Published November 20, 2014
For a league that markets superstars above everything else this is a dream matchup as the two best players in the game go head to head in the NBA Finals.
It's the three-time MVP vs. the three-time scoring champion as LeBron James and the Miami Heat square off with Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder for the game's ultimate prize.
"It's only right," James said of The Finals matchup. "It's only right."
This series will mark the fifth time since 1967 that the NBA's scoring champ and MVP will meet with the Lawrence O'Brien Trophy on the line and the first time since Michael Jordan's Bulls knocked off Karl Malone's Jazz in 1997. Overall the scoring champion has won three out of four past matchups.
James, coming off an iconic performance in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against Boston, was aided by Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on Saturday as the Heat turned it on late to defeat the Celtics, 101-88, in Game 7 and earn a trip to The Finals for the second straight season.
The game was tied entering the fourth quarter, where James, Wade and Bosh combined to score all 28 of Miami's points.
James finished with a game-high 31 for the Heat, who lost to the Mavericks in last year's finals and are looking to secure their first NBA title since 2005-06.
They will visit the Thunder for Game 1 on Tuesday, looking again to silence their critics and prove they are capable of the big things expected of them when the James-Wade-Bosh threesome was put together.
Oklahoma City's route to The Finals may have been even more improbable than Miami's comeback against the C's. After all the Thunder beat a team that hadn't lost in 50 days four times in one week.
Durant scored 34 points and grabbed 14 rebounds and Russell Westbrook added 25 points in Game 6 last Wednesday, as OKC rallied from an 18-point deficit to win the Western Conference title with a 107-99 victory over San Antonio.
San Antonio hadn't lost a game since April 11 before dropping Game 3 in the West finals against the Thunder. That loss not only halted a 20-game winning streak, but started a tidal wave the Spurs couldn't stop.
In fact, OKC sprinted through the West by sweeping last year's champ Dallas, taking the L.A. Lakers in five games and finishing off the Spurs in six, three teams that are responsible for 10 of the last 13 NBA titles.
"As sad and as disappointed as we are," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after losing to the Thunder, "it's like a Hollywood script for Oklahoma City."
This marks the Thunder's first NBA Finals berth since they were based in Seattle as the then-SuperSonics in 1996.
Miami and OKC split a pair of regular season meetings with Oklahoma City forcing 21 turnovers and rolling to a 103-87 victory at home on March 25 before the Heat rallied for a 98-93 win in Miami on April 4.
Durant averaged 29 points in those games but committed a career-high nine turnovers while scoring 30 in the second game. James, meanwhile, had 34 points in South Florida, doubling his total from OKC.
These two franchises have never met in the postseason before and each have one NBA championship on their resume. The Heat topped the Mavs in six games back in 2006 while the Thunder won a title in 1979 as the Sonics, besting the Washington Bullets in five.
POINT GUARD: Westbrook is one of the game's rising young stars. A blur with the ball, the UCLA product can drive at will and kick to the game's best pure scorer in Durant at any time. A plus shooter with good size for the position, Westbrook is not a natural point guard. He still takes some questionable shots at times and be a little reckless with the basketball but that's something you have to put up with when a guy is this talented. Thunder coach Scott Brooks has mitigated Westbrook's carelessness late in games by allowing James Harden to control the ball in the waning moments
Mario Chalmers is quick and athletic enough to keep up with Westbrook at times but remains a very streaky player thanks to a shaky jumper. He's also prone to turning the ball over and will take a bad shot now and again. Chalmers is at his best when driving to the basket but with Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka inside that isn't going to be easy for the Kansas product in this series. His inconsistent play also highlights both James' and Wade's lack of leadership skills at times, since both will often stare daggers at Chalmers when he makes a key mistake on the floor.
SHOOTING GUARD: The Thunder's Thabo Sefolosha is a very good perimeter defender that will typically check the oppositions's top wing player while on the floor. A rangy player, Sefolosha is also an excellent rebounder from the backcourt and when he gives the Thunder 10 or more points, you can basically guarantee an OKC win that night. He should receive plenty of opportunities against both James and Wade in The Finals.
The numbers, 22.9 points on 47 percent shooting, have been solid this postseason but Wade has taken a step back as a player this postseason likely due to a nagging knee injury. A healthy Wade remains an athletic marvel and one of the league's best finishers at the rim. He's at his best when he plays recklessly and he can handle the playmaking role on the pick-and-roll like few others. Too often the jump shot is finding the front of the rim, however, indicating his typical lift is simply not there.
CENTER: Perkins brings a toughness to OKC and a presence inside that frees up Ibaka, who can freelance and use his dominating shot-blocking skills as a weakside defender. Perkins plays with a mean streak and can box out and set screens with the best of them. He's been called the best interior defender in the game by Kobe Bryant and he is one of the NBA"s top intimidators and he will make sure penetrators hit the deck. Offensively, however, Perkins is a non-factor except for the easy finish now and again at the rim.
Erik Spoelstra has been piecemealing it in the middle since Bosh went down in Game 1 against Indiana in the East semifinals with Joel Anthony, Ronny Turiaf and Udonis Haslem all getting opportunities in the pivot. With Bosh looking like his old self in Game 7 against Boston, you have to figure he will be back in the starting lineup since his ability to knock down the jumper consistently will draw Perkins or Ibaka away from the bucket.
"When we saw him walk off the floor against Indiana, we all shuddered at the thought [of playing without Bosh]," Spoelstra said. "For two years, he's been our most important player. He makes it all work."
It's conceivable, though, that Spoelstra likes the boost Bosh gives off his weak bench and Haslem, who sports a solid mid-range jumper and is a plus- rebounder could get the call at the start of games. Haslem, doesn't have the athleticism or pure strength to stand out but he's Miami's glue-guy and important to Spoelstra's schemes at both ends.
SMALL FORWARD: This is why basketball is so compelling. In baseball you might have two aces dueling but they aren't going head-to-head. In football you can say the same about two All-Pro quarterbacks squaring off. In hoops, Durant and James will be going at it mano-a-mano at both ends of the floor.
The lengthy Durant is a nightmare for any defender. Perhaps the most talented and skilled 6-foot-10 player ever, Durant can beat you off the dribble or over the top with a silky smooth jumper that has a Kevin Garnett or Dirk Nowitzki- type release point. The former Texas star and No. 2 pick in the draft won his third straight scoring title this season. Defenses must protect the perimeter but if they crowd the lengthy forward, he can turn the corner and finish. Durant also led the Thunder with eight rebounds per game and is an underrated defender, so he's a major contributor in all aspects.
"Durant will be and is on the verge to be the best basketball player in the world," TNT analyst Kenny Smith recently said. "All he has to do now is change his game defensively and get to the rim just a little bit more offensively."
James, on the other hand, is really incomparable at this stage. He's the regular season MVP and, if anything, has upped his game in the postseason. An unbelievable athlete with freakish strength, size and skill that can play and defend four different positions and still be the best player on the floor at any one of them. When the jumper is falling, James is unstoppable at the offensive end and can take any wing player, point or power forward and lock them down as a defender. The only hope for the opposition is to harass James into some bad shooting nights and pray his teammates come up small. Like most teams, OKC will try to turn James into a jump shooter.
"LeBron James is unbelievable," NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said. "People give him a hard time. He has to play so hard. He makes everyone around him better. He has to carry so much weight on this team."
POWER FORWARD: Ibaka is an extraordinary athlete whose strength lays in his athleticism and natural shot blocking ability. The lengthy big man is Oklahoma City's best defender and an athletic marvel with the wingspan of a Learjet. In fact, Ibaka finished second behind Tyson Chandler in the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year voting. In the playoffs he has turned into more than just a one-way player, shooting 11-for-11 in the Thunder's Game 4 victory over San Antonio and his 55.6 overall shooting percentage is tops in the playoffs among players who advanced past the first round.
Spoelstra will have to decide whether to return Bosh to the starting lineup and move Haslem to power forward or stick with the undersized Shane Battier, a dogged defender, that can knock down the standstill three.
BENCH: Harden was the runaway winner for the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award and is an excellent two-way player. OKC usually closes with "The Beard" handling the ball on the pick-and-roll with Durant, and he is as crafty and as clutch as they come. Harden is averaging 17.6 points per game through the playoffs and shooting 44 percent from three in the post season.
"His pick and roll game is unreal," Durant said of Harden. "It's fun to watch, fun to be a part of. The best part about our team is that we have a lot of guys who can play off each other, and we complement each other well."
Nick Collison is Scott Brooks' top option up front while veteran Derek Fisher will get minutes in the backcourt. Collison will bang down low and give you big-time energy minutes while Fisher turns from major liability into cold- blooded killer the minute the clock starts to wind down in an important game.
Brooks can also go deeper than Spoelstra with veteran big man Nazr Mohammed, another defensive stalwart, who can mix it up with opposing bigs and 3-point specialist Daequan Cook.
"[Nick] Collison gives you the energy," former NBA coach Mike Fratello said. "Good enough to hit the 17-foot jump shot, he will take a charge, anytime a guy drives the line he's a shot blocker, he's an offensive rebounder -- all the small things that you require from certain guys on your team."
The Heat bench has been maligned throughout the season but Spoelstra has a couple solid role players he has counted on, three-point specialist Mike Miller and defensive specialist Joel Anthony.
No matter how bad Miller looks physically or how poorly he is performing, you have to account for him because the Florida product can heat up from long range at a moment's notice. Meanwhile, the Heat are at their best defensively when Anthony is on the floor controlling the weakside with his natural shot- blocking ability.
"When this Miami Heat team is clicking, it's when their bench comes in and produces offensively for them," TNT analyst Reggie Miller said.
COACHING: Brooks and Spoelstra have both been criticized heavily, even in these playoffs, but they both weathered the storm against true heavyweights in their respective conference finals, Brooks against San Antonio's Popovich and Spoelstra vs. Boston's Doc Rivers.
The 2009-10 NBA Coach of the Year, Brooks is one of the game's top young mentors and has melded defensive-minded players like Perkins, Ibaka and Sefolosha in with Durant, Westbrook and Harden to turn Oklahoma City into a title contender. Prone, if anything, to "overcoaching," Brooks must reel it in at times and rely on his best players.
"I don't focus on what people say," Brooks tole The Oklahoman. "I know what I have to do. My job is to coach our guys. My job is not to coach our guys through the media. Everybody has an opinion but my job is to coach the team and lead our guys to the best of my abilities. I'm not concerned whether they say I'm a good coach or a bad coach. I know I have a job to do and our players seem to respond and seem to get better."
Spoelstra, meanwhile, has never been regarded as an NBA heavyweight but really showed something after falling behind against both Indiana and Boston. He made adjustments and was able to get both James and Wade isolations with spacing against teams with solid defensive principles. That only gets tougher here, however, with a host of lengthy defenders ready to curtail Miami's penetration game.
"It is championship or bust here," Miller said. "Ever since the decision, that's all they've been talking about and obviously it's going to fall on the shoulders of Erik Spoelstra."
PREDICTION: Oklahoma City is known as an offensive team but when it ratchets things up, the club is also a bear defensively with a number of long players, making the half-court set a nightmare especially for a team like the Heat, who tend to play one-on-one basketball when things bog down.
The Thunder are quite simply the most talented team in basketball. That said, it's been all about winning 16 postseason games for the Heat, so much so that James, who is still searching for his first NBA championship, has taken to wearing a mouthpiece with the Roman Numeral XVI or 16 on it.
James, of course, took a ton of "heat" last season in the NBA Finals when he and his teammates were outplayed by Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks as Dallas defeated Miami for the NBA championship. LeBron's "inability" to close out games on the big stage was the main focus.
"The King" is on a mission this time around and win or lose, he has been the best basketball player on the floor in every postseason game for the Heat. A more consistent Wade and a healthy Bosh would help him immensely against OKC but in the end, LeBron won't be denied -- not this time.
HEAT in 7.