LeBron against Durant
The series is set, NBA scoring champion versus the NBA MVP. The Horn breaks down what to expect from the series and who will claim the title.
These Finals are about redemption and respect. The former references Miami’s quest to seize what they were unable to accomplish in 2011 (Individually, LeBron James’ determination to bounce back from a particularly disappointing performance in last year’s Finals.) The latter, of course, indicates the chip that Kevin Durant and company are carrying with them on their collective shoulder.
The Thunder are young, talented, and possess an unquenchable thirst for success and respect. They know they belong, and this conviction that they must take respect, rather than wait for it to be awarded to them, is what the Thunder will need if they are to surmount Miami’s trio of stars.
This is the matchup many were hoping for; those outside the city limits of San Antonio and Boston, anyway. So much star power, so many headlines, so full of likeable and unlikeable characters. But as much star power and charisma as these two teams exude, they exist on the opposite ends of so many spectrums.
It’s South Beach pitted against small-market Oklahoma City. A Miami franchise that has made a name for itself over the past two and a half decades versus a recently relocated basketball franchise from Seattle. A 3-time NBA MVP and a Finals MVP, both with Finals experience, against the NBA’s back-to-back-to-back scoring champion who is making his first appearance on the NBA’s grandest stage. Self-proclaimed champions facing a group of resentful young guns. Tremendous theater.
So much more than just championship rings and a banner rides on this series. It’s the possibility of LeBron failing in his first three attempts at a Finals championship; having three MVPs at the age of 28 and still not convincing the collective basketball world that he has what it takes.
It’s the pressure on Dwyane Wade to perform at a high level, or else defer leadership and the team to LeBron James (he won’t admit it, but that worry exists.)
It’s Kevin Durant searching for his first championship, which will lay the foundation for a dynasty in OKC. It’s Chris Bosh with a chance to prove his importance to the Heat and, quite frankly, creep out behind the shadows of Wade and LeBron. It’s Russell Westbrook, one of the most athletic point guards to ever play the game, with the opportunity to grow up before our very eyes.
It’s either the beginning of a Miami Heat dynasty or the disbandment of its nucleus. It’s the understanding that respect is deeply rooted in championship rings. It’s historic, in context. Fans should be grateful for what they have the opportunity to witness.
With that precursor, we transition to the matchups. Most are familiar with each team’s nucleus—the two sets of “Big 3’s.” One-on-one matchups galore await us in this best-of-seven series:
Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James
The top two players in the league? Arguably. The top two players in this series? Absolutely. It’s one of the best head-to-head matchups in recent memory. You have two players who can literally score at will. 25 points a night is a given for each of them (if you conveniently forget that LeBron didn’t score higher than 24 points in last year’s Finals).
Everyone knows about the scoring titles and MVPs; it really isn’t necessary to harp on that aspect of the matchup. Instead, it’s the common, unachieved goal both James and Durant are pursuing that adds intrigue to this NBA Finals. Both are searching for their first ring. James, in order to redeem himself and silence his critics. Durant, to earn the utmost respect in the basketball world and make the conversation for “best player on the planet” just that much more interesting. As common knowledge is now beginning to suggest, the edge in pure talent is given to LeBron. The sports world is actually still trying to find someone in NBA history that is as physically gifted and talented as the man.
In no way does this critique of James suggest that he owns every edge on the court, though. Not even close. The obvious area in which he lacks consistent production is during the final minutes of contests. Give that edge to Durant, A.K.A. Mr. Clutch. Kevin Durant has hit numerous daggers throughout these playoffs to help knock off the defending champion Mavericks, the Lakers, and the multitalented Spurs.
The Western Conference Finals proved to many, or at least should have proved, that Kevin Durant is the epitome of fortitude. Heck, his entire team is. Place a checkmark in the column next to Durant’s name for that comparison. At the end of the day, both are unguardable. So unguardable that we had to invent the word “unguardable” just to describe how unguardable they really are.
Wade/Chalmers vs. Russell Westbrook
Yes, we’ll see a lot of Chalmers on Westbrook, and vice versa. But Westbrook will see a good amount of Dwyane Wade, too. Dealing with a point guard as athletic as Westbrook is, and seeing that the ball is in his hands at the beginning of almost every possession, it’s going to take a sort of tag-team effort from Wade and Chalmers.
Wade won’t want his offensive game to suffer from chasing Westbrook around for four quarters, hence the “helping hand” role he’ll play against the Thunder point guard. For Westbrook, it’s about two things. Limit the turnovers and don’t lose sight of Wade. This means Westbrook will have to exert full effort on the defensive end while Wade is on the court, whether it’s on- or off-ball defense. More than anything, this is a test of Westbrook’s conditioning and maturity level. It will absolutely challenge Westbrook both physically and mentally. There’s still doubt that exists as to whether or not Westbrook is capable of such a task, and we’ll find out the answer to this very early into Tuesday’s Game 1.
Chris Bosh vs. Serge Ibaka
How Bosh plays in Game 1 may just determine a large part of his confidence for the entire series. Not that the Heat have to win the opening game, but Bosh will definitely need to find a way to sink shots over Ibaka and make open jumpers consistently. The latter shouldn’t be a problem. It’s the shot-blocking ability of Ibaka that presents a problem. If at the very least Serge Ibaka can frustrate and alter Bosh’s shot throughout the night, then watch out. We’ve seen what can happen when Chris Bosh is in a funk, and LeBron and Wade will feel the effects of it. The Thunder are hoping they can trust Ibaka and his athleticism to stay on Bosh and make him a minimal worry. This matchup is huge. Ibaka’s defensive ability versus Bosh’s offensive rebounding and shooting.
James Harden vs. The Field
We won’t see just one person focusing on Harden throughout the series. It’s going to be a group effort, with help coming from just about everyone on the floor at times. Miami will try and switch it up, in hopes to keep James Harden on his toes and out of any rhythm. We’ll see how successful the Heat are at keeping him in front of them. With the doubles that Durant is going to encounter and the penetrating ability Westbrook has (not to mention each player’s outside shooting capability), Harden will to be a difficult cover. Surprise.
Thunder: Everyone wants to say Harden. It’s so hard not to do so. But Russell Westbrook is such an important piece, and an unpredictable one at that. Harden has proven that he is no longer just another bench player, and he deserves similar attention as Westbrook and Durant. The Thunder’s ability to gather and maintain momentum throughout stretches in the game relies on Russell Westbrook, though, for obvious reasons. He can make questionable decisions at times, whether it’s throwing a bad pass or inexplicably pulling up for a 20-foot jumper with 16 seconds on the shot clock. His decisions will make or break this series for the Thunder.
Heat: Mario Chalmers. Yes, you read that right. No Bosh or Wade, but rather the man who is lost amongst all of the hoopla surrounding his teammates. The Heat will need him in a big way, both on the offensive and defensive ends. As we spoke about earlier, it will be important for him to try and contain Russell Westbrook and shorten Dwyane Wade’s list of duties. The Heat don’t want Wade to have to guard Westbrook all game long. The mindset Chalmers brings with him to the defensive side of the ball will be a determining factor. On the offensive end, James and Wade will be relying on his big shot ability. More specifically, his open shot-making ability. Double teams will be flying toward James and Wade all night for the entirety of the series, and Chalmers will be expected to knock down plenty of spot-up jump shots. He has the chance to be a momentum shifter.
People rave about home-court advantage, and understandably so. The Thunder haven’t lost a game in Oklahoma City during these playoffs. The Heat have. But home-court isn’t all we should pin this series on. Many believe if Miami is to win it all, they will need 60+ points a night from Wade and LeBron. While that may have been true while Bosh was out with injury, the power-forward’s presence should be enough to take pressure off of his teammates. But if Bosh does disappoint, Miami will only have Wade and LeBron to pick up the slack. They’re more than capable of doing so, of course, but we’ve also seen their disappearing acts at times.
The same can be said about the Thunder, who dropped their first two games in the WCF against the Spurs. But it appears as if OKC has not, and will not be satisfied until they win a championship. Credit goes to Kevin Durant for the leadership he exemplifies and the type of character and hard work he brings with him each day.
The matchups are even. The bench of each team is comparable, although the slight edge goes to OKC. But the intangibles will decide this series when it’s all said and done.
From the naked eye alone, the Thunder seem to have that drive. They have exhibited the same championship mindset that defines the greats of the NBA. Most importantly, though, they have a clutch gene. Ask every single one of their playoff opponents as to exactly what that means. Not to knock James or Wade, because we all know what they are capable of. Durant, Westbrook and Harden simply have what it takes. They also have the best team surrounding them. We all witnessed the aspect of team doom the Heat in the 2011 Finals. I believe history repeats itself in 2012 with the Thunder claiming the series in Game 7.