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Shaun Powell

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The NBA's MVP and MVP runner-up prepare to face off in the NBA Finals.
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Thunder, Heat prove to be movers and shakers on, off court


Posted Jun 11 2012 9:45AM

Oklahoma City -- These NBA Finals are being brought to you by U-Haul. And Ryder. And Greyhound. And Amtrak. And any other means of cross-country transportation, because that's how the Thunder and Heat came to be, ever so controversially.

Kevin Durant and company were poached from Seattle. LeBron James brought his talents to South Beach. And just by a neat coincidence, these teams play best when they're moving and running.

This series has a chance to be an entertaining show from the very first kiss, once Durant is done planting his usual pre-game smooch on mom. There's a three-time MVP, a three-time scoring champ, a Sixth Man of the Year, a Finals MVP, a runner-up MVP, a runner-up Defensive Player of the Year and four Olympians. And they're all in their prime, or about to enter it.

Also, they're both imperfect. The Thunder are reckless with the ball, at times treating it like the government does tax dollars. The Heat's offense is vulnerable to breaking down harder than Chris Bosh did after the NBA Finals last June. Even in their worst moments, neither team is boring. When they strike out, they swing wildly.

All this means is people will watch, even intensely, if only to see/hope/pray the Heat come up short again, since that seems to be the vibe outside of Miami.

Roughly one year after their superstar imploded against the Mavericks, and two years after they threw a victory party before winning anything, the Heat still find themselves loved only by their dogs. And of course, it'll only get worse if they beat the Thunder. Hating the Heat is a national sport, even though the smug factor in their locker room is several degrees lower, humbled by the sting of defeat. James, the reigning MVP, says he no longer concerns himself with the idea of being a public piņata. "I'm in a better place, professionally and personally," he said. But we'll see how comfortable that mental penthouse feels in the next week or two if he vaporizes again in a fourth quarter again.

They breezed through the regular season with James playing above the clouds, the team dodging the major injuries that dogged several other contenders -- until Bosh fell to his knees in Game 1 of the East semis against Indiana. That pivotal moment for the Heat poked James into raising his game. He had a 40-18-9 line against the Pacers in Game 4 and a historic 45-15-5 line while facing eliminating in Boston, the place where his fall began two years ago after a mysterious no-show.

What's comforting Miami is the knowledge the Big Three is primed and ready. Dwyane Wade, aside from his sluggish first halves, has given stretches of brilliance. Bosh is healthy and even hitting 3-pointers now.

But does Miami even bring the best trio into this series?

Durant, Westbrook and Harden are not only two All-Stars (the former) and the best sub in basketball (the latter), they appear as though they've been teammates their entire lives. The chemistry and connection is strong and a bit surprising considering they've been together only three seasons. All three are comfortable with the ball and taking big shots. That gives them options in the clutch, which is why the Thunder are on an impressive roll.

They beat the Mavericks (defending champs), Lakers (Kobe Bryant) and Spurs, who had won 20 straight and seemed mighty themselves. All the Thunder did was hit the gas and hammer folks when it counted, mainly due to three stars who compliment, not clash.

What's scary is Oklahoma City goes much deeper than those three. If you removed Durant, Westbrook and Harden, the remaining cast would beat the Bobcats and maybe a few other bottom-feeders in a best-of-seven series. Derek Fisher, a five-time champion who was discarded by the Lakers, is the rare role player who isn't afraid of fourth quarters in June. There's also Serge Ibaka, who led the league in blocked shots, defensive mavens Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison and 3-point shooter Daequan Cook.

It's a solid team that has quickly outrun its past, turning Oklahoma City into a small-market success story that often leaves out the chapter about kicking Seattle to the curb.

When Seattle and the franchise couldn't agree on arena issues, OKC businessman Clay Bennett followed through on what many expected him to do anyway. He moved the club to a place with an arena intact and no other professional sports competition in town. It helped that Durant was already on board, with Westbrook and Harden soon to follow, which made the Thunder easy for OKC to love. The atmosphere is downright college-like at games. A football-mad state is giving the Thunder the Oklahoma Sooner treatment, with passion that's strengthened nightly.

Durant, who quickly re-upped with the Thunder once he became eligible for an extension and might be the most humble star in the league, is considered the anti-LeBron.

None of that will really matter once Tuesday arrives and mother Durant gets some sugar from her son. This is a series with roots in Seattle and Cleveland, and taking it a bit further, last summer in Akron. That's where Durant and James went full-blast during the lockout and sized each other up for the inevitable June continuation.

"I envisioned (this) every day we worked out," James said. "I understood what his passion was. I understood what his drive was. We pushed each other every single day. That four day span, we called it hell week. He was upset about the (loss to) Dallas, and I was as well. I envisioned us getting to this point."

Seeing where the Heat and Thunder started and how they've arrived and the lineups they're blessed with, they could meet again in the future, same place and time. You might say they're Amtraking in that direction.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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