The culmination of the NBA season will begin on Tuesday night. The Oklahoma City Thunder will be representing the western conference, and the Miami Heat will represent the east. The two teams split their season series at one game a piece.
This may be the beginning of a long rivalry between two superstars in Kevin Durant and LeBron James. They are the two leading scorers left in the playoffs at 27 and 30 points per game, respectively.
The Heat have their three star players, and the rest of the roster is made up of role players. The Thunder have their own three star players, but since they acquired them through the NBA draft and not with their checkbook, their surrounding talent is far superior to that of the Heat.
Miami relies almost exclusively on James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh for the majority of their scoring. James has been outstanding so far in the playoffs, and he will need more superhuman efforts if the Heat are going to win this series. He is averaging 30 points, nine rebounds, five assists and has a plus-32 rating.
He played almost 46 minutes a game in the conference finals against Boston.
James has proven he can take over games, but he can't win them by himself. Wade needs to be much more of an offensive presence this series, like he was against the Pacers. He is scoring under 10 points per game in the first half; that number must improve. The Thunder are way too athletic and offensively gifted to get off to another slow start.
Chris Bosh has been an enigma for much of the playoffs. Missing games with injury, he is still showing signs of rust. He has to be in the game more this series to keep Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins off the glass and in check offensively. As for his own offense, Bosh needs to be around 16 points and 10 rebounds to really help the Heat.
The Thunder will rely on their three stars to score much of their points, but their surrounding talent is very good and capable of scoring in bunches if need be. Kevin Durant averaged just under 30 points per game in the conference finals, along with seven boards and five assists. He is also a plus-30 for the playoffs.
Durant has led the NBA in scoring for the past three seasons, largely because he can get his shot anytime, anywhere. He will face a variety of defenders from the Heat, including LeBron James. Durant has not yet faced a defender as big as LeBron with his abilities. James on Durant will be a key matchup for this series.
Durant has the ability to simply take over a game. So does LeBron. It will be exciting to see which one will prevail over an entire series.
Russell Westbrook is going to pose a big problem for Miami. No one on the Heat is capable of keeping up with him for 40 minutes. That means they will be rotating defenders and zone looks on him.The Heat's ability to take charges will be a factor here. Westbrook, while incredibly athletic, has a tendency to go to the rim out of control. If the Heat can recognize those moments and take the charge, Westbrook will have to limit his slashing and stick to mid-range jumpers.
That is the formula to contain him.
James Harden will be a constant source of energy for the Thunder, and Serge Ibaka will provide the shot-blocking necessary to keep the Heat out of the lane.
This series is going to be a dog fight all the way through. For the Thunder, coach Scott Brooks will need to make sure to keep his young team level-headed so they will be focused enough for the fourth quarter against maybe the best fourth quarter team in the NBA. For the Heat, coach Erik Spoelstra is going to have to make the right substitutions to keep his team fresh against the young legs of the Thunder.
This series will go at least six games, and probably seven. In close games, free-throw shooting is critical. The Thunder have the edge in this category, averaging 82% for the charity stripe while the Heat average just 74%. That could be the difference in the series.
The Heat are much older than Oklahoma City and have three more games under their belt during the playoffs. The Thunder is rested and ready to play, while the Heat are coming off a seven-game series with the Celtics that surely drained them both mentally and physically.
The Thunder handled the Spurs relatively easily after figuring out how to play them defensively, and the Spurs were supposed to be the veteran, well-coached team that couldn't possibly lose to the way too young Thunder.
Both of these teams have their strengths and weaknesses. Both have star presence. Both want this championship. The questions will be strong and most likely derogatory if James doesn't win. If Durant doesn't win this year, he will be a favorite again next year.
I like the Thunder in six games with Durant winning his first Finals MVP award.