The NBA Finals tip off tonight, as the Oklahoma City Thunder host the Miami Heat. For all the difficulties the Heat encountered in each of the last two series, for how good the Spurs looked in the West, it almost seems like this was still the matchup that was supposed to be happen, as LeBron James and Kevin Durant each go for their first ring. TheSportsNotebook previews the Heat-Thunder final battle…
You can look at the scores from Oklahoma City’s playoff run and those of Miami and presume the Heat are more defensive-oriented, while the Thunder are geared to offense. That would be false. The Western Conference has faster teams—and frankly, most would say better teams—than the East. If you factor in pace of the game, the defensive numbers come out fairly equal, with Miami still slightly better, but even that can wiped out once you adjust for strength of schedule. If you listen to the media, you might presume the Heat like to get out and run the break. That would also be false. Miami ranks about the middle of the league in terms of game pace, while Oklahoma City does play at a fast clip. LeBron James will undoubtedly fill the lane for some big dunks that will get on SportsCenter, but both he and his team are at their best when running a good halfcourt offense.
Running a good halfcourt offense does not mean indiscriminately firing up three-point shots. If you saw the highlights of Miami’s Game 7 win against Boston, you saw LeBron’s 30-foot trey, along with Chris Bosh stepping up to hit 3-of-4 from behind the arc. You may recall Shane Battier knocking some three-pointers down. But the volume of threes the Heat are shooting must come down in this series. In the seven games against the Celtics they shot 155 times behind the arc. They only made 32 percent. Simple math says you have to hit one percentage point higher just to break even on the shot and simple math can’t factor in for what’s lost by not having LeBron and Dwayne Wade take the ball to the basket.
Miami had only one game in the conference finals where the three-ball was an asset, and that was Game 6, when they hit nearly 50 percent. That was also the only game they kept their attempts under 20 (16 in all) and made sure guard Mario Challmes, the best shooter on the team got a disproportionate number of attempts, as he hit 3-for-4. Call me crazy, but I see a trend there. Miami can’t get lazy on offense and jack up threes against Oklahoma City, because unlike the previous series, they aren’t going to chase down nearly as many long rebounds.
Oklahoma City is strong on the interior, with Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins working the glass and their athletic ability is significantly higher than what Miami just faced. The Celtics were the equivalent of old Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield floating everything up there. This is the equivalent of the Heat having to turn around face Josh Beckett’s fastball one day later. Oklahoma City pushes the tempo and they do it with efficiency—even after you adjust for the pace, they still finished second in the league in offensive efficiency, and in the Western Conference Finals, they beat the team that finished first. The area I’m watching with OkC is how well they defend in the halfcourt.
San Antonio shot 45 percent or better three times in the six-game series, the benchmark I generally use to see how well a defense is playing. If Miami get hit 45 or better consistently, the Thunder are going to have problems, particularly when you factor in that made shots take them out of transition opportunities. The positive for OkC here is that only one of those 45+ games from San Antonio took place in the final four matchups of the series when the Thunder suddenly had everything click. And none took place on their home floor, where they get to open and close the Finals.
The LeBron-Durant showdown is getting the hype and while these are both immensely talented small forwards playing very well right now, there are some differences. Durant is a better pure shooter—a reason he can be more confident taking shots in the end game. LeBron’s a better rebounder, and a little bit better passer, a reason people shouldn’t knock him so much when he gives up a shot at the end.
Russell Westbrook and Dwayne Wade represent another battle. The Thunder guard is playing better right now and is younger, as Wade fights what are obviously nagging injuries. But the flip side is that Wade, as he demonstrated down the stretch in Game 7 has a proven champion’s ability in these moments, while Westbrook still has to show he can make it through an entire playoff run without allowing a bad shooting night to affect the rest of his game. If Miami wins this series, Wade needs to outplay Westbrook.
Each team’s third best player brings us to the stylistic differences between the two. For Oklahoma City its James Harden, the shooting guard who officially comes off the bench, but plays starters’ minutes. Harden is the three-point shooter that the entire Miami team thinks they are—he hits 45 percent behind the arc. Whereas Miami has Chris Bosh, who is obviously healthy again, and just as obviously can’t let his 3-for-4 from three-point range in the Celtics finale become fools’ gold. Bosh is the only consistent answer Miami has in the post and he has to play well for the Heat to execute in the half-court.
If it’s just about the Big Three, I would give a slight edge to Miami, not so much for anything to do with LeBron or Durant, then for the fact I’d prefer an inside-oriented team rather than a perimeter one. But of course we play five-on-five and Oklahoma City is much better at filling in its role spots than Miami. Serge Ibaka is a defensive force at power forward and able to kick in some help offensively, as a surprise 26-point night against the Spurs proved. Perkins hits the glass hard and does dirty work inside, and also has a championship ring as a starter with the 2008 Celtics. They both combine to give the Thunder a substantial edge on the interior, an edge that will get even bigger if Bosh decides the Finals are a time to hone his three-point shot. Whereas with Miami, they’re waiting for Challmes to get untracked in the backcourt. He’s got to have more games like Game 6 where his three-point shot can consistently open up the lane. He’s got to hit better than 70 percent of his free throws, something Wade and LeBron also need to improve on.
Therefore, if Miami wins we need to see them play good halfcourt defense, assume their solid defensive numbers against the East can translate into play against the West. They need to run the halfcourt offense and not play street ball, where they start launching three-pointers, and instead get LeBron and Wade driving to the bucket and Bosh hitting some jumpers either on post-up or near the elbow.
For Oklahoma City to win, we need the kind of defensive effort they brought to the last four games of the San Antonio series, we need Ibaka and Perkins to close those possessions with the rebound and we need Westbrook to realize that even if he doesn’t shoot well, he can still distribute the ball.
Both of those are realistic scenarios. Oklahoma City opens as a decent favorite at (-160), meaning you have to bet $160 to get a profit of $100 if you take the Thunder. You can bet Miami at (+140), meaning a simple $100 bet returns $140 in profit. We’ve got a situation where a betting line underdog playing without homecourt advantage is the team with all the pressure on them, which brings us to the final intangible that I think is going to decisive. Is Oklahoma City going to be just happy to be here, while Miami is determined to shut the critics up? In the end, that’s the only reason I would have to pick against the Thunder. They’re the one team that can match Miami in star power, they have better role players and they have the homecourt edge. But no one’s going to call them a failure if they lose. Their motivation will have to come from within.
I don’t make final predictions based on these kinds of intangibles because I have no way of knowing the mindset of each team or even how that mindset will affect their play. I know what I see on paper and when I’m watching the games. I like the Thunder to win the first two games of this series at home. Then for Miami to take two of the next three (remember in the Finals, it goes 2-3-2 for homecourt), with OkC coming home to close out a championship in Game 6.