When Game 1 of the NBA Finals tips off tonight at 6:00 pm (PDT), the world will finally have a matchup worthy of the hype. Last season, the Dallas Mavericks faced off against the Miami Heat in June in what was a terrific six-game series; mind you basketball fans from around the globe wanted to see the Los Angeles Lakers take on the team from South Beach because of the star power that would have been involved.
The Lakers and Celtics title bouts in the 2008 and 2010 NBA Finals were an attractive draw because of the history behind them as well as the proud teams involved.
But this time around, things are different, and one could argue that it’s for the best. Indeed, we never had the chance to watch LeBron James and Kobe Bryant duke it out with the title up grabs, but on this occasion we get perhaps the next best thing as arguably the two best players in the NBA will get an opportunity to go head-to-head with a title hanging in the balance.
As similar as both teams are, one could easily make the statement that they are at complete opposite ends of the spectrum.
The Oklahoma City Thunder were once a Cinderella team, but they have since grown up and become the team that most want to root for. They play in a relatively small market with diehard fans that easily give them the best home-court advantage in the league.
They are led by a quiet and humble superstar in Kevin Durant that has already led Team USA to a World Championship gold medal in the summer of 2010 and that is now looking to add to his collection that also includes the 2012 NBA All-Star Game MVP trophy.
KD has not only been an incredible talent this season with his scoring, rebounding, shooting as well as his improved ball handling and defense; but he’s also been the league’s premier assassin — a title he probably shares with Chris Paul — in the clutch.
According to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool, Durant has played in 38 clutch minutes in the postseason (defined as the last five minutes of a game with the scoring margin within five points) and scored 36 points in those situations on 12-for-20 field goal shooting.
The Texas product has been nothing short of spectacular in these playoffs, but he hasn’t been alone either. Coupled with fantastic teammates such as Rusell Westbrook and James Harden, the Thunder sport an impressive 110.1 offensive efficiency figure in the playoffs, which is tops in the league.
Role players such as Nick Collison, Thabo Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins have made several contributions on the defensive end that have led to OKC having a defensive efficiency figure of 102.1, which is ninth in this postseason. It’s worth noting that although he rarely gets the acclaim on this front, James Harden is a quite good defensive player that always accepts the challenge on that side of the court. For further evidence, have a look at how he defended Kobe Bryant in their second round matchup.
The Thunder have stars, but they also happen to play like a team.
The Miami Heat on the other hand may just be the most hated team in North American professional sports at the moment. Between the Decision and their introduction to Heat fans that culminated in the famous “Not one, not two, not three..” speech by LeBron James; fans have tuned in on a regular basis to watch them lose.
They are a polarizing team that has seen a lot of vitriol directed at them, and yet here they are making their second consecutive Finals appearance. In LeBron James, they have the best player in the world leading the way by doing essentially everything. The former Cavalier has been an elite playmaker, scorer, rebounder and defender for his team during this playoff run. In addition to the typical offensive responsibilities he carries, James has been asked to defend the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Danny Granger, David West, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett in this year’s postseason and he has done a stellar job doing so.
Mind you, his shortcomings have come in crunch time, where he has more often than not deferred to Wade with five minutes left in the game and asked him to carry the team home. Or so the narrative goes.
Believe it or not, LeBron James has played the exact same amount of clutch minutes as Kevin Durant so far in the postseason — 38 minutes — and isn’t as far off from his counterpart in terms of production as many would think. James has scored 32 points in clutch situations (KD has 36 points in this scenario), however he has only converted 6-of-20 field goal attempts. He has found ways to get himself to the line where he has connected on 18-of-25 free throws in clutch situations.
The King has been brilliant on offense and he has at times benefitted from the play of Dwyane Wade as well as Chris Bosh in the first round of the playoffs and the last couple of games in the conference finals. The trio’s synergy, coupled with the threat of respectable shooters has allowed Miami to produce an offensive efficiency of 105.7 in the postseason (third best in the playoffs).
In addition, the Heat have role players such as Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony and Shane Battier that contribute on the defensive end of the floor with toughness, post defense and exquisite rotations to help the team to a defensive efficiency of 96.5, the third best figure in the postseason.
Much like the Thunder, the Heat have stars, but they find ways to have them mesh with the rest of the roster to get the best out of the team.
And yet, that’s not the story that is going to be told about this matchup.
Many will have you believe that this year’s NBA Finals will put to rest the debate of which player not only is better but actually outshines the other both through the eye test and statistical comparisons.
It will also be the story of the biggest superstars in the game finally getting a chance to play one another with the trophy on the line. One can think of three separate occasions in which this has happened in the last 30 years (yes, 30):
- Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls versus Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals.
- Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls versus Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns in the 1993 NBA Finals.
- Shaquille O’Neal’s Los Angeles Lakers versus Allen Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers in the 2001 NBA Finals (the Diesel was obviously a superstar, but so was Kobe Bryant and many enjoyed the Kobe-Iverson debate at the time).
Given the absence of MVP caliber players from both finals participants in recent history, it’s only natural that this story be the biggest one going into Game 1 tonight and rightfully so.
This is a matchup made in heaven because of the soon to be legends involved, but don’t forget that both teams got here on the strength of their rosters but also by embracing the uniqueness of both of their situations.
The “little team” that tried to remain under the radar but actually blew off of it facing off against the team that publicly imposed great expectations and pressure upon themselves are headed for a collision course.
The seemingly hungrier and younger Thunder players may just have a title in them after all.
Enjoy the ride folks…
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.
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