Heat and Thunder.
A fitting name in both literal and figurative senses for what many consider the “dream” NBA Finals matchup. With one of the best Conference Finals – on both sides – in the books, we are now looking forward to what should be an even more thrilling, fast-paced, and star-studded series.
Coaches Scott Brooks and Erik Spoelstra will have their hands full breaking down the variety of matchups each team can throw at one another. To try to simplify things, I am breaking down where each team’s advantages lie, and what each team need to capitalize on to become NBA champions.
Big Three: Advantage – slight edge to Miami
The most intriguing dynamic of this series will center around the star players on each side: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden for OKC, and LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh for Miami.
While the threesomes on both sides are pretty evenly matched, I’ll go out on a limb and say Miami has the edge. Overall, Miami’s Big 3 is a little more accomplished in their careers so far than that of OKC’s. No doubt will OKC’s Big 3 be a force for years to come, and they may very well turn the tables during this series. But for now, I’ll say that Miami’s Big 3 are slightly better.
In this series, we will be seeing who appears to be a near full-strength Chris Bosh. Time and time again, he has been reminding us why he’s such a big part of the team. In Game 7 vs. Boston, he was the key difference; he was ultra efficient, scoring 19 points on 8-10 shooting, including 3-4 from three point range. At the end of the fourth quarter during Miami’s 28-15 run to put away the game, LeBron and D-Wade took turns taking punches at Boston, but it was Bosh’s three in the corner that sparked the run and delivered the crushing blow to the Celtics’ title hopes. Despite being much-maligned over the last two seasons, Bosh on the court makes Miami a much, much better team.
Offense: Advantage – slight edge to OKC
We all know how electrifying the Big 3 on each team can be. But as far as overall teams go, the Thunder have a bit more firepower throughout their rotation; most of their supporting cast is capable of making great contributions offensively. You saw evidence of this when Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, and Nick Collison – three of their weaker offensive players – combined for 49 points in Game 4 of their series against San Antonio.
Miami, on the other hand, is very limited outside of the Big 3 on offense. In the end, they made it to the Finals due to the sheer brilliance of LeBron and Wade carrying them through basically the last two rounds. But little offense can be generated from Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony and company, while OKC can produce from all five positions.
Defense: Advantage – Even
Both teams have been stellar defensively. On Miami’s end, LeBron has become a hell of a defender, and Wade ain’t too shabby either. Throw in Haslem and Battier’s ability to take charges in the paint, and Westbrook and Durant will have to be very mindful of picking up offensive fouls.
OKC’s length and athleticism makes them very hard to score on – especially for role players trying to create shots for themselves. Ibaka is one of the best help defenders in the game, averaging 3.3 blocks this postseason. But if he’s matched up against Bosh, Bosh’s ability to hit perimeter jumpers will keep him from roaming the lane.
Overall, defensive (and offensive) advantages will come down to effort (i.e. offensive rebounds, fastbreak points, second shot attempts, forced turnovers, etc.) between the two teams – not ability.
Supporting Cast: Advantage – OKC
This is an unquestionable advantage for the Thunder, especially with Sixth Man of the Year James Harden coming off the bench. Miami’s 2nd unit has no one to match the energy of Harden, Nick Collison and company. Limitations of productivity from Miami’s role players have been an issue all season long, and figure not to change much here; Miami’s Big 3 will have to carry 90% of the scoring and playmaking burden. This means that Erik Spoelstra is going to give his star players some heavy minutes all series long. Neither team has a very good front court, but OKC has a slightly more productive one. And bench wise, it’s not even close.
Chemistry: Advantage – OKC
Overall, the Thunder are playing with much better cohesion at both ends of the floor at this particular juncture. While Miami has looked great at times, they struggled mightily against Boston (and for a couple games vs. Indiana). Guys seemed to struggle spacing the floor and knowing where to be on offense. If games are close, one would have to favor the Thunder to close out games. Late in close games, Miami has the tendency to run very isolation-heavy plays that are really hit-or miss, while OKC always seems to pull through somehow in tight situations. Also, Durant has been a lot more clutch down the stretch of several games than anyone on Miami has.
Experience: Advantage – Miami
No question about this one. Miami was two wins away from winning last year’s title, while OKC was still a young and up-and-coming team last season. Both, however, lost to the same defending champion Dallas Mavericks. Still, Wade and Haslem are proven champions and bring their battle-tested experience to this series, while LeBron has a whole lot of playoff miles as well. Wade, in particular, seems to raise his level of play during the Finals – as he did in both 2006 (when he was Finals MVP) and 2012. As long as LeBron doesn’t melt down the same way he did in last year’s Finals, Wade should be able to close out tough games.
None of OKC’s best players – KD, Westbrook, and Harden – are older than 23 years, and this is their first go-around in the NBA Finals. On a stage where many players and teams admitted experiencing stage fright, this is the one legitimate potential downfall I can see in OKC right now.
Keys for Oklahoma City
- Utilize home court advantage: Thus far, Oklahoma City has looked invincible on their home floor and has yet to lose a game at Chesapeake Energy Arena during the playoffs. So, with Miami looking vulnerable on theirs – losing home games against both Indiana and Boston – OKC must take capitalize on their own home court advantage, particularly in the 2-3-2 format. If they hold serve at home, it will be very tough for the Heat to win three consecutive games in Miami.
- Russell Westbrook: Miami has absolutely NO answer at the point guard position for him, and they have historically struggled against teams with great offensive point guards. If Westbrook scores 20+ ppg, the Thunder will be in very good shape and cause chaos on Miami’s defense. A lot of Westbrook naysayers complain about him taking more shots than Durant too often, but since Westbrook has this much of a matchup advantage, I would not have a problem with him shooting more than Durant in every game.
- Zone Defense: Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins must clog the lanes and force LeBron and Wade to shoot perimeter shots. Outside of Bosh, Miami’s frontcourt depth is very weak offensively, so either Perkins or Ibaka should be able to float around the lane – just as Kevin Garnett did for most of the Eastern Conference Finals. LeBron just had two outstanding shooting games against the Celtics, particularly in Game 6 in Boston. But if you’re the Thunder, you have to go by percentages and let LeBron beat you with jumpers – not driving and creating shots for teammates. LeBron has had two ridiculously efficient outside shooting games in the last five years: Game 6 in Boston (45 points on 19-26 shooting), and once as a Cav (48 points on 18-33 shooting, including the Cavaliers’ final 25 points) in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals vs. Detroit. If LeBron makes that a more common occurrence in the Finals, then there’s nothing Oklahoma City can do to stop him.
Keys for Miami
- Create driving lanes for LeBron and D-Wade: When the two-headed monster of James and Wade are aggressively attacking the basket, Miami is clearly at its best. In fact, to help create more driving lanes and make way in the paint for them, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Miami go small with a Battier, James, and Bosh front court. This will make Scott Brooks consider taking Kendrick Perkins out of the lineup, since he tends to struggle against small-ball offenses. With Perkins being a real enforcer down in the paint, playing small to take him out of the equation could pay dividends for the Heat and its ability to create driving lanes.
- Keep Durant and Westbrook on the perimeter: Although Durant and Westbrook are much better shooters than Wade and LeBron, Miami must defend OKC’s superstars the same way OKC is defending theirs. When OKC struggles offensively, it’s when Durant and Westbrook settle for long jump shots. Long shots lead to long rebounds, and this would trigger Miami’s lethal fast break game.
- Outside shooters must contribute: Throughout the postseason, Mike Miller (18 mpg, 37% FG), James Jones (8 mpg, 35% FG), and Shane Battier’s (31% FG, 32 mpg) presence has been spotty at best. Miller, in particular, seems to be a prime candidate to be amnestied this offseason. To be fair, Spoelstra hasn’t placed much trust in them –especially Miller and Jones. But in order to space the floor enough for LeBron and D-Wade to attack the rim, it is essential that these guys knock down outside shots. The Thunder have arguably the best length and athleticism at all five positions in the league, making them a stellar defensive team – especially when it comes to help defense. If Miami’s shooters prevent the Thunder from clogging the paint by forcing them to respect their shooters, things will really open up for Miami’s offense.
On paper, this is shaping up to be one of the most star-studded, explosive, fast-paced, and exciting Finals we’ve ever seen. It’s a total crapshoot to predict what’s going to happen in this series because of how evenly matched they are, and both teams will have a hard time gaining momentum for an extended period of time due to explosiveness on both ends. In this case, I think experience will eventually prevail, and LeBron will get the King Kong-sized gorilla off his back and win his first championship.
But..I would not be surprised at all if OKC wins. They are the favorites heading into this series, after all. Also, to quote Gregg Popovich after his Spurs lost to OKC in the Conference Finals, the Thunder will have gone through the teams that won 11 of the last 13 NBA championships – Dallas (2011), LA (2000-02, 09-10), San Antonio (1999, 2003, 05, 07), and Miami (2006). And just to re-emphasize, none of their stars are older than 23 years. Incredible.
Either way, strap yourselves onto the couch for the upcoming Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday nights…and get ready for playoff basketball at its best.
Miami in 7