The preseason favorites to reach the NBA Finals have arrived with their credentials newly polished and their resolve tested. Oklahoma City and Miami both feature one of the two best basketball players on the planet in three-time MVP LeBron James and three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant, each one enjoying the best season of his career and seeking his first championship. Less than seven months after the end of a nasty lockout, the league has delivered a Finals matchup with enough superstars and plot lines to lure in the casual fans, and enough depth, balance, grit and legitimacy among these two teams to further stoke the passion of the cognoscenti.
The Heat overcame a significant injury to their best big man, seven-time All Star Chris Bosh, and were forced into a road elimination game before finally toppling the Celtics in seven games in the Eastern Conference finals. The Thunder dropped their first two games to a Spurs juggernaut that rolled up 20 consecutive wins, half of them in the playoffs, before roaring back with four straight victories to take the West title in six. The Celtics and Spurs are the epitome of proud, resourceful, veteran teams that know what it takes to win in the postseason. But the Heat and Thunder were simply younger, quicker, deeper, better. There are no Cinderellas or decided underdogs in this series.
LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant. Though James and Durant both play small forward, this will not be as purely mano-a-mano as fans might hope for and expect. The Thunder are likely to deploy a variety of defensive schemes to deter James, with the primary defender switching from shooting guard Thabo Sefalosha to power forward Serge Ibaka as well as Durant. Likewise, the Heat are almost certain to evolve away from the predictability of LeBron's guarding Durant as adjustments are made in the series, especially with a quality defensive stopper like Shane Battier as an option.
That said, James vs. Durant will be the ultimate game within the game here. Both are team leaders on a fairly comprehensive level, and if either one significantly underperforms, his team is almost certain to lose. Both are also in the process of raising their games even more. For Durant, that has meant thoroughly quashing the notion that he is one-dimensional scorer. Sure, he has averaged 27.8 points with a remarkable 62.6 true shooting percentage (which takes into account two-point attempts, three-pointers and free throws) during the playoffs. But he also continues to lead his team in rebounding (he and James are virtually tied for fourth in defensive rebounding in the postseason with 7.4 per game), is dishing more than four assists per game and has been a plus on defense, from his occasional on-ball coverage of Spurs point guard Tony Parker to his length and quickness allowing coach Scott Brooks to switch on pick-and-roll assignments in a manner that flummoxed San Antonio's previously unstoppable offense.
For his part, James has been assiduously addressing the only flaw in his game: his disturbing practice of shrinking occasionally from big moments when he needs to be delivering. His dominance in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, played under unbelievable pressure in Boston, was one marker. But his steady leadership down the stretch as Miami pulled away late in Game 7 more specifically addressed the criticism. Of course, the only way to bury his naysayers permanently is to lead his team to a championship.
Heat: Chris Bosh and Shane Battier. Bosh, who is three games into his return from an abdominal injury, demonstrated his value both by his absence and his presence against Boston. Oklahoma City has a vastly underrated big-man rotation in center Kendrick Perkins, Ibaka and backup Nick Collison that dominated the Mavericks and Spurs and held its own with the vaunted Lakers. Bosh has to keep the Heat competitive here by continuing to hit mid-range jumpers and using his size and athleticism to provide enough presence in the paint to divert attention from double teams on James and Dwyane Wade.
By the same token, Battier is the role player best able to lift some of the burden off Miami's three stars, both with his defensive ability in guarding everyone from James Harden to Durant to Ibaka, and with his three-point shooting. His recent accuracy has been especially valuable given the disappearance of swingman Mike Miller as an outside threat lately.
Thunder: Serge Ibaka. Ibaka is crucial for three reasons: the accuracy of his mid-range jumper; the quality of his rim protection; and his quickness and versatility switching on the pick-and-roll and being able to defend both near the basket and out to the corners. The shooting skill blistered the Spurs in Game 4, when he hit 11-for-11. The rim protection will come to the fore as James and Wade contend with the NBA leader in blocked shots while executing the dribble-penetration so vital to their offensive arsenal. The versatility means that Brooks has an answer, with minimal disruption to his rotation, when the Heat go small and Bosh moves to center.
James is a potent trump card for Miami. But the Heat have not matched up against a player as talented and complete as Durant in this postseason, and his supporting cast has more skill and depth than the rest of Miami's roster. If you weren't thoroughly impressed by the Thunder's defeat of the Spurs, you weren't paying attention: On defense, they blended their quickness and length with extraordinary tenacity and discipline to limit a torrid team -- which was unbeaten for seven weeks thanks in large part to the creation of high-percentage shots through its ball movement -- to less than 45 percent shooting in a four-game span. On offense, they transformed from a team that registered the fewest assists and most turnovers during the regular season into one that increased its assists slightly (from 18.5 to 19.1) and cut its turnovers dramatically (16.5 to 11.3). Westbrook, who is notorious for his impetuous decision-making, has been central to this improvement.
In a series where both teams thrive on points off turnovers, Westbrook must maintain that discipline without losing his aggression in a matchup with Wade and point guard Mario Chalmers. The Thunder must also continue to trust role players like Sefalosha and Ibaka to hit open shots, paving the way for Harden and especially Durant to become crunch-time assassins after the defense has adjusted and the games need to be put to bed.
The Heat are at a familiar juncture, requiring all three of their stars to live up to their formidable reputations while getting shrewd, timely assistance from their role players in order to take another step forward. If the Heat duplicate their performance against an awesomely competitive but banged-up, old Celtics team, the Thunder will win this series handily.
This is where Wade becomes something of an X-factor himself. He hasn't played at a level that measures up to his current status as one of the NBA's top six or seven players. Though his postseason numbers are gaudy enough (if still below his typical standard), they are inflated by his three-game explosion to close out the second-round series against Indiana. And those numbers don't completely reveal the sloppiness of his play -- the lazy passes that lead to turnovers, the unreliable free-throw shooting, the inefficient shot selection, the sluggishness at times in getting back in transition defense. The Heat don't necessarily need the primo superstar who destroyed the Pacers, but they will require an improvement from Wade's work in the conference finals to overtake the Thunder.
A return to form from Wade is part of a logical formula by which the Heat win this series. It also includes Bosh's proving to be healthy and in rhythm enough to provide a significant presence, LeBron's recent heroics helping to quell any of his inner demons, and Miami's getting three-point accuracy from Battier, Chalmers and maybe even Miller.
But the odds favor Oklahoma City. The Thunder enjoy a home-court advantage that is magnified by the 2-3-2 setup of the Finals, giving Miami only Games 3, 4 and 5 in its building. Miami will also have to expose a relative weakness in the Thunder's game. Where is it? Before the playoffs, one could criticize this team for its emphasis on isolation plays and turnover frequency, along with its lack of interior scoring and inconsistent defense, especially against the pick-and-roll. Those flaws have been sealed so far as the Thunder dismantled three teams responsible for 10 of the last 13 championships -- with a lineup that often has four players age 23 or younger. If the Heat lose, it won't be James' fault. He'll simply have been beaten by the better team.
Prediction: Thunder in six.