7 questions for the 2012 NBA Finals
1. Q. On a scale of 1 to 10, how excited are you for these Finals?
A. 9. For me, anything more than a 9 would require the Lakers to be playing, with a matchup vs. the Celtics garnering the perfect 10, so this Finals matchup has me the most excited possible for one not involving the Lakers, and for good reason. These are arguably the two most talented teams in the league, and the two most entertaining when they’re on their game. Both teams showed great resilience and heart by coming from behind in the conference finals against savvy veteran opponents. Plus there’s the factor covered in question #2 below. Add these up and all the ingredients are there for a truly classic Finals.
A. I say yes. I’m talking about matchups of players at the same position, so this leaves out the Bird vs. Magic Finals in the ’80s, Magic vs. Jordan in ’91 and Jordan vs. Barkley in ’93, among others. Considering that LeBron and Durant are considered the top two players in the league, finished #1 and 2 in MVP voting and elevated their games in the playoffs, including in conference finals comebacks, I’d give their matchup the nod over all others involving players at the same position since Russell vs. Chamberlain in ’64 and ’69.
3. Q. Which team has the coaching edge?
A. The Thunder. Remember that idiot who, before last year’s Finals, called the coaching matchup between Erik Spoelstra and Rick Carlisle a “push”? Yes, that was me. Sorry Rick, my very, very bad. The Heat somehow survived Spoelstra to get back to the Finals, and if they can somehow survive him to win the title, then maybe I’ll reconsider my view of him yet again. But unless and until that happens, I have to give the edge to Scott Brooks, who made the key adjustment (switching to Thabo Sefalosha as the primary defender on Tony Parker) to turn around the West Finals, and who also got the Thunder to improve their overall D and take better care of the ball against a Spurs squad which looked truly invincible.
4. Q. Who is the X-factor for each team?
A. Shane Battier for the Heat, Serge Ibaka for the Thunder. After a disappointing regular season, Battier made timely contributions against Indiana and stepped up with big games against Boston. The Heat will count on him to hit open 3s to stretch the Thunder’s defense, and also to at least share the defensive burden on Durant with LeBron. Ibaka has emerged as one of the premier shot-blockers in the league, but facing Chris Bosh and his resurgent perimeter stroke will be a different type of challenge. On the flip side, the Heat will be left with no answers if Ibaka can produce anything even remotely in the neighborhood of his 11-11, 26 point performance in Game 4 of the West Finals for even just a few games.
5. Q. Which player has the most riding on these Finals?
A. LeBron James. Well, duh. Two facts:
Fact #1: LeBron has excelled in the Eastern Conference playoffs on numerous occasions.
Fact #2: LeBron has yet to have a single breakout game in 10 career Finals games.
Fact #2 is the biggest reason why LeBron is considered a playoff choker in many quarters, even though his career resume in the first three rounds rivals that of anyone else in the league. LeBron has the most to lose of anyone in this series, but he also has the most to gain: a stellar Finals by him, culminating in a Heat title, would cement his status as the best player in the league bar none, and would remove the “playoff choker” stigma forever.
LeBron is such an obvious answer to this question that I should note two players on the Thunder who rate mention as well. The first, of course, is Durant, who with a stellar Finals culminating in a Thunder title would vault past LeBron to be the best player in the game. But he is just 23 and figures to be back many more times. The other is Russell Westbrook, who actually has more on the line in the sense that a bad Finals leading to a Thunder defeat could put him back in the trade rumor mill, notwithstanding his contract extension earlier this year.
6. Q. Which team will fans in Seattle be rooting for?
A. Ever since “The Decision”, the Heat have been the most hated NBA team across the country. But fans in Seattle who had their hearts ripped out when the Sonics left for Oklahoma City in 2008 have a reason to hate the Thunder even more. They may still like Durant and the other players who were in Seattle, but surely they cannot stomach the thought of Thunder ownership getting the O’Brien trophy, or of David Stern handing it to them. Don’t be surprised if last year’s “Cavs for Mavs” fan movement gets a counter-weight this year in the form of “Sonics’ Fans for Heat”.
7. Q. The 2012 NBA champion will be …
A. The Thunder. The Heat passed a major test by winning the last two games against Boston when no one thought they had it in them, and LeBron may have turned a corner with his stupendous Game 6 performance in Boston, followed by a strong fourth-quarter showing in Game 7. But the Thunder have the game’s premier crunch-time assassin in Durant, better balance and quality depth, better coaching, and the best home-court advantage in the league. For these reasons, I like the Thunder to prevail in a seven-game nailbiter that will have fans asking at the end, “What do you mean there’s no Game 8?”