Durant and Westbrook were big in Game 1
The NBA Finals are off to a great start as expected. The two best teams are matched against each other, featuring the league’s best players, duos and trios. The most raucous crowd was excited to host their first finals game, and both the Heat and Thunder played impressive halves of basketball to maintain solid leads at various points during the game.
There were various things that happened in the game that may dictate the rest of the series, but overall, my opinion on the series has not changed. I have the Thunder winning in six, and I expect this to be a very competitive series.
I also do not expect LeBron James to freeze up and have a repeat performance of last year. He should play at an all-star level and be a factor in any Miami Heat win. He showed signs of overcoming his NBA Finals struggles today.
With that said, here are several reasons that this series will end up with the Miami Heat falling short again.
Spoelstra is the king of channeling out the noise..and he must continue to convince his team to follow suit
Despite the fact that Erik Spoelstra has been matched up with better coaches in almost every series, this is one series where Coach Spo should have the edge.
He gets a bad rap for not being a good coach, but he actually does an excellent job of keeping his team’s egos bottled up and focused on the task at hand, despite the noise surrounding them. He never panics, always keeps the Heat in the moment and has convinced them to play exceptional defense for the most part.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks did a great job out-dueling one of the best coaches in the game in the Spurs series at times, and definitely does a good job of instilling confidence in his players. However, the way he allows his players to run inefficient offense is a risky coaching strategy and likely erroneous. His team also plays great defense in stretches, and then is porous at other times.
Brooks is the caretaker of extraordinary talent, but Spoelstra's coaching is more impactful. He has not gained the type of trust that a legendary championship coach would get from his players, but he gets enough that they play pretty well as a team. As a result, this will help the Heat win two games.
Bosh must continue to knock down shots and stretch defense
Chris Bosh was huge in the Boston series. His consistent shooting from the outside gave the Heat a boost and stretched the Boston defense that had been very tight on LeBron and Wade through several games. Bosh can do some of the same if the Thunder have Serge Ibaka match up with him. This will force him to honor Bosh’s shot and take him out of the lane to help on penetration.
Beyond that, Bosh is a bona fide scoring threat and arguably the best third fiddle in the league. If Bosh can stay healthy and provide surges of scoring to complement the “Big 2,” the Heat have a good chance to extend this series to six and return to Oklahoma.
Westbrook was heard loud and clear in Game 1
Russell Westbrook is one of the main X-factors in this series. On the positive side, he is a major reason the Thunder will win this series.
His ultra-athleticism and explosive scoring is a problem for any defense. He constantly stays in the lane, putting pressure on big men to protect the basket but avoid foul trouble. He also possesses a consistent pull-up jumper that is impossible to guard. If the Heat choose to keep Wade off of Westbrook, he should be able to annihilate Mario Chalmers as he did on occasion in Game 1.
On the negative side, one reason this series may go six is because Westbrook is constantly guilty of usurping the offense and ignoring Kevin Durant. Durant is the league’s leading scorer and is by far the most effortless and efficient scorer in the league, yet Westbrook often takes poor shots.
While those shots sometimes go in, the Thunder become vulnerable when his shot is off and he starts turning the ball over.
Keep an eye on this balance; it could determine how long this series is. He was much better in the Spurs series, and that’s why the Thunder were able to prevail.
Harden is the #1 X factor
James Harden may be the No. 1 X-factor in this series. He did not show up as much in Game 1, but the league's best sixth man will make his impact before the series is done.
Since Westbrook is a difficult matchup for Mario Chalmers, Wade will likely take the challenge of trying to slow him. By putting Wade on Westbrook, that leaves Harden with a mismatch. Assuming LeBron James and Shane Battier will be guarding Kevin Durant or one of the bigs down low, that leaves Mario Chalmers to guard Harden. Harden is too big, too strong and too good.
As the series goes on, look for Harden to exploit this mismatch and assert himself more in the series. If the Heat choose to employ Wade on Harden, that leaves Westbrook to murder Chalmers as he did at times in Game 1.
In 99 percent of the games the Heat play this year, they are the better team in terms of talent.
If both teams were to put on scrimmage jerseys in a local gym, the Heat would likely have their way with almost every team in the league. Unfortunately, the only team in the league that could beat the Heat in a pickup game is the Oklahoma City Thunder.
While the Heat have a formidable and highly publicized trio, the Thunder have an equally skilled trio with depth to back them up. As a result, the Heat cannot simply overwhelm the Thunder with their talent like they can in most games they play. They must execute and play at a high level if they want to win this series. The small margin of error is why the Thunder should win this series.
Kevin is ready to lead the Thunder to the Promised Land
If LeBron James is the best player in the game, Kevin Durant is not too far behind him. Durant is able to put up huge offensive numbers with very few shots due to the fact that he can get his shot off on anyone and can shoot with consistency.
The most important aspect of his game that sets him apart is the fact that he can always be relied upon in the clutch. While Westbrook often goes on his own being the main aggressor during the first three quarters of the game, it seems to be fairly understood that Durant will finish the deal for the Thunder in the fourth. He rarely disappoints.
While James is as good as anyone who has ever played the game for 3.5 quarters, there is some debate as to how productive he can be in the clutch. There is no question about Durant, and this may be the major advantage that the Thunder need to win this series.
Could the former Finals MVP step up to save his team this year again?
This series will not get out of hand because DWade will not allow it to. He may have submitted to LeBron as the leader of the team, but I’d be very surprised if Wade does not assert himself more should the Heat find themselves backed into a corner by the Thunder.
Wade has historically been very special in big games, especially the NBA Finals, and he often brings his best for the big stage.
Most Miami Heat games are big, but few stages get Wade going more than the NBA Finals. He won the 2006 NBA Finals almost single-handedly and carried the Heat for much of last year’s finals.
I would not be shocked to see Wade step up and have special performances, especially in the home games when the Heat may be faced with daunting series deficits. Could this lead to him stepping on LeBron James’s toes again, forcing him back into a hole like last year when Wade asserted himself? We shall see.
The last thing the Heat need is for LeBron to revert back to being a player that looked lost on the floor and was unwilling to be on the attack for the duration of the finals last year.
LeBron should remain on the attack for the duration of this series
LeBron James seems to be at peace with himself right now. He does not seem to be carrying the weight of the world in acknowledgement of his poor taste in orchestrating the “Decision” and not hell-bent on proving the media and the naysayers wrong.
He seems more focused on playing his game with the full knowledge that he may be the most gifted basketball player to ever play the game and a three-time MVP on a team with another one of the game's best players with him for support.
He seems to be caught in meditation every time the camera is focused on him during play stoppage. Instead of his typical laughing and joking, he is more focused than ever.
Despite all of that, while it is fair to expect LeBron to perform well in this series because the Thunder do not seem determined to confuse him with any cryptic looks or hard double-teams, I do not expect him to be special enough to turn the tides in this series.
LeBron will not have a series like he had against Boston, nor will he have a series like he had against Chicago last year. He will not play at the level he has over the course of his brilliant career. Expect LeBron to be just “good” in this series, which is a clear upgrade from last year.
The Thunder are deep
At the end of the day the Thunder have more weapons than the Heat. Both teams have incredible trios, but if you take away those major options, the Thunder have a huge advantage.
They have very good big men in Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison, while the Heat have Joel Anthony and Ronny Turiaf.
The Thunder have an experience point guard with championship pedigree in Derek Fisher and one of the league’s best perimeter defenders in Thabo Sefolosha. The Heat have a good, but underutilized point guard in Mario Chalmers, an oft-injured shooter and rebounder in Mike Miller and a classic utility player and vital piece in Shane Battier.
Once you compare the supporting casts, it’s clear that the Thunder have the advantage. In the end, this will be one of the many reasons the Thunder win this series.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are quite simply the best team in basketball. It seemed like the Spurs would be the best team because of their coaching and intangibles, but when it comes to pure talent and maximum potential, the Thunder are the best team in the world.
The Heat have the most star power you could ever imagine on one team, but the Thunder have everything in their repertoire to cancel out the Heat’s greatness.
The Heat are great in transition, so are the Thunder. The Heat can score in bunches and win individual matchups, so can the Thunder. The Heat play great defense and force turnovers, so do the Thunder.
The Heat are more experienced and have a long list of accomplishments, but the Thunder do not show any sign of being affected by the moment. They consistently play big games like any other high school or college game.
The Heat have the hype; the Thunder have a little bit more of the substance. Any unbiased and educated eye ball test should compute that Oklahoma City is the better basketball team. The Thunder will prevail in this series.