It’s always a bitter feeling when the Finals roll around and the Lakers aren’t participating – especially when they’re one of the handful of teams with legitimate title aspirations. But, for the second season in a row, this is where we sit. However, as a basketball fan, this Finals match up is one that intrigues me to no end. Both teams offer elite star players in their primes, are well coached, and the results will impact the league for years to come. If the Heat win, they’ll have achieved what they were formed to do and can (potentially) build on this success for future seasons. If the Thunder win, they’ll be so young that it could easily tip the balance of power in their direction for the next several years (especially if their ownership is willing to go deep into the tax to keep the team together).
From the beginning of the season this is the match up many predicted and now we have it. As a Laker fan this may upset me but as someone that loves the game I can’t help but be excited. Here are a few of my thoughts heading into the highly anticipated first game…
- The LeBron vs. Durant match up will be the headline grabber but I think one of the most important tactical match ups will be Bosh vs. Ibaka. Bosh’s ability to spread the floor and play in space will challenge Ibaka’s desire to guard the rim and play close to the paint. If Serge can’t guard the rim effectively, LeBron and Wade will have a much easier time finishing off drives. And if Serge decides to leave Bosh to still help at the basket he’ll be put in the difficult position of having to challenge without fouling while also leaving one of the premier jump shooting big men alone. If Bosh is able to hit his jumper like he did in game 7 vs. the Celtics, it will be interesting to see how the Thunder counter that match up over the course of the series.
- The other match up that interests me is Wade vs. Harden. Wade hasn’t looked himself these playoffs and with reports about him getting his knee drained against the Pacers, it would not surprise me if he’s banged up. But he’ll need to be at, or close to, his best this series if the Heat are to win, especially when matched up with Harden. Wade will need to make Harden work hard on both sides of the floor and wear him down by running him off picks and attacking him in isolation from both the wing and the post. When the Thunder played the Lakers (and early in the Spurs series) Harden seemed to tire on offense when he had to guard Kobe on the other end (and Ginobili when he was coming off the bench). If Harden struggles, the Thunder become more beatable as he’s the bridge between Westbrook’s all out attack game and Durant’s more patient approach. Harden will need to perform well on both ends but that’s a tall task if it’s Wade he must go at consistently.
- It will be interesting to see how much Perkins and Joel Anthony play in this series. My hunch is that they’ll be matched up a lot with each other but when Perkins sits, Anthony won’t play at all. I don’t think the Heat can afford to play him on a jump shooting big like Ibaka or Collison. Perkins, on the other hand, will likely play more than he should – especially when the Heat go small. I think his foot speed issues will be exploited when James plays PF and Bosh plays C. Whether he can make up for that on the glass and in the halfcourt by getting his teammates open in OKC’s screen game remains to be seen, but I’d be weary of playing Perkins too much when there’s an abundance of speed on the floor for Miami.
- Which role players will step up? Will Ibaka have one of those games where he’s nearly perfect on his mid-range J? Will Battier or Mike Miller have a game where they get hot from behind the arc? Can Haslem still make a difference even though he looks like he’s not right physically? Can Fisher summon another hero moment and twist another dagger into an opponent? I’ve seen too many big games turn on a performance from a role player to not expect one or more of these things to happen over the next couple of weeks. The stars may headline, but at least one time a supporting cast member will steal the show.
- Out of all the players in this series, Russell Westbrook may be the true difference maker. Every other star player has a counterpart at his position that is nearly just as key except for Westbrook. If he torches Chalmers or finds his groove shooting his mid-range jumper, the Heat will need to start to trap him and shade their defense his way. This will open up opportunities for other Thunder players on every possession. By the end of the Spurs series Westbrook was making the D pay by making smart passes when they overcommitted to him. If Miami is forced to do the same, they may be in trouble.
- Ultimately, every time I try to pick a winner to this series I can’t really decide. Neither the Heat nor the Thunder have faced a team like the one they will tonight. OKC hasn’t seen a team with Miami’s defensive ability and athletes to match their own. And the Heat haven’t faced a team with as explosive an offense nor the depth and size of the Thunder. Both will be in for a bit of a shock tonight and will need to adjust accordingly. Predicting this series is as much about who navigates that change best and at this point, it’s toss up. If I had a gun to my head I’d choose Miami to win in 6 games but I’m about as confident in that pick as I am in winning the lottery.
However this series goes, we’ll be in for some great basketball. And while not having the Lakers still playing is disappointing, I can’t say this match up has me at all upset. These two teams have been on a collision course all season and to see it actually happen has me excited.