At the beginning of the season, Chris Sheridan polled our writers and asked for their predictions on a number of things, including the NBA Finals matchup and eventual winner.
Chris Perkins, Chris Silva, and I picked the Thunder and the Heat to represent their respective conferences, and all three of us picked the Heat to win the whole thing. See for yourself.
In the interest of full disclosure, though, I’ll point out that along the way, I changed my East pick to the Chicago Bulls and I changed my west pick to the San Antonio Spurs. Good thing Sheridan only recorded one set of predictions, though.
Finally, the 2012 NBA Finals will begin Tuesday night. Sheridan will be covering the series from Oklahoma City, filing photos like the above one highlighting the cheapest gasoline in America, and I’ll be delivering the goods from Miami. (Let’s hope Moke brings his camera to South Beach-CS).
Silva, who spent 2 1/2 years as the Thunder’s in-house beat writer, has already filed the best “Things You Didn’t Know The Thunder” column on the Internet.
This is going to be an epic showdown between the organically grown Thunder and the NBA’s version of the “evil empire” — the Miami Heat.
Obviously, the series will come down to LeBron James versus Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade versus Russell Westbrook, so let’s look past that. And since we all know that the Heat sometimes struggles to execute with the game on the line, let’s avoid that — for now.
Here are the (other) five factors (I did seven. So sue me) that will probably determine which side gets to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy when it’s all said and done.
- Homecourt Advantage
Because of the 2-3-2 format of the NBA Finals, homecourt advantage becomes all the more important. If the Heat are able to steal either Game 1 or Game 2 in Oklahoma City, the Thunder will have to win one of the next three games in Miami in order to stay alive. At the same time, in the playoffs, it’s difficult to beat a team three times in a row, particularly when that team was good enough to win their conference (although the Thunder just did it against the Spurs). During the playoffs, the Thunder and Heat are 8-0 and 8-2 at home, respectively.The Thunder are 4-3 on the road while the Heat are 4-4. Let’s keep this one simple and say this: the first team to win a game on the other guy’s court—whether it be Game 1 or Game 6—will probably end up winning the series. For what it’s worth, since 1999, the “road” team has won the NBA Finals just three times. The Pistons did it in 2004, the Heat did it in 2006, and the Mavericks did it last year, in 2011.
- Dwyane Wade and His Knee
The Heat won’t stand a chance unless Wade is able to play at a high level. One of the worst kept secrets, though, is the fact that his left knee isn’t close to 100 percent. After scoring just 5 points on 2-for-13 shooting in the Heat’s Game 3 loss to the Pacers, Wade had his knee drained and scored 33 points per game over the final three games of the series. After wiping the Pacers out, though, Wade has slowly regressed. In the final four games in the Celtics series, Wade has scored just 21.8 points per game on 42 percent shooting from the field. It is also worth noting that the Heat have played 18 games this postseason, compared to just 15 for the Thunder. I’ve heard that Wade is reluctant to have the knee drained again, but if he’s not close to 100 percent, it’s going to be extremely difficult for him to be effective against the likes of Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden. They have the speed to stay in front of him.
The Heat devastate their opponents when they turn long misses and turnovers into transition opportunities. Both James and Wade are unstoppable in the open floor and their trailers are capable of hitting threes in transition. Like I pointed out previously, the Thunder turned the ball over 16 times per game during the regular season — more than any other team. They’ve diminished their turnovers by a whopping 30 percent in the playoffs and are giving it away just 11.2 times per game. The Heat have cut their turnovers from 14.7 per game in the regular season to just 12.5 per game in the playoffs, but being that both teams want to spread the floor and get transition opportunities, it’d be somewhat foolish to not recognize that turnovers are going to determine how at least a few games pan out.
- Serge Ibaka versus Chris Bosh
In Saturday’s Game 7 against the Celtics—in just his third game back—Bosh scored 19 points and drilled three of his four attempts from behind the 3-point arc. If he can consistently convert open opportunities that James and/or Wade give him, and occasionally create opportunities for himself, he’d make the Heat nearly impossible to beat.In Serge Ibaka, though, the Thunder have a defender who is built almost exactly the same as Bosh. Ibaka, at 6’10” (Bosh is 6’11”), weighs in at 235 pounds (the same as Bosh). Ibaka, however, is faster and more athletic and should present Bosh with arguably the greatest defensive challenge he has ever seen in the playoffs. Where the matchup might swing, however, is with Ibaka’s offensive prowess. Though Ibaka lacks the post-game of Bosh, Ibaka has proven to be a very reliable midrange shooter. At the very least, Bosh is going to have to respect his range. The potential for an obvious domino effect exists there, because if the Thunder can keep the Heat’s defense spread out, it’ll be very difficult to deny Westbrook and Harden’s forays into the paint. At the end of the day, it’s difficult to imagine the winner of this matchup going home without the trophy.
- James Harden versus The Heat Bench
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade dominate the ball and the Heat’s offensive schemes to the point where a talent such as Bosh is too often relegated to being a bystander. So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the supporting cast that Pat Riley has assembled—Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier, Mike Miller, and Mario Chalmers—are given such a lack of respect from many that know the game well. At times, we’ve seen each of the aforementioned four makes big plays down the stretch of games. Whether or not they can do that in the NBA Finals remains to be seen. But if they can, it will make a world of difference. James Harden, on the other hand, is the NBA’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year. He’s the new Manu Ginobili and is the guy that can swing this entire series. Although he’s a sixth man, in these playoffs, he’s averaging 17.6 points per game and shooting 45 percent from behind the arc in 31 minutes per game. Even better, he’s the only bench player in the entire series who is capable of scoring a game high. Harden has scored more than 20 points in four of the Thunder’s playoff games this postseason. Meanwhile, in their 18 playoff games, the entire Heat bench is averaging just 19.6 points per game .We can rest assured that over the course of a seven-game series, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade will play each other evenly. But if James Harden can outscore the Heat’s bench—and it’s very possible—then the Thunder are likely to be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the day.
- The Kid Coaches
Erik Spoelstra and Scott Brooks each have only four years of head coaching experience. Spoelstra, though, is now coaching in his second NBA Finals. He was also an assistant to Pat Riley on the Heat’s 2006 championship team. Brooks, on the other hand, won an NBA championship as a player for the Houston Rockets’ 1994 championship team. To each man’s credit, they’ve just recently defeated two coaches—Gregg Poppovich and Doc Rivers—who are renowned as being amongst the best in the game. Playoff basketball is about altering the game plan and adjusting. And while having copious amounts of talent is nice, when two teams are fairly evenly matched, coaches often end up playing major roles in determining the outcome. The chess match between Spoelstra and Brooks is another storyline that will give us something to debate and dissect during this already exciting series.
- Late Game Execution
You didn’t think we’d end this column without pointing out how stagnant and horrendous the Heat often look in late game situations, did you? Granted, they’ve pulled out their fair share of close games, but I’m of the opinion that those wins were more of a testament to the individual greatness of LeBron James (and Dwyane Wade) than it has been to the coaching acumen of Spoelstra. And in all fairness, the same can be said of Brooks. This goes hand-in-hand with our sixth factor, but the major point here is that the team that does a better job of keeping their composure, knowing when to pass and when to shoot, and knowing how to manage the clock and fouls will certainly make a major difference. The Thunder are young and inexperienced and the Heat still have a pretty bad track record.
SHERIDAN: Thunder in 5.
HUBBARD: Thunder in 7.
HEISLER: Heat in 6.
BERNUCCA: Heat in 6.
HAMILTON: Thunder in 7
SILVA: Thunder in 7.
PERKINS: Heat in 7.
ZAGORIA: Heat in 7.
PARK: Thunder in 7.
Moke Hamilton is a senior columnist covering the NBA for SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter.