NBA Finals 2012: Predictions Based on Past "Big Three" Rivalries

Argun Ulgen@@Brooklyn_BeatAnalyst IJune 11, 2012

NBA Finals 2012: Predictions Based on Past "Big Three" Rivalries

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    The Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat mirror each other in substance and style.  Both teams have the "Big Three" essentials: an unstoppable scorer (Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James), an elite combination guard (Russell Westbrook vs. Dwyane Wade) and an All-Star X-factor (Chris Bosh vs. James Harden). 

    Each squad has solid overall construction. They are well equipped with three-point specialists and defensive stoppers.

    While both the Thunder and Heat could use more help in the rebounding department, they make up for this issue through superb team defense and transition offense.

    In the 1980s, competing NBA finalists with similar "Big Three" blueprints have clashed.  Here are four of those historic matchups, what determined each outcome and what that determination says about who will win the 2012 NBA Finals.

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Detroit Pistons, 1988 NBA Finals (Lakers 4-3)

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    Big Threes

    Lakers:  Magic Johnson (19.6 ppg, 11.9 apg); James Worthy (19.7 ppg, 53% FG); Byron Scott (21.7 ppg, 53% FG)

    Pistons:  Isiah Thomas (19.5 ppg, 8.4 apg); Adrian Dantley (20 ppg, 51% FG); Joe Dumars (14.2 ppg)

    Skill Set Specialization

    Both teams had numerous frontcourt role players who scored in double digits and rebounded the ball well. 

    The Lakers were well padded with center Kareem Abdul Jabbar (now in the twilight of his career) and forwards Mychal Thompson and A.C. Green.  The Pistons countered with bad-boy center Bill Lambeer and forwards Vinnie Johnson and a young Dennis Rodman.


    How the Series Was Won

    Five-time MVP-winner Magic Johnson is generally considered a better point guard than Isiah Thomas.  Yet, in Game 6 with the Pistons up 3-2, Thomas eclipsed Johnson with a 43-point (56 percent FG), 8-assist performance, playing on a sprained ankle at the Staples Center.

    That should have been enough for the Pistons to close the series. 

    However, the Lakers were the fifth-best team in the league at getting to the free-throw line that year, and in Game 6, they showed why.  Ironically, while Thomas was injured, the Lakers got to the line 43 times (35 converted, 81 percent) to the Pistons' 27 (22 converted, 81 percent).

    This large disparity gave the Lakers a 103-102 win, despite Thomas' legendary playoff performance. In Game 7, the Lakers' superior ball movement (30 assists to the Pistons' 22) guided them to another slim victory over the Bad Boys of Detroit.

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics, 1987 NBA Finals (Lakers 4-2)

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    Big Three/Four

    Los Angeles Lakers: Magic Johnson (23.9 ppg, 12.2 apg, 52% FG); Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (17.5 ppg, 56% FG); James Worthy (17 ppg, 49% FG)

    Boston Celtics: Larry Bird (28.1 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 7.6 apg, 1.8 spg); Kevin McHale (26.1 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 2.2 bpg); Robert Parish (17.5 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 1.8 bpg); Dennis Johnson (13.5 ppg, 7.5 apg, All-NBA Defensive Team)

    Skill Set Specialization

    In addition to perhaps the gaudiest statistical compilations from their respective superstars, each team boasted very strong role players. 

    The Lakers were deeper than the Celts, with solid inside rebounding and scoring from Michael Cooper, Thompson and Green.  The Celtics had a three-point specialist in Danny Ainge (44 percent from three-point range).


    How the Series Was Won (Game 4)

    On paper, it's quizzical that this series didn't go to seven games.

    In Game 4, the teams' statistical performances evened out.  The Celts passed and shot the ball better than the Lakers, but the Lakers got to the line 32 times to the Celtics' 16.  

    In the end, it was just one surprising Johnson hook shot with less than five seconds left that gave the Lakers a Game 4 107-106 upset win at Boston Garden.  The win gave the Lakers a commanding 3-1 lead, and they closed the NBA finals at home in Game 6.

Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers, 1984 NBA Finals (Celtics 4-3)

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    Big Threes

    Boston Celtics:  Larry Bird (24.2 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 6.6 apg); Kevin Mchale (18.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 1.5 bpg); Robert Parish (19.0 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 1.5 bpg)

    Los Angeles Lakers:  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (21.5 ppg, 57% FG, 1.8 bpg); Magic Johnson (17.6 ppg, 56% FG, 13.1 apg); Jamaal Wilkes (17.3 ppg, 51% FG)

    Skill Set Specialization

    Both teams had high-percentage scorers as role players.

    For the Lakers, the then 22-year-old James Worthy shot 56 percent and provided 14 points on 10 shots per night.  He was accompanied by Byron Scott and Bob McAdoo, also effective scorers.  The Boston Celtics had two role players, Gerald Henderson and Cedric Maxwell, who scored in double figures off better-than-50-percent shooting from the field.


    How the Series Was Decided

    Scoring wasn't going to be a distinguishing factor in this series. 

    What separated the Celtics from the Lakers was offensive rebounding.  On first glimpse, Boston's Game 4 129-125 victory was a statistical dead heat.  Then you will notice that the Celtics took 111 FG attempts to the Lakers' 85, an astoundingly huge gap! 

    Larry Bird piled in 21 rebounds, and the Celts dominated the offensive boards all night. 

    That same kind of disparity explains the Celtics' Game 7 111-102 series-clincher.  The Celtics grabbed 20 offensive rebounds to the Lakers' nine.  Larry Legend and Robert Parish were responsible for 11 of those 20 boards. 

Philadelphia 76ers vs. Los Angles Lakers, 1983 NBA Finals (76ers 4-0)

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    Big Threes

    Philadelphia 76ers:  Moses Malone (24.5 ppg, 15.3 rpg, 2.0 bpg); Julius Irving (21.4 ppg, 1.6 spg); Andrew Toney (19.7 ppg, 50% FG)

    Los Angeles Lakers:  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (21.8 ppg, 59% FG, 2 bpg); Magic Johnson (16.5 ppg, 10.5 apg, 2.2 spg); Jamaal Wilkes (19.6 ppg, 53% FG)

    Skill Set Specialization

    In addition to Magic Johnson, the Lakers had another outstanding playmaker in Norm Nixon, who doled out 7.2 assists per game. 

    James Worthy contributed 58-percent shooting and 13 points off the bench. The 76ers countered with Maurice Cheeks, who in addition to being a strong playmaker, was also a top defensive specialist.


    How the Series Was Won

    Anticlimactically, this series was won by injuries. 

    The Lakers lost—for all or part of the series—Nixon, Worthy and forward Bob McAdoo.  Even though the Lakers' "Big Three" was still intact, the loss of key role players allowed Moses Malone to reign free in the frontcourt, where he enjoyed an enormous 72-30 rebounding advantage over Abdul-Jabbar in the series. 

    The Lakers also couldn't generate enough offense without their three key role players and were drubbed 4-0 by the healthy 76ers.

Predicting OKC vs. Miami Through Historic Outcomes

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    Our trip down memory lane has shown that when "Big Threes" compete against each other, outcomes are determined by silent statistics (free throws, rebounding and ball movement), big-moment presence and luck (injuries). 

    Who has the edge in these key categories?


    Free Throws (Edge: Heat)

    Oklahoma City made the most free throws in the NBA during the regular season.  However, they were also at the bottom of the league in free-throws attempts against (22nd). 

    The Miami Heat, on the other hand, were amongst the best in the league at both free throws made (eighth) and attempts against (12th). Expect the Heat to get to the line more frequently and to bait OKC to gamble on getting to the line. 


    Rebounding (Edge: Heat)

    Going back to the 1984 playoffs, the Celtics won because Larry Bird went into "beast mode" on the boards. 

    The Heat's "Big Three" are quite simply much more capable than OKC's superstars of doing the same.  Assuming LeBron James plays an aggressive game, notch up one win to James racking up a monster rebounding performance on the offensive boards.


    Ball Movement (Even)

    Both teams rely on transition offense and fast isolation plays for the bulk of their points.

    Because both teams are also so good defensively, expect long periods of frenetic play, missed shots and turnovers.  What could give OKC an edge in this category is Westbrook recently proved he can, in fact, play pure point guard style—he dished out 12 assists in Game 5 against the San Antonio Spurs. 

    Still, it's doubtful that Westbrook or Wade will revert to anchoring well-developed set plays in this series.

    In a series that will involve a barrage of aggressive isolation plays to the hoop, expect one or two games to be determined simply by who gets to the line more.  The Heat have more experience than the Thunder in this category. 


    Big Moment Presence (Edge: Thunder)

    LeBron James' Game 7 Eastern Conference Finals performance against the Celtics proved that despite critics' opinions, James can come through in the fourth quarter. However, James did most of his outstanding work before the last three minutes of that game.  

    It's likely that one contest will be determined in the final minute.  Thus far in the playoffs, Kevin "King Comeback" Durant has hit three game-winners.  Both Durant and Harden have also hit timely shots to create some distance late in games. 

    Without hating on James' end-game here, Oklahoma City has an edge in this category.  But it's more likely that the Heat will control the first 10 minutes of the fourth quarter sufficiently, so Durant will be unable to win games with two minutes left. 


    Luck (Edge: Thunder)

    Who knows how the 1983 playoffs would have turned out had the Lakers not lost a huge chunk of their role players to injuries?   

    The Heat have already had to deal with significant injuries to two of their star players this year: Dwyane Wade in the regular season and Chris Bosh for a majority of the playoffs.

    Meanwhile, the Oklahoma City Thunder are in pristine health.  It appears that if an injury were to affect the NBA Finals, it will affect the Miami Heat. It's almost impossible to factor luck into a series, but if you are so inclined, there is the analysis. 


    Outcome (Heat in 6)

    In what is going to be a frenetic and physical series, expect the Heat to show a little more control and poise than the younger, less-experienced Thunder.  All top players will put in strong offensive performances, but the Heat will win this series at the free-throw line and on the boards. 

    Kevin Durant will pour in huge offensive output and will put in the first of what what will be many NBA Finals fourth-quarter heroics. However, LeBron James will perform well enough early on in the fourth to give the Heat sufficient control of the outcome in the end of a few of the games.