If the media and the mainstream hype around the world are to be believed, then believe that there has never been an NBA Finals quiet like this one. Never before has one side been so overwhelmingly loved over the other. Never before has one side had so many haters wishing it ill fate. Never before have two future legends of the game been branded as heroes and villains in opposite sides of the spectrum of basketball nobility, morality, and all the goodness.
Miami fans will support Miami and fans in Oklahoma City fans will support Oklahoma City. But beyond that? No team’s losses have delighted neutral spectators quite in the same way that the villainously branded Miami Heat have. No team’s victories have restored faith in neutrals of all the goodness in the world as the Thunder. Even if you didn’t care about these two teams before, you now have an opinion, and that opinion – amongst the majority of the remaining Celtics, Lakers, Knicks, Spurs, Mavericks, Bulls, and Cavaliers fans in the world – is most likely to be pro-Thunder and anti-Miami. Especially the Cavaliers fans.
And so, here we are in the ultimate battle of NBA’s good and NBA’s evil. The team constructed by flashy big money ‘decisions’ and the team constructed via the draft and intelligent role players. The team of the NBA’s most-hated egotistic superstars and the team of NBA’s most loved humble young up-and-comers. The Public Enemies vs. the People’s Champions. Wholesome small town vs. flashy big city. ‘The Decision’ vs. ‘The Quiet Contract Extension’.
It’s Ram vs. Ravan. Harry Potter vs. Voldemort. Frodo vs. Sauran. Pandavs vs. Kauravs. Superman vs. Lex Luthor. Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader. Mr. India vs. Mogambo.
Perhaps it’s only fitting that a lockout-shortened NBA season – where too many teams had too much strain in a tight schedule producing too many unwatchable games – that we’re blessed with a Finals matchup for the ages. The type of matchup that basketball haters will pay to see. The type of matchup that is sure to generate some of highest TV ratings in Finals history.
Historically, the dirty little secret in the NBA has been that the inter-conference playoff series have usually been much more exciting than the Finals. This has lesser to do with the talent in the Finals and more about the fact that teams in the same conference play each other more often (in the regular season and year after year in the playoffs) and thus have more rivalries, more story-lines, more inter-links. The only consistent Finals ‘story’ in NBA history has been Celtics vs. Lakers. Years ago, Nike tried to sell us to the idea of a LeBron vs. Kobe Final, which, in Kobe’s prime, would’ve been one for the ages (even if Kobe’s Lakers held a much bigger overall advantage over LeBron’s Cavs).
But this year’s Finals may finally be the start of a new rivalry in NBA history, the type to rival the great Finals meetings of Magic-Bird and Lakers-Celtics of the 80s. The two best players in the league in two of the best and evenly-matched teams in the league. What more, both these teams have several more years of elite basketball left in them. Even before a single basket is made in the 2012 Finals, I can guarantee that most experts would’ve already bet that these two teams will meet each other in the Finals in 2013.
So strap on to your seat belt, because the near and the far future of the NBA are in good hands. In the Heat and the Thunder, the NBA has provided two teams that you will care about even if you don’t support them. In the Heat and the Thunder, you have the two players in the league sure to dominate the NBA for the next few years.
Never before since Michael Jordan and Karl Malone have the players who finished first and second in MVP voting faced each other in NBA Finals; what makes the LeBron and Durant matchup more intriguing is that the two players play the same position and will thus defend each other.
In Chris Bosh and James Harden, the two teams feature perhaps the best third options in all of the league.
In Erik Spoelstra and Scotty Brooks, both teams are led by two young, unproven coaches dreaming to become the next Gregg Popovichs or Pat Rileys of the coaching world.
In Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier, and Derek Fisher, both teams have a strong supporting cast that can make a difference on the offensive or defensive side of the floor. That said, the Thunder’s support crew has definitely come up big more often than Miami’s so far in the playoffs.
To predict what will happen when these two mammoths collide, we must first look back to see how they got there.
The Miami Heat started this season, like last season, with a target on their backs. The target only got bigger when they didn’t win a championship last June. Few teams have had to carry the expectations that that Heat do, but instead of being commended for making the Finals in just their first year together, they were criticised for not winning it. That is the curse of being the most-hyped – in public opinion they carry the expectation of all or nothing.
Miami went out and did this year what they did most of last year: play efficiently in the season, protect their home court, lose some big games here and there, and win some more big games. While LeBron and Wade shared Miami’s load last season, the weight came heavier on LeBron’s shoulders this year as Wade took a step back to let his teammate flourish. The results were frighteningly good: LeBron captured his third MVP and the Heat finished the season with a 46-20 record for second place in the East. Wade and Bosh were inconsistent but showed flashes of their brilliance too. Miami’s defense, as always, remained their biggest strength.
Miami played below average against a poor, hobbled Knicks squad in the first round of the playoffs to emerge 4-1 winners. In the first game of the second round against the Pacers, Miami lost Chris Bosh to injury. Indiana stormed back to take a 2-1 series lead. It was here that Wade and LeBron showcased their finest Jordan and Pippen imitation to devastatingly win the next three games of the series. The Conference Finals against their rival Celtics was, as always, an emotionally-charged affair. Miami won Game 1 comfortably and overcame a 44-point game by Rondo in Game 2 in overtime. But Boston came back to tie the series 2-2 after winning the next two, and then, took a 3-2 lead. With their backs against the wall again, Miami again responded well: LeBron had an epic 45 and 15 night in Game 6 and, with Bosh returning, the Big 3 closed out the fourth quarter of Game 7 in spectacular fashion to march into the Finals.
Many believed that the young Oklahoma City Thunder overachieved by qualifying for the Conference Finals last year. Without making any major changes, the Thunder simply improved their team chemistry to get even better this year. They signed 5-time champion Derek Fisher in mid-season to add some veteran presence to the young squad. Kevin Durant and Westbrook emerged as the highest scoring duo in the NBA and Durant won his third consecutive scoring title.
But it was the playoffs where the Thunder really demanded that their doubters pay attention. OKC had arguably the toughest route to the Finals in recent memory, defeating the three teams who have won every single Western Conference title in the previous 13 years: the Mavericks, the Lakers, and the Spurs. OKC swept 2011 champions Mavericks in the first round, beat 2010 champions Lakers 4-1 in the second, and after going down 2-0 to the amazingly strong Spurs, came back to win four in a row to win the Conference Finals. In this run, they not only showed their astonishing young talent but also surprising maturity to stay calm and win nervy playoff games.
If the Thunder are to win a championship this season, their road to the trophy of Mavericks-Lakers-Spurs-Heat will be remembered as one of the most grueling of all time.
For now, the Miami Heat stand in their way. If there’s one team that matches (or beats) the Thunder with top-heavy talent, it’s Miami. If there’s one team that matches (or beats) the Heat in athleticism and quickness, it’s OKC. The teams split their regular season series 1-1, with each winning their respective home game.
There is so little to call between them. OKC have more balance and depth, but for the way the Heat’s superstars closed out the Celtics, Miami have more momentum. Miami’s stars have more experience of the Finals (this is the third trip for Wade and LeBron) while OKC’s veterans – Fisher and Perkins – easily have far more experience than Miami’s (this will be a combined 11th trip to the Finals for the duo). Miami have the league’s best regular season player, OKC have the second best. OKC have the league’s best scorer and Miami have the third best.
The Heat hasn’t yet had to deal with a team so offensively potent as the Thunder in the playoffs; the Thunder hasn’t yet had to deal with a team so defensively stringent as the Heat.
OKC have a major advantage since four of the possible seven games will be played in their home court, in front of a fantastic crowd that will go hoarse cheering for their team. They are still undefeated at home. OKC also have a far better supporting cast than Miami, and in close playoff games, it is one Fisher three and one missed defensive assignment by Mike Miller that could make the difference between championship and second place.
Kevin Durant is the league’s most unstoppable scorer and more importantly, a player who has proven to be clutch in the biggest moments. Without having to defend an elite opposing point guard, Russell Westbrook could be in store for a memorable series, too.
Miami’s biggest advantage is in their defense. They could reduce Thunder’s offensive efficiency by making OKC live and die by the jump-shot, and the law of averages may finally catch up with the young Thunder. Although Miami looked like a 1-man team for many stretches of the playoffs, they finished Game 7 versus Boston the right way, with LeBron, Wade, and Bosh all contributing. If Miami’s Big Three is ready to peak at the right time then there is little that could stop them. If Dwyane Wade switches on in the NBA Finals like his 2006 Finals MVP year or even a year ago, then nobody will stop him.
And this is the year that I feel that LeBron James will finally not let his fans down at the biggest stage. LeBron has looked confident and locked in the moment all playoffs, and has been getting better with each series.
No matter how different the two teams are, in style and in personality, they are both winners. That is why it is difficult to make any guarantees about how this series will proceed, but I can guarantee that it will be a nail-biting back-and-forth competition until the very end. At that end stands the ultimate glory for an NBA player, the Championship trophy.
Nearly three months ago, I had predicted that Miami will beat Thunder in 7 games in the NBA Finals. With all the drama, twists, turns, and changes of opinion since then, I have come around to the same conclusion. When the dust settles, Miami’s defense and the potential of LeBron and Wade stepping up to play their best basketball may counter Durant, OKC’s depth, and home-court advantage. But it will not be easy. The series will go all the way again, to the very last 7th game, before we crown a new NBA champion.
My Prediction: Evil will trump over Good, at least as far as popular opinion is concerned, and in the way, the Evil might even change popular opinion a little. The Heat will embrace the hate and survive past the excellent Thunder to become NBA Champions. Miami Heat win 4-3.
And I’m going to pick LeBron James to win the Finals MVP award. LeBron may not thoroughly outplay Durant, but if his team wins, he could become just the first regular season MVP since Duncan in 2003 to win a championship and Finals MVP award in the same season.
And whether or not you agree with the conclusion of this journey, I’m sure that you’ll agree with me that the journey itself is going to be mind-blowing. Enjoy the Finals!