The 2012 NBA season has come down to a series between the two best teams, Oklahoma City and Miami, with the winner becoming the NBA champion. Despite some definite bumps in the road, the NBA has gotten the series that it has wanted since day one of this lockout-shortened season, and the story lines are endless: Durant vs. Lebron, building through the draft vs. building through free agency, youth vs. experience, even good vs. evil or heroes vs. villains. But none of those stories will matter once the players get on the court and we see the best basketball played in the history of the world. This series features the league’s scoring leader vs. its MVP and two of the most talented teams I believe we have seen in years. It should be a great series, so let’s begin breaking it down to figure out who will win.
Before we talk about matchups and the teams’ paths to getting to the finals, I would like to first address the NBA and its officiating concerns. Many people believe that the NBA wanted this to be the finals matchup all along and maybe fixed games or series. In fact, there are even hints to this on the NBA’s website. Even though those things may seem more than a little suspicious, I don’t believe that any games or series were fixed and I believe that all officials were trying to make the best calls they could. Even though there were some interesting calls made in favor of the Heat and Thunder throughout the playoffs, one can argue that there were calls made for their opposition too if looked at closely. Many people use the example of how many more technicals were called against Boston than Miami in their series, but I think there are reasons for this. First of all, Boston is the more emotional team with Garnett and Pierce, and Rajon Rondo and Brandon Bass sometimes cannot control their feelings on the court towards officials. We saw this earlier in the year when Rondo was suspended for throwing the ball at an official. Also, even though this may be unjust, Boston has a worse reputation than Miami does with officials, and this does effect some calls. Even if some of the technicals were unfair, each technical is only worth one point, and as long as nobody is kicked out, it should not effect games too much (I know some would disagree with that) and the better team will still win. And the good news is that I don’t think the NBA is favoring either of these teams at all, so we should have a well-officiated finals at least.
First, let’s look at the finals schedule, which you can see below. One interesting note is the 2-3-2 format, which the NBA has used for a few years now in the finals. I believe this format favors the home team more, because it is very difficult to win 3 straight games, even at home, and if Miami is unable to do this, they will have to win multiple games in Oklahoma City to win the series. This will be very difficult to do.
Game 1: Tuesday, June 12, Miami at Oklahoma City, 9 p.m.
Game 2: Thursday, June 14, Miami at Oklahoma City, 9 p.m.
Game 3: Sunday, June 17, Oklahoma City at Miami, 8 p.m.
Game 4: Tuesday, June 19, Oklahoma City at Miami, 9 p.m.
x-Game 5: Thursday, June 21, Oklahoma City at Miami, 9 p.m.
x-Game 6: Sunday, June 24, Miami at Oklahoma City, 8 p.m.
x-Game 7: Tuesday, June 26, Miami at Oklahoma City, 9 p.m.
x — if necessary
First round: Defeated New York Knicks 4-1
Conference semifinals: Defeated Indiana Pacers 4-2
Conference finals: Defeated Boston Celtics 4-3
Even though the Heat are in the finals, I can’t remember a more disappointing finals team or a team with this little momentum going into the finals. Usually, teams are rolling along when they get to this point in the season, but for Miami, it has been one big grind. Before the playoffs began, I predicted that the Heat would not lose a single game until the NBA finals. Not only did they lose more than once, but they lost six times! Now you may think that I am being too hard on Miami, but I really don’t think so for one main reason: the eastern conference really, really stinks this year. Let’s look at the playoff teams from the east. Chicago lost Derrick Rose in the first game of the playoffs and are clearly not the same without him. Indiana is a nice team, but do they really have the talent to compete with Miami? No. Boston is very, very old and lost arguably its best defender in Avery Bradley. They needed 7 games to beat 8-seeded Philadelphia. Atlanta had your typical Hawks team who has a nice-ish regular season and does nothing in the playoffs. If Atlanta could, they would break up this team but they can’t because of Joe Johnson’s humungous contract. Orlando did not have Dwight Howard and probably would not have made the playoffs if they did not have him for the whole season. New York had Carmelo Anthony and absolutely nothing else. Philadelphia I suppose is a better-than-average 8-seed, but they fell apart towards the end of the regular season and they are still an 8-seed. Should any of those teams have been able to beat Miami in one single game, let alone an entire series? No.
On top of all of that, Miami actually struggled with some of these teams and were behind in 2 of their 3 series so far. Against Indiana, who, no offense should not be on the same court with the Heat, Miami fell behind 2-1 and were behind in Game 4 at halftime. Even though they did not have Chris Bosh for most of that series, the talent of Lebron James and Dwyane Wade alone should be enough to beat Indina. And when they fell behind Boston 3-2, I had finally given up hope in this team. Losing Game 5 at home should have been the end of them, but they fought back and took games 6 and 7 with relative ease.
It seems like this team only plays to its ability when it is most necessary, and they will not be able to do that in the finals if they want to win. This leads me to my next point: Erik Spoelstra needs to be fired. Obviously, Miami can’t do that in the middle of their playoff run, but I believe he should be replaced even if they win the championship this year. Before these playoffs, I thought that people were being too hard on Coach Spo and I did not think he was too bad of a coach. Two major things changed my mind. First, his players don’t always give a 100% effort for all 48 minutes. They don’t always get back on defense, even after made baskets, and that is unacceptable. It is the coach’s fault when players aren’t trying their hardest, and it is Spoelstra’s fault here. In my opinion, if Pat Riley was coaching this team they would have swept the eastern conference. At worst they would never have been trailing in a series like they were twice already in the playoffs.
The other big reason why Spoelstra needs to go is how he handled the Chris Bosh injury. He let Bosh take his time coming back, even though they were in the playoffs. Bosh should have been motivated to come back as quickly as possible for Game 1 of the Boston series, and instead he came back for Game 5. I understand that his injury may be worse than I make it out to be, but if Riley was coaching this team, I would have been surprised if Bosh was not on the court in Game 1 of the conference finals series. Also, when Bosh finally did come back, why did Spoelstra bring him off the bench?! This is a must-win playoff Game 5 where the series is tied 2-2 and you bring one of your all-stars off the bench? And only play him 15 minutes and none in the fourth quarter? And lose? I have no idea what Spoelstra was thinking there. Even though Bosh came off the bench again in games 6 and 7, both Miami wins, he played many more minutes and he may be the reason why Miami is in the finals now.
Despite all of my criticisms of Miami, the NBA finals are tied 0-0 and Miami has the same chance at becoming NBA champions as Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma City Thunder
First round: Defeated Dallas Mavericks 4-0
Conference semifinals: Defeated Los Angeles Lakers 4-1
Conference Finals: Defeated San Antonio Spurs 4-2
The Thunder have lost half as many games as the Heat have so far in the playoffs and they have definitely been the more impressive team with more momentum. Think about the teams that the Heat beat. Now think about who the Thunder beat. In the first round, OKC defeated the defending world champion Dallas Mavericks, who beat Miami in the finals last year. Not only did the Thunder beat Dallas, but they swept them. It is not often that you see a defending world champ get swept in the first round. That is how good the Thunder are. In the second round, they beat arguably a top-5 basketball player ever in Kobe Bryant. If you think Kobe’s old, he still finished second in the NBA in scoring this year, and he has teamed up with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. The Heat beat Philadelphia, who’s best player is Andre Iguodala. OKC could have swept the Lakers too if not for an un-human performance from Kobe in Game 3. In the conference finals, the Thunder won four games in a row against a team that some were saying could be one of the best ever in San Antonio. Despite losing the first two games of the series, Oklahoma City never backed down and did not lose again. It is never easy to win 4-straight against a Gregg Poppovich-coached team, but Oklahoma City accomplished this. It is clear that Oklahoma City has been better than Miami in the playoffs so far.
The Thunder are led by their scoring champ, Kevin Durant. Durant has had one of the best playoff runs ever so far and would like to cap it off with a championship. Even though Lebron’s numbers might be a little better overall than Durant’s, Durant has made greater appearances in the fourth quarters of close games and he may be more valuable to his team despite Lebron’s MVP. Another big advantage is that Oklahoma City has is its home crowd and home court advantage. I’ve never seen more passionate fans or a greater percentage of fans who actually wear the shirts that the team gives out. Whether it is blue, white, or a mixture, those fans are visually pleasing about their team. They are also very, very loud, so it is no surprise that this team is named “Thunder”. Miami’s fans are very fair-weather and Oklahoma definitely has an advantage there. You can be sure that they are glad that Game 7 will be at their house and not in Miami’s.
Mario Chalmers vs. Russell Westbrook. Advantage: Westbrook
Mario Chalmers has grown a lot this year, especially in the playoffs where he is averaging in double-digits, but he is no Russell Westbrook. I believe that Westbrook is the most explosive point guard in the game and he showed that in games 5 and 6 against San Antonio where he averaged 24 points, 8 assists, and 6 rebounds. This guy can take over games and the Heat have shown that they can’t always defend quick point guards when they gave up 44 to Rajon Rondo in Game 2 of that series. Chalmers is not a great defender, and if the Heat keep him on Westbrook we can see some big point totals out of the 4th-year guard. I expect him to average 25 ppg this series.
Dwyane Wade vs. Thabo Sefolosha. Advantage: Wade
Dwyane Wade must have the advantage here even though he did not have the best of series against Boston. However, Sefolosha is nothing to laugh at and the guy can defend. I expect him to attempt to shut down Wade while the rest of the Thunder concentrate on Lebron. He is given a difficult task, but I believe he will be up to it. He will not back away from the pressure and I expect him to contain Wade as much as Wade is containable in this series. I predict Wade to average under 20 ppg in the finals this year, and he will not repeat his 2006 finals MVP performance.
Lebron James vs. Kevin Durant. Advantage: You choose (I choose Durant)
The MVP vs. the scoring champ in the regular season. Choke vs. clutch in the playoffs. Ok, I may be being a little bit hard on Lebron, who has had some great performances so far in the playoffs, but in my opinion, Durant has just been better. If you look at the stats, you can’t really determine who has been better in the playoffs. Combined, these two guys have scored under 25 points in a game only 5 times so far in the playoffs. It is incredible for a player to average 25 ppg in the playoffs, let alone be well over that. Rebounding-wise, Durant has had 6 double-digit rebounding games while Lebron has had 7. Neither player has had a double-digit assist game yet. This is especially surprising for Lebron. The reason why Durant wins this matchup in my opinion is that he has been better with the game on the line in the 4th quarters. Miami seems to lose every close game while OKC wins every close game. Close games come down to star players making shots and Durant has pretty clearly been the better player in those situations this year. However, Lebron is more experienced, and this could help him in the finals. If you want to hear more about this matchup, turn on ESPN any time between now and the end of the finals and they will probably be talking about it.
Chris Bosh vs. Serge Ibaka. Advantage: Bosh
This is as long as Chris Bosh is starting, which he better be (as you should be able to tell from my rant about Erik Spoelstra above). Both these players are the x-factors for their respective teams, and whenever they play well, they give their teams a big boost. Ibaka has improved a great deal offensively and has always been an excellent defender. Bosh is an all-star and needs to play like it. He should be starting and he should be playing 35-40 minutes per game. This is the finals and injuries can wait until the offseason. I don’t expect either of these players to make too much of a contribution this series.
Udonis Haslem (?) vs. Kendrick Perkins
Believe it or not, this matchup may be the biggest factor in favor of Oklahoma City in this series. Miami does not have a true center, and I will just call Haslem the starting center for matchup purposes. He could be replaced in the starting lineup by Joel Anthony or Ronny Turiaf, but that does not really matter. Kendrick Perkins will be a difference-maker. The Heat, especially Lebron, do not like Perkins, and that is precisely why OKC acquired him from Boston last season: to get in the heads of opposing NBA stars. No opposing NBA player likes Perkins, especially Lebron who lost to Perkins’s Celtics teams while James was with the Cavaliers. Perkins is a true center and a big body and he is not afraid to give a hard foul or pick up a technical. One would hope that at this point in Lebron’s career he is mature enough to handle Perkins’s antics, but I do not believe he is. Perkins won’t put together great stats, but he will leave an impact on this series.
Shane Battier, Mike Miller, Joel Anthony, vs. James Harden, Nick Collison, Derek Fisher. Advantage: OKC
This is another big advantage for the Thunder. They have a much deeper team and it will hurt Miami. James Harden is the 6th man of the year and he has made some clutch shots in the fourth quarter. Nick Collison is a great hustle player and definitely a coach’s favorite. Derek Fisher is a very old veteran that will provide leadership for OKC. He will be going for his 6th championship (mainly thanks to Kobe and/or Shaq), but he does deserve some credit. Miami’s bench features two bad 3-point shooters in Battier and Miller and a big body in Anthony. None will make an impact in the series overall.
Bold prediction: The home team will not lose a game in the series. I will explain more below.
Series prediction: The Oklahoma City Thunder will win the series in 7 games. Home court will make a huge impact on the series and Oklahoma City will use that to their advantage. They have not yet lost in the playoffs at home, and that will continue in this series. Here is how the series will play out: the Thunder win the first two games at home and everybody will be calling them the best young team ever. They have won 6 in a row and look unstoppable heading down to South Beach. The Heat storm back and win 3 straight at home and people say that this team has a no-quit attitude and will not die. Lebron will finally win his first championship. Oklahoma City will return home and win 2 straight despite all of its doubters for their first NBA championship. People will question the refs when Miami loses both games on the road and they will both be very close. Lebron will have to wait one more year for another shot at his first championship and the curse of Dan Gilbert will continue.
Who do you think will win the NBA championship???