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No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 2 Miami Heat
"Sometimes I think the so-called experts actually are experts."
After all that — a months-long lockout that sheared 16 games off the regular season, a frenetic 66-game campaign that often seemed ungoverned by reason, a wild and injury-plagued postseason that provided heartbreak and hysterics in equal measure, and two fantastic conference final series — we're left with the two teams that most folks picked to be in the Finals way back in December. The Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat. I guess some of those analysts (not this one, to be clear) do know what they're talking about after all.
And thank goodness, because boy, should this set of matchups be fun.
Three-time MVP LeBron James squaring off against three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant. Dwyane Wade, who won the 2006 NBA Finals MVP by making ceaseless hell-bent-for-leather drives to the rim, against Russell Westbrook, who's got more than a little bit of that in his game. Oklahoma City's prolific offense (the league's second-most efficient unit in the regular season, its best in the playoffs) matches up against Miami's lockdown defense (fourth-best in the regular season, tied for third in the playoffs).
Two young coaches, OKC's Scott Brooks and Miami's Erik Spoelstra, fresh off dispatching older, more decorated and respected counterparts, vying for the public legitimacy that comes with a championship ring. James Harden's beard against Chris Bosh's faces. Kendrick Perkins' permascowl against Ronny Turiaf's permasmile.
Any chance we can make this a best of 13?
If, at first blush, these two teams seem pretty evenly matched, it's because they are — or, at least, they've been pretty even when they've actually matched up over the past couple of seasons. Oklahoma City and Miami have played four times in the last two years, splitting the season series each time with each team taking two contests.
Over the course of four games, 17 total points separated the two teams, with OKC outscoring Miami on aggregate, 395-378. The two teams posted nearly identical marks from the floor (43.7 percent for OKC, 43.3 percent for Miami) and the foul line (OKC: 81.8 percent, Miami: 81.6 percent), and both made 28 3-pointers, though the Thunder were more accurate from deep (42.4 percent to Miami's 34.6 percent). Oklahoma City outrebounded Miami and notched more assists; the Heat blocked more shots, were whistled for fewer fouls, and attempted and made more free throws than the Thunder.
In terms of style of play, OKC tends to favor a more up-tempo game than the Heat, playing at the league's sixth-fastest pace this season and ranking 13th a year ago, while Miami finished 16th and 20th, respectively. Yet the Heat fared better in the two fastest-paced games between the two clubs, scoring a 98-93 win in a 93-possession April 2012 game and earning a 108-103 win in a 94-possession January 2011 affair, while the Thunder won the slower contests, notching a 16-point blowout in late March in a game played just a tick above league-average speed and an 11-point win in a comparatively glacial mid-March 2011 matchup.
Interestingly, as Basketball Prospectus' Kevin Pelton noted in his series preview, they've played at nearly identical paces during the postseason, with Miami actually running a tick faster than OKC. Through the first three rounds, the Thunder have gotten more work done in transition, averaging 16.7 fast-break points per game during the playoffs and allowing just 7.9, while Miami has scored 12.8 fast-break points per game and given up 8.7 — it'll be fascinating to see which team looks to get out and run first, and which is more successful doing it in the early going.
The second tier
Likewise fascinating? Which third banana, Bosh or Harden, will have a bigger impact on the series.
Bosh's return to the fold late through the Eastern Conference finals was huge for Miami, especially in Game 7, when he came off the bench to score 19 points on 10 shots, grab eight rebounds and play 31 minutes of star-level basketball in the middle to restore order to a Heat big-man rotation that had been far less than stellar against the C's. As he continues to work his way back from his abdominal injury, Bosh will be expected to play a very similar role, drawing the likes of Perkins and Serge Ibaka away from the basket with his shooting stroke to open driving lanes for Miami's penetrating wings, initiating sets from the high post and elbows, and generally adding more variety and discipline to a Heat offense that has at times tended to bog down when James and Wade aren't going supernova.
If Bosh can stay healthy, stay on the floor and stay as in-form as he was against Boston in Game 7, he gives Spoelstra a frontline weapon that Brooks may not be able to match, even with Perkins' post-defending talents and Ibaka's athleticism. Similarly, Harden could create headaches for the Heat, especially if Spoelstra decides to continue to bring Bosh off the bench at the start of the series, which would likely keep Shane Battier in the starting lineup.
In that scenario, who guards Harden in the early stages for the Heat? In late-game scenarios, when Brooks throws Durant, Westbrook and Harden out there together, puts Westbrook off the ball and lets Harden initiate, who's the matchup? James will likely have to be with KD and Wade will likely have to be with Westbrook. If Harden can beat the older, slower (though still very capable) Battier off the bounce, as he often did to younger, more spry San Antonio defenders Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, then he opens the door for his outside shooting and step-back game — ask Leonard about that — and could be poised to explode in the Finals.
And I think we're all really eager to find out just how much Dwyane Wade will bring to the table.
Wade's seemed spotty in the past two series, most famously during his Game 3 meltdown against the Pacers, but also for long stretches against the Celtics. It's admittedly weird to claim that a guy who just averaged 21-5-5 during the Eastern Conference finals seems off, but anyone watching the games saw Wade look out of sorts running offense at times and more than a step slow on defense (especially in transition) at others, only to wake up and resume world-shaking. In and out won't work against the Thunder, especially if, as appears likely, he'll wind up matched up with Westbrook, who has proven capable of wreaking havoc on opposing defenders and making big plays on big stages.
Westbrook has struggled against the Heat over the past two seasons, shooting just 31.3 percent from the floor and 30 percent from 3-point range, and averaging just over 1.5 assists per turnover. But that's where the Thunder point guard's made his greatest strides this postseason, chopping his turnover percentage way down — he's coughed it up just 34 times in 15 playoff games — while still using 30 percent of Thunder possessions and averaging better than 21-5-5 himself. When Westbrook is taking care of the ball, choosing the right times to explode to the rim and has his midrange jumper falling — as it was for most of the Dallas and L.A. series, and in Games 5 and 6 against the Spurs — that Thunder offense becomes awful difficult to stop.
Can Wade do the same kind of job on Westbrook that he did on Boston point guard Rajon Rondo in the final two games of the Eastern Conference finals, or will Westbrook continue to find the balance between relentlessness and patience that's allowed him to play such an important role for Oklahoma City these past three rounds? And on the offensive end, if Brooks decides to stick Wade with Thabo Sefolosha — fresh off handcuffing Spurs point guard Tony Parker for the final four games of the Western Conference finals — will Wade be able to use his quickness and savvy to shake one of the game's best perimeter defenders often enough to score at the level Miami will need to be able to compete with that potent OKC offense?
While Wade has been somewhat inconsistent these last two rounds, LeBron James has not. He's been reliably sensational from start to finish this postseason, averaging 30.8 points on 50.8 percent shooting, 9.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game in the playoffs, and stepping his game up in the Eastern Conference finals (33.6, 11 and 3.9 on 52.7 percent from the floor). He will have to continue to be the best player on the floor for Miami to beat Oklahoma City four times in seven games, both as the Heat's unquestioned, dominant scorer and its best defender, doing his level best to limit Durant. Which, y'know, ain't easy.
Durant's been characteristically stellar in his four matchups against James' Heat over the past two seasons, averaging 30 points per game on very strong shooting splits (50 percent from the floor, 47.1 percent from 3-point range and 79.4 percent from the line) to go with 7.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per contest. Those numbers are made even more impressive by the fact that Durant was often defended by James, the leading vote-getter for the league's All-Defensive team this season. As a matter of fact, he's outperformed James on the whole in those four affairs — LeBron's averaged 23.3 points (on 45.2/27.8/78.6 shooting percentages), 8.3 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2.8 steals — which is not something many basketball players alive can say.
As Durant's game continues to develop, it's growing increasingly difficult to find things to critique, but one area that may be worth watching against Miami is turnovers. In OKC's two wins over Miami in the past two years, Durant has had just three cough-ups in 82 minutes; in the two losses, he's had 12 in 83 1/2, including an unsightly nine-turnover performance this past April.
Three of Durant's turnovers in that game came while acting as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, an area in which he can sometimes struggle to maintain control — as you watch the tape, you can see him occasionally getting too loose and too high with his handle and a bit too daring with his passes, which combine to make him easier to dispossess than he typically is. According to Synergy Sports Technology's game-charting data, Durant has coughed it up on 18.4 percent of his possessions as a pick-and-roll triggerman this season, a significantly higher rate than when just going straight up off a screen, in transition or on isolation plays, post-ups or spot-ups.
Considering how much OKC likes to let Durant create that way (it's been his second-most frequently used play type this year, behind only isos, according to Synergy) and how effective James' (and Miami's) aggressive, swarming, long-armed defense can be at generating turnovers (only the Memphis Grizzlies and New York Knicks forced turnovers on a higher percentage of opponents' possessions this season), overreliance on Durant in the screen game could result in Miami turning defense into offense.
That's something Miami did very well in the first two rounds against the Knicks (scoring 22.6 points per game off turnovers and 13.8 points per game in transition in a five-game series win) and Indiana Pacers (15.8 points per game off turnovers and 13.5 points per game in transition in a six-game victory) before getting stifled by a more deliberate Boston Celtics squad (13.5 points per game off turnovers and 11.9 points per game in transition in a seven-game slugfest). And considering how effectively Oklahoma City's offense has been able to score against its Western Conference opposition, being able to translate Thunder miscues into easy points could be very important for Miami's chances of matching them bucket for bucket.
The other thing I couldn't shake
Home-court advantage. OKC has it, and they're 8-0 at home this postseason, with three big double-digit wins and an average margin of victory of 10.6 points per game. The Heat have been similarly stout at home (8-2 in 10 games) but have also managed at least one road win in every series, including that huge Game 6 win in Boston to send the Eastern Conference finals back to Miami. This isn't exactly high-level analysis, but if Miami can break Oklahoma City's serve in one of the finals' first two games, then the entire complexion of the finals changes.
Remember, last year's Heat were 8-0 at home heading into the finals and had home-court, but dropped Game 2 to Dallas, and even though the Heat broke back in Game 3, thanks to the 2-3-2 format of the championship round, the Mavs were able to take a 3-2 hold on the series before heading back to AmericanAirlines Arena, a place they'd already won, for Game 6. Could an early home defeat derail this year's young first-time finalist, too?
The more I look at numbers, the more I watch tape, the more I consider matchups, the less I feel like I have any real, concrete answer for which team is better. Oklahoma City hasn't faced a defense nearly as good as Miami's this postseason; Miami hasn't faced an offense nearly as good as Oklahoma City's this postseason. Miami brings the East's best, and the playoffs' third-most efficient, offense into the finals; OKC just slowed the league's second-best offense down often enough to win four times in six games. It is a testament, I think, to both James and Durant that on any given night neither man might be the best player on the floor, and to both Wade-Bosh and Westbrook-Harden that on any given night either team might have the best trio in the series. This is insane.
So, Thunder in 7.
I think Kevin Durant is going to win his individual matchup with LeBron James, and I think Russell Westbrook is going to give his team more than Dwyane Wade will. I can't believe I think those things — like, seriously, I'm shaking my head as I type this sentence — but it's the truth. That's what I think is going to happen over the course of the next two weeks. If I'm right, then short of Chris Bosh going for 30 and 12 every night, which he hasn't done in a long time, I don't think there's anything the Heat can do to beat the Thunder; if James and Wade don't win this series for Miami, then Miami won't win it.
And if I'm wrong? Well, then, we all win, don't we?
Back when we started this madcap dash of a season, it looked for all the world like Oklahoma City — a team with young stars and young legs who've spent the last two seasons developing playoff callouses and getting ready to do the hard work of building a dynasty — was the most sensible, reasonable choice to win the title. Sometimes the so-called experts are experts. Hail to the king.
PREDICTION: Thunder in 7.
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