NBA Finals Game 5 Preview

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.

If James Harden’s struggles continue, the Thunder are done. But if Harden can pick up his game again and make an impact on offense, they will send the series back to Oklahoma City for Game 6.

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.

LeBron is one game away from his first title. If ever there were a time to prove everyone wrong and be clutch, it’ll be Game 5.

Westbrook’s Memorable Night Ends In Defeat, Miami Takes 3-1 Finals Lead

Russell Westbrook kept his team in Game 4 with an array of impossible layups and deadly accurate mid-range jumpers. He was on his way to a truly transcendent performance with 43 points on 20-of-32 shooting to go along with seven rebounds and five assists. In fact, it was one of the most impressive games in NBA Finals history, and it put the Thunder in position to tie the series at 2-2. But in one moment, it was permanently stained by one mental error that ended up costing Oklahoma City the win, giving Miami a 3-1 series advantage in a 104-98 victory.

With the Heat up by three with 17 seconds to play and five seconds on the shot clock, James Harden and Udonis Haslem tied up and faced off for a jump ball. Harden surprisingly won the tip, but Shane Battier got his hand on it over Kevin Durant and tipped it to Mario Chalmers. In that moment, the Heat had less than five seconds to shoot, but Westbrook was unaware of the situation and made the bonehead play of the game by fouling Chalmers. Chalmers went to the line, sank two free throws and put the game completely out of reach. The free throws capped off a terrific game for Chalmers, who finished with 25 points on 9-of-15 shooting, in addition to tainting Westbrook’s legendary performance, which was wasted in the disappointing defeat that puts the Thunder in a nearly impossible position.

Westbrook had a fantastic Game 4, but it wasn’t enough for the Thunder to get the win, especially after a late-game mistake sealed the win for Miami and gave them a 3-1 series lead.

However, Westbrook shouldn’t bear the burden of the game because of that one mistake. Westbrook carried the Thunder down the stretch, scoring 13 straight points for OKC at one point in the fourth quarter. Rather, the majority of the blame should fall on James Harden, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year. But with the way Harden has played in the Finals, you would never have known who he was. Blame it on the pressure, blame it on off shooting nights, or blame it on the beard losing its power. But whatever the case, Harden has been completely absent for the Thunder, which is a huge reason they aren’t winning ballgames. Yes, Miami is a tough place to play and yes, LeBron James has been terrific in the Finals. But there’s no way the series wouldn’t be tied at 2-2 if Harden had shown up to play for even one complete game so far in the Finals. Westbrook broke 40, Durant had 28, but the third member of OKC’s big three registered just eight points on 2-of-10 shooting in addition to 10 rebounds. Westbrook’s foul was a horrible mistake that proved to be a memorable turning point that decided the game, but Harden missed a wide open layup that would have given OKC its first lead in an extended period of time. That missed layup lead to a Chalmers layup that gave Miami the lead and momentum right back. In addition to Harden, the rest of the Thunder’s role players failed to show up as well. Serge Ibaka, after running his mouth about LeBron James’ defensive skills, only put up four points and seven rebounds. Kendrick Perkins also only had four points. Sefolosha scored five. And Nick Collison, who came in and played extremely well early with Ibaka in foul trouble, didn’t see the floor much after that despite dropping six points and a few rebounds in a few minutes.

Once again, the referees were another big factor in the game. I hate to blame the outcome of games on the refs, but the league needs to take a serious look at the quality of officiating, especially during the playoffs. Despite Westbrook driving and attacking the basket like a man possessed, he only got to the line three times. The Thunder took only 16 free throws compared to Miami’s 25. Don’t get me wrong, blaming the entire outcome of a game on poor officiating is a definite cop-out. But when every 50-50 call goes Miami’s way and when the foul difference in this series is so great, it’s hard not to question the integrity of the officials. In the third quarter, numerous questionable calls sent the Heat to the line and kept them in the game. There were numerous reasons OKC lost Game 4, but if you write off the refereeing as a valid one, you don’t know basketball as well as you think you do.

Mario Chalmers had a huge impact  thanks to Norris Cole’s immediate presence off the bench.

Refereeing aside, credit is due to the Heat for quickly battling back from a big double-digit deficit in the first quarter. When the Thunder jumped out to a 17-point lead in the first, it looked like Miami was in for a rough night. But thanks to rookie Norris Cole, OKC’s run stopped and the wheels were set in motion for a big performance from someone the Heat hadn’t gotten much out of in quite some time. Cole hit a 3-pointer to end the first and cut Oklahoma City’s lead to 14 heading into the second. Chalmers, who was pulled before that after starting 0-for-3, watched on the bench as Cole nailed another three to start the second quarter, putting his totals at eight points in less than four minutes. There’s no question this did not motivate Chalmers to step up his game, and from then on, he had a huge impact on the outcome of the game by knocking down monumental 3-pointers and deflating shots from all over the floor that kept Miami in the game. With Chalmers knocking down shots, the Heat went on a run and rapidly erased OKC’s double digit lead to pull within three at halftime. After a 33-point quarter filled with defensive stops and fast break points, the Thunder’s offense went stagnant and couldn’t get out in transition with Miami’s perimeter shooters sinking threes. OKC only had 16 points in the second quarter, which once again showed the Thunder’s tendency to have one bad quarter in a game that hurts their chances of winning. LeBron was terrific and was one rebound shy of a triple double with 26 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds, and Wade had another quality game with 25, but the Thunder lost this game as much as the Heat won it.

After the teams exchanged blows in the third quarter (there were nine lead changes in a four-minute span), the Heat jumped out to a four-point lead heading into the fourth. The Thunder had many opportunities to seize momentum, but couldn’t capitalize like they’ve consistently done up until the Finals. Harden missed the wide open layup. Derek Fisher then took an ill-advised layup with the score knotted at 90 that was blocked by Wade when he had wide open shooters sitting in the corners. That block led to a LeBron bank shot that gave Miami a two-point lead, despite the fact that he went down the play before and was limping from then on. LeBron struggled with cramps and was taken out after that shot and was being tended to on the bench. The Thunder went on a 4-0 run and took the lead with LeBron out, but once he returned, OKC was outscored 12-4 the rest of the way. Despite the fact that he was limping around and would eventually leave the game for good, LeBron hit a monumental three to put Miami up 97-94 with less than three minutes to play and gave Miami all the momentum they needed to finish, even with him off the floor. Why Sefolosha gave the limping LeBron so much room with four seconds on the shot clock, I’ll never know, but Chalmers finished the game off with free throws despite a few Westbrook buckets that kept OKC on life support. And just like that, the Thunder put themselves in the historically uncomfortable position of a 3-1 Finals deficit; no team had ever come back from that position to win the Finals. Which is exactly what the young Thunder now need to do if they want to shock the world and win Oklahoma City its first NBA championship.

LeBron James left the game with cramps but should be fine for Game 5, meaning the Thunder’s impossible task ahead won’t be any easier.

Kevin Durant Propels Thunder To Game 1 Win

Heading into the NBA Finals, the highly anticipated matchup between LeBron James and Kevin Durant for the right to the title of “best in the world” looked like it would be decided on the court in an epic clash of the titans. After scoring 17 of his game-high 36 points in the fourth quarter and leading the Thunder to a 105-94 victory in Game 1, Durant won the first round.

In their first game of a championship series, there were concerns about how this young and “inexperienced” Thunder team would cope with all the pressure against a Miami team led by the league MVP who’s still stinging from last year’s Finals defeat. But Durant and Russell Westbrook were absolutely unstoppable in the second half, combining for 41 of OKC’s 58 points, compared to the entire Heat’s second half total of 40. Durant and Westbrook also combined for 23 of their team’s 31 fourth quarter points, outscoring the entire Heat’s 21. After falling behind by as many as 13 in the first half, the Thunder once again showed the world how dangerous they can be in the second half, especially in front of a delirious home crowd. Apparent nerves and sloppy play marred the game’s opening minutes as the Heat jumped out to a quick lead thanks to incredible shooting from Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers. Battier knocked down four 3-pointers and finished with 17 while Chalmers added 12, but even these welcome contributions weren’t enough to keep Miami on top, despite the fact that no one but Durant seemed ready to play when the ball went up. Miami went 6-of-10 from beyond the arc in the first half to amass a sizable lead, but the Thunder stormed back before the half and cut the lead to seven heading into the locker room. From there, it was the Kevin Durant show.

Kevin Durant absolutely throttled the Miami Heat in the second half, giving the Oklahoma City Thunder a huge Game 1 victory.

LeBron James led the Heat with 30 points, nine rebounds and four steals while Dwyane Wade struggled, finishing with 19 points and eight assists on 7-of-19 shooting. Chris Bosh also had a rough going in Oklahoma City, scoring 10 points off the bench 4-of-11 shooting. Udonis Haslem only scored four points but also had nine rebounds. For awhile, it looked like LeBron was the best player on the court and that the Heat had a good chance of stealing Game 1 on the road in a building where no one but the Thunder has been able to win during the postseason: Battier and Chalmers were knocking down threes, no one on the Thunder looked ready for the moment other than Kevin Durant, and LeBron was getting to the rim on Durant. But once Westbrook and OKC’s supporting cast woke up and the outside shots stopped falling for Miami’s perimeter shooters (Battier and Chalmers combined for 23 in the first half and only six in the second), it’s no surprise the Thunder went on such a massive run at home. The Heat’s experience on this stage shone through early, but once the Thunder got settled in the nerves subsided and Durant showed why he deserves consideration for the MVP of the playoffs so far.

For the Thunder, Kevin Durant was obviously Mr. Clutch once again, singlehandedly supplanting the Heat by knocking down jumpers and taking the ball to the rim with authority, but there’s no question that Westbrook played a huge part in this victory. Westbrook only had nine points at the half on 3-of-10 shooting before helping turn things around in a critical third quarter run that gave the Thunder a one-point lead heading into the fourth. Westbrook finished with 27 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds while committing only two turnovers. He still shot the ball a little too much (24 shots compared to Durant’s 20), but in Game 1, Westbrook was very close to the ideal point guard and made OKC’s advantage at that position very clear. I said in the NBA Finals preview that Westbrook would need to turn things around and outplay Wade for OKC to better their chances, and that’s exactly what he did. Another important factor was Oklahoma City’s bench and role players. Although James Harden had a very disappointing night with just five points, the Thunder didn’t miss much with everyone making a collective effort to step up, meaning Scott Brooks was able to stick with a defensive lineup in the fourth and didn’t insert Harden into the lineup until there were three minutes left in the game. Serge Ibaka had 10 points and six rebounds. Thabo Sefolosha had nine points and played superb defense on LeBron James in the fourth. Nick Collison rebounded with authority, grabbing 10 boards in addition to eight points. Derek Fisher added six. Kendrick Perkins chipped in four. Everyone on the floor gave the Thunder something and made Kevin Durant’s unstoppable fourth quarter run possible, which is the most important section of the game to take a look at. LeBron was leading all scorers with 23 heading into the fourth, but Durant completely eclipsed him as the Thunder extended their one-point lead and would not let it go the rest of the way. Durant had 17 fourth quarter points, compared to LeBron’s seven. That can’t be the case if the Heat want to contend with this dangerous and young OKC squad. Because as much as everyone keeps saying their inexperience will catch up with them, the Thunder keep finding ways to win with the game on the line. And like it or not, the Heat are actually going to have to outplay this team down the stretch to win a title. Which means LeBron will have to be clutch and take over a game in the fourth like we haven’t seen yet.

Russell Westbrook looked more like himself and flirted with a triple double in OKC’s Game 1 win over the Miami Heat.

For the Heat to win, a lot of improvements need to be made. First, Dwyane Wade has to be more assertive on the offensive end. Scoring 19 points and dropping eight dimes is nothing to sneer at, but the Heat need more out of him, especially if LeBron stalls in the fourth again. Chris Bosh also needs to have more of an offensive presence in Game 2. With Harden only scoring five points, Game 1 was a prime opportunity for the Heat’s big three to outplay OKC’s big three. But only LeBron and surprisingly, Shane Battier showed up ready to knock down shots. The Heat need more than four out of Haslem and they need more than two points out of Mike Miller. Erik Spoelstra said one adjustment he plans on making for Game 2 is going deeper into his bench, but with reserves like the Heat have that seems like it would hurt more than anything. Miami was also out-rebounded 43-35 in Game 1, a trend that needs to change if the Heat want to make this series more competitive. Those rebounds translated into fast break points for the Thunder, who outscored Miami in that category 24-4. Finally, the Heat need to find a way to slow down Durant and Westbrook. The fact that they were able to dominate in the second half was bad enough, but even when Miami’s help defense cut them off, there were wide open bigs waiting under the basket for easy dunks. The Thunder had 56 points in the paint and shot 51 percent from the floor. Miami’s previously stifling defense will have to make a return if the Heat want to avoid coming up short for the second year in a row.

For the Thunder, Game 1 was a big win because they defended home court (once again) and were able to do so while dealing with first-game jitters. Westbrook looked more like himself again after a mediocre series against the Spurs, OKC’s role players stepped up even without Harden leading the charge, and Durant had no problems being clutch on basketball’s biggest stage. All they have to do is continue playing great defense (Thabo Sefolosha in particular), take care of the boards and make sure they limit at least one member of Miami’s big three. Durant and Westbrook will continue to put points on the board, so as long as the defense remains in tact and the role players pitch in where they can, you can count on the Thunder going on big runs in the fourth quarter of close games. As I predicted in the NBA Finals preview, the Thunder took over in the fourth quarter, which is an area that LeBron James or Dwyane Wade need to dominate, even under all the pressure they now face with a 1-0 deficit. Oklahoma City still needs to take care of business at home in Game 2 to ensure they have the upper hand in the series, but unless some drastic changes are made on Miami’s part, the Thunder will continue to overwhelm with more depth, greater focus down the stretch and Kevin Durant’s unstoppable resolve.

Kevin Durant got the best of LeBron James in Game 1, especially in the fourth quarter. This can’t be the case if the Miami Heat want to win a title and avoid another year of criticism.

Thunder Erase 18-Point Deficit, Advance To NBA Finals

After falling behind by 18 points in the first half of a pivotal Game 6 at home, it looked like Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder were going to head back to San Antonio for a next-to-impossible elimination Game 7. Instead, they rebounded with a monumental second half to win their fourth straight and win the Western Conference Finals in six games over the mighty Spurs. Oklahoma City will take on the winner of Boston and Miami in the franchise’s first NBA Finals since 1996 back when they were the Seattle Supersonics. Durant led OKC to a 107-99 victory with 34 points, 14 rebounds and five assists as the Thunder outscored San Antonio 59-36 in the second half.

It certainly didn’t look like things would play out well for the Thunder in the first half, though. After struggling for three straight games with Thabo Sefolosha shutting him down, Tony Parker made a point of starting off on a strong note. Parker single-handedly gave his team a big lead early on, dropping 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting. Parker had 21 points and 10 assists by halftime. And although he only scored 12 points the rest of the way, his first prolific performance in the first quarter supplied San Antonio with a 14-point lead after one and was the exact spark they needed to get the game started on a good note. Stephen Jackson and Tim Duncan were also terrific in the first half; Jackson knocked down all four of his 3-pointers (in fact, Jackson finished with 23 points and made his first six 3-point attempts) while Duncan was a much bigger force in the paint with 12 points at the half. However, Kevin Durant hit a monumental and impossible 3-pointer at the buzzer to cut the Spurs’ advantage to 63-48 and give his team a little bit of hope of a comeback in the second half. Which is exactly what they did.

Kevin Durant willed his team to victory once again, leading the Thunder in their comeback from an 18-point deficit.

As soon as the ball was inbounded at the start of the third quarter, the Thunder showed why they’ve been undefeated at home in the postseason so far. Oklahoma City went on an 11-2 run to start the third and it looked like a completely different game. OKC’s defense, which had been at the mercy of Tony Parker and superior 3-point shooting (9-of-15) in the first half, suddenly made its presence known again as the Spurs’ perimeter shooters started to cool down. Russell Westbrook, how had been struggling with his shot for the entire Western Conference Finals, picked a great night to elevate his game, dropping 25 points on 9-of-17 shooting to go with eight rebounds and five assists. Durant and Westbrook were absolutely unstoppable in the third, combining for 22 of the Thunder’s 32 points in the period as they cut the Spurs’ lead to just one heading into the fourth quarter.

James Harden had struggled heading into the game’s final period, but he once again gave the Thunder a huge lift in the fourth by making his free throws and knocking down another killer 3-pointer to put his team up six with three minutes to go as the Spurs were threatening. Harden had 16 off the bench, but Derek Fisher’s performance was even more key for the reserves, as his nine points came at critical moments that kept momentum on OKC’s side and helped him live up to his title as a true “Spur-killer.” Serge Ibaka’s 10 points and Sefolosha’s nine were also nice additions that helped this young and talented team advance to the NBA Finals.

James Harden struggled early on but once again cashed in a solid fourth quarter performance to help OKC finish the series off.

For the Spurs, nobody really got going other than Parker, Jackson and Duncan. Parker had 29, Duncan had 25 and Jackson had 23, but other than Manu Ginobili, no one scored more than seven. The Spurs’ depth all but disappeared once again as no one other than Jackson had any success with their shot. Kawhi Leonard put up a measly five points while Gary Neal could only manage seven. Daniel Green only played four minutes and joined Boris Diaw with a goose egg in the scoring column. It also didn’t help that Gregg Popovich shortened up his bench and it came back to haunt them as Duncan, Ginobili and Parker were visibly gassed in the second half. Without their legs, San Antonio’s incredible 3-point shooting in the first half completely disappeared and the Spurs went from 9-of-15 to 11-of-26 by the game’s end. The Spurs missed shots, committed too many turnovers and racked up fouls on illegal screens to forfeit any and all momentum. Parker had a few late layups to allow the Spurs to hang around, but eventually the Thunder finished them off with free throws and the Western Conference Finals ended in six.

After facing a 2-0 series deficit, the Thunder could have rolled over and let their inexperience take over and the veteran Spurs would have advanced to yet another NBA Finals appearance. But Kevin Durant was spectacular, Westbrook and Harden added in key performances here and there and the rest of the Thunder emerged as quality role players and defenders on a San Antonio side that specialized in overwhelming opponents with depth and scoring. Ever since Scott Brooks made the adjustment of switching Thabo Sefolosha on Tony Parker, the Thunder did not lose. And although Parker lit up OKC in Game 6, the Thunder’s defense stepped up big in the second half and held their tough opponent to just 18 points in the third and fourth quarters. Now the Thunder will have the chance to play for an NBA title against the winner of the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat. OKC has now beaten the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs on their path to the Finals, eliminating all three teams that have come out of the West for the last 13 years. Either way, OKC should be an overwhelming favorite to win it all; the Celtics, while resilient, experienced and well-coached, cannot compete with the Thunder’s youth and experience, while the Heat can’t perform in the fourth quarter or overcome how well this athletic and energetic team is playing right now. The Celtics are playing their best ball right now and are still having problems with a Heat team that isn’t. And with the way Durant has played lately, along with Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka and a bunch of constantly improving role players, the Thunder have a clear advantage of whoever they face in the Finals.

The Thunder aren’t satisfied to just make it to the NBA Finals. They want to win it.

Spurs Rally In Fourth To Take Game 1

It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t convincing, but Manu Ginobili and the Spurs edged Oklahoma City in a 101-98 win in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. San Antonio extended their winning streak to 19 and took a 1-0 lead on the series, but the Thunder played uncharacteristically lackluster down the stretch and still ended up within one basket of what could have been a crucial road victory to start the series.

Ginobili led the Spurs with 26 points off the bench, hitting big baskets down the stretch to help San Antonio come back from a nine point deficit to start the fourth quarter. Tim Duncan finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds while Tony Parker had 18 points, eight rebounds and six assists. The Thunder were outscored 39-27 in the game’s final period after allowing just 62 points through three quarters. Gary Neal pitched in 12 points and Stephen Jackson, who ended up with only five points, hit a back-breaking 3-pointer down the stretch to stop the rolling Thunder from stealing Game 1 on the road. But despite getting the victory in the series opener, I still like OKC in this series. In a highly competitive game in San Antonio, the Thunder only lost by three points after Ginobili played out of his mind and James Harden and Russell Westbrook had awful performances. The likelihood of all three of these things happening at once in a single game again is extremely little. Harden, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year, was completely outplayed by Ginobili, who shot 9-of-14 from the field and played an outstanding game. Not that Ginobili isn’t capable of doing so again, but Harden won’t shoot 7-of-17 again (two 3-pointers came him garbage time) while committing four turnovers and five fouls. Russell Westbrook was even worse, finishing with 17 points on an appalling 7-of-21 shooting. That shouldn’t happen again. Tony Parker is a solid defender, but Westbrook has nowhere to go but up after such a disappointing Game 1 performance.

Manu Ginobili led the Spurs with a huge performance off the bench.

The series opener between these two high-octane teams revealed a few things to keep an eye on in the next few games. First of all, role players will be a deciding factor throughout this series. James Harden failed to make an impact until the game’s waning seconds, which the Thunder cannot afford to happen in Game 2. On the plus side though, Derek Fisher made a huge and unexpected impact with 13 points off the bench. For the Spurs, Tiago Splitter and Gary Neal also made an impact off the bench, but Stephen Jackson’s defense swayed momentum in San Antonio’s favor. Meanwhile, Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka all failed to have significant impacts on the offensive end. The big three on each team is the biggest factor, but how the role players perform on each side will make the difference. Another key factor will be how each team performs down the stretch. Last night, the Spurs got the best of the Thunder in the fourth quarter, which is entirely uncharacteristic of how the Thunder have played so far in the postseason. Defense another key point of impact in this series; the Thunder held the Spurs to just 62 points after three quarters but San Antonio still ended up getting to 100 points. For Oklahoma City, or any team with a nine-point lead entering the final quarter of a huge Game 1, getting outscored like that to lose this very winnable game is completely unacceptable.

Despite the fact that the Spurs pulled out the win, all of these factors lead me to believe that the Thunder will be just fine in this series. Barring that fourth quarter meltdown by the Thunder and Manu Ginobili’s prolific night, Oklahoma City was in good position to win on the road. However, they still have Game 2 to improve and steal a game on the road before the series shits back to OKC. All the Thunder really need to improve is getting more out of Westbrook and Harden, playing defense for a full four quarters, and hoping that Ginobili doesn’t have such an incredible performance again. I think that all three of these things are entirely possible and the Spurs’ Game 1 victory doesn’t fully impress me just yet. Credit San Antonio for taking care of business at home, but if the Thunder can sneak in a win in Game 2, this series is still completely wide open. We could be looking at a long series and despite the fact that neither team played particularly well in the series opener, the Thunder have more upside after this loss than the Spurs despite playing so poorly.

I still like the Thunder in this series, but James Harden and Russell Westbrook will need to pick it up offensively.

Western Conference Finals Preview: San Antonio Spurs Vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

The streaking San Antonio Spurs and the formidable Oklahoma City Thunder tip off tonight in Game 1 of what is sure to be an exciting and enjoyable series. These two teams are coming off convincing victories and certainly earned their appearance in the Western Conference Finals. But with two seemingly unstoppable, high-scoring teams heading on a crash course to get to the NBA Finals, who’s got the edge?

The San Antonio Spurs have silenced critics who wrote them off, calling them old, boring and irrelevant. They’ve won 18 games straight and swept the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers in dominant and convincing fashion. Tony Parker has been involved in MVP talks all year, Tim Duncan has found the fountain of youth that allows him to continue producing at a high level despite being way beyond his prime and Manu Ginobili is starting to warm up on the offensive end again after missing significant time with an injury. Ginobili’s absence during that stretch strengthened the Spurs’ supporting cast and his return only boosted this high-scoring team’s offensive totals. The Spurs are averaging 102.5 ppg in their eight playoff games and haven’t lost in a month. However, they did face a rather weak Jazz team in the first round, followed by an inexperienced and pretty banged up Clippers squad. Now we’ll get to see just how deep this team is against a team that has a prolific starting five and the bench depth and defense to back them up.

The Oklahoma City Thunder convincingly swept the defending champion Dallas Mavericks in the first round and then made the Lakers look like an eight seed by finishing them off in five games. OKC is a jump shooting team that can play quality defense, has decent depth and can get out and run. They are the only other team in the playoffs averaging at least 100 ppg (by averaging exactly 100.0 ppg in their nine games so far), so we can certainly look forward to a high-scoring and exciting series. The Thunder’s games were much closer than the Spurs’ and unlike San Antonio, they’ve lost a game, but these two teams are pretty evenly matched. Each side has a big three. Each side has a great coach. Each side knows how to score and how to win. So who’s going to come out on top? The experienced, streaking Spurs? Or the young, white-hot Thunder?

Which big three will lead their team to victory? Durant, Westbrook and Harden? Or Parker, Duncan and Ginobili?

This series is basically a pick ’em, but the outcome will be decided by a few key factors. First of all, whichever big three outperforms the other will give their team a huge advantage in this series. Parker, Duncan and Ginobili have been great in the postseason so far, but because of San Antonio’s depth, they haven’t had to carry the load or even play extended minutes. The Thunder can’t afford for the Spurs’ big three to outplay Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. I don’t think that will happen, but the Thunder’s big three have got to squeeze every ounce out of what little advantage they have in their big three. In a which-octane matchup like this, the Thunder’s big three have got to come to play every single night and outshine the Spurs’ best three players. The second major factor will be the role players. The Spurs are able to put up so many points because of how many guys they have that consistently put up solid numbers. Their bench is fully capable of piling on the points by knocking down 3-pointers with good ball movement and they’re a big reason why the Spurs tack on so many points every night. The Thunder can’t afford for guys like Gary Neal, Daniel Green, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Jackson and Matt Bonner to knock down open looks.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma City’s supporting cast is more defensively inclined (we’re not counting Harden as supporting cast since he’s OKC’s third-best player), but they’ve shown they can provide solid offensive contributions from time to time. If OKC’s big three puts up big numbers, the Thunder will have an advantage, but they’ll still need to score a decent amount of points to balance out how many points San Antonio’s bench will pile on. Guys like Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison, Nazr Mohammed and especially Derek Fisher, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins have to be ready to step in and knock down a few shots in addition to locking down the Spurs’ prolific offense. The Thunder have an advantage in their starting five, but if their bench isn’t capable of putting up points, San Antonio will be extremely tough to beat. The final factor is defense. With such high scoring teams on the court, whoever can get a few stops, especially down the stretch, will come out on top. The Thunder need to limit Duncan’s production with their defensive specialists, Ibaka and Perkins. Duncan has the fundamentals and post skills to put up points, but if Ibaka and Perkins’ physicality and length can bother him, the Thunder will have a big advantage. On the defensive end, Oklahoma City will also need to limit Tony Parker’s penetration. But because Russell Westbrook is so quick, I think the Thunder can slow him down and limit the Spurs’ wide open looks on the perimeter.

All in all, this is going to be a close series between two unstoppable teams. Whoever advances from this matchup and on to the NBA Finals is an automatic favorite to win a championship just because of how good these two teams in. Whoever wins have all the momentum coming off such a monumental series and I can’t say the Heat or the Celtics will pose much of a threat to either the Spurs or the Thunder. So even though San Antonio is 2-1 against the Thunder during the regular season and has home court advantage, when all is said and done, I think the Thunder are too much for anyone to handle when they hit their jump shots. They have a tendency to fall in love with jumpers, even when they’re not falling, but with everything on the line, I think this OKC is too young and too hot to stop. This is their year to advance to the Finals and win an NBA championship. Keep in mind that the last two teams to sweep their first two playoff series didn’t advance to the NBA Finals, and the Spurs fit that category perfectly up against the formidable Thunder.

Prediction: Oklahoma City over San Antonio in six games

If Westbrook can keep Parker out of the paint, the Spurs won’t get so many open looks.

Thunder Finish Lakers Off, Advance To Western Conference Finals

I predicted the Oklahoma City Thunder would finish off the Lakers in six games, but it turns out they were more dangerous than I anticipated. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Thunder got the job done in five games and made it look relatively easy in the process, either blowing LA out or coming back in the game’s final minutes with a relentless fury that the Lakers couldn’t match. With their convincing 106-90 victory on Monday, the Thunder sent Kobe Bryant and the Lakers home and advanced to their second straight Western Conference Finals.

Russell Westbrook led OKC with 28 points, Kevin Durant followed up with 25 and James Harden added 17 off the bench. No one else reached double digits for the Thunder, but their role players each pitched something in. Serge Ibaka had eight, Nazr Mohammed had seven off the bench, and Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison each had six. Kobe Bryant led all scorers with a dominant 42 points on 18-of-33 shooting, but as has been the case in this series and the majority of the playoffs, received little help from his teammates. The Lakers were out-rebounded 51-35 as LA’s bigs continued to underachieve. Andrew Bynum finished with just 10 points and four rebounds and Pau Gasol had 16 rebounds but could only muster 14 points, which didn’t help the sentiments that he needs to be shipped off after this season. Kobe looked like the only one who cared and couldn’t carry the burden of having no bench and disappointing stars around him against this tough Thunder team.

Westbrook was a problem for the Lakers all series long, but it was his circus shot that sent Kobe and his disappointing supporting cast home early.

For the Lakers, their inability to compete has to be a little disconcerting. Knowing LA’s history of success and how they’ve been competitive each and every year for such a long time, some offseason moves are going to happen. A year for the Lakers without a championship is a failure in LA’s book and because of how competitive Kobe is, management will be forced to make some changes to give their superstar one more chance to win his sixth ring before he finally retires.

Kobe was able to keep the Lakers relatively even with the Thunder for almost three quarters, but when Russell Westbrook picked off Ramon Sessions’ pass and made a spectacular circus shot for a three-point play, the crowd ignited and Oklahoma City never looked back, outscoring the Lakers by ten in the fourth. Oklahoma City’s two elite superstars and their superb Sixth Man of the Year proved to be too much for LA’s one-man attack, as Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka were able to bother Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol just enough to limit their contributions. Ramon Sessions was completely underwhelming for the entire series, Steve Blake and the rest of the bench completely disappeared at times and the Thunder will able to storm back in two games to get huge wins. The Thunder will meet the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, which is sure to be a battle between two unstoppable forces; the Thunder have lost one game in the postseason so far and the Spurs have won 18 games straight. This series will really be a pick ’em, but you can be sure whoever comes out of the West will be hard-pressed to not win it all.

Kobe Bryant and the Lakers need to make some changes this summer.