The NBA Finals this year are extremely evenly matched. Both teams have basically imposable offensive matchups in Dwayne Wade and LeBron James as well as Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Both teams are young, athletic and run the court very well, and both teams shoot right around 47 percent from the field. The question is: Who (or what) will tip the scales in favor of either team?
As with most basketball games, you win the battle for the glass and you win the game. This series should be no different. In Game 1, the Thunder out-rebounded the Heat 43-35 and won despite a very poor night of shooting the three ball (5-17).
Every Thunder player was heavily involved in the game and aggressively crashed the boards. Durant and Westbrook both had eight rebounds, Perkins had seven, Ibaka had six and Nick Collison had 10. Moreover, 10 of the Thunder’s 43 rebounds were on the offensive glass. This allowed for everybody to get involved in the offense with easy, second-chance buckets in the paint.
As a result, the Thunder shot 51.9 percent from the field in Game 1 and had nearly five players in double figures (Nick Collison with eight, Thabo Sefolosha nine, Serge Ibaka 10, Kevin Durant 36 and Russell Westbrook 27).
In Game 2, the Heat out-rebounded the Thunder 40-36 and narrowly won. The Thunder have a deeper and more aggressive front line, and if the Heat want to contain the Thunder’s explosive offensive, especially in transition, Miami must limit Oklahoma City’s rebounding production and create second shot opportunities for themselves throughout the game.
This tenacity down low starts with Chris Bosh. The Heat won Game 2 when he managed to grab 15 rebounds. But if the Thunder are able to use their size and athleticism in the paint, they will be able to better control the pace of the game and limit the Heat’s offensive opportunities—especially at home in the ruckus Chesapeake Energy Area. However, with such talented teams, rebounding can only play a part in the outcome, as one player can alter the face of this game very easily.
The superstars on both teams are going to get their points. Durant and James are good for 30-plus points a game, while Wade and Westbrook will drop about 25. Consequently, their production crosses each other out. Unless LeBron, Wade, Durant or Westbrook have a ridiculous night like James did in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, it’s the role players who will make or break a team in this series.
Coming off the bench during this postseason, James Harden has averaged 17 points per game and shot 45.9 percent from three-point land. However, in this series with the Heat, he is averaging only 13 points per game and has taken almost half as many three-pointers per game.
While Harden certainly adds a lot more to the offense than just the long ball, he has to try and take more three-point shots in order to break game the open, put some space between the Thunder and the Heat and spread the floor for his teammates. Harden has the ability to change the game, or even the series, with his long-range game. The Thunder must start to take advantage of that in Game 3.
On the flip side of the coin, Shane Battier had been shooting 4.8 three-pointers per game at a respectable 37.1 percent. However, in the finals he is shooting 6.5 per game at a ridiculous 69.2 percent. When Battier can hit his spot-up jumpers off Wade’s or James’ penetration, Miami is a much more dangerous team.
With the Thunder’s defense having to crash in around James and Wade, Battier’s average points per game has skyrocketed from a measly 4.7 in the previous 10 games to 17 points in the finals—almost all of which have come from beyond the arc. Whichever team is able to have the most efficient game shooting the three should come out on top. That being said, there is no reason to believe either team will get blown out—and therefore, as always, free throws will be paramount.
In every playoff game, free throws are crucial. However, because of who is playing in this series, free throws will take on an all-important role. The Thunder simply cannot allow the Heat, mainly LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, to get to the line 20-plus times a game, and the Heat must absolutely make the most of their opportunities when fouled.
If LeBron James can shoot a good percentage from the free-throw line and continue to put pressure on Oklahoma City’s defense, the Heat will be very difficult to beat. The fouls that James is able to draw off penetration slows the game down, minimizing the Thunder’s speed and athleticism in transition. This allows the Heat’s defense to rest and reset, causes immense frustration for the Thunder’s defenders and puts key players in foul trouble late in games.
Furthermore, going down to the wire, the Heat have struggled in the past hitting clutch free throws, and it will not be easy in such hostile territory as Oklahoma City. In Game 1 the Heat shot 77 percent from the line, cashing in 14 of 18, and ultimately lost. In Game 2, the team shot 88 percent, going 22 of 25, including a perfect 12 for 12 from LeBron James, and won.
Both teams are playing very well right now and have all the incentive to push the limits of their game in this series. Consequently, I’m sure it will be yet another very entertaining and closely contested game, where only a handful of rebounds, free throws and three-point shots will be the difference. Heat vs. Thunder was the ideal finals matchup all year, and what a finals it looks to be turning into—especially if it can go to a game seven.