2012 NBA Finals: Game 1 Preview
This year’s NBA Most Valuable Player race came down to two names, and the separation between these two players was so narrow that you had to work to find a reason to choose one over the other. Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant led the NBA in scoring and was as clutch as anyone in the game, while Miami HEAT forward LeBron James was one of the most dominant all-around players in the league.
James wound up with the MVP trophy, though many believed Durant was more deserving. It couldn’t be more appropriate, then, that Durant and James are now going head-to-head in the NBA Finals, with everything at stake and more than just an MVP trophy on the line. This series, as much as anything, is about legacies.
LeBron James was labeled “The King” before he ever set foot on an NBA court, yet nine years into his pro career he has yet to capture a single championship. His inability to execute in the clutch has made him the butt of many jokes, but LeBron is hoping to have the last laugh by hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy some time between now and the end of next week.
Kevin Durant faced no such expectations upon entering the NBA; instead, he’s been able to build his legacy year by year and accomplishment by accomplishment. Lacking the ego of James, Durant has become one of the most popular players in the league because of his humble, giving personality off the court, as much as for his flair for the dramatic on it. Durant is loyal to the organization that drafted him and to the fans of the city that has adopted him, and he has inspired an equal amount of loyalty from his teammates, as well.
The marquee match-up in the 2012 NBA Finals is absolutely Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James, but the reality is that the winner of the series will be determined by everyone else.
Point Guard: Russell Westbrook vs. Mario Chalmers
Outside forces have tried to break up the happy brotherhood between Durant and Westbrook many times, but through it all they remain as close as ever. They trust each other implicitly, and more and more we’ve seen Westbrook take the lead late in games and make the right plays at the right times. He’s also happy to defer to Durant when the situation calls for it. Westbrook is an All-Star in his own right, and while Derrick Rose and Chris Paul are above him in the ranks of NBA point guards, he has closed the gap significantly this season.
Mario Chalmers is not nearly in the same class as Westbrook, but then he’s also rarely called upon to carry much of the load in Miami. He has hit big shots in the postseason from time to time and played his role reasonably well, but he’s more than overmatched in going head-to-head with Westbrook.
Shooting Guard: Dwyane Wade vs. Thabo Sefolosha
Thabo Sefolosha is one of the more underrated defensive players in the NBA, but he has his work cut out for him in trying to slow down Dwyane Wade. Wade averaged over 20 points per game against the Thunder this season and shot just a hair under 50% from the field. As good as Sefolosha is, slowing down Wade is a tall order. Of course, he will also yield the majority of the minutes at shooting guard to sixth-man James Harden, but that’s a subject for later. Sefolosha will start, and he will be overmatched.
Dwyane Wade may not be the best shooting guard in the NBA, but he’s close. He lacks the hardware and career accomplishments of the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, but he’s arguably the second-toughest shooting guard in the league to defend. Time and time again Wade makes incredible shots just when his team needs them most, defying gravity, logic and even belief with some of his spectacular moves. Wade is a highlight reel waiting to happen, and the Thunder will have their work cut out for them in just trying to contain him.
Power Forward: Chris Bosh vs. Serge Ibaka
The Thunder have become the talk of the league for the way they draft just the right players, develop them, and watch them turn into stars. Drafted with the 24th overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft by the then Seattle SuperSonics, Ibaka has risen steadily to his current status as one of the best defensive players in the game. He led the NBA in blocks this season, but he is anything but a one-dimensional player. His offensive game has come steadily along, and as the San Antonio Spurs learned the hard way, you ignore him at our peril. Ibaka recorded a perfect game, going 11-for-11 to score 26 points in OKC’s Game 4 win over the Spurs. Ibaka is a player on the rise.
Chris Bosh, on the other hand, is a credentialed NBA All-Star, every bit as important to his team’s success as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. The HEAT managed to survive without him while he nursed an abdominal injury, but he’s back now and he was extremely key in helping Miami get past the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. The HEAT don’t always know what to do when all three of their All-Stars are healthy, but the more they feed Bosh, the better off they tend to be.
Center: Kendrick Perkins vs. Joel Anthony
The HEAT have played center by committee throughout the 2012 NBA playoffs, but it’s likely they will call upon Joel Anthony to combat the size and rebounding of Perkins. Anthony is a decent center, the best on Miami’s roster, and they will need his defense and size if they’re going to hold their own inside.
Kendrick Perkins wasted no time making his mark on the Thunder when they acquired him last season, as he immediately got the ear of Kevin Durant and began teaching him what it means to be a champion. Ask Durant who has helped him the most in taking his game to the next level and he will point a finger in the direction of Perkins, who won a championship with the Boston Celtics. Perkins is a solid rebounder and solid defender, while also serving as the enforcer inside. He’s not afraid to put a hard hit on someone, and he will be the key to OKC keeping Wade and James out of the paint.
Small Forward: Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James
This is it. Hero vs. Villain. The man everyone loves to love and the man everyone loves to hate. It’s fitting that Kevin Durant will be in the home white and LeBron James will be in the road back, because good guys always wear white in the classic Westerns, and in this series Durant will be playing the role of John Wayne.
LeBron, of course, is a freak of nature, with a body that seems to have been chiseled and handed down by the same basketball gods who sent us Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal. He is the force no one can stop, that you only hope to contain.
Durant, on the other hand, is the lanky kid that everyone was sure would need to bulk up to be an effective NBA player, yet has dominated nonetheless.
LeBron will be absolutely dominant for three quarters, perhaps even three and a half, whereas Durant will be dominant for much of the first three quarters, but play his absolute best basketball when the game winds down to the closing minutes.
All of the pressure in this series is on LeBron, and if the HEAT fall short the criticism will come in droves. The HEAT set expectations high when they talked about the number of championships they were going to win with James, Wade and Bosh together, and if they don’t get one this year that group may not be back next season. For Durant, getting to the Finals is the next step in his team’s maturation process, and if they lose it won’t be viewed as a monumental failure. It will mean they took the next step and will be back to fight against next season.
It’s really time for LeBron to take the next step and realize his monarch-sized potential, and the only way he can do that is by delivering a championship over the next two weeks.
But will be?
Bench: James Harden/Nick Collison/Derek Fisher vs. Udonis Haslem/Mike Miller/Shane Battier/Norris Cole
James Harden is fresh off a season in which he won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award and in which he became one of the most unstoppable forces in the league. He has shown a penchant for stepping up in big games, like when he scored 19 points in the fourth quarter to close out Dallas in the first round. The Thunder have their big three, but one of them comes off the bench. Derek Fisher has done for OKC what he did for the Lakers for so long, drilling clutch shots late in games to propel his team to victory. He hit two huge jumpers, including his patented corner three, to help the Thunder close out San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals. Meanwhile, Nick Collison is the savvy veteran who makes smart defensive plays and does the intangible things that help the Thunder win without garnering much attention for himself.
Udonis Haslem did a solid job of starting in place of Bosh when he as injured, and even held his own playing center against Kevin Garnett in the Eastern Conference Finals. He’s not flashy, but he’s tough as nails and performs well in the clutch. Norris Cole is one of the more interesting stories from this year’s rookie class, and while he’s unlikely to see big minutes against Westbrook, if Chalmers gets in foul trouble the HEAT may need him to step up. Battier is the consummate defensive stopper, and will be called upon to help contain Durant, while Miller’s three-point shot will be key to keeping the defense from collapsing around Wade, Bosh and James.
Coaching: Scott Brooks vs. Erik Spoelstra
This series features two of the youngest NBA head coaches, making this match-up almost as intriguing as LeBron vs. Durant.
Brooks has the complete faith of his team, and has grown tremendously right along with his team. Unlike last season’s playoff run, Brooks has not been second-guessed during his team’s playoff run, and his most impressive accomplishment might be the fact that Gregg Popovich ultimately adjusted his gameplan to try and counter what Brooks was doing. Brooks and the Thunder have faced down the toughest list of teams possible en route to the Finals, taking out the teams that have most often been in the NBA Finals themselves over the last decade. Like his players, Brooks has grown into one of the best in the NBA.
Erik Spoelstra has not enjoyed quite as successful a run in Miami, and the pressure to win has been so great that the slightest losing streak sends the fans to the message boards and Twitter demanding for his head. He has withstood that pressure, and even got through a confrontation with Wade, and is poised to guide his team through the NBA Finals for the second time. Still, while Brooks is devising plans and schemes to help his team win, Spoelstra seems to be content to fall back on isolation plays for Wade and James. That may not be enough against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Pick: Thunder In Six
Season Series: The HEAT and Thunder split the season series, with OKC winning 103-87 in OKC and Miami winning 98-93 in Miami.
Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Finals is Tuesday night in Oklahoma City, beginning at 9:00 PM Eastern on ABC.