Game Thread at 8:00 PM CST
What a remarkable road we've all traveled. To many of us, it was as if we were reading Bilbo Baggins' "There and Back Again," because despite all of the twists and turns of this bizarre season, we have found ourselves where we expected. The two best players in the league are leading the two best teams in the league into a Finals made in basketball heaven.
Since we know that Game 1 is typically the 'feeling things out' stage of a series and seldom does its unfolding feature meaningful predictions for what is to come, here are 5 thoughts that I have and will think on with interest as the ball tips off in a few short (but not short enough) hours:
- How is OKC going to defend LeBron James? LeBron has made great strides in his shooting efficiency this season and will occasionally uncork a game like Game 6 against the Celtics where he hits every fadeaway he takes. If that is the game he wants to play though, I am inclined to think OKC is fine with it. I couldn't for the life of me believe that in the Heat's deciding Game 7, the Celtics' Brandon Bass consistently tried to guard LeBron out past the perimeter, as if LeBron still was playing Game 6. The result was LeBron was able to get into his driving lanes and work his way to the free throw line 17 times. LeBron shooting jumpers can hurt you; LeBron attacking the rim can destroy you.
- Who is going to guard Chris Bosh? In the series against the Spurs, we were all very concerned about Serge Ibaka's historic struggles in defending stretch-four power forwards. The Thunder responded by putting a great game plan in place to crowd out the shooters and limit Matt Bonner in particular to a horrible series. Now they face Chris Bosh, who has gotten quite used to stepping out in the corner-3 spot and hitting open jumpers. We have yet to see if Bosh is all the way back from his stomach injury, so we don't know how he's going to be able to bang down low. Whatever happens though, OKC cannot leave him open for those open looks, because even if he is still not 100%, he has proven he can make those shots.
- How will OKC make Dwyane Wade work on defense? Wade has had knee issues all playoffs long (he's had his knee drained at least twice). The extra rest should help him, but if his knee is not 100% the Thunder have to take advantage of his limited range and explosiveness. If Wade is trying to cover Russell Westbrook or James Harden, OKC needs to make sure they're forcing Wade to move around the court. Even if the Heat stick Wade on Thabo Sefolosha, there has to be enough movement to make Wade work hard. If OKC can do this, we may see a trailing off of Wade's offensive effectiveness on the other end.
- Can OKC continue to protect the ball? The Thunder are on a great stretch where they have protected the ball much better than in the regular season, but they have yet to face a perimeter defense like Miami's. The way you punish a perimeter defense is by working the ball high and low instead of side to side, because the recovery rotations are more difficult and forces the defenders to get turned around. The Thunder were able to do this in their March 24th game, but not as much in the April 3rd game. Durant in particular must not fall into his bad habits of trying to dribble through pressure instead of make the quick pass.
- Can OKC keep the game close? I am expecting/predicting that this Game 1 is going to unfold similarly to Game 1 against Dallas. OKC is historically a slow starter and have a tendency to start things off shooting poorly. If they try to force things and fall into a bad pace on offense, I wouldn't be surprised to see them playing from behind most of the game. The key though is that the Thunder, from Scott Brooks on down, now have a strong resoluteness about them and know they can recover from just about anything. As long as the game is close entering the 4th, OKC has proven that they know how to close things out.
Prediction: Thunder 95, Heat 93