Losing to the Dallas Mavericks in heartbreaking fashion to cap one of the greatest NBA seasons in recent memory in 2011, the “New Big Three” dispatched the “old” Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen and the Boston Celtics, in a riveting seven game series that felt like a passing of the torch. The Heat has an arguably tougher task this year as they will face a young Oklahoma City Thunder (OKC) team led by three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant.
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Miami versus OKC was a Finals matchup many predicted before this lockout shortened campaign began, but it took Herculean efforts from both superstars (LeBron’s 45 point 15 rebound masterpiece in Game 6 to force a final game and Kevin Durant powering a four game winning streak to knock out San Antonio after going down two games to none) to make the matchup a reality.
While the anti-Heat sentiment is not as rampant as in year one, the Thunder is the prohibitive favorite to win the title in every state except Florida according to an ESPN poll. OKC brings their own Big Three to the dance with Durant, All-Star guard Russell Westbrook and Sixth Man of the Year James Harden. One thing for sure, the Finals will not be short on is athleticism. But who will take home the hardware? Keep reading.
Make no mistake. It is extremely difficult to make it to back-to-back NBA Finals, just ask the Western Conference. Other than the Los Angeles Lakers of Shaq and Kobe and Magic, Worthy and Kareem (a span of 30 years), only two West teams have made the return trip to the championship the following season: The 93-94, 94-95 Houston Rockets and the 96-97, 97-98 Utah Jazz. The Detroit Pistons were the last Eastern Conference team to appear back to back in 2004 and 2005. I don’t believe LeBron meant appearances when he did his infamous countdown (“not 2, not 3, not 4, not 5, not 6…”), so with a fresh new opponent in the Thunder and the rare position of underdog, the Miami Heat will have their work cut out for them if they want to do what Stockton and Malone could not.
All eyes will be on LeBron, and rightfully so. King James has to prove he can channel his Conference Finals heroics of the past two seasons to the Finals. James went out with a whimper as the only guy holding a knife in the San Antonio gunfight in 2007 and his curious disappearing act in Game 4 and 4th quarters in general against Dallas last year brought back memories of his last playoff series in Cleveland. However, I believe James will come to play. He has to. He single-handedly carried Miami in the series against Boston on a consistent basis until D-Wade decided to come out of the locker room for the 2nd half. His aforementioned performance in the last two games against the Celtics was the stuff of legend. He is a man on a mission, finally comfortable on “Wade’s team.” He doesn’t feel the need to defer to D-Wade for fear of stepping on his toes, thus he is attacking the basket, hitting insane jump shots and grabbing boards like a center.
In the words of ESPN analyst Jalen Rose by way of Keith Sweat, OKC “may be young but they’re ready.” Kevin Durant cemented his status as a superstar in the NBA and a force to be reckoned with for years to come with his dominant performance in the last four games of the Western Conference Finals against San Antonio. Durant has won three straight NBA scoring titles and was the runner-up in the MVP voting this season. Russell Westbrook is a scoring two-guard playing the point guard position. A fearless scorer, who many say shoots too much at times, and arguably the best first option off the bench in the Association in James Harden.
OKC also has Kendrick Perkins. He was the guy I said would get the Thunder to the promise land due to his experience in Boston. The Thunder has grown up in the last three seasons as well. From getting dumped in the first round by the 2010 champion Lakers, to losing in the conference finals to the eventual champion Mavericks in 2011, OKC has continued to advance further each season. This current playoff run is shaping up to be a historic one as they have beaten 8 the last 11 champions. With a team average age of 25 the Thunder arguably are just approaching the prime of their careers meaning they could be the next dynasty. Miami will have something to say about it.
The X factor this time: Chris Bosh. The proverbial Ringo Starr of the Heatles, dissed and dismissed by salty opponents (Carlos Boozer, anyone?) who referred to Miami’s lineup as the “Big Two”. However, Bosh proved he more than belonged with James and Wade with his performance against the very same Bulls, outplaying Boozer in the Eastern Conference Finals and hitting key shots against the Mavericks in his very first NBA Finals. People tend to forget Bosh is a perennial All-Star. He was dominant as a member of the forgettable Toronto Raptors, carrying a team of unmentionables to the playoffs (similar to James). It was his return to this year’s Eastern Conference Finals from a devastating abdominal injury all but sealed a return trip to the Finals stage. By being on the court, hitting timely jumpers (and 3 pointers!), Kevin Garnett could no longer cheat in the lane or double team Wade, a strategy that allowed Boston to keep the games close and take their 3-2 series lead that had everyone predicting a Heat flame-out.
OKC has two sets of big men. Along with Perkins, Serge Ibaka leads everyone with 3.3 blocks per game. Bosh can only pull one of them away from the basket. They signed veteran guard Derek Fisher for the playoff run and Harden has been playing out of his mind. If Westbrook takes more field goal attempts than Durant the Thunder is in trouble.
The Heat knows they missed an opportunity last season to win the first of those seven rings promised by LeBron. In a series they could (and should) have won in five games turned into a disaster beginning with the Game 2 collapse. LeBron is fully aware that his legacy is on the line. D-Wade has his ring and he was a huge reason the Heat won in 2006. Shane Battier, Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem have to make their shots when James passes them the ball.
I predicted the Heat would not win it all last year, but this season is a different story. King James is looking like a man possessed and I feel he finds a way to finally get it done.
PREDICTION: Miami Heat in 7
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