And now for the matchup we’ve all been waiting for: The Oklahoma City Thunder meet the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals starting on Tuesday night. While each team finished 2nd in their respective conferences, the prevailing feeling at the start of the 2012 NBA Playoffs, was that these were the two most talented teams in the NBA and that they would meet for to play for an NBA championship. For good reason.
Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and Miami’s LeBron James are the game’s two best players, showing they are more than capable of carrying the scoring load, particularly in big stretches of crucial games so far in the postseason. Durant won the NBA scoring title this season, with James finishing less than one point per game behind him. James finished 1st, for the 5th straight season, in John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating metric, which is a rating of a player’s per-minute productivity. Durant finished 4th. Both players are the top two scorers left in the NBA Playoffs. And both will determine their team’s respective fates.
Miami and OKC also feature All-NBA selections and scoring assassins at the guard spots in Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook. Yet for all of the star power, this series may well be decided by the role players. Throughout NBA Finals history, shooters like Steve Kerr, John Paxson and more recently, Jason Terry, have hit enormous shots to key their clubs to victory. We’re in store for a memorable NBA Finals. Here is an in-depth look at the matchups in the series and a prediction:
Russell Westbrook vs. Mario Chalmers
A big NBA Finals performance from Russell Westbrook will go a long way in deciding whether OKC are left standing at the end of June. The 4th year superstar out of UCLA was erratic shooting the basketball against San Antonio (38%) yet great at distributing the basketball. Westbrook’s passing in transition and unselfish play was key to Oklahoma City advancing past San Antonio, though he knows he must step up his scoring and take advantage of the match-up with Chalmers. Mario Chalmers is no scoring maven like Tony Parker but he can fill it up from long range. Chalmers averages just under four 3-point attempts per game and is connecting on 36% of his treys. He’s also the Heat’s leading scorer and a great barometer of the team’s success. When he’s on, the Heat are usually rolling.
Edge: Oklahoma City
Thabo Sefolosha vs. Dwyane Wade
On paper, this pairing looks like a landslide victory for Miami but consider this: Sefolosha slowed down the Spurs’ Manu Ginobli significantly in three of the final four games of the Western Conference Finals and he completely took Danny Green and Gary Neal out of their games. Wade is an elite player and he will unquestionably get his points and many trips to the foul line. But Wade should face his fiercest defensive competition yet. Miami’s veteran shooting guard shot well below his postseason and regular season averages against Boston. If he thinks Ray Allen was tough, wait until he meets Sefolosha. Wade will really need to elevate his game to its highest level to combat Sefolosha’s tenacious perimeter defense.
Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James
A match-up for the ages. The most anticipated superstar showdown since the 1995 NBA Finals pitted Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon against Orlando’s Shaquille O’Neal, this season’s NBA Finals feature two hungry, mega-talented young greats in the prime of their careers. Durant saved his best performance of the 2012 Playoffs for Game 6, in the close out against San Antonio, pouring in 34 points and hitting dagger 3-point shots in the 2nd half to help OKC storm back for the victory. James is leading the NBA postseason in scoring and has been its most dominant player. He’s fresh off a series where he averaged 33.6 ppg and 11 rpg and had an otherworldly 45 point, 15 rebound performance in Game 6 in Boston, on 73% shooting. Enjoy this one.
Serge Ibaka vs. Shane Battier/Udonis Haslem
Battier was instrumental in helping to vault Miami into the NBA Finals, nailing a combined seven 3-pointers in Games 6 and 7 against the Celtics. He will be heavily relied upon to help Miami spread the floor against OKC’s excellent half-court defense. Haslem is a beast on the boards and will attempt to slow down the red-hot Ibaka. The 22-year old native of The Republic of Congo averaged 12 ppg on 58% shooting and nearly 6 rebounds and 3 blocks per game in the Western Conference Finals. Ibaka was ubiquitous on the offensive and defensive end, putting in a performance for the ages in Game 4, going 11-11 from the field and scoring 26 points in a crucial victory.
Kendrick Perkins vs. Chris Bosh
Bosh stepped back into the spotlight for the final three games of the Eastern Conference Finals. He now should be back in the starting lineup, mostly playing center against OKC’s talented big men in the paint. Thunder Head Coach, Scott Brooks, had to be thrilled with the production from Perkins against San Antonio. Perkins only averaged 5.8 ppg and 6.2 rebounds per contest but did yeoman’s work slowing down Tim Duncan, holding the future Hall of Famer to a couple of poor shooting nights. A rejuvenated Bosh brings a much needed scoring presence to the Miami frontcourt but Perkins’ interior defense may be one of the huge keys to this series.
Miami will lean heavily on their starters, with only a few reserves getting meaningful minutes in the NBA Finals. The Heat are desperate for rebounding help, so Udonis Haslem will get many minutes. Mike Miller and Norris Cole will hope to spur Miami’s long-distance shooting attack when they spell Wade and Chalmers. Sixth man of the year, James Harden is OKC’s 3rd leading scorer and best 3-point shooter. Harden’s performance will play a major role in determining whether the Thunder hold the Larry O’Brien Championship trophy. Derek Fisher is a veteran leader at point guard who is unafraid to step up and nail the big shot. Nick Collison has averaged 16.6 minutes per game this postseason and is a gritty veteran that snags loose balls and grabs rebounds.
Edge: Oklahoma City
Miami has reached the NBA Finals for the 2nd consecutive season and features two players, Haslem and Wade, with NBA championship pedigree. OKC’s young studs will not be intimidated but for every player on their roster (except Fisher), these are unchartered waters.
Miami Head Coach Erik Spoelstra came under fire last series for his lack of big-game play calling. That was, until Games 6 and 7. While some criticism was justified, Spoelstra also deserves credit for helping to better integrate the Heat’s role players in the offense in the decisive Game 7 victory over Boston. Scott Brooks is a very polished young coach who has earned the respect of basketball fans during this 2012 postseason. The former NBA player has mixed and matched defensively, with great effect, against the opposing teams’ top players, to help neutralize Tim Duncan and Pau Gasol in prior series’ so far.
Edge: Oklahoma City
This series will come down to whether Miami has enough depth and fire power to outlast the Thunder’s up tempo young guns. Wade and James make up an incredible 56% of Miami’s scoring in the NBA Playoffs. They will have to get help from the third wheel of “The Big 3”, Chris Bosh, in order to defeat the Thunder. What cannot be understated is the home court advantage. OKC is 8-0 at home in the Playoffs and their frenzied, deafeningly loud home crowd seemingly wills them to huge runs and ultimately, victories. The Thunder’s vaunted scoring trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden will carry OKC to its first NBA Championship.
Oklahoma City Wins 4 games to 2