Top Heat-Thunder Finals storylines
LeBron James, a nine-year veteran, can quiet critics by winning his first NBA title
OKC has the youth and talent to be a regular contender, but tough decisions await
The Thunder have been rolling offensively; Miami is a strong defensive team
The Miami Heat return to the NBA Finals for the second consecutive year after defeating Boston in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Standing in the way of LeBron James' first title are the Thunder, who may be just as talented and are a lot younger than Miami. With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook signed long term to play in Oklahoma City, and with the Heat's three stars under contract for at least two more seasons, this is a title matchup that fans may have to get used to seeing. Here's a look at 10 of the top storylines for the championship series, which begins Tuesday night in Oklahoma City.
Contrast in styles: Miami and Oklahoma City built their teams and are perceived in very different ways. The Heat, of course, used free agency two years ago to persuade James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade, with many immediately rooting for Miami's demise after LeBron's national-television announcement of his destination and the ease with which he talked about winning several championships during the team's over-the-top rally in the summer of 2010. The Thunder, on the other hand, were built largely through the draft -- Durant, Westbrook and James Harden were all top four picks, made possible by three consecutive terrible seasons (the first two in Seattle) that followed the trade of Ray Allen to Boston and the loss of fellow star Rashard Lewis in free agency -- and their Oklahoma City home stands as a Main Street counterpoint to Miami's big-city glamour. Durant and Co. can bank on most of America having their backs in this matchup.
LeBron's quest: No one gets more blame for doing the right things on a basketball court than LeBron James. A pass to an open teammate when double-teamed? Why didn't he shoot the way all superstars are supposed to? Score 22 points with nine rebounds and seven assists? Why didn't he score 30? The criticism often isn't fair, but it comes with the territory of being the only three-time MVP without a championship and of being an all-time great who is judged differently from other players, whether they are All-Stars or not. Michael Jordan was considered a selfish scorer who didn't trust his teammates enough to win a title until he quickly transformed into the game's most tough-minded leader and winner. The task is a little different for James, who needs to prove he can be a bit more selfish in winning a title that will quiet his critics.
The start of something big?: The Thunder seem to have all the pieces in place to play for championships for many years: young stars in Durant, Westbrook and Harden, an improving, 22-year-old power forward in Serge Ibaka, a defensive-minded center in Kendrick Perkins and unselfish role players such as Nick Collison. But it won't be long before small-market Oklahoma City is forced to confront the question of whether general manager Sam Presti will be able to keep the team together, especially if it means having to pay the luxury tax. The Thunder might have to become a taxpaying team to retain both Harden and Ibaka, who are set to be restricted free agents in 2013, unless they agree to contract extensions after this season. Are the Thunder willing to spend like a big market?
Durant vs. James: The small forward showdown between the MVP and the MVP runner-up is undoubtedly the glamour matchup of the series. The two spent a lot of time defending each other when the teams split two games in the regular season. Durant averaged 23.5 points (on 51 percent shooting) per 36 minutes when James was on the floor, while LeBron averaged 22.6 points (on 46 percent shooting) when Durant was in the game, according to NBA.com. Durant matched his season high with eight assists in the Thunder's 103-87 victory in Oklahoma City on March 25, while James helped force him into nine turnovers in the Heat's 98-83 home win on April 4. In the Western Conference finals, Durant showed the ability to pace his game, getting his teammates involved early before often taking over the scoring responsibilities in the fourth quarter. In James, though, Durant faces a player who can cater his production to cover for any contingency -- scoring, rebounding, playmaking and defense.
Where's Wade?: The Heat's path to the Finals would have been a lot smoother had Wade not played The Invisible Man through half of the conference finals. He shot a combined 15-of-54 (27.8 percent) and scored 44 points in the first half of the seven games with the Celtics, an average of 6.3 points in the first 24 minutes. (Wade averaged 21.4 points on 44.4 percent shooting overall in the series.) Boston's defense had a lot to do with his slow starts, but Wade barely made his presence felt in other ways for significant stretches of time. Wade has to be productive throughout against a team as explosive as the Thunder.
Pressure points: Miami's Erik Spoelstra and Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks have found themselves in the trap most young coaches blessed with superstar talent face: win, and the credit goes to the players and their elite skills; lose, and your every strategy, substitution or interaction is dissected. Lucky for them, Spoelstra and Brooks have plenty of experience with that kind of scrutiny and have developed calm demeanors in the face of calls for their jobs or criticism of their coaching chops. Unlike most coaches who develop a Teflon coating thanks to a championship ring, it's entirely possible neither of this year's Finals coaches will be awarded the same. With free-agent clocks ticking and superstar players looking to define themselves by the number of championships won, the grace period could be short for Spoelstra or Brooks.
Seattle blues: The Thunder may be the team America wants to embrace for all of its slick play and small-city charm, but it's doubtful those feelings stretch to the franchise's original home. Ask Cleveland Browns fans if they took any joy from watching players they cheered win a Super Bowl in Baltimore. There's nothing bittersweet about it, just plain, unmitigated bitterness. Take, for example, the headline from a Washington state newspaper that referred to the Thunder as the Sonics. Or the continuing effort to build an arena and attract a new version of the Sonics. Those aren't the actions of a fan base that fondly will be remembering the days when Durant wore green and gold should he lift the Finals trophy in Oklahoma City white and blue.
Rolling Thunder: The Heat ranked fourth in defensive efficiency this season, and despite some inconsistent play in the playoffs, they've held opponents to a lower points-per-possession mark during the postseason. But their defense will face a stern test against a Thunder team that has been even better on offense since finishing the season second in points per possession. In fact, Oklahoma City is having one of the best postseason offensive runs in recent NBA history, as Basketball-Reference's Neil Paine noted in a story for ESPN Insider.
Select company: Thunder backup point guard Derek Fisher has a chance to become the 14th player to win at least six championships. That's not a bad slice of revenge for a 37-year-old who was sent packing by the Lakers at this year's trade deadline after helping Kobe Bryant win five rings. The other players with six or more titles are Bill Russell (11), Sam Jones (10), John Havlicek, Tom Heinsohn, K.C. Jones and Tom "Satch" Sanders (eight), Robert Horry, Jim Loscutoff and Frank Ramsey (seven), and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Cousy, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen (six).
Geek chic. The now generation of NBA stars has pushed aside the silk suits and ties of wannabe moguls for the thick-rimmed glasses, sweaters and backpacks more reminiscent of the science club. No one has captured the ethos better than Westbrook, whose multipatterned shirts, multicolored glasses and cardigan sweaters may not be GQ smooth but, at the least, are fashion forward. Look for his latest unusual combinations during postgame news conferences in the Finals. And for anyone with teenage kids, take note: This is what you'll be buying when those back-to-school sales roll around.
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