The NBA Finals get underway tonight with the Oklahoma City Thunder hosting the Miami Heat in Game 1 (9, Ch. 28). Here's our Two Cents preview of the series.
What happened in the season series?
The teams split the two-game season series with each team winning at home. The Heat turned the ball over 21 times in Oklahoma City's easy 103-87 victory March 25. The Heat won 98-93 April 4. OKC super scorer Kevin Durant scored 29 in the first game and 30 in the second, although he committed a career-high nine turnovers in the loss. The Heat's LeBron James scored only 17 in the loss at OKC, but went off for 34 in the victory at Miami. OKC's Russell Westbrook and Miami's Dwyane Wade averaged 20.5 points in the two meetings.
What is the key matchup in the series?
Are you kidding? It's the NBA's leading scorer (Durant) and the NBA MVP (James). The question is how much will the two actually go head-to-head? A fair amount, probably. Durant will try to run James all over the floor to wear him out. James, one of the league's best defenders, will get in Durant's grill and force him into a collapsing defense. However, that scheme could backfire considering Durant had a season-high eight assists in OKC's victory in March.
At the other end, Durant's length could present problems for James, but James could use his strength to post up Durant.
In the two meetings, Durant and James were on the floor at the same time for an average of 36 minutes a game, according to NBA.com. Durant shot 51 percent and averaged 23.5 points, while James shot 46 percent with 22.6 points.
What will happen if the two stars do not guard one another?
Don't be surprised if James switches over to cover Russell Westbrook, while the Heat uses Shane Battier to guard Durant.
Meantime, the Thunder might give Durant a break by putting Serge Ibaka, the NBA's leading shot blocker, on James. Kendrick Perkins might get a turn, too. James carved up the Celtics with drives through the lane in the Eastern Conference final, and the size of Ibaka and Perkins could limit James taking the biscuit to the basket.
Who else has to step up?
The Heat's Dwyane Wade cannot disappear as he did for large chunks of the series against the Celtics. In the East final, Wade shot below 28 percent and scored only 44 points total in the first half of the seven games. Meantime, the Celtics' Rajon Rondo ate up the Heat and Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook is a better player than Rondo. Imagine what Westbrook might do to Miami. But that's part of the problem. Westbrook also might imagine what he can do and hog the ball. He has a tendency to get selfish and he's liable to shoot the Thunder right out of this series.
After LeBron-Durant, which matchup might determine the series?
The matchup of big men Serge Ibaka (Thunder) and Chris Bosh (Heat). Ibaka is a deadly midrange shooter and an outstanding defender. Meantime, Bosh is the forgotten member of Miami's big three, but he played huge minutes in the Heat's two season-saving victories against the Celtics in Games 6 and. In Game 7, Bosh poured in 19 points, including three buckets from downtown.
How does homecourt advantage impact this series?
The Thunder not only has homecourt advantage, but because of the goofy 2-3-2 format, the advantage really swings in the Thunder's favor. The road team — in this case, Miami — has to play the first two and, if necessary, the last two games on the road. In addition, at this time of year, it's nearly impossible to beat a team three times in a row. Thus, the Heat might need to win two games in Oklahoma City. That won't be easy.
What about the benches?
The Heat has a solid bench with Shane Battier, who could start, and two former Gators, shooting specialist Mike Miller and power forward Udonis Haslem. But the edge goes to the Thunder with James Harden, the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year, center Nick Collison and guard Derek Fisher, a five-time NBA champion who showed he still has gas left in his tank. The 37-year-old Fisher has a chance to be the 14th NBA player to win at least six titles.
So, the bench edge goes to Oklahoma City, although with extra days off between Games 2 and 3 and Games 5 and 6, the Heat can play James and Wade close to 48 minutes a game and might not need a bench.
Who has the better coaching?
The Heat's Erik Spoelstra takes some, well, heat and it might be deserved. Only because he was thoroughly outsmarted by Boston's Doc Rivers did the Heat get pushed to the limit by a team nowhere near as good as Miami. The Thunder is better than Boston and Spoelstra is going to have to constantly mix things up to keep OKC off balance.
Meantime, the Thunder's Scott Brooks has the challenge of keeping his young group composed through the ups and downs, both in the individual games and the series. He did just fine after OKC fell behind 2-0 to the Spurs in the West final.
Who wins the series?
The Celtics nearly beat the Heat and the Thunder is younger and more talented than Boston. Plus, the Thunder has homecourt advantage. Thunder in six.
tom jones' two cents