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2012 NBA Finals Preview

Speedburner’s 2012 NBA Finals Preview

 So after initially giving their fans a bit of a scare in the conference finals (OKC down 2-0, Mia down 3-2), Oklahoma City and Miami have finally emerged to battle for a title – the Heat eager to fulfill lofty expectations after the Bosh/LeBron/Wade uniting in July 2010, and the Thunder eager to fulfill their far less hyped promise after drafting Durant 2nd overall in 2007, Westbrook 4th overall in 2008 (also Ibaka 24th in that draft), and finally Harden 3rd overall in the 2009 Draft. This highlights the very different path these two teams have taken to get here. The Thunder built largely from the draft, though they did have two key trades – acquiring defensive stalwart Thabo Sefolosha from the Bulls for a 2009 1st rounder, and then getting Kendrick Perkins from Boston for Jeff Green (who never really fit as he was mainly just a very poor man’s version of Durant). They scared the Lakers in round 1 in 2010, reached the conference finals a year ago, and are now here as a favorite (OKC is 10/17, the Heat are 6/4) – a steady, storybook rise after finishing the season 23-59 just three years ago (Durant’s 2nd season, Westy’s rookie year). 

 The Heat of course, signed both Bosh and LeBron in the summer of 2010, and decided to go over-the-top in their announcing of the deals and their new, multiple titles expectations. The problem with paying so much money to an all-star (Bosh), superstar (Wade), and freak-of-nature basketball beast (LeBron) is that there’s not much left over for the rest of your squad. Mario Chalmers has turned out to be an adequate PG (something of a steal as a 2008 2nd rounder, 34th overall), and Udonis Haslem can drain 15-footers while rebounding a bit, but the rest of the squad is quite mediocre to poor. Battier plays strong D, and launches from 3-land, but is so slow and unathletic he’s a liability trying to do much else. These 6 players (Big 3 + Mario, Udonis, & Shane) scored all but 6 of their points in the last two Boston games combined. The entire rest of the roster (Mike Miller, Joel Anthony, James Jones, Rony Turiaf, Norris Cole mainly) has combined to average 15.9 pts, 10.9 rebs, and 2.2 asst in the playoffs. In the Boston series, those 5 averaged a combined 12.6/8.3/1.5. 

 A few keys to the series:

1) LeBron’s D on Durant – How fun is this match-up? The league MVP (LeBron) vs. the runner-up; scoring champ (Durant) vs. 3rd place finisher; low-key, mellow star vs. the self-proclaimed ‘King James’. LeBron has vastly improved his D over the last few seasons, and can guard any position on the floor. Durant has been called unguardable (as is LeBron), and after 3 straight scoring titles, the label seems to fit. If LeBron can force him into tough shots (which he still often makes), or better yet, force him to pass the rock, it’ll put more pressure on Westbrook, Harden, and the others to come through. LeBron is quicker and stronger, and might be able to wear down the skinny Durant a bit as the series moves on. I’m guessing OKC will try to run him off a lot of screens to make life difficult on LeBron as he chases him down.

2) The Miami Scrubs – In game 7 against Boston, the Big 3 + Mario, Udonis, & Shane played almost all the minutes. Outside of them, Miller played 4 minutes, Jones played 3, and Cole played 2. In his last 4 games, playing a total of 42 minutes, Miller has made just 2 of 12 shots and grabbed just 5 rebs – they need more than this from him, and far more was expected when they signed him in July 2010 for 5 years, $29m (they owe him $18.6m for the next 3 yrs!). Jones is a one-dimensional long-bomber, Turiaf is limited but hustles and blocks shots a bit, and Joel Anthony tries, but as an undersized big man with poor athleticism and zero offensive skills, he’s not gonna do much. In game 5 of the OKC/SA series, Sefolosha got into early foul trouble and they had to bring in seldom-used Daequan Cook, who had been ice cold in the postseason. He came through big-time with 3 quick hoops, 2 of them from distance. At some point in this series, one of these Miami scrubs is likely to have a similar opportunity and will have to come through – we’ll see if they can do it.

3) Westbrook & Wade – Both supreme athletes…one in his prime and the other about 90-92% of his peak explosiveness. Westbrook has to resist the urge to take over, play under control, but also hit his little stop-n-pop 15-17 footer that he’s become quite adept at. Wade needs to limit his turnovers and will likely have to defend Westy, as no other Miami player would have a hope of stopping him. If one of these guys clearly outplays the other, that’ll be a big edge for his team. I suspect this matchup will be close to a draw, though.

4) Serge Ibaka – The extrememly poor man’s version of Hakeem Olajuwon. Similarities – 1) very explosive, 2) natural shot-blocker, 3) from the African continent (Ibaka from The Congo, Akeem from Nigeria). Differences – 1) Hakeem’s legendary low-post game vs. Ibaka’s 15-18 foot set shot, 2) Hakeem’s great rebounding skills vs. Ibaka’s surprisingly mediocre reb #’s, and 3) Hakeem’s epic post defense vs. Ibaka’s average post defense. Serge did have that 11-11 game in the Boston series, and will have to take advantage of his major athleticism mismatch vs. any of the Miami bigs. He also needs to board better, as he’s had just 3 double-digit rebound games these playoffs, and averaged just 5.7 in over 30 min/gm during the Boston series. 

5) Clutchness – With his absurd performance Thursday night in game 6 (45 pts, 15 rebs, 5 dimes, 19-26 shooting, 30 1st half pts), LeBron showed he can come through in big games, like he’s done in the past (game 5, 2007 Eastern Conference Finals – scored 29 of the teams’ last 30 pts, ended up with 48, 9, and 7 dimes). But he’s also looked lost and scared late in big games, like games 5 & 6 of the finals last year. The key is, you can’t rely on him late in a tight game, but you can rely on him in a big game to come out strong, and possibly get the team a nice lead (like last Thurs gm 6). In a tight game late (sub 2 minutes left), I’d rather have Wade control the ball, as he’s far more decisive and confident. Miami will need to start strong and maintain a nice lead in any ‘must win’ games. Durant on the other hand, is totally clutch in all situations, and Westbrook is also quite unafraid of taking big shots. If the series comes down to tight action late, I give OKC the edge.

Prediction – OKC takes it in 6 games.

Historical Note – This is the 4th Finals appearance for the OKC franchise, the prior 3 as the Seattle Supersonics…1996 (Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton in their prime, pushing the Bulls to 6 games)…1978 (Gus Williams, Marvin Webster, Dennis Johnson, Downtown Freddie Brown and a young Jack Sikma lost to the Washington Bullets with Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, and Bobby Dandridge)…and 1979 (Sonics win the rematch with the Bullets as Gus averages 26.6 in those playoffs). 

As for Miami, their history is far more recent – the title in 2006 led by Wade & Shaq, with Haslem garnering 30+ min/night – the only other holdover from that year…and then last year, going into game 5 tied at 2-2 with the Mavs, where an injured Wade carried them to a 4 point lead with 5 minutes left, but LeBron couldn’t take them to the finish line and they then lost game 6 by 10 points.


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