Critics mistakenly believed that LSU and Alabama in the BCS Championship would be the match up of the century. The Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat, NBA’s two biggest behemoths, overshadow the two SEC schools by a long shot.
This is the finals pairing everyone predicted on opening day of the 2012 season.
It is an NBA clash of Cold War-esque proportions—the greatest power in the West versus the greatest power in the East for dominance of the basketball world.
Even sounder than the matchup is the storyline. The league’s two most dominant scorers in 2012, MVP LeBron James and NBA Scoring Champ Kevin Durant—the biggest of the Big Threes—both playing for their first rings and to be the NBA’s newest dynasty.
As a sports fan, what is not to love?
As Game 1 opens tonight, I predict that the series will be the in the Heat’s favor. Here are the 5 reasons Miami will take the crown for NBA’s best in 2012.
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LeBron is the key figure in the 2012 matchup against OKC—not Durant, Wade, Bosh or Westbrook.
It is the third appearance in the Finals for the crownless King James, once with the Cavs against San Antonio in 2007 and again last year against the Mavs.
Down 0-2, James can’t afford a third strike.
Winning an NBA title is the gorilla on his back, the consistent counterargument to LeBron’s debated legacy and the lynchpin in any comparisons to Jordan or Kobe. The stakes are even higher, since he has “taken his talents to South Beach” and with his guarantees of “not seven” titles have painted a massive target on his back.
Beyond all of the media hype, a championship has been his burning desire since his high school days in Akron.
He wants it, he needs it and losing is not an option.
ESPN.com reported: “LeBron James is making a guarantee about this third NBA Finals appearance: This time there will be no regrets.”
LeBron has laced up his work boots, starting in Game 6 against Boston where he arguable single-handedly beat the Celtics in the Garden, scoring a dominant 45 points and collecting 15 rebounds.
“I wanted to be there for my teammates, no matter what was going on throughout the course of the game," James said after the game (via NBA.com). "This was a gut-check for us."
Don’t expect him to ease up either.
James has exhibited a new sense of focus and maturity. Critics are no longer doubting his mindset or ability to close in the fourth quarter. This is the series where LeBron can transcend from a great player to a legendary one.
The 2012 Finals are LeBron’s to win. He will be the deciding factor.
Durant, Harden, Westbrook: 67.1 PPG, 18.2 RPG, 13.1 APG, 46.4 FG%
Bosh, LeBron, Wade: 67.4 PPG, 21.5 RPG, 10 APG, 50.1 FG%
Despite the striking resemblance between the Thunder's Durant, Harden and Westbrook and Miami's trio of Wade, James, and Bosh on paper, the Heat have the upper hand.
They simply are bigger and physically more domineering.
Chris Bosh's 6’11” frame tops the wiry Durant by two inches. Plus, his power forward skill set and smooth jump shot adds a dynamic that the Thunder simply can’t match in their frontcourt with Perkins and Serge Ibaka.
Other than LeBron’s phenomenal play in Game 6, Bosh’s clutch three-point shooting gave the Heat the edge in the Eastern Conference Finals.
As James drove, Garnett was a force to help in the key, leaving Bosh uncontested in the corner.
Considering Perkins can’t be in two places at once, Bosh's ability to shoot will stretch the Thunder, making it difficult to slow James and Wade’s penetration.
Next comes Wade, who may only have an inch on Westbrook but weighs in at almost 40 pounds heavier (a listed 220 compared to 183). With his physical style of play, particularly on defense, and his relative quickness—he’s nicknamed the Flash for a reason—Wade simply outmatches the OKC point guard.
Finally, there is the absolute specimen that is LeBron James.
At 6’8” and 250 pounds, James is a shooting guard with a tight end’s body. He is bigger than Jimmy Graham, Calvin “Megatron” Johnson and Aldon Smith. He likely could block all three, let alone the three inches shorter and 30-pounds lighter James Harden.
Plus, when LeBron gets a full head of steam driving into the paint, nothing can stop him.
The Thunder’s offense is arguably the best in the league. They are mercenaries when it comes to scoring, shooting with precision and averaging 102.3 PPG.
They can light up a score board like “the Fourth of July in Le Flore County," according to CBS Sports.
But, they are up against a defensive Goliath.
The Heat has held their postseason opponents to 88.1 points per game and thrive off of points from turnovers with their lightning fast transition offense.
This could be a huge issue for the Thunder, who entered the playoffs with a league-worst 16.3 turnovers a game. If OKC can’t protect the ball, then Miami will literally run away with the series.
“This team was built for their offense to spring from their defense, and it is great. They help to the corners, they challenge shooters, they harass and deflect and create turnovers and shot clock violations," senior NBA blogger Matt Moore wrote.
"This is a great defensive system featuring some of the best players in the world.”
Experience has been the hot-button issue in OKC. It wasn’t a factor against the Mavs, Lakers or Spurs in their run though the playoffs.
But, playing in the NBA Finals is a new kind of pressure.
Only two players on the Thunder roster have played on basketball’s biggest stage: five-time champion Derek Fisher and Kendrick Perkins. Neither are pivotal to the team’s success, and their descriptions to teammates can’t and won’t supplement the real deal.
LeBron, Wade, Bosh, Haslem and company are making their second straight appearance to the NBA Finals.
After losing, undoubtedly the worst feeling imaginable for an NBA player, they have returned with an unquenchable desire to win.
Wade—Finals champion and MVP in 2006—and James each will be playing in their third championship game.
The Thunder’s lack of exposure to the Finals isn’t their only disposition. Their inexperience runs deeper.
Besides their starters having spent less time in the league than the Heat’s, the Thunder’s Big Three have only played in one Game 7 and only three Game 6s.
If this series comes down to the wire, as expected, rest assured the term “untested” will resurface in reference to the Thunder.
I think the playoff-savvy Heat roster has what it takes to perform late in games and late in the series. They have been there before, know what to expect and will get the results.
I have said it before, and will continue to repeat this, as the 2012 Finals continue to unfold.
This is LeBron’s time, it is his series to win and he will undoubtedly need to be the difference-maker against the Thunder. He has long been touted a high-quality player in the league, but this is his breakout moment.
“I am no longer out to prove people wrong. At the end of the day in this series, I'm going to play my game and try to do whatever it takes on both ends and make plays," James told ESPN.
Expect big things from No. 6 who, in the hurricane of reporters and hype, is the eye of the storm.