Posted Jun 10 2012 12:19PM
They've been stalking each other from a distance for months, wondering if and hoping that they might somehow get a chance to meet up again with everything on the line in a playoff series that will settle things once and for all. The Oklahoma City Thunder did their part early, locking up the Western Conference side of the bracket three days before the Miami Heat did the same on the Eastern Conference side.
But now that they are finished with all of that busy work, they'll finally get down to the business of fighting for the crown that both Thunder reigning and three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant and Heat reigning and three-time MVP LeBron James have been hunting their since they started playing the game.
"It's only right," James said of The Finals matchup. "It's only right."
He was talking about the matchup of the league's two best teams and the matchup of the league's scoring champ and MVP as well, since this is the first time they've met in The Finals since Michael Jordan's Bulls knocked off Karl Malone's Jazz in 1997.
(This will be the fifth time since 1967 that the scoring champ and MVP will square off with a championship on the line. The scoring champion has won three out of four.)
But anyone branding this series as simply the battle of the best two players in the world or the organic Thunder Big 3 of Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden against the Heat's synthetic Big 3 of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, is missing the bigger picture.
These are two battle-tested teams that have weathered every blow imaginable.
The Thunder ended 13 years of Western Conference finals supremacy by the Mavericks, Lakers and Spurs, in that order, on their march to The Finals. They're the first team outside of those three to represent the Western Conference in The Finals since the Jazz did it back-to-back years in 1997 and 1998.
They battled back from a 2-0 deficit in the conference finals against a Spurs team that had won 20 straight games and looked invincible in doing so, showing off a toughness to go with their youth, athleticism and overpowering explosiveness that not even the mighty Spurs could handle.
Durant closed the show with a 34-point, 14-rebounds, 5-assist showcase in Game 6 against the Spurs to deliver the Thunder to their first appearance in The Finals since the franchise was in Seattle back in 1996.
The Heat stared down the prospect of elimination and legions of doubters in both conference semifinals against Indiana, when they lost Bosh for nine straight games with an abdominal strain, and the conference finals against Boston, where Bosh returned to play the hero with a huge Game 7 performance Saturday night.
They were down 3-2 and facing elimination Thursday night in Boston and James delivered perhaps the greatest performance of his season and playoff career, given the circumstances, with the first 45-point, 15-rebound, 5-assist performance since Wilt Chamberlain went for 50, 15 and 6 some 48 years ago. They're the only two men ever to finish those numbers in a playoff game.
James shined in Game 7 and got a huge boost from Bosh to outlast the Celtics as the Heat danced, literally in the locker room afterwards, their way to a second straight appearance in The Finals.
They failed miserably last year, getting upset by Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks with James disappearing in the fourth quarters and his critics and the Heat haters roasting him and them ever step of the way.
This is their shot at redemption, their chance to get right what went wrong the last time, to prove to the purists once and for all that "synthetic" is every bit as good as organic.
James, who spent time in the offseason working out with Durant in a grueling session the two stars dubbed "Hell Week," is still hunting that first title, the one that will pacify his doubters and beat back the naysayers.
"I can't worry about what people say about me, about my game, about who I am as a person," James said. "This whole season I got back to what I'm capable of doing, and that's having fun and believing in myself and my teammates."
Durant has done the same thing for the Thunder, playing his role as franchise savior to perfection. He's helped ignite Thunder fever around the state and beyond, helped unite a city and state whose sports fans for generations have been torn between love for the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, and turned the "Thunder Up" movement into a source of state pride.
By most any measure, Durant and Oklahoma City are a perfect fit.
"My job is to come in here and get better every day as a basketball player, and being here provides me the best opportunity to do so," Durant said told reporters after practice Saturday. "The city is just so laid-back and quiet, and that's the type of person I am and it fits me well. It's just a perfect place to be. It's the perfect place to bring your family, just a nice place to relax and I enjoy it."
He won't enjoy it any more than the rest of the basketball-loving world will this series and these next four to seven games between his Thunder and James' Heat.
This is the matchup everyone's been waiting for. And before it's all said and done, one of of the world's two best players will have solidified his legacy with a Larry O'Brien trophy ... one at the expense of the other.
1 -- Could this be the first of many Thunder-Heat matchups we'll see in The Finals? (Depending on who wins this first round, sure it could, if many means at least three or four.The Heat's Big 3 is in the second year of a five-year contractual commitment. The Thunder's crew, on the other, is set for the foreseeable future.)
2 -- Who has more pressure riding not only the outcome of this series but also his performance, LeBron James or Dwyane Wade? (Wade has always had his heroics from his Finals MVP performance in 2006 to fall back on. So as usual, it's all on James. He's the one player in this series whose legacy takes the biggest direct hit, good or bad, from this series alone.)
3 -- With no Phil Jackson, Doc Rivers or Gregg Popovich in the mix, will anyone even bother assigning a coaching advantage to either side? (Nope. Neither Scott Brooks nor Erik Spoelstra is ever given much credit for the performance of their respective teams, though they are easy targets when things go wrong. This is Spoelstra's second trip to The Finals and the first for Brooks, so they're in a similar situation in that this series will be defined mostly by the men in shorts ... like it usually is.)
4 -- In a battle of "Big 3s" won't it be the role players on both side tipping the scales in the end? (The role players will no doubt play significant roles in this series. But if ever there was a series about the stars, this is it. The Thunder's stars are on the cusp of entering their primes while the Heat's stars are in the midst of theirs. Guys like Udonis Haslem, Derek Fisher, Kendrick Perkins and Shane Battier will all have their opportunities to shine, but at its core, this series will truly be a battle of the superstars, James and Durant in particular.)
5 -- Is this series a fair fight now that it's clear that Chris Bosh is healthy and ready to go? (Absolutely. If the Heat had to play with Bosh limited in any way, the Thunder would have a had a slight advantage. But after seeing him in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, it's clear that he's ready to go another six or seven games in The Finals.)
Thunder coach Scott Brooks has fostered a system that in this postseason has found ways to nurture the needs of his three biggest stars without any of them having to suffer. Durant, Westbrook and Harden have all had their moments and have found ways to be effective with and without the ball in their hands. And when they are clicking simultaneously, they're basically an unstoppable force ... as the Mavericks, Lakers and Spurs found out in succession in the Western Conference side of the bracket.
The one added bonus the Thunder have going for them is their bigs, both Ibaka and Perkins, are capable of forcing the issue inside on both ends of the floor. They're just good enough on the offensive end to beat you if you concentrate the entire focus of the defense on the perimeter.
The most telling image of the Heat during that thrilling Game 7 win over the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals was the absence of Mario Chalmers down the stretch. They don't even bother with the illusion of someone else running this show. James and Wade are the only on-the-ball catalysts the Heat trust with the game on the line. And you can expect them to be at the controls from the beginning in The Finals.
Even with Bosh back and healthy, the Heat don't work from the inside out. If they're going to find a way to work in the paint, it'll be through James and Wade taking advantage of any defensive mismatches. Their inability to play at a high level inside almost cost them against Kevin Garnett and the Celtics.
Durant has shown in each round of these playoffs that when closing time comes, he's the man for the job. He might be taking the shots, he might be drawing the defensive attention and creating space for someone else (Harden especially) to take the big shots. But he's going to be the one whose actions dictate things at crunch time for the Thunder, with Westbrook and Harden following his lead.
For years Wade has been lauded for his crunch time abilities, and with good reason. But even he admitted after Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals that this team will go as far as James can carry them. James delivered them from the jaws of defeat in Games 6 and 7 of the conference finals and he'll have to carry that same load in crunch time for the duration of this series.
Westbrook surely noticed the problems the Heat had containing fellow All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo in the conference finals. He'll be at his attacking best in this series. But the Thunder need him to be precise in how he chooses to attack the Heat. An aggressive Westbrook could mean first for the Heat. A reckless Westbrook could mean doom for the Thunder. He has to keep his emotions in check and resist the urge, the way he did against Tony Parker in the Western Conference finals, to turn this into a Russell-against-the-world contest.
The Heat survived a lot in this postseason, without Bosh, without Wade playing at his usual elite level every night and without knowing where this "roller coaster" ride of season, as Heat owner Micky Arison put it, was headed from night to night. But the one thing they cannot survive in this series is a power outage from the supporting cast of Haslem, Chalmers, Battier, Mike Miller and crew. They cannot win this series without the proper support from their supporting cast.
Go back and check most any preseason prediction about which two teams would meet here and almost everyone had either the Thunder or Heat, or both. Neither team came all this way for anything other than an epic series. Thunder in 7.
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