Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Heat-Thunder: NBA Finals Preview

This is the matchup the NBA universe wanted to see since the season was saved. Luckily, we got it.
Tonight the much anticipated NBA Finals series between the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder will start at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in OKC at 9 PM Eastern. This has been the dream matchup for both NBA analysts and fans alike. The storylines in this series are very compelling. You have the battle between Heat forward and 2011-12 MVP LeBron James and the runner up in Thunder forward Kevin Durant. You have two differing philosophies on how to build an NBA champion going head to head. It's mainly though a matchup of the Heat's Big 3 of James, guard Dwyane Wade and forward Chris Bosh against the Thunder's Big 3 of Durant, guard Russell Westbrook, and guard James Harden.

Both teams had interesting paths to the Finals. Let's look back at how each team got here.

Miami Heat

The Heat went into the playoffs with the most pressure to win. The lackluster effort of last season's Finals was still fresh in the minds of many. The pressure was especially large for James as his toughness during big moments was still doubted.

In the first round the Heat faced the New York Knicks in what many saw as the sexiest matchup of the first round. It was also the first time both teams faced each other in the playoffs since 2000 in one of the most bitter rivalries of the 1990s. The Knicks were coming into a playoffs riding a stellar April by forward and franchise player Carmelo Anthony. That run was quickly ended by the Heat in a Game 1 beating. The Heat were also the unfortunate beneficiaries of a season-ending knee injury suffered by Knicks rookie guard Iman Shumpert in Game 1. Shumpert's absence took away the best defender the Knicks had against Wade. The injury bug kept hitting the Knicks as they lost guard Baron Davis to a knee injury and forward Amar'e Stoudemire to him punching a fire extinguisher.  The Heat quickly took care of the Knicks in five games thanks to an outstanding performance by Anthony that prevented a sweep.

In the semifinals matchup the Heat faced the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers made some noise before the series by complaining of the Heat taking charges. In Game 1 the Heat won the game but lost Bosh in the first half to an abdominal strain injury. The Pacers front line of forward Davis West and center Roy Hibbert took advantage of Bosh's absence and had outstanding Games 2 and 3 to go up 2-1 in the series. With the prospect of going down 3-1 in the series and facing elimination James and Wade took matters into their own hands in Game 4 and began a tear not seen since the Kennedy administration. That tear continued into Games 5 and 6 as the Pacers simply didn't have an answer to James and Wade along with the supporting cast of forward Shane Battier and guard Mario Chalmers.

In the Eastern Conference Finals the Heat faced their modern nemesis in the Boston Celtics. The series looked like it was going to end quick due to the Celtics coming off a seven game series with the Philadelphia 76ers in which they lost rookie guard Avery Bradley to a shoulder injury. In Game 1 it looked like the Heat were just too much for the Celtics. In Game 2 the Celtics showed grit led by a historic performance from guard Rajon Rondo. It was not enough though as the Heat pulled out the victory in overtime. In Games 3 and 4 the Celtics showed veteran poise in their house thanks is part to the pick-&-roll between Rondo and center Kevin Garnett. These games were also where the absence of Bosh from the lineup showed most for the Heat. The Celtics won both games. In Game 5 the Heat had a chance to shift momentum their way but fell short as Celtics forward Paul Pierce made a late 3-point shot putting the game out of reach. Down in the series 3-2 with the possibility of being eliminated on the Celtics home court and the national media waiting for the Heat to fail, James responded with a historic performance in Game 6 to tie the series. In Game 7 at American Airlines Arena the Heat seized the moment after being down by as much as nine points to close out the Celtics. In the fourth quarter the Heat pulled away by scoring 28 points, all by their Big 3.

With that the Heat will make their second straight NBA Finals appearance.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder were coming into the playoffs with something to prove. They wanted to show that their appearance in last season's Western Conference Finals was no fluke and that were ready to take the next step towards being elite team.

In the first round the Thunder faced the Dallas Mavericks in a rematch of last season's Western Conference Finals. This wasn't the same Mavericks team that beat the Thunder though as key pieces like center Tyson Chandler, guard DeShawn Stevenson, and guard JJ Berea all left via free agency. The Mavericks also were missing what they hoped to be key pickup in forward Lamar Odom. Those changes were all the Thunder needed to overtake the Mavericks. Durant, Westbrook, and Harden proved to be too young, too quick, and too hungry for the Mavericks as they swept the series.

In the semifinals the Thunder faced the Los Angeles Lakers. The Thunder had the fresher legs as the Lakers were coming off a tough series against the Denver Nuggets. It was evident also that the Lakers, because of the age of franchise player Kobe Bryant and forward Pau Gasol, were ill-suited to face this Thunder team. It also didn't help that Lakers center Andrew Bynum wasn't completely in the series mentally. The Thunder took quick care of the Lakers in five games and almost swept save for a great performance by Bryant.

In the Western Conference Finals the Thunder faced the San Antonio Spurs, the team that surpassed them in the last month of the regular season for the top seed in the West. In Games 1 and 2 the Spurs looked like the faster team. the Spurs Big 3 of forward Tim Duncan, guard Tony Parker, and guard Manu Ginobili showed their championship mettle and looked to have the Thunder overmatched. That quickly changed once the series shifted to Oklahoma City. In Games 3 and 4 the Thunder showed that they could take a punch and give one right back. The adjustment of putting guard Thabo Sefalosia on Parker freed up Westbrook and that allowed the Thunder offense to get going. While the Spurs showed their mettle again in Games 5 and 6, the Thunder proved that their athleticism was just too much to overcome.

With that the Thunder make their first NBA Finals appearance since 1997 when they were the Seattle Supersonics.

There are many storylines in this Finals series and interesting matchups, but one will be the key to victory.

Chris Bosh vs Serge Ibaka:

Thunder forward Serge Ibaka has emerged this season as an elite shot blocker and was second in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year. That being said he is also known to get in foul trouble for being over aggressive. Bosh will have the task of pulling Ibaka away from the rim to free up the paint for James and Wade. Bosh has the offensive arsenal to do just that, especially if the 3-point shot becomes a steady part of that.

Prediction: Heat win series 4-3

The Thunder has the younger team along with almost the entire country pulling for them. However, championships are won by those who not only want it, but need it. The Heat, particularly James, meet those two criteria. The Heat have won playoff games this time around that they wouldn't have last year. That shows they have learned the lessons needed to claim the first title of the Heat Big 3 era.