in the playoffs, and an elimination game makes that need even greater. Durant can’t just have a great game; he needs to drop 35-40 points and have a phenomenal game. The Oklahoma City Thunder need to execute down the stretch, as they’ve been outplayed in the fourth quarter for the second game in a row. They need to make 3-point shots, as they’ve shot 21 of 77 (about 27 percent) from downtown in the series. They need to force referees to blow their whistles by attacking the basket. And if Harden continues to falter in the spotlight, the Thunder need a third scorer to step up like Mario Chalmers did tonight. Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha have been extremely quiet the last few games. They were huge pieces of the equation that bested the Spurs in six games, but have done very little to slow down Miami’s prolific scorers or counter them with points of their own. The Thunder have had problems keeping two big men on the floor at a time in the series because Erik Spoelstra has smartly kept a small lineup on the floor. This has forced Scott Brooks to do the same, taking away Oklahoma City’s advantage of Ibaka and Perkins in the paint against lackluster scorers like Udonis Haslem and the other centers that now occupy Miami’s bench. But even though the Thunder have a lot to improve on, closing out a team like OKC won’t be easy for the Heat. The Thunder are young, athletic, resilient and now their backs are up against the wall. The last thing Miami wants is for this series to shift back to Oklahoma City, because even though no team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the Finals, if there ever was such a team, I’ve gotta think it would be the Thunder.
For the Heat, they are one game away from the crown. LeBron is so close to winning his first ring and clearly isn’t playing nervous like he did in last year’s Finals. Every game has been close in this series so far, so there’s no room for shrinking from the moment, which has been LeBron’s defining characteristic in Miami until this postseason. LeBron has to continue to play his dominant style of basketball, Wade needs to show up once again, and Miami’s perimeter shooters, who have traded great games up until this point, need to show up for just one more. All Miami really has to do is keeping the same ball they’ve played in the last three games. Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole have all been big for the Heat in a few games by knocking down perimeter shots and spreading Oklahoma City’s defense even thiner than before. With Chris Bosh not getting back into the full swing of the game yet, the Heat need that third scorer to complement LeBron and Dwyane Wade, which is something Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook haven’t been getting out of James Harden. If Miami can have a third member to back up their two superstars in the scoring column, the Thunder are in trouble unless Harden harnesses the power of that magic beard again. LeBron has been magnificent in this series and Wade has rightful deferred to him in the biggest moments of games, but now they’ll need him to be extraordinary one more time. I’m assuming that despite going down in Game 4 with leg cramps, he’ll be back on the floor and at 100 percent for the biggest game of his career, meaning he’ll need another concentrated effort. Getting wins is one thing, closing out a talented and desperate team to win a championship is another thing. If he is able to do it, LeBron will silence a lot of haters and rightfully win his first ring. But if he doesn’t, and if the Heat drop Game 5 at home, they will have missed out on a prime opportunity to go for the kill and open the door of conversation for doubters predicting that the Thunder might be capable of such a momentous comeback. And to be honest, if the Heat don’t win Game 5, I might be one of them. Despite dropping Game 2 at home, the Thunder are still 10-1 at home and you have to think if OKC somehow sends this thing back home, they will be greeted by a delirious crowd that will believe those last two wins are possible. The Heat need to end this series and not even mess around with the inevitable “LeBron and the Heat are going to choke in the Finals again” or “Oklahoma City might be able to pull this thing off!” conversations. The Heat have put themselves in fantastic position, but there can be no room for error if they want to avoid risking the biggest collapse in NBA Finals history.