The circumstances may not be ideal to people in Cleveland and Seattle who remain scorned by the departures. But for pure basketball fans – and even those with casual rooting interest – let’s peel away all of the outside layers and debates over which side is good and evil, virtuous and villainous. Because somewhere in the middle, somewhere at the core, the two best teams (Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder) and the two best individual players (James and Kevin Durant) are in the first all-weather NBA Finals.
Here is a breakdown of the matchups in a series that fields the No. 2 seeds in both conferences, but the teams most felt would have to meet in June when the season began:
Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James: The three-time MVP and the three-time scoring champion will be the focal point of this series, but these two superstars might wind up nullifying each other because both are such unstoppable forces on offense that they will consistently get scoring opportunities. Durant has the edge over James in ability and desire to take and make shots with the game on the line, while James is a much more well-rounded player. Durant is finally discovering how to impact the game without hitting shots, as his rebounding, defense and playmaking have improved dramatically this season. James has been a maestro at making his teammates better, filling in gaps at any area and shutting down opponents for most of his career.
Russell Westbrook vs. Marion Chalmers: Athletic point guards have given Miami problems in each of the past two seasons, and Boston’s Rajon Rondo exploited his advantage at the position in the Eastern Conference Finals. Rondo is a much better decision maker than Westbrook, but Westbrook is a relentless and dynamic force on the offensive end. Oklahoma City was able to win four in a row over San Antonio because Westbrook was able to find the right balance between erupting for scoring outbursts and setting up his teammates. James and Dwyane Wade will likely take turns guarding Westbrook but he has learned not to force things. Chalmers has struggled with consistency but his contributions are considered gravy.
Kendrick Perkins vs. Udonis Haslem: Perkins has some history getting the best of James and Wade in the postseason, given his past with the Celtics. He still thinks about how his knee injury in Game 6 of the 2010 Finals probably cost Boston the chance of winning two titles in three years. He’s not expected to score, but is expected to be physical and lay out hard fouls. Haslem has seen his production decline this season and his struggles have continued in the past 10 games. Miami doesn’t have much height, but Haslem is one of their scrappiest workers.
Thabo Sefolosha vs. Dwyane Wade: Dwyane Wade passed the Heat baton to James and asked him to lead this season, but he has left James hanging at times during this confounding postseason. He has failed to show up in the second half of many games and appeared to be a step slower, perhaps because of a knee injury that is more serious than he has led on. Wade has been inconsistent, but he has delivered in times of desperation and the 2006 Finals MVP eager to capture his second ring. Thunder Coach Scott Brooks’s decision to put Sefolosha on Tony Parker completely disrupted the Spurs and his defense was a big difference. He isn’t expected to score, but he has the size and length to give Wade some problems.
Serge Ibaka vs. Shane Battier: An intimating shot-blocking menace, Ibaka will have to stay on the floor to make Wade and James think twice about driving inside. He has taken on some tough defensive assignments this postseason, going from Dirk Nowitzki to Pau Gasol and Tim Duncan. He will inevitably see more time against Chris Bosh, though Shane Battier will likely start the series at power forward. Ibaka might not get as many open looks as did against San Antonio, as the Spurs dared him to shoot and he connected. Battier will spend some time defending Durant but he is most helpful to the Heat if he spread the floor and knock down open threes when Wade and James drive and kick.
ADVANTAGE: Thunder (unless Bosh starts)
James Harden and hustle vs. Chris Bosh and shooters
Harden and his beard have been the darlings of this postseason, as the sixth man of the year has had some dazzling offensive outings. Harden obliterated Dallas on the pick-and-roll to clinch that series, made a clutch three in Game 5 in San Antonio and has helped the Thunder avoid lengthy scoring lulls. Veterans Derek Fisher and Nick Collison have provided quality minutes. Bosh will likely move into the starting lineup as this series progresses, but he proved his value – and rightful spot among the Big Three – when he came off the bench and scored 19 points, including three three-pointers, in Game 7 of the conference finals. Bosh quietly had a solid performance against Dallas last season, but he is still dealing with the effects of an abdominal strain suffered in the second round against Indiana.
Scott Brooks vs Erik Spoelstra: Brooks or Spoelstra will add his name to the list of active coaches with championships, joining Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers and Rick Carlisle. Ironically, Brooks and Spoelstra both got their teams to the Finals by making the necessary adjustments against Popovich and Rivers. The Thunder has improved every season under Brooks, who has brought one of the league’s youngest teams to the precipice of a title by not letting them use age as an excuse. Spoelstra is back in the Finals for the second year in a row and has managed to bring Miami through some difficult stretches – from losing Bosh for nine games and facing elimination.
PREDICTION: Thunder in 6
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