Roundtable: Sizing up the Finals (cont.)
Thomsen: Durant is going to show that he's a good defender, with the understanding that he has big guys behind him to protect the rim. His length and quickness are going to make it interesting for James. I hope the games are tight because obviously the fourth quarters are going to say everything. There has been a debate for the last couple of years over which of them is the better player, and right now LeBron has more experience and more tools, based on his ability to play on the block or facing up from the perimeter. The great thing about this Finals is that it's going to decide the league's best team as well as its best player. By the end of this series we're all going to know whether James or Durant is the better player, and it's going to be obvious.
Lowe: My groundbreaking take: Both are going to play very well, and they will be the two best players in the series. They will defend each other quite a bit, and that will be fascinating to watch. Does James have the energy -- and the discipline -- to chase Durant around the floor without losing him? Will James pressure Durant far from the hoop, daring him to drive into help defense? Can Durant use his length to take away James' driving lanes without fouling? Is he ready to deal with James' post game? And will James force the issue on the block or float to the perimeter in big moments? Shane Battier and Thabo Sefolosha will provide each superstar breaks from guarding the other, and how those two manage in that role will be a big factor in itself. Neither James nor Durant is going to stop the other one, and they'll need help just to force a small decline in performance. But if either team can engineer such a decline, it could swing the series.
Jenkins: They will defend each other a lot of the time, but not all the time. The Heat may need James on Westbrook and they could then try Battier on Durant. The Thunder could use Ibaka on James to spare Durant, and see if the length bothers him. The way both players are rolling, though, I don't know how much it's going to matter. The Heat must hope that Durant has a couple of poor shooting nights and the Thunder must pack the paint with Ibaka and Perkins, giving James fewer driving lanes than the Celtics did. I'm curious how pace will affect the matchup. The Celtics and Pacers tried to box the Heat into a half-court game and at times were successful. The Thunder tried to slow the Spurs, but in general, they are comfortable at a higher tempo. If they play faster against Miami, Westbrook should get some easy baskets, but they run the risk of James in the open court.
Mannix: James is an elite defender, but he will be tested here. The Thunder have a thick playbook filled with ways to get Durant open and two big bodies in Perkins and Ibaka to screen for him. Expect Oklahoma City to make James work on the defensive end with the hopes of limiting his effectiveness on the offensive end. There, Durant's biggest challenge will be staying out of foul trouble. James is going to get his buckets, but better that they are contested jump shots than foul-filled drives. It's critical that Durant stay in these games, and he will have to be careful not to get too aggressive too early.
Amick: It's the sort of head-to-head battle you won't be deleting from your DVR anytime soon. This has all the potential to evolve into this generation's version of Magic and Bird circa 1984, but the victor of the duel won't necessarily be the one going home happy at the end. Spectacular though this matchup might be, the Thunder's supporting cast will ultimately tip the scales. In terms of the mano-a-mano moments, though, James remains the superior player when it comes to playing on both ends. But he will endure the torture of outplaying Durant while being ousted in the Finals for the second straight year. And what to do with his storyline, then?
Thomsen: Chalmers is going to be crucial for Miami, and he has it in him to make threes or slash to the basket. But mainly he has to be effective defensively against Westbrook in order to prevent Wade from having to guard Westbrook for most of the game.
Lowe: There are so many candidates, especially if you consider Ibaka a "role player" who might end up the big man-anchor of Thunder small-ball units against Miami lineups with the rangy Bosh as the only big man on the floor. But Ibaka is something greater than a role player, so I'll choose Battier from a among a half-dozen other candidates. Battier is always going get to his fair share of open threes as defenses overload on James and Wade. On defense, he has the potential to defend both Harden and Durant in stretches, sparing James and Wade some exertion. (Battier defended both quite a bit in the two regular-season matchups between the teams.) And if the Heat keep their starting lineup small, an open question with Bosh's strong play off the bench in Game 7 against Boston, Battier may have to defend a Thunder big man during the early stages of each game. Whether he can do credible work in each assignment -- or just one or two of them -- will go a long way to deciding Spoelstra's rotations.
Jenkins: Sefolosha is one of several players emblematic of Oklahoma City's peerless depth. He can take a tough defensive assignment and also make those crucial corner threes when the Heat are over-committing to Thunder stars. Against Boston, the Heat were often a step slow to loose balls, and Sefolosha reaches those with his long arms and quick instincts. He was invaluable against the Spurs, particularly at home, and should help the Thunder keep James and Wade on the perimeter while preserving Durant and Westbrook for the other end.
Mannix: Ibaka's role is pivotal, on both ends. When he's making that 15-foot jumper, he opens up the lanes for Durant and Westbrook. Defensively he will be charged with neutralizing Bosh, who averaged a pedestrian 15.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in two regular-season games against the Thunder. This is also a series where Nick Collison could be a factor because Miami doesn't have any intimidating physical players to outmuscle him.
Amick: Mr. I-block-A, as some call him -- or Ibaka, technically. His ability to cover so much ground on defense and help guard both Bosh and James will be huge. And while no one should expect anything close to the 11-of-11 shooting, 26-point outing he had in Game 4 against San Antonio, Ibaka will need to convert the easy looks he gets to take some pressure off the Thunder's Big Three.
Thomsen: Heat in six. As the series goes along the Heat are going to be better suited to the physical style of play, and they'll be more effective in the half-court. Coaches always talk about wanting their players to be the instigators, and the Heat are more likely to feel comfortable establishing the physical style of play and then executing within it. They weren't up to that kind of challenge last year, but now it defines them as a team.
Lowe: Thunder in seven. The numbers shout for an easier Thunder win, especially given the sloppiness Miami showed against a Boston team that really shouldn't have been able to take the Heat the distance. Concerns about James' fatigue are also legitimate; the Mavericks wore him down last season in the Finals, and the journey here has been tougher on him this time around. But the Heat have the league's greatest player on a roll, an All-Star power forward looking primed for more minutes and a defense that can do things Oklahoma City hasn't seen yet. The Thunder defense, for all of the ferocity it showed at times against the Spurs, hasn't exactly looked like the 2008 Celtics in the postseason and has been breakable in the past. Still, that defense did enough to win against the San Antonio scoring powerhouse, and we haven't seen any defense come close to even frustrating Oklahoma City's offense. Given that reality, plus home-court advantage and the lower minutes load the Thunder stars have carried, I'll take Oklahoma City in an epic seven-gamer.
Jenkins: Heat in six. Before the playoffs, I picked the Thunder to win it all. A few days ago, I would have picked them without thinking twice. Every ounce of rationale favors them. They have more scorers, a better bench, a stronger front line, a louder home court, and they've been tested by tougher opponents throughout the playoffs. But when James is right, he can wipe out a lot of mismatches, and he has been right all season. Durant is making his first trip to the Finals and he will win soon enough. James is making his third and he has waited long enough. A year ago, I didn't think Dallas could win the championship, but it was Dirk Nowitzki's time and he made the unlikely possible. It's LeBron's time.
Mannix: Thunder in six. The Thunder are too young, too big, too skilled and too athletic. Miami's Big Three won't go down easy, and I see a 40-point, 15- assist, 10-rebound game in LeBron's near future. But the Thunder are really good. What's more, they know it. This team believes it belongs on this stage and will be well-rested when a battle-scarred Miami team comes to town on Tuesday night.
Amick: Thunder in seven. Had these Thunder been here before, they could take it in six games with that mixture of talent and experience. As it is, they'll need all seven games before capitalizing on home court at the end.