In a match-up that seemed inevitable prior to the season, unlikely at points during the season, and then improbable with the late-season ascent of the Spurs and demise of the Heat, Miami and Oklahoma City square off in the dream Finals match-up for the NBA. Newsday writers predicted the series' winner, giving some insight into key match-ups and story lines. Review the predictions, then share your own in the comments.
LeBron James seems more focused and hungrier than he was last season and Chris Bosh proved his value to the Heat in these playoffs. Now that he’s back, Miami has someone who can draw some attention away from James and Dwyane Wade. The Thunder is younger, deeper, more athletic and have the NBA’s best scorer in Kevin Durant. But if Wade plays better than he did in the Boston series and James continues to play at this level the Heat can win this series. It just feels like it’s LeBron’s time to finally win his first ring.
HEAT IN 6
Miami's Big Three are ever-so-slightly more talented than OKC's top three players. And Thunder's surrounding cast is considerably better than the group that surrounds LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. This is a series that could come down to the other guys, role players like forward Serge Ibaka, center Kendrick Perkins, defensive guru Thabo Sefolosha and veteran point guard Derek Fisher. It doesn't matter that the Heat have been here before, because they were here before and failed. The Thunder is young, but that youthful ignorance as to the magnitude of the moment may actually work in their favor.
OKLAHOMA CITY IN 7
The NBA Finals will have no shortage of star power. Miami's LeBron James, the reigning MVP, against future MVP Kevin Durant of Oklahoma City. But beyond the two superstars, there are interesting supporting casts for each team. Dwyane Wade of the Heat and Russell Westbrook are the Thunder are capable of exploding for big games. The return of Chris Bosh and his outside shooting, which was on display in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics, is a huge boost for Miami. Bosh could force Serge Ibaka, the defensive stopper and shot-blocking terror for Oklahoma City, away from the basket and open things up for James to drive to the basket. Oklahoma City's Thabo Sefolosha should see plenty of time guarding James and Wade. The same goes for Miami's Shane Battier on Durant. Miami also has Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller and Joel Anthony playing keys roles in the rotation. But the x-factor will be Oklahoma City's sixth man James Harden, who can put up 30 points in any game. The trio of Durant, Westbrook, who can be a thunderous dynamo with driving to the basket, and Harden is a lot for any team to handle. Also, look for veteran Derek Fisher, who is seeking his sixth ring, to hit a big 3 in the series.
OKLAHOMA CITY IN 7
Everyone knows what LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwayne will bring to the table. Like wise for Kevin Durant Russell Westbrook and James Harden. The question for the Heat is what will players like Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller do. The same thing can be asked of the Thunder's Serge Ibaka, Derek Fisher, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, etc...
Defense will also be a key for both squads. The Thunder's front court is deep and can shut down an opponent's inside game. If they can force the Heat to stay on the perimeter, they have the edge. The Heat play excellent perimeter defense, but no one in the league can slow down Durant. Westbrook's shot selection is questionable at times, but he is great in the open court. The Heat's front court depth doesn't come close to the wave of bodies the Thunder can throw at a team and that will be the difference.
OKLAHOMA CITY IN 6
While the Thunder impressed everyone with their 4-2 series win over the red-hot San Antonio Spurs, Miami looked disappointingly pedestrian in squeezing by the over-the-hill Celtics. LeBron James was a man on a mission throughout the series, but his supporting cast came and went; Dwyane Wade didn't look very much like Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh's effectiveness was very limited by his recovery from an abdominal strain, Mario Chalmers showed flashes of greatness, but also proved that he is far from a primetime point guard, and the "Veteran's Minimum Brigade" played very un-veteran-like, disappearing in crucial spots.
Conversely, Oklahoma City got exactly what they needed, from everybody they needed it from, in winning the final four games of the Western Conference finals. What we got from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook was expected: primetime performances, and clutch shooting at the most opportune moments. But the efficiency displayed by Serge Ibaka, contributions of Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins, and airtight defense of Thabo Sefolosha were anything but expected, a breath of fresh air for Thunder fans. And James Harden, who is this team's X-Factor, played solidly, if not spectacularly, proving that OKC really does have a Big 3 of their own.
Forget about depth when trying to handicap the series. Erik Spoelstra and Scott Brooks are going to play their stars, and play them hard. While Shane Battier will certainly have an impact, Miami will be relying far more on James to continue his All-World play. Collison and Perkins, meanwhile, won't be relied on as much because, simply put, the Heat don't have a threat at the five. Yes, Bosh and James and Wade are adept at scoring from the paint, but they won't be matched up against Oklahoma City's big man tandem.
It might seem cliche to harken back to the "E" word -- experience -- when handicapping a series featuring the amount of All-NBA talent we have, but it's important to remember that the Heat have been on this stage before, while Oklahoma City hasn't. While he's been panned and ridiculed across different forms of media, James has shown in the past, and in this postseason, that when the pressure's on, he'll deliver. Well, coming off an empty trip to the Finals last year, the pressure's never been on James like it will be over the next two weeks.
It'll take a full seven games, but this year will be LeBron's to final capture that elusive first ring. Amidst the unending criticism, it's too often overlooked that James is, bar none, the best player in the world. He's the league's best athlete, the league's best defender, the league's best rebounding forward, one of the league's best passers, and the league's best offensive threat. You can only shut out a player of James' caliber from grabbing a hold of the Larry O'Brien trophy for so long.
Expect LBJ to take over; once he gets to that other-worldly level, I think you'll finally see that shift in Miami, from two alpha dogs to a Batman-and-Robin situation. Wade will take the Robin role and run with it, playing on the level we've come to expect of him the past several years.
Harden will continue to develop, Durant will have a couple of monster games, and Westbrook will do the same. But in what will be one of the most memorable Finals of all-time, King James finally gets to wear the crown.
MIAMI IN 7