All eyes in Oklahoma City will be resting on television screens tomorrow as we watch to see whether the Celtics or Heat will advance to the NBA Finals and take on the Thunder. But, what outcome should we all be hoping for?
Emotionally, it's a really tough call to make. Either story makes for a compelling NBA Finals. The Heat are a team constructed of image-obsessed superstars. They made their team through friendships made on Team USA, and some creative circumvention of the salary cap system and GMing in general. Any move made on the team, such as the signing of Ronny Turiaf, is credited to the Big Three's contacting him and asking him to play, rather than any clever move on the GM's part. Coach Erik Spoelstra has sat his stars before, but how much real power he has is always a constant question surrounding the team.
The Thunder, needless to say, are the polar opposites of the Heat. It would be naive to say that Kevin Durant holds no power in the organization or that his image isn't a priority in his life. But on NBA terms, he's about as humble as you can get without being Tim Duncan. The Thunder were painstakingly built over a five year period by gutting a roster of overpaid wings and big man draft flops. They banked on the draft lottery, trading stars for picks, and taking advantage of teams clearing cap space. They come from a small market, and could never attract a big name Free Agent on location alone.
Below: How the Celtics stack up emotionally, how both teams match up strategically!
But, on the other hand, the Celtics represent a last gasp of players active in the 1990s. In my opinion, it's fair to say that no team will get to the finals again featuring players from that era in star roles. The Celtics have had a rocky road over the past couple of seasons, with failed experiments like Shaquille O'Neal and Stephon Marbury and staggering injuries tarnishing their record. But through a little bit of luck and a whole lot of defense, the Celtics were able to straight up battle their way into the Eastern Conference Finals. Some say they don't have the firepower to take on the Thunder, but those people severely underestimate their ability to control the pace of the game.
The Thunder are a direct contrast to this, being the ambassadors of the NBA's new generation. Kevin Durant is in his fifth season, so it's not fair to say he's a spring chicken, but he's only 23, and that's darn young for a player leading his team to the NBA finals. Despite the Thunder being littered with veterans like Perkins, Collison, and Fisher that play key roles, they're by and large led by a four man wrecking crew of Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, and Harden. All of them are under 23, and would definitely be the most inexperienced core to ever win an NBA Finals. Other teams, such as the 94-95 Orlando Magic, have gotten to the finals with a similarly young core, but none have ever won a title.
But honestly, emotionally, I think we should all be pulling for the Miami Heat. Seeing the Celtics would be a cool old vs. new battle, but I think everyone would be more satisfied if the Thunder could smack down LeBron James and his ego in the Finals. Plus, it would be the ultimate proof that a small town team can stand up against big market free agency. At least, for now.
Analytically, it becomes a very different game. Fans will notice that the Thunder are 2-0 against the Celtics, and cruised to victory in both games. Rajon Rondo was out during the first game, but the Celtics still managed to put up a fight. Against the Heat, the Thunder are 1-1, but the first game was a total blowout.
Anyway, let's start with the Heat. First and foremost, they have a reputation for losing focus during games. Some like to construe it as a case of "they try or they don't try", but I like to think of it as more of a case of relying on too few players to produce. When two guys have the majority of the scoring load and one of them has a bad night, it can spell disaster for the team, making losses look worse than they really are.
But the main asset the Heat have is firepower in the backcourt. Most teams the Thunder face simply don't have the tools needed to defend against and score with the Thunder. The Spurs could have done it, but they relied too much on the three and fell away from their team dynamic later in the series. The Heat, on the other hand, have the two best swingmen in the league, and have the ability to put Dwayne Wade on Russell Westbrook. Westbrook struggled with Wade on him in their last encounter, and he has never shown a real ability to work off-ball and beat bigger guards, so that's definitely a problem.
Still, Sefolosha will get serious time defending Wade, and Wade has had some really bad games against Sefolosha in past seasons. LeBron is more than a match for Kevin Durant, and they'll equal each other in most matchups. Thus, the X-Factor, in my opinion, comes down to the offensive matchup of Harden and Sefolosha vs. the defense of Chalmers and Cole. If Harden can break through and become a signifcant scoring force against an underwhelming matchup, then the Thunder will coast to victory in this series, regardless of how the big three do. But if he posts Spurs-like numbers, I'll have serious doubts about our chances.
Now, the Celtics are an entirely different story. They're a team that relies on a slower pace and better defense. They're like the Spurs in that they run a very controlled offense, but I'd call theirs much more methodical and suffocating. They don't take a lot of shots, but when they do, they're open looks, and they make them count. The Celtics are the NBA's #2 team when it comes to assists, which should tell you something about their unselfishness. Still, they do have four players who can all potentially take over the game individually if need be.
On defense, it's really hard to pin on what makes them so good. They don't waste offensive possessions and almost never go for the offensive rebound (ranking dead last in offensive boards per game at 7.7, a whole 2 rebounds below the next worst team). But still, you have to think it's more than that. Both J.A. Sherman and I blamed bad strategy on the Thunder's part for the closeness of both games this season, and most people think the series in the East really rests on how good LeBron or Wade does while playing against them, rather than how well the Celtics play. In my opinion, the Celtics stand as a testament to just how effective a team can be when they get back on defense every single play. Having defensive studs like Pietrus and Dooling on the bench can't hurt, either.
In terms of this specific matchup, the Thunder are pretty good at penetrating the Celtics defense, especially when driving into the paint. Still, the Celts' point guard is much better of a distributor than Westbrook is, and I could easily see the Celtics rolling during certain stretches while Harden or Westbrook pound the ball into oblivion, struggling to find what to do.
But when you put it all together, I just can't justify wanting to face the Heat on a strategic level. Overall, the Thunder are a sound defensive team, but they don't have the tools to totally shut down the Heat, who rely on a few players. On the other hand, the Heat have a bunch of players in the right positions defensively, and will force the Thunder to rely on guys like Harden and Ibaka to produce. It's not impossible for the Thunder to win a series with the Heat. In fact, I think they'd win a series with either team. But the Celtics, as they've proven this season, simply don't have the scoring power to keep up with the Thunder consistently. I could see them putting it together for one game, but the Thunder would win it in 5. A Heat series would be over in 6.
So, if you want to see an easy win, then cheer for the Celtics. If you want to see an emotionally engaging battle, cheer for the Heat. But either way, it doesn't matter. Because the Thunder are going to win.
Heat Regular Season Matchups: Mar. 25th (W 103-87), Apr. 4th (L 98-93)
Celtics Regular Season Matchups: Jan. 16th (W 97-88), Feb. 22nd (W 119-104)