In Finals battle of stars, Heat have experience, motivation to win it all
LeBron vs. Durant, Wade vs. Westbrook, these Finals are a dream matchup
Oklahoma City is deeper, playing better, but Heat may have the slight edge
Miami has drawn on last year's Finals loss and learned to play under pressure
As a child, I sometimes dreamed of going to the NBA Finals, but I never imagined they would take place in Oklahoma City and all the players would dress like nerds. Life is full of surprises. Let's keep that in mind as we get ready for the epic battle between the man who broke Cleveland's heart and the city that stole Seattle's team. These Finals may not be what we expect.
Oklahoma City is deeper, is playing better, just beat a stronger opponent than any team the Heat have beaten in the last two years, and actually has two stars (Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook) who are in the same neighborhood of greatness as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Meanwhile, the Heat have been exposed as just another contending team, instead of the juggernaut that its stars expected and the rest of the world feared. James, Wade and Chris Bosh are wonderful players. But the Heat need all three to play well because this team has no depth. And Bosh has been injured. And at times, Wade has played so poorly, people have naturally wondered if he is hurt.
This is why most people are picking the Thunder.
And this is why I am picking the Heat.
It is quite possible that most people are just smarter than me. This occurs to me frequently. And I might be completely wrong. This occurs to me frequently, too.
Still, I have my reasons, and you can start with this: The Finals are busting out of the little boxes we want to put them in. James is the bad guy, but Oklahoma City's owner stole a team, and isn't that worse? (Admit it, Cleveland: Losing the Browns was more painful than losing LeBron.)
Durant is supposed to be the selfless superstar and true winner. James is supposed to be the guy who doesn't quite maximize his talent or know how to close the deal. But this says more about how we watch basketball in 2012 than it says about either player.
They are both Hall of Fame talents and perennial MVP candidates. The only thing Durant really does better than LeBron is score. James is a better passer, rebounder and defender. Yet Durant is the team-first winner and James isn't. Odd.
The Thunder are supposedly doing this the right way: growing together, step by step. Meanwhile, the Heat patched a roster together to take a shortcut to a title. As a storyline, this is right. But on the court, well ...
Durant and Westbrook have played 38 playoff games together.
James and Wade have played 39 playoff games together.
Remember: Miami is the team that has already played in the Finals. For all the talk about LeBron in Game 7s, the fact is that the Thunder have played only one Game 7 ever -- last year, against Memphis. Heck, Durant and Westbrook have played in a Game 6 only three times -- that Memphis series, this year's Western Conference finals against the Spurs and a first-round series against the Lakers in 2010.
Does this matter? Maybe not. Oklahoma City has an obvious matchup advantage with Westbrook, Durant and James Harden. (The Heat aren't built to chase all three.) And maybe the Thunder grew up enough when they won four straight over a Spurs team that had won 20 in a row. But Miami is the more experienced team and the more tested team, with stars still in their prime. The Heat seem to exist in that place between desperation and familiarity, which is the best possible place for a team trying to achieve something special. Miami knows how precious this opportunity is, but also can draw upon the experience of the last two postseasons.
If we look back at last year's playoffs, we can see the difference. In the first round, the Heat beat Philadelphia in the first three games, lost Game 4, then wrapped up the series. In the second round, the Heat beat the Celtics in the first two games, and Wade de-limbed Rajon Rondo, effectively killing the Celtics' chances.
In the conference finals, the Heat played a Bulls team that was deeper and stronger, but did not match up well with Miami and had very limited playoff experience, which showed in the final minutes of games. The Heat won that series in five.
This gave the Heat an air of invincibility, and inevitability. Miami had been crowned to start the season, struggled early, then beat the aging Celtics and rising Bulls in the playoffs. Miami had trailed once in the playoffs: after losing the first game of the conference finals, in Chicago.
When the Finals began there was only one question: Do we have proof now that the devil exists? The Heat were the presumptive champion.
Miami won Games 1 and 3. Dallas won Games 2 and 4. So by Game 5, the Heat still had not faced what coaches like to call "adversity" and what I like to call "that feeling that millions of people are watching you, and you're about to pee in your pants, and you're not wearing pants."
Playoff pressure is supposed to rise like the tide: slowly and steadily, round by round. But playoff pressure hit the 2011 Heat like a tsunami: suddenly and forcefully. Miami did not handle it well, especially LeBron, and that just created more pressure, because it seemed like everybody on the planet realized, at the same moment, that the hated Heat might actually lose. Meanwhile, the Mavericks were more experienced and the underdog. Older teams with nothing to lose play calmly and intelligently. This is what made Boston so tough in the last series.
Miami can draw upon last year's Finals -- especially James, who knows that nothing he goes through this summer will be as bad as what he went through last summer, because this time at least he knows he can survive it. The Heat have already won two must-win road games in these playoffs: down 2-1 at Indiana, and down 3-2 at Boston. This team seems unlikely to panic.
And while Miami is woefully thin for a championship team, the injury to Bosh could actually help. The Heat had to learn how to play without him, just as they learned to play without Wade for stretches this season.
When James, Wade and Bosh joined the Heat, I never imagined typing these words, but here goes: I think these guys have learned from their struggles and failures together, and now they are finally ready to win.