Young and Proud: A Look at the NBA Finals
BY MATTHEW VINSKO, Couchsideshow.com blogger
When it comes to sports, people often look to the veteran teams to pave the way for younger talent. This year, however, two young teams have cemented their place in the NBA, systematically decimating their opponents and showing their time is now.
The Miami Heat, while relatively young, have championship pedigree and something to prove after last season’s meltdown against Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks. This season proved to be a frustrating one for many a Heat fan. LeBron James was often times erratic, again. Chris Bosh wasn’t living up to his hefty payday a year ago. Dwayne Wade has shown glimpses of greatness, but been bogged down by injuries. The Heat went from being the favorite at times this season to being a laughing stock due to their inconsistent play.
When these playoffs started, I expected the Chicago Bulls to come out of the east due in part to their youth, knack for defense, and the belief that Derrick Rose could stay healthy long enough to win a title. Their first-round loss paved the way for the Heat to return to the finals, and while they faced tough-outs from the likes of the Indiana Pacers and the Boston Celtics, Lebron was just too much. The only reason the series against the Celtics went to seven games was Kevin Garnett’s beastly presence down low and Rajon Rondo being able to hit jump shots; once Bosh returned, game over. End of series.
I could make an argument the Oklahoma City Thunder weren’t expected to reach the finals, either. While their core nucleus of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook can’t be guarded at times, their presence down low was negligible at best. Then Serge Ibaka started hitting his shots, forcing guys like Pau Gasol and Tim Duncan to guard him at the perimeter, which made it easier for the Thunder “Big Three” to drive the paint.
Still, after going down 0-2 to the Spurs, everyone picked the San Antonio Spurs to make the finals. Manu Ginobili was making Harden look like the runner-up to the Sixth Man of the Year Award (not the other way around), and Tony Parker was making Westbrook look silly on defense.
But then the Thunder adjusted. They showed their sheer fire power and athleticism, which was all spearheaded by the effort of Durant. While he may not be a stat-sheet stuffer supreme in the same mold of LeBron, Durant did just about everything he could to bring his team back, winning four games against a team some had pegged unbeatable a mere week earlier.
Now Durant and LeBron square off in the finals in what has to be one of the most hyped series in recent memory, and with good reason. Sure, people love teams like the L.A. Lakers, Celtics, and Spurs because they’re historic franchises, but how exciting is it to see Durant, Westbrook, and Harden on this stage? How exciting is it to see if LeBron can silence the critics once and for all to win that illusive ring? How exciting is it to have one of the league’s top offenses (led by leading scorer Durant) going up against one of the league’s stingiest defenses (LeBron is a very underrated defender)?
This is a dream matchup as a basketball fan. Still, there can only be one winner, and I believe it’s going to come down to these matchups.
The marquee one is obviously going to be LeBron vs. Durant. While I expect a talented scorer like Durant to get his, I expect LeBron to get the upper-hand just because he’s a stronger, bigger guy who can get up in the Durantula’s face. On the other hand, Westbrook should run circles around Mario Chalmers, meaning you’re going to have the ball in his hands more, which is both a good and bad thing for Oklahoma City. You want Westbrook being aggressive and driving to the rim, not settling for jump shots. Harden has proven he can hit big shots while guard elite shooting guards like Ginobili and Kobe Bryant, so the Wade/Harden matchup should be a fun one to watch just because both guys like to get up in their respective man’s face. Offensively, the Thunder have a tad more firepower than the Heat, but with the way LeBron has been playing, it’s anyone’s guess which “Big Three” can outscore the other.
Thabo Sefolosha is a great defender, as are Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins down low, but with guys like Shane Battier, Joel Anthony, and even the Heat’s “Big Three,” I have to give an advantage to the Heat’s defense. Granted, they just made Rondo look like a top offensive point guard in the league, so it’s anyone’s guess what team will show up. On paper though, you have to give the Heat the advantage just because LeBron can guard any position and the supporting cast knows how to make big plays when it matters.
Both benches leave room to be desired, but with Harden coming off OKC’s pine, they clearly get the advantage. Guys like Norris Cole, Mike Miller, and even James Jones are just too erratic, whereas Haden, Derek Fisher, and Nick Collison round out a solid group of supporting veteran players for the Thunder.
Still, it’s superstars that decide championships, and it’s going to come down to the play of Wade, James, and Bosh for the Heat and Durant, Westbrook, and Harden for the Thunder.
While I’d like to pick the Thunder to win their first title, I just don’t see LeBron losing a second straight NBA Finals series in such heartbreaking fashion. The guy does what he wants on the court at will, and if he ever realizes this, he’s going to go down in history as one of the all-time greats. But first, he needs to add a ring to his MVP collection.
Don’t get me wrong, I picked the Heat to beat the Mavericks last year too, so it’s anyone’s guess who wins in a crunch time situation. I love Kevin Durant, and Westbrook and Harden are two of the most entertaining guards in the league, but when push comes to shove, the star shines brightest on LeBron, and it’s hard to see him disappointing two years in a row.