For once, the stars aligned. The predictions all came true. A fantasy turned into reality and the dream fulfilled for the neutral NBA fan. For months, NBA pundits had placed their bets on a Heat-Thunder Finals matchup; for months, NBA’s fans – outside of supporting their own favourite teams – had hoped to see the season end with the most exciting possible finale. And after two weeks of topsy-turvy and breathtaking action in the Conference Finals, we are here at the eve of the biggest stage in NBA Basketball.
Oklahoma City Thunder versus Miami Heat. The match-up that was written in the stars. The matchup – considering all the star power soon to be gathered on the court – that was written by the stars.
But the beauty of playoff basketball is that, what is sure to be one of the most-watched Finals series in NBA history, almost didn’t happen. The Celtics and the Spurs – two teams with resilient, battle-hardened veterans and championship mettle oozing in their veins – didn’t make it easy pickings for the younger Miami and OKC squads. The 2012 Conference Finals showcased some of the most exciting, memorable, and unpredictable basketball in recent history. Everyone was proven right, and then proven wrong, and then right and wrong again. But the beauty of a ‘best-of-7’ series is that, by the end of it, the best and most deserving teams usually prevail.
If Boston and San Antonio had won their series, the Finals would have been a retro matchup of some of the greatest veteran players of the last decade, a last bout between Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, two of the greatest power forwards of all time. Instead, we’ll have to settle for a matchup of two young teams who are likely to dominate the NBA for the next decade, the first, biggest bout between LeBron James and Kevin Durant, two small forwards hoping to write the first chapters of their own future championship legacies.
How did we get here? How did the Thunder and the Heat finally close out their competition to survive for the Finals? Let’s take a quick recap of how both the Eastern and Western Conference Finals ended…
West: Thunder vs. Spurs
Up 2-0 at home and winning their 20th in a row, there seemed to be a sense of deja-vu with the Spurs. They were following their all-too-familiar script of being unheralded and unhyped in the regular season while still finishing as the best team in the West, and then going on a rampage to winning their first 10 playoff games. But perhaps the dominance of the Spurs was their downfall – without being tested before, the Spurs reacted poorly when they received their first gash, a Game 3 loss at Oklahoma City. This was the wrong time against the wrong team to start doubting oneself, and the Thunder made them pay.
From the brilliance of Kevin Durant (particularly the 18-point fourth quarter in Game 4), the maturity of Russell Westbrook to keep his head high against a dominant Tony Parker, the tough play of Harden and the somewhat surprising strong play by Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, the Thunder had too much talent, too much spirit, and too much hunger. They won the next four games in a row, including Game 5 in San Antonio’s own fortress. By the time it was over, the Thunder seemed destined to be at this stage, as Western Conference champions, and taking their first step as a young team in Oklahoma City into the NBA Finals.
East: Heat vs. Celtics
The Eastern Conference, through the first five games, seemed to be following an eerily similar script to the West. The team with the home court advantage – Miami – won the first two games, and the away team – Boston – won the next two. Then, the Celtics rode into Miami for Game 5 and stunned the home crowd to take a 3-2 series lead. All of a sudden, the core of Rondo, Allen, Pierce, and Garnett looked set to be making their third Finals appearance in five years.
And then, LeBron James happened. Under more scrutiny and pressure to perform than perhaps any basketball player before him in history, LeBron dropped a masterful 45-point, 15-rebound performance to save the Heat in Game 6, before continuing his rampage in Game 7 to close out the Celtics. Dwyane Wade and a returning Chris Bosh stepped up in the fourth quarter of a deciding Game 7 to help send Miami into the NBA Finals for a second consecutive year.
The O’Brien Files: A little taste of Playoff history - 10 – Rajon Rondo already has 10 triple-doubles in the NBA Playoffs, putting him tied for third place with the great Celtic Larry Bird. Ahead of him are Magic Johnson (30) and Jason Kidd (11). Four of Rondo’s triple-doubles came in 2012 playoffs: Game 2 vs. Hawks (17, 14, 12), Game 1 vs. 76ers (13, 12, 17), Game 7 vs. 76ers (18, 10, 10), and Game 7 vs. Heat (22, 14, 10).