Hey. It's Kelly. That wasn't fun, was it? The silly lockout, the terrible season, the Dwight Howard, and those strange playoffs. It's OK, though. It's over now. That is a bird chirping in the distance, I made a pretty good sandwich for your lunch and we don't have anything to do when you get home from work over the next two weeks but watch a series of basketball games played by players that are rested, well-instructed, and mindful of what town they're in.
You're going to feel better, now. Your pal insists on it. That's what these columns are about — helping you feel better about the series you're about to watch. Let's leave the analysis and sometimes-hurtful criticism to others. That stuff can sting, you know.
Despite the various permutations of the Miami Heat roster over the last few months, this is the only matchup in the playoffs that really feels as if it comes after a solid regular-season prelude. Unlike most other series, the 1-1 split between the Heat and Thunder in this year's season is actually representative, and to be learned from. And after a postseason that was just as much guesswork as that ridiculous regular season was, this puts a smile on my face.
Because remember that Sunday afternoon tilt between the Thunder and Heat from March? Remember the time these two squared up in Miami on a Wednesday night in early April? Those games count! This is, finally, part of something bigger that didn't start up on April 28. To me, as one of you that slogged through an awful regular season that we know didn't really count even in the midst of all those games, this is a nice send off. Nothing against the San Antonio Spurs or Boston Celtics, but this was ordained in a way, months ago, and the intact rosters are showing up in early summer much the same way that they did in early spring.
This is also why, hype aside, we're getting a chance to draw our own conclusions after establishing our own narratives.
This is your series. You're likely a fan of one of the 28 other NBA teams that didn't make it this far, but as someone who is going over every word in an NBA blog (instead of just touching on the highlights of a front page or cable TV sports show), this is your reward for making it this far. Yes, this "reward" falls in line with the star-heavy battle that the NBA was hoping for once they decided Chris Paul wouldn't be a Los Angeles Laker, but that doesn't mean you can't find your own fun amongst all the well-coiffed TV clatter.
Because this is about Nick Collison and Udonis Haslem, moving feet and accounting for the slow steps of others. This is about Kevin Durant and LeBron James — not in some lame yearly battle of Who's the Greatest? — squeezing their frames through tiny screen corners that Ray Allen and Reggie Miller once had to sneak through. This is about Russell Westbrook after gathering a turnover and tearing up the court, and not day-later nonsense about Russell's shot attempt numbers. This is about Chris Bosh the offensive threat, whether or not he piles up the points. This is about in-game and in-series adjustments and rotations from the coaches. Something that, as an obsessed NBA fan, you know quite a bit about.
This is about making this series, and this still-redeemable season, your own. Learning to love or re-love on your own terms.
Act a contrarian to a contrarian, and decide not to root for the Heat in spite of the "good vs. evil" storyline everyone will push, but because you don't care for Miami's offense in spurts or the way they back off their defensive principles at times. Root for the Heat, not because you're sick of the Kevin Durant drooling, but because you know that even with three of the NBA's best players on its roster, Miami's payroll makeup and veteran supporting cast might see this as their best chance at a title in comparison to the Thunder's youth and potential. Do as you see fit. Change your mind, by Game 3. Or Game 7, even.
Analysis? It's the same as it has ever been, and I'd direct you to the brilliant Dan Devine's take, and he goes over What Really Counts. Though the Thunder aren't as devastating after picking up loose balls as TNT's Reggie Miller had you believe in the Western Conference finals, Miami destroyed its chances in its loss to the Thunder in March by coughing it up on over a fifth of its possessions in that contest. Three-point shooting is a major concern for the Heat, as the team needs Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers to at least approximate the per-possession work of James, Dwyane Wade and Bosh in their 13 combined shots a contest.
The Thunder? The defense has to be on point. Yes, it grew before our eyes against the Spurs, but this is a different beast. This beast runs and it puts you in personal foul trouble along with gathering fouls toward the bonus. Sometimes a breakaway isn't the worst thing — let the Heat have a dunk and don't give them extra points with the clear path violation, along with the personal foul. Talk, in transition. Don't crash for offensive rebounds, and make sure none of this is an issue by executing and taking care of the ball.
Fans? This is your payoff. Take advantage.
This could be a long series, with two travel days tossed into the typical every-other-day schedule if the series goes seven games. The middle part, with Miami playing three games at home, could aid the Heat just as much as it hurts the team. Nobody ever seems ready to take all three games, which means the Heat could be in their typically hoped-for spot in Game 6 and down 3-2. Playing from behind, season on the line.
The combination of added rest, talent, and emerging coaches? This could be something special. And my eventual guess at who wins and in how many games has less to do with picking a slight favorite in the full allotment of games to be played, and more to do with the idea that I think we'll see some surprises along the way that could lead to the maximum amount of NBA basketball being played between now and June 26.
So have fun with it. We're nearly a year removed from the NBA taking away a proper offseason, the relationship between its players and each team's staff, insulting and ridiculous hyperbole that followed from the labor negotiations, and a pointless and ultimately damaging regular season that felt like a prelude to absolutely nothing, because nothing counted.
Save for two games, it turns out. That season series, split 1-1, between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat. And now we get to see them do something with it, in front of klieg lights.
Lucky you, for once, NBA fans.
Thunder in seven.
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