NBA Finals 2012: Predicting Who Will Be Studs and Duds
It always seems like the NBA Finals are decided by a few players, both stars and reserves, either exceeding expectations or not playing to their potential. Last year the lights out shooting and crunch time chops of Dirk Nowitzki coupled with the disappointing effort and fourth quarter disappearances of LeBron James were instrumental in the Dallas Mavericks winning their first championship. It should be no different this series as the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder square off in a much-anticipated battle for the Larry O'Brien trophy.
Each team is counting on several players to perform at a high level while also trying to limit the other team's key players by exploiting matchups and employing certain defensive tactics. In a series like this, where each team has some distinct advantages, there will undoubtedly be a few men who rise to the occasion and a few who struggle out on the court.
With Game 1 looming, let's take a look at who will be a stud and who will be a dud in the 2012 NBA Finals...
Stud: LeBron James
Let's get the easy ones over with first. LeBron James has simply been the best player in these playoffs, backing up an MVP winning season with a phenomenal postseason run, even by his standards.
James has emerged as a multi-tool for Miami, playing any position on the court that he must, while also being the most devastating two-way player in the league. James is averaging 30.8 points, 9.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game, along with nearly two steals. He's shooting nearly 51 percent from the field and logging over 42 minutes per game while showing little signs of slowing down.
The only real criticism for James is his three-point shooting. After a regular season where he cut down on attempts, James is launching nearly four a game and connecting on just 27.5 percent of them. It would also be nice if he could knock down his free throws at a better clip than the 71.8 percent he is at right now given how often he gets there.
Still, these are hardly major issues for someone playing at as high a level as LeBron is right now.
Offensively, he is a nightmare match up because of an uncommon mix of strength and athleticism and an uncanny ability to get to the basket or draw a foul. He's shooting more than 10 free throws per game because opposing defenses simply cannot stop him from getting to the rim once he builds up momentum.
When his jumper is falling, as it was towards the end of the Boston series, James is truly impossible to guard. His unselfishness and basketball IQ give Eric Spoelstra the luxury of using him as a point forward and running the offense from the top of the key or having him use his improved post game to score from close range and blow past larger, slower defenders.
On the defensive end, his versatility shines as well. James has the speed to be a pest on the perimeter, matching up with guards as evidenced by his success against Rajon Rondo. He can also push a bigger forward off the block and force them into tough shots. His quickness allows him to rotate well and be a very effective help defender, and no one in the league is as good at momentum altering chase down blocks as LeBron.
He'll have the difficult task of guarding Kevin Durant, who has been on quite a tear himself lately, but that also means Durant will be guarding James. While he's improved as a defender this season, Durant still does not have the strength to contain James, and while his length could be an issue LeBron, should be looking to drive the ball whenever possible.
After another season of vacillating between James and Dwyane Wade as the team's leader, James took over the role with his consistent stellar play, and there's no reason to expect him to slow down in the Finals.
Dud: Dwyane Wade
While LeBron James has been consistently brilliant through these playoffs, Dwyane Wade has looked very shaky at times, and I believe that trend will continue in the series with Oklahoma City. Wade has put up good numbers, 22.9 points, five rebounds and 4.1 assists per game while shooting 47 percent from the floor, but he just hasn't looked like the same player who dominated the postseason in 2011 and who led Miami to a title in 2006.
By his standards, Wade did not have a particularly strong series against Boston, where he was being guarded by the combination of Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen and Michael Pietrus. He never shot the ball particularly well and frequently seemed out of sorts on the floor.
He shot just 44.4 percent from the field during the series, and settled into a supporting role early on, allowing James to be the dominant player whenever he was on the floor.
Oklahoma City's defense has been excellent in the playoffs, and a lot of that can be attributed to Thabo Sefolosha, the team's perimeter stopper who will likely spend much of his time guarding Wade.Sefolosha is an extremely savvy defender who has great speed and length that can bother Wade and force him into difficult shots from the outside, exactly what the Thunder want.
Should he get into the paint, the team also boasts the trio of Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison, all above-average rim protectors who can alter a shot without fouling. Ibaka in particular will pose a problem for Wade because of his ability to contest shots without fouling and his surprising athleticism for a big man.
Points won't be nearly as easy to come by for Dwyane Wade in this series.
In addition, he will have the tough task of guarding James Harden for stretches, who has had a stellar postseason and is a very difficult player to contain. Because of his offensive versatility, Harden is a particularly tough cover and will be able to wear down Wade with his ability to move off the ball as well as get to the rim. Harden is a decent defender as well and should provide more resistance than Allen did in the last series.
Wade will still play solid basketball, but he will not be the difference maker Miami may need him to be to win the series. Wade has a tough stretch ahead of him, and he has looked a step slower than usual, perhaps due to injury.
Whatever the cause, this Finals series against the Thunder will not be Wade's breakout performance of the 2012 playoffs.
Stud: Serge Ibaka
Serge Ibaka has often been considered the X-factor for Oklahoma City. When he's playing well, the team is extremely tough to beat, but when he isn't making an impact, their lack of frontcourt scoring becomes a glaring weakness.
Ibaka has had a solid postseason run, averaging 10.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and a staggering 3.3 blocks while shooting a blistering 55.6 percent from the floor. Against a Miami Heat frontline that seriously lacks depth, Ibaka should be able to play quality basketball.
Ibaka has had two stellar games in the playoffs, Game 1 against Dallas where he notched 22 points and five blocks and Game 6 against San Antonio, where he made all 11 of his field goal attempts for 26 points and blocked three shots as well. His perimeter jump shot has improved, and he's been hitting it with regularity to help spread the floor for the Thunder.
He feeds off of the open looks defenses give him due to Durant and Westbrook's penetration, something that should continue against the Heat.
With Miami likely keying in on stopping the Thunder's Big Three, Ibaka will need to step up and carry more of the offensive load than usual. The Heat have Udonis Haslem and a still recovering Chris Bosh to man the middle, but little quality depth, meaning that Ibaka should be able to assert himself both offensively and on the glass. He's a strong rebounder thanks to his size, length and speed.
Defensively, his shot blocking prowess will be a huge part of what Oklahoma City does to contain Miami. The Heat rely on getting to the basket and drawing fouls, making Ibaka's ability to alter shots without fouling instrumental in their success.
He will primarily be matched up with Bosh, who he has the speed to cover when he drifts out onto the perimeter for jump shots, or the offensively limited Haslem, who he should be able to dominate with his speed and strength. The team could also put him on James; he is similar physically and is one of the few players who would be effective against LeBron, both in the post and extended away from the basket.
Serge Ibaka has played pretty well for the Thunder's entire playoff run, but this is a time when he must excel. I believe he will rise to the occasion. The Thunder need a fourth player beyond Durant, Westbrook and James Harden to be a difference maker, and that will be Ibaka in this series.
Dud: Russell Westbrook
To say that Russell Westbrook has had a tumultuous postseason would be an understatement.
The versatile fourth year point guard has had his share of quality games, but at times, he has also looked out of sync with his team. Westbrook's numbers have been solid, he's putting up 21.7 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists, but his shooting percentages are what troubles Thunder fans. Westbrook is shooting a decent, but not particularly impressive, 34.9 percent from three and just 43.6 percent from the field.
Westbrook is on average missing more than 10 shots per game, and for a team that relies heavily on developing an offensive rhythm, this is particularly bad. Missing shots is obviously never good, but when he dribbles the ball past the timeline and jacks up an ill-advised shot, it can disrupt the flow the team has worked hard to cultivate.
Westbrook is a pedestrian jump shooter, and yet he seems insistent on taking perimeter shots early in the shot clock instead of waiting for a better play to develop.
He has also had more difficulty drawing fouls than usual. Last postseason he attempted over eight free throws a game, but he is down to just over five in 2012. Westbrook's best asset is his athleticism and ability to break down a defense, but he is not doing that as well in the playoffs as he did in the regular season.
He was doing an excellent job keeping his turnovers down, averaging less than one per game against Los Angeles and just 2.5 against Dallas, but that number spiked to 3.3 while playing against the Spurs. Westbrook should've had a tremendous series; after all, he was being guarded by Tony Parker and Gary Neal, neither of whom are great defenders.
However, he had his worst run of the playoffs, averaging just 18.2 points on 37.8 percent shooting. The fact that he was unable to take advantage of a seemingly favorable matchup is troubling. His assists jumped to 7.3 per contest, which helped to offset his lack of scoring, but the team needs him to be efficient to win a championship.
Westbrook will primarily be matched up against Mario Chalmers, an improved player who has taken nice strides in his three-point shooting and dribble-drive game. He is no longer an offensive liability, and Westbrook will have to respect him.
He will also spend time being covered by Dwyane Wade who, despite his own inconsistencies, is still a quality defensive guard who will be able to disrupt what Westbrook does offensively while being a nuisance offensively thanks to his driving ability and deceptive shot fake.
My prediction is that Russell Westbrook's up-and-down postseason trend will continue, with him having more poor performances than quality games against Miami this year. He will still be effective at times, but not to the level the Thunder need him to be against the Heat's vexing defense.
Stud: Kevin Durant
If LeBron James has been the best player in the playoffs this year, Durant is not far behind.
Averaging 27.8 points, 7.9 boards and 4.2 assists along with over a block and a steal per game, Durant has proven that Oklahoma City is not too young to be a champion by dismantling the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers before rallying to take four straight against San Antonio and secure a Finals berth.
He has been shooting extremely well, 50.5 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from three, while still showing that effortless flow on offense that has made him the league's scoring champion three times in a row.
Durant's growth this season has been staggering, as he's gone from being just an elite scorer to a tremendous all-around player who can initiate his team's offense, defend well and be a major factor on the glass. Just look at the stat line he threw up in Game 6 against the Spurs; 34 points, 14 rebounds and five assists while shooting almost 53 percent. Those are LeBron numbers right there, and Durant has been the picture of consistency in these playoffs.
Offensively, there is simply no one like him. He has range of anywhere on the court and always seems to hit those momentum changing perimeter jumpers when his team needs it. He has continued to improve his game in the post and has had some nice moments scoring with his back to the basket that he hadn't done much of previously.
His off the dribble game is phenomenal; he uses his speed and dribbling ability to break down a defense and attack the basket or dish the ball to an open teammate on the wing.
The only problem with Durant is not settling for jump shots against a fearsome Heat defense, but he's improved at staying aggressive throughout the course of a game and should be looking to drive whenever an open look isn't present.
Durant will also have his hands full with James, who has improved as a defender and played well on that end of the court so far in the postseason. James needs to be absolutely locked in to get the best of the matchup.
Durant must make sure LeBron catches the ball as far away from the basket as possible, because as we all saw last series, he is much tougher to stop in the 15 to 20 foot range than he is getting the ball outside of the three-point line. He cannot cede position in the post or allow James to streak by him for an uncontested dunk.
This is as good of an individual match-up as the NBA Finals have had in a long time, and both small forwards should shine as they try to lead their team to glory.
Dud: Chris Bosh
I'm not trying to knock Chris Bosh's talent or diminish what he can do on the basketball court, but this simply isn't an advantageous match-up for the 6'11" forward coming off of a troublesome injury. Bosh played very well in the Heat's last game against Boston, posting 19 points on just 10 shots while also snagging eight boards, but that was against a Celtics team with only one quality post defender in Kevin Garnett.
Oklahoma City has three elite defensive big men in Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka, all of whom can keep Bosh from scoring on the block. The Thunder can throw different looks at him with the strength of Perkins, athleticism of Ibaka and the grit of Collison, meaning it will be difficult for him to get a feel for the game offensively.
Scott Brooks could even use Kevin Durant on him in stretches if the team is playing smallball with Durant at the four spot.
Bosh will have difficulty working his way inside and drawing fouls, meaning he must rely on his outside shooting, which is not what Miami needs from its power forward. He did hit three three-pointers in Game 7, but Bosh's effectiveness is more around 20 feet than behind the arc.
Points will be difficult to come by for Bosh, as Oklahoma City has cranked up its defensive intensity this postseason, making crisp rotations, gang rebounding and generally protecting the basket very well.
In addition, he simply hasn't had a very good playoff run at all. In the games he has played in, Bosh averaged just 13.7 points and 6.9 rebounds. He's shooting well at 52.3 percent, but he's taking just under 10 shots per game. I believe these numbers are representative of the production the Heat will get out of him as he continues to heal from that abdominal strain that sidelined him for nine consecutive games.
Defensively he will have his hands full guarding Ibaka, who has an improved offensive game and can shoot pretty consistently as well as take the ball to the basket and finish with authority. Bosh has been criticized as soft in the past and must be aggressive at all times, even when guarding an offensively limited player like Collison.
He also will likely see time on Durant, whose mix of skills, speed and length will be a very troublesome match up for Chris Bosh.
Even fully healthy, Bosh would have difficulty against the Thunder, and at less than 100 percent the power of OKC's frontline, which will make him extremely uncomfortable.
Expect Bosh's poor playoff run to continue in the Finals.
Stud: James Harden
Miami simply has no player akin to James Harden.
Coming off the Oklahoma City bench, Harden has been a difference maker, transcendent sixth man and has shown uncommon poise for a 22 year old. He's averaging 17.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game while drilling clutch shots when called upon and making winning plays every time down the floor.
He's shooting 45.2 percent from the field and a phenomenal 44.6 percent from three, a number that should stay high as the Heat defense reacts to Durant and Westbrook, creating open looks on the wing.
Harden will spend time matched up with Dwyane Wade, which will be difficult, but the gifted two-guard has enough offensive moves that his numbers shouldn't dip much from where they've been all season. After all, he was being covered by quality defenders in Stephen Jackson, Delonte West and Kobe Bryant and was still putting up solid numbers from the field.
He has the ability to get to the foul line when his jumper isn't falling, attempting nearly seven free throws per game, and doubles as one of the Thunder's best playmakers.
With the exception of Wade, he will be able to break down any Miami perimeter defender with his ability to reach his spots on the floor and his deceptive quickness. Harden may not seem like a tremendous athlete, but he has an explosive first step and a good handle that allows him to reach his spots on the floor.
He can also run the offense and take advantage of smaller guards by using his strength, meaning it will be difficult for Miami to throw someone like Mario Chalmers on him for extended stretches.
Harden is a huge part of what the Thunder do offensively, and I believe that he will have yet another great series against the Miami Heat.
Stud: Mike Miller
When I say Mike Miller will be a stud, I don't mean that he will be scoring 20 points per game or locking down the defensive boards, but that he will benefit from the attention created by James and Wade.
Miller is still one of the league's best three-point shooters, and he will thrive off of Oklahoma City's defense that will focus almost exclusively on the Heat's superstars, daring the complimentary players to beat them. Miller is averaging just 4.9 points per game in the playoffs, but is shooting 37.5 percent from three-point range, a number I expect to see increase in the Finals.
He is an excellent catch-and-shoot player, and with two unselfish ballhandlers in LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, he will receive plenty of uncontested looks at the basket. All Mike Miller has to do is knock down the shots, and he will have a great series. Defensively, he has to hold his own, and he will likely see time on James Harden. He must use his size at 6'8" to bother him.
Miller is a decent defender and understands Miami's schemes well enough to not be a liability.
He has averaged just 2.7 boards in the playoffs, but Miller is a strong rebounding guard who can sneak into the paint and crash the glass when necessary. He must be able to assert himself against the Thunder's big men and be a factor on the glass, even grabbing four rebounds per game would be huge for Miami.
Miller is the kind of role-player Miami needs to play well for them to win the series, and there is no reason he won't as long as he continues to play within his role and knock down shots at a high clip.