Oh, what a season! If you haven't been watching the Thunder, then you've missed out on the biggest roller coaster ride Oklahoma City's been on in it's entire existence. A small, unassuming state forever cursed to have no originality and never find a proper region (is it Southwest? Midwest? Deep South?) somehow lucked into the greatest young basketball team that NBA has seen in the past 30 years. The people, once divided into crimson and orange, came together to support one team in a way that is simply unprecedented. People around the world, who once had no idea what was between Dallas and Chicago, now have Oklahoma firmly entrenched in their minds.
The season has been a ride of many ups and downs. We've seen Westbrook and Durant grow in friendship and score over 90 points combined. We've seen Eric Maynor fall to a season ending injury. We've seen James Harden become the league's premier bench scorer and clutch player. We've seen the team's PA Announcer, Jim Miller, fired over sexual allegations. We've seen Serge Ibaka become the Dikembe Motumbo of the two thousand teens. We've seen a shooting end one of the greatest outdoor watch parties the world has ever seen. We've seen Derek Fisher pull together our team for one last hurrah on his part. We've seen countless Thunder music videos and art work. Heck, we've seen Charles Barkley jog around Bricktown.
But, most of all, we've seen this young team finally defeat the old guard and advance to the pantheon of greatness.
The NBA Finals.
Just the name makes you shudder. It's what long-suffering franchises can only dream of. It's where some of the game's greatest players could never succeed. It's where champions are made, and some of the world's greatest athletes and tacticians come together in a two week all out battle for ultimate glory.
But, for me, it's the manifestation of a dream that once seemed so very far away. Only an idea in my head as I played basketball in the driveway and made fake Oklahoma City teams in NBA Live 98. To see it come true is so far over the line of unbelievable that I sometimes wonder if my feet are still on the ground.
But enough reminiscing. Let's get down to business.
|Udonis Haslem||Kendrick Perkins|
|6.0 Pts, 7.3 Reb, 0.7 Ast, 81% FT||5.1 Pts, 6.6 Reb, 1.2 Ast, 1.1 Blk|
|Chris Bosh||Serge Ibaka|
|18.0 Pts, 7.9 Reb, 1.8 Ast, 0.9 Stl||9.1 Pts, 7.5 Reb, 3.7 Blk, 54% FG%|
|LeBron James||Kevin Durant|
|27.2 Pts, 7.9 Reb, 6.2 Ast, 1.9 Stl||28.0 Pts, 8.0 Reb, 3.5 Ast, 1.2 Stl|
|Dwayne Wade||Thabo Sefolosha|
|22.1 Pts, 4.6 Ast, 1.7 Stl, 1.3 Blk||4.8 Pts, 3.0 Reb, 0.9 Stl, 47% 3PT|
|Mario Chalmers||Russell Westbrook|
|"Super Mario"||"Honey Badger"|
|9.8 Pts, 2.7 Reb, 3.5 Ast, 1.5 Stl||23.6 Pts, 4.6 Reb, 5.5 Ast, 1.7 Stl|
|Mike Miller, James Jones||James Harden, Daequan Cook|
|"Slim", "J.R."||"Jimbo Slice", "Dynamic"|
MM: 6.1 Pts, 3.3 Reb, 1.1 Ast.
JJ: 3.6 Pts, 1.0 Reb, 40% 3PT.
JH: 16.8 Pts, 4.1 Reb 3.7 Ast.
DC: 5.5 Pts, 2.1 Reb.
The Lowdown: The Heat's backup wings mainly serve to shoot open threes. Miller is slightly better and can drive a bit, but his best days as a scorer are behind him. Both Miller and Jones are great marksmen, but overall I'd say that Cook is better at taking advantage of a hot streak and hitting key threes. But Cook likely won't get more than 6 or so minutes a game, so Miller might end up having more impact. Jones is equally limited. Obviously, Harden is out of everyone else's league, and it would make more sense to talk about how he'll do against the Heat's starters; namely, Dwayne Wade. Harden has been efficient against Miami in the past, but he hasn't really taken a lot of shots, and you can't help but thinking that Wade played a bit of a role in that. The big difference between now and then is that Harden basically runs point now, and takes part in more complicated plays. Since Wade is more of a man-to-man defender, rather than a trap one, I think this might play into Harden's favor. Anyway, Harden trumps all, so advantage Thunder.
|Norris Cole||Derek Fisher|
|"Chuck Norris Cole"||"Old Faithful"|
|6.8 Pts, 1.4 Reb, 2.1 Ast, 77% FT||5.6 Pts, 1.9 Reb, 2.7 Ast, 92% FT|
The Lowdown: Despite Norris Cole being the polar opposite of Derek Fisher in terms of age, in terms of production he brings the same thing to the table. He was a horrible shooter during the regular season, often being a large reason as to why the Heat lost. As a result, he saw his minutes dwindles into near nothingness during the playoffs. Nevertheless, he is better at driving the ball, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him throw a few baskets down on Fisher during this series. Meanwhile, on Fisher's part, I just hope that he keep hitting the shots he's given, and playing his old heart out on defense. Because he might as well be 27 with the way he played against San Antonio.
Bottom of the Bench:
|Dexter Pittman, Juwan Howard, Terrel Harris||Royal Ivey, Reggie Jackson, Lazar Hayward, Cole Aldrich|
|"Sexy Dexy", "Nooky", "Fake ID"||"Cheese", "Better Basketball", "Zar Zar Binks", "Cole Sore"|
The Lowdown: As I've said before, the Heat have fluid rotations, so it's easy to see Dexter Pittman getting spot minutes during a random game in this series. I don't think we'll see old man Juwan or mis-spelled Terrel, except during absolute blowouts. On the Thunder's side of things, Ivey is about a 5% possibility to get real minutes, while everyone else pretty much won't see the non-blowout floor.
|Erik Spoelstra||Scott Brooks|
|Reg. Season: 194-118
2 Eastern Conference Championships
Reg. Season: 174-125
1 Western Conference Championship
The Lowdown: Erik Spoelstra has his work cut out for him. The Heat are expected to win rings and dominate the NBA, while anything else is seen as failure. Yet, despite never having played in the NBA and working with its' biggest personalities, he's still managed to carve out niche roles for players around the big three, and create one of the NBA's toughest defensive teams. Trouble is, he still hasn't figured out his rotations, and will have to balance injuries with need. Scott Brooks is much more set in his rotations, has certain control over his players, and has no injuries to contend with. Oh, and he's got home court. Honestly, I've gotta go with Brooks here.
Keys to Winning the Series:
1. Don't tire out KD by forcing him to stick onto LeBron all game. This was brought up in a comment thread by ThunderHorn, and I don't think it could be more poignant. Whenever LeBron or Wade is forced to do too much during the game, they'll take a back seat or jack up jumpers during critical times. If we put too much responsbility on KD, the same thing could happen. Give KD a manageable defensive matchup (like Battier, Jones, or even Bosh) half of the time, and let him focus on scoring.
2. Let Bosh have his jumpers, and keep the paint locked down. If you have Ibaka or Collison out in mid-range chasing Bosh around and fighting through picks, all you're doing is freeing up space for two of the best players in the league to dominate the paint.
3. Limit the turnovers. The Heat are a very defensively sound team, so I don't think getting on the break is as important as preventing the Heat from going on the break. The Heat aren't as offensively proficient as the Spurs were, so if you can eliminate one aspect of their offense, it's a whole lot easier to grind their gravy train to a halt. The way to do that is simple. Take care of the ball. No more rigid, obvious plays where everyone knows the ball is going. No more overestimating your dribbling abilities going into the paint. And, most of all, no more forced shots way too early in the shot clock.
4. Play small. The Thunder generally have made their runs against the Heat this year while playing small, and here's why. They don't have anybody who can punish the Thunder for doing so. Sure, there's Bosh, but he's limited by injury, and he never plays with his back to the basket. Durant would be just as effective at guarding him as Ibaka would be. Then, you could have someone like Sefolosha on the floor to limit Wade, Harden to run circles around LeBron, and Westbrook to attempt to exploit Chalmers. You could also have Fisher out there as point guard, constantly ready to take the open three while a trio of Westbrook, Harden, and Durant attack the mid-range and paint. It's not a fool-proof strategy, but one that should be attempted to its' fullest extent.
5. Never take your foot off the gas. Okay, so maybe this one's a bit of a cop out, but we all know how easily the Heat came out of 2-1 and 3-2 deficits in the last two rounds against solid defensive teams. If we let the Heat re-gain their confidence, all hell could break loose.
Game 1: Tuesday, June 12th, 8:00 CDT, OKC, ABC
Game 2: Thursday, June 14th, 8:00 CDT, OKC, ABC
Game 3: Sunday, June 17th, 7:00 CDT, MIA, ABC
Game 4: Tuesday, June 19th, 8:00 CDT, MIA, ABC
Game 5: Thursday, June 21st, 8:00 CDT, MIA, ABC
Game 6: Sunday, June 24th, 7:00 CDT, OKC, ABC
Game 7: Tuesday, June 26th, 8:00 CDT, OKC, ABC
Prediction: Thunder in 6.
If I predicted the Thunder to lose this series, I think a lynching mob would appear outside my door in a few minutes. Or, at least, someone would attempt to find a 100 year old tree that had been dislodged by a recent tornado and hurt me with it in some fashion. Regardless, I do think the Thunder will win this series. They won't cruise to victory like some say they will, but in the end, it will be a handy victory. The Heat might have the two best players on the floor, but with Bosh limited and Chalmers losing relevance, it's just too much burden to put on two guys. One thing I noticed about the final game of the Eastern Conference Finals is that LeBron didn't hit a single field goal in the last five minutes. He had simply shouldered too much of the load earlier on, and if the Celtics were putting up an actual fight, I think there might be a lot more questions about the Heat's ability to win right now. In the end, the Thunder can lean on their supporting cast a lot more than the Heat can, and there's been close to zero emotional drama on their team this season. How could you pick anyone else?
How do you think the series will go? Vote in the poll, post a comment!
All photos are attributed to Keith Allison except: Lazar Hayward: Kevin Coles, Royal Ivey: Compujeramey, Reggie Jackson: AliJoyy, Norris Cole: RMTip21, Terrel Harris: RMTip21, Dexter Pittman: Aaronisnotcool, Ronny Turiaf: SD Dirk. These users can easily be found on Flickr, and authorized their photos for commercial use under Creative Commons 2.0. Many thanks go out to them for the photo work.