The Miami Heat convincingly took the 2012 NBA Finals in just five games over the Oklahoma City Thunder, finishing off the young Western Conference champions with one of the more impressive close-out wins in Finals history Thursday night in Miami.
But despite a lopsided series, let's not close the book on the Heat-Thunder rivalry just yet. This was just Chapter 1 in what could blossom into the NBA's next great rivalry.
Heat-Thunder has everything you're looking for in terms of a Lakers-Celtics-type rivalry.
There are stars galore between the two rosters, with arguably the two best players on the planet—LeBron James and Kevin Durant—playing the same position on opposite teams. The two frequently faced off on both sides of the court during the 2012 Finals, with James averaging 28.6 points over the five games and Durant slightly higher at 30.6.
The star power obviously extends past James in Miami and Durant in Oklahoma City.
Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh make up the rest of Miami's "Big 3" and have 15 All-Star selections between them. Russell Westbrook and James Harden are both budding superstars behind Durant. Anytime two teams have that kind of talent behind a superstar, there is serious staying power.
And when push comes to shove, staying power is what gives this rivalry so much potential down the line.
Despite spending nine years in the NBA, James is just 27 years old and entering his basketball prime. During these playoffs—and really, throughout much of this year—James took his skill set to another level. He attacked the rim at will, posted up on the block and showed again he is one of the game's best defenders.
James finished out Game 5 with 26 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists, rightfully earning Finals MVP after one of the greatest postseason in recent NBA history.
Now that the championship burden is off his shoulder, the three-time NBA MVP has to be considered a heavy favorite to win a couple of more.
James is too special a talent not to leave his mark as one of the game's all-time greats, but he'll likely have to go through Durant and the Thunder a time or two to earn any more championship rings.
James said as much after Game 5, according to the Associated Press (via the Washington Post).
“You know, this is not the last time we’ll see the Oklahoma City,” James said. “I wouldn’t be surprised — this won’t be the last time we see them in the finals.”
Durant, who turns just 24 in September, has already collected three scoring titles (2010, '11, '12), three All-Star Game appearances and three NBA First-Team selections. What would be the goal of 99.9 percent of NBA players is just the reality of Durant's first five seasons.
Westbrook, the much-maligned point guard who scored 43 points on 20-of-32 shooting in Game 4, is a comparable player to the 30-year-old Wade. Oklahoma City has both Westbrook and Durant locked up long-term, which gives the Thunder tremendous staying power as one of the NBA's elite teams.
The key for both teams will be finding the other players that play such key roles.
Both Harden and Serge Ibaka, the NBA's shot-block leader in 2011-12, can be free agents after next season, and the Thunder will have to take a long look at what kind of money they spend locking up the two emerging stars. Going over the salary cap now induces a severe luxury tax penalty, which could be too much for the small-market Thunder to endure.
If Oklahoma City can keep the core together and add a piece here or there, this should be a favorite to play for the NBA Finals in each of the next five or six seasons.
Miami has done well in acquiring the pieces around James, Wade and Bosh, a group that includes Shane Battier (17 points in Games 1 and 2), Mike Miller (seven threes in Game 5) and Norris Cole (spark off the bench in Games 4 and 5). The Heat have even done a commendable job weaving point guard Mario Chalmers into that mix of key role players.
But the role players were just a small piece to a Finals puzzle that attracted fans and television viewership at a historic rate. According to the previously linked AP article, the 2012 NBA Finals were the most watched finals since 2004, which featured the Los Angeles Lakers and Detroit Pistons.
People tuned in for these Finals to see Durant-James, Westbrook-Wade, Harden-James and Bosh-Ibaka. The matchups and offensive firepower were a God-send for the NBA, and it's a gift that will likely keep on giving for commissioner David Stern.
Wade lauded the 2012 Finals as one of the "best," according to the AP story.
"This is one of the best finals, when you talk about matchups, when you talk about everyone tuning in and wanting to see, because these are two teams that in the summer everyone said they should be in the finals. We lived up to the billing. They’re going to be around for a while, and we would love to be around just as long and just as much."
There's no question that these two teams will be in the running for the next several NBA titles.
Can the Thunder be a team that uses a loss this summer to fuel another inspired run in 2012-13?
The Heat had to face personal defeats and tidal wave after tidal wave of criticism before reaching the NBA's summit. The Thunder now have their own personal defeat to learn and grow from, just as James, Wade and Bosh endured last summer in losing the NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks.
The path to getting back to the NBA Finals next summer also looks doable for each team, as the Western Conference is aging rapidly (Spurs, Lakers) and there isn't a team in the Eastern Conference—especially once the Celtics start breaking up—that has the firepower to keep Miami from its third straight Finals appearance.
We had best get used to seeing the Thunder and Heat compete for the Larry O'Brien Trophy. As fun and entertaining as it was to watch these two teams battle over the last week-and-a-half, however, we might be sick and tired of seeing Durant and James in the Finals in, say, six or so years.
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