Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Finals Preview: Heat vs Thunder

Heat vs Thunder. Thunder vs Heat. The people's Finals. It's a toss-up. Both teams look like championship teams. The Heat have already been here and lost in the Finals just one year ago, while the Thunder are fresh. The saying usually goes, "You need to lose one to win one," but the Heat largely seem to be the underdog in this series. This matchup also pits the top two vote-getters in the MVP race against each other in the Finals for the first time since 1998. The easiest way to analyze this epic matchup will be to break it down... let's go!

Since Jordan and Malone met in the 1998 Finals, there hasn't been this level of MVP talent going head-to-head for the Larry O'Brien. This year, LeBron won his third career MVP award topping Kevin Durant, the NBA's scoring champ in each of the past three seasons. In these playoffs LeBron has averaged 30.8 points per game over 42.4 minutes per, while Durant is averaging 27.8 in 41.6. LeBron is one of the best defenders in the League and Durant's no slouch either; his long arms and quick hands allow him to excel on the defensive end of the floor as well as his deadly shooting touch. LeBron is simply a better all-around player right now with 9.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists to KD's 7.9 and 4.2, but the well-rounded pair should match up well with LeBron maintaining the slight edge.

Second Bananas
On any other team in the League, Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade would be the unquestioned team leader and go-to-player, yet both defer to the aforementioned MVP candidates. This season Westbrook outplayed Wade, a former Finals MVP, and was named to the All-NBA Second Team while Wade made the Third Team. Wade is averaging 22.9 points, 5 rebounds and 4.1 assists, while Westbrook is averaging 21.7, 5.1 and 5.6. Whichever of these two can better complement their team leader while allowing them the space to do what they do, should lead his team to victory. Wade has been here before and is less likely to make the questionable decisions on the court that Westbrook is often criticized for.
Big Two-and-a-Half
Chris Bosh has been the butt end of many jokes along the lines of "two and a half men," but the third wheel of the big three came up big in game seven against the Celtics hitting three of four shots from the land beyond in just his third game back from an abdominal strain suffered earlier in the playoffs that caused him to miss nine games. He has averaged 13.7, 6.9, and just 0.8 assists in his limited time. On the other side, James Harden has emerged as one of the best shooting guards in the League and a legitimate third scorer for the young Thunder. Coming off the bench, Harden has averaged 17.6, 5.2 and 3.3. Whoever shows up more and completes their team's big three should be able to push their team over the top. Bosh is the bigger factor if he can show up and has no limitations.

Post Powers
The Thunder post players are able to shut down the paint, so that Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha and others can play risky basketball and stab at passes that will lead to steals and fast breaks knowing they have Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins down low to protect the basket if any offensive players get through the perimeter. Ibaka is grabbing 5.9 rebounds and blocking 3.3 shots per game, while Perkins is averaging 6.0 and 1.5. The Thunder also have Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed backing up the starting bigs. The Heat meanwhile have Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony, Ronny Turiaf and Dexter Pittman, all limited offensively and not as intimidating on the defensive end either. Technically, Bosh counts here too. The Thunder bigs will give OKC a huge advantage.

From 2001 to 2008, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra served as assistant coach/director of scouting for the team. Since taking over as head coach, he's led the Heat to 194 wins in four seasons and two Finals appearances. He's been on the hot seat most of his time in charge in Miami, and if the team falls short again, drastic changes may be in order. Whether LeBron or Wade will listen to Spo over their own instincts is doubtful. While Spo never actually played in the NBA, Thunder coach Scott Brooks spent ten years with six teams in the League. The Thunder have improved each year during Brooks' tenure going from a 22-47 record after he took over the team in 2008-09, to 47-19 this season. Both coaches have done a fine job controlling the best players in the League, but Brooks gets the slight nod because of his in-game experience.
The Season Series
March 25 in Oklahoma City: Thunder 103, Heat 87; Durant: 28 points, nine rebounds, eight assists
April 4 in Miami:
Heat 98, Thunder 93; James: 34 points, seven rebounds, 10 assists

The Verdict
With better post players, and perhaps the better coach, the Thunder are the favorites right now. Westbrook will be hard-pressed to outplay Wade in the Finals where Wade has been a few times, and of course the MVP is looming on the other side. Bosh could make or break this series, but he may be even less dependable than the off-the-bench effort from James Harden. Don't forget about Shane Battier and Derek Fisher, who provide leadership and championship-mentality. This should be a thrilling NBA finals, that will likely (hopefully) go seven games. The Thunder have advanced in four, five, then six games, while the Heat have advanced in five, six, then seven. If the series goes to seven, count on the energy of Oklahoma City to push the Thunder over the top while the Heat fall just short for the second year in a row.

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