Finals Preview: Or The Lesser Of Two Evils


We’ve made it. Let me first start by apologizing. I was planning to write previews of each round of the Playoffs, with the expectation that I would correctly predict every outcome, and thus through my dead-on accurate predictions be inducted into the “Bloggers Making Playoff Predictions With Little To No Research” Hall of Fame.

I shirked my self-imposed duties first because the Playoffs happened at a break-neck pace at times in the West, and took forever in the East, so as a whole they were hard to time correctly, and because of the eight predictions I made for the first round, I was wrong three times, so even if I had been able to match the weird pacing of the Playoffs, I’d missed my chance to achieve the whole slate of perfect predictions.

However, the Finals are upon us. Who would I be if I didn’t make a Finals prediction, then stake my whole reputation on that prediction coming true?

I’ll preface the lead-up to my prediction by saying this; I will not be actively rooting for either team.

Here’s why:

I Hate The Miami Heat

It is my opinion that the Decision was/is bad for the NBA, and not because real NBA superstars of the past won their titles etc. without the help of the other biggest superstar of their era. I believe that the choice of LeBron James to team-up with Dwyane Wade set an unsustainable precedent, and put the league in somewhat of a perilous situation.

If every NBA superstar wants to play with every other NBA superstar, then there is danger on the horizon. If you set the number of NBA superstars at ten percent of the total of all players in the league (which is probably on the higher side), and one hundred percent of that ten percent wants to be on the same team, where does that leave the remaining ninety percent of the NBA? On the Charlotte Bobcats, or on next season’s version of the Charlotte Bobcats.

Super teams can be fun to watch. But five super teams versus 20 ten to fifteen game winners does not the best professional basketball league in the world make.

I’ve never been a fan of LeBron James. I’ll never be a fan of LeBron James. That doesn’t mean I don’t understand that he very well might be one of the best to every play basketball at any level.

Dwyane Wade is a different issue for me. I like his game. I really liked him as the sort of un-sung hero of the NBA, suffering through a number of debilitating injuries and trying to win games in the vacuum left by the departure of Shaq in 2008 following Miami’s first and only NBA title in 2006. I don’t begrudge Wade’s desire to play with a fellow mega-star, as I’ve said, my dislike for the Heat has nothing to do with LeBron and Wade wanting to play together. Currently, I still like Wade’s game, just a little bit less.

I really have no feelings about Chris Bosh, except that it must be nice to go from a great player on a bad team known primarily for making silly YouTube videos to maybe the most important part of the team custom-built to win a championship.

That’s my short and pretty uniformed take on the Heat, here’s:

Why I Hate The Oklahoma City Thunder

My hatred for the Thunder is harder to justify, or even speak about in a way that doesn’t end up coming off as simply being petty. There’s a reason for that. I sound like a whiner, complaining about life being unfair, when I talk about how much I now despise the Thunder, because I am whining. I am being petty.

Let me clarify. A few years ago, even as recently as last year, the Oklahoma City Thunder may have been my second-favorite team in the NBA. I loved watching them play. I loved, or at least liked, almost their entire roster. I rooted for them on a regular basis. I watched them even when they weren’t playing against the Blazers.

Then something changed. What was that something? The 2011-12 NBA season, or more accurately the Blazers’ 2011-12 NBA season.

Remember when Portland beat OKC in Oklahoma in early January and for that brief shining moment held the number one spot in the Western Conference? Remember when not a month later the Blazers got jobbed at home against the same Thunder team and never ever recovered? I do too.

But that’s not the only reason why I hate a team that I once enjoyed watching and called myself a causal fan of. I also hate the Thunder because their rise to prominence exactly mirrors Portland’s spectacular fall.

In 2008-09, the Blazers won 54 games and had the fourth seed in the West. The Thunder, in their first season in OKC, won 23 games. In 2009-10, the Blazers and the Thunder, like two ships passing in the night, won 50 games each and both lost in the first round. In 2010-11 the Blazers won 48 games and made the Playoffs for the final time in the Nate McMillan/Brandon Roy/Greg Oden era; the Thunder won 55 games, and in only their second time in the Playoffs reached the Western Conference Finals. We all know what happened this season.

Mathematically, my dislike of the Thunder breaks down to 50% jealousy and 50% righteous indignation.

I’m jealous because OKC’s success should be Portland’s. Not because the Blazers should have drafted Kevin Durant, but because Portland had success first, and it’s unfair that the lords of basketball decided to pass them over for their more flashy, less crushed by injury conference rival.

I’m righteously indignant because I feel like the NBA didn’t roll out the red carpet treatment for Brandon, LaMarcus Aldridge, and a healthy Greg Oden when they had the chance, as they’ve done for the heir apparent to the heir apparent to the heir apparent Kevin Durant (if you’re keep score on that one KD is the heir to LeBron who was the heir to Kobe Bryant, who of course was the heir to his Airness Michael Jordan), and his team of fashionista seconds.

It’s wrong to be jealous because half of everything is luck. Instead of saying Portland was unlucky that Greg Oden was blessed with Greg Oden’s knees, maybe Oklahoma City has been lucky that Kevin Durant has missed remarkably few games in his professional career.

My righteous indignation is unfounded. Who can forget that David Stern choose to make his first NBA Playoffs appearance in 2009 at the Rose Garden to anoint Portland as one of the leading franchises of the future? All the Blazer fans that watched that game and then went home to wipe it from their memory with strong drink.

Does any of this change the fact that I don’t like and will not be rooting for the Oklahoma City Thunder to win the 2012 NBA Championship? Not at all.

Also there’s this. Dave Zirin is one of the very few professional sportswriters that dares to venture into the realm of politics, and for that he should be commended. The Howard Schultz/Sonicsgate fiasco is one of the real tragedies of professional sports. Seattle is a city that lives and dies for its professional teams.

That being said, if the Timbers’ Army has taught me anything, the rivalry cum blood feud between Seattle and Portland is not one to be taken lightly, and is only slightly less important, historically, than Athens versus Sparta.

It sucks for a city to lose a franchise that partially defined its culture and existence. I’ll leave it at that.

Ok. Now you know how I feel about both teams.

What About The Basketball?

Miami and Oklahoma City play very similar styles offensively. They rely a lot on isolation plays and guys creating their own looks. Luckily, if you make a list of the top 10 guys in the league at creating their own shots, OKC would have two guys on that list (Durant and Russell Westbrook), and Miami would also have two (LeBron and Wade).

Both teams have a potent third scorer who can single handedly shift an outcome: Chris Bosh for the Heat, James Harden for the Thunder. This third scorer situation is a bit tricky though. Harden, as we all know, comes off the bench. Bosh, if he’s at full strength, will be a starter.

As a bench player, Harden is the feature of OKC’s offense, and gets to play against Miami’s second unit, two major advantages for the Thunder. Another advantage for OKC, the Thunder has guys to neutralize Bosh who don’t have to score to be effective (Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka). Miami has nothing similar to combat Harden.

This series will be about Durant/Westbrook against James/Wade, there’s no doubt about that, but it very well might come down to which team’s role players step up and when. Because of that, a lot of this series is riding on the play of James Harden.

Speaking of role players, Miami doesn’t really have a bench. I can see that being a bit of a problem, although it will be diminished somewhat by a shortened rotation. I doubt either Miami or Oklahoma City goes much more than eight or nine guys deep.

Another key factor in this series is going to be home court advantage. Through four combined games in both Conference Finals series, the home team was victorious: same through eight games. Miami lost once at home and won once on the road. OKC won a pivotal game five in San Antonio, the biggest victory so far in franchise history.

Although the Thunder will have home court advantage in the Finals, Miami has the arguably more enviable position. If the Heat steals either game one or two, they have the chance to close out the series with three in a row in South Beach. One loss in the first two for the Thunder, and there’s no guarantee they make it back home.

Which leads me, of course, to the most important element of the 2012 NBA Finals, which team will not be defeated by the moment.

This is the NBA Finals everybody wanted.

Sure the Bulls had a better regular season record than the Heat, but any team that can be felled in the first round after losing a single player wasn’t going to win it all.

Yes, San Antonio was amazing to watch down the stretch, and it would have been pure basketball bliss to watch the Spurs pick-and-roll their way through the Heat. But let’s be honest, they’re old and boring. Also, come on San Antonio, you won 20 games in a row, but couldn’t pull out a single win in the last four games of the Conference Finals. Not cutting it.

The NBA Finals 2012 will be a battle between the two biggest names in the NBA; the two best players this season. It will be a battle between the two teams that will very likely own the next five seasons (depending on what happens to James Harden and Serge Ibaka, both free agents after 2012-13 who are going to want to get PAID). It’s a battle between the team that was built painstakingly from the ground up through elbow grease and lucky draft picks and the team that was put together by superstars who wanted to prove to everybody that all you needed to be NBA Champions is two of the best players ever, one of the best players in the league, and a bunch of guys willing to work for cheap in the hopes that their championship dreams would be fulfilled.

It’s going to be epic, the NBA hopes.

Which team is more likely to crack under that kind of pressure? The easy answer is the Heat. They’re the team everybody is watching. They’ve got the guy that always botches his big moments. They’re the team that can’t win it all.

But here’s what I think. Wait for it. I think the Thunder might be just as likely to fade in the spotlight. They’re good, but they’re young. Kevin Durant is primed and ready for this moment. But Russell Westbrook is unreliable at best. Everybody else on the roster, minus Derek Fisher and Kendrick Perkins, hasn’t been here before, so who knows what they might do.

All it’s going to take is one slow start in one game from the Thunder for the momentum to be set in Miami’s favor. The simple fact that the Miami Heat have been to the Finals once as this team and failed, might give them the upper hand.

And so…

My Prediction

Thabo Sefolosha will guard LeBron James. Shane Battier will guard Kevin Durant. Russell Westbrook will try to out crazy Dwyane Wade. Everybody will wear fake glasses to their post game interviews. The basketball will be good, great at times. But there will be more than one occasion where it feels like a lot of one-on-one with eight rebounders.

Miami will try to outscore OKC and will fail. OKC’s on the ball defense of LeBron will cost them at least one victory (stopping Tony Parker is not the same as stopping LeBron James). Russell Westbrook will take bad shots in crunch time. Russell Westbrook will take a bad shot that wins a game.

In the end it comes down to this: will Miami be able to win a game in Oklahoma City, and if they do, can they keep from losing when they head back home.

Since LeBron took his talents to South Beach, he’s beaten KD twice and lost to him twice, with both a win and a loss coming in Oklahoma. However, in their respective careers, Lebron’s record against Kevin Durant is seven wins and two losses. Certainly both men are aware of how they’ve done against each other.

They’re also aware what it should mean for their individual legacies should they prevail in these Finals. For Kevin Durant a Finals victory cements his place among the greatest players of all time, and will begin the talk of how many can he win and how great can he be.

For LeBron a win gets him that ring. But there’s another layer to it. A loss for LeBron is another notch in the he-can’t-win column. It also means that LeBron will be passed by the next generation of superstar without having won it all. There may be no coming back from that.

I’m guessing the desire to come out right away and silence the haters is motivation enough for LeBron and Miami to come out and steal game one. Three straight wins in Miami is going to be hard to pull off, though, and the Heat drop either game four or five after splitting games two and three. OKC goes back to Chesapeake Energy Arena down three games to two and wins game six (maybe in overtime, maybe on a Westbrook jumper right at the end of regulation). In pure villain fashion, Bron goes super nova in game seven, and gets his first ring in front of a sobbing and broken-hearted Thunder crowd in a game that is instantly replayed the second it’s over on ESPN Classic.

Miami in Seven.

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Twitter: @mikeacker | @ripcityproject