- Scott Brooks vs. Erik Spoelstra. Not exactly two modern heavyweights of the coaching profession, huh? I think Brooks has come quite a long way in these playoffs, from adjusting his defensive assignments in the Spurs series (putting Thabo on Parker ended the gauntlet that was the Spurs offense) to getting Russ Westbrook to defer at the end of games, and he's also blessed with the deeper, better roster. Spoelstra has stayed out of his own way since the Wade blow-up early in the playoffs and basically allowed his guys to run free. Good tactic? I'd say so, for the most part. I think the coaching battle comes down to two things in this series. First, who can get their stars into the best position to score late in games? Brooks has become very good at getting Durant good touches, especially from their now-famous "pin-down" play that scores virtually every time, while Spoelstra has failed, at times, to get LBJ and Wade in good spots to score. Secondly, how are the defensive matchups going to work? Is Lebron going to get the Durant assignment full-time? Can OKC afford to play Thabo enough minutes to limit Wade? Will OKC go with the big lineup that features Ibaka and Perkins? All things to consider. Slight advantage: OKC
- OKC (R. Westbrook, J. Harden, T. Sefolosha, D. Fisher, D. Cook) vs. Miami (D. Wade, M. Chalmers, M. Miller, N. Cole). This is pretty unfair to Miami since Lebron James doubles as a guard and handles the ball more than just about anyone, but we had to assign him somewhere, so he's in the front-court battle. If you've read me for any length of time, I have a love/hate relationship with Russell Westbrook. First, it's completely indefensible that he would average more shot attempts (19.1 per game) in the playoffs than Kevin Durant (18.6) would. That said, I think Westbrook has been remarkably under control in these playoffs for the most part, cutting his turnovers down from 3.6 in the regular season to just 2.3 in the playoffs, while knocking down a better percentage of his threes (read: better shots), shooting a tick less, and increasing his assist totals. He's an elite player, and we shouldn't forget that in the midst of the battle between "good Russ" and "bad Russ". Harden is obviously the other key guy for the Zombies, as he's upped his scoring average to over 17 a game in just 31 minutes as their primary facilitator when he enters the game. Aside from being their 3rd best player, the look of the team makes more sense to me when he's out there and can take the ball-handling/distributing responsibilities away from Westbrook and allow him to be in full attack mode. The love for Harden nationally has been a bit overblown in the playoffs I'd say, but because of the fact that it's mainly a correction from him being under discussed previously, I'm okay with it. He's a player. Sefolosha will likely have the chief responsibility of covering Dwyane Wade (or even Lebron?) when he's out there, and he's an elite defender. If he makes his open shots, it's a pure bonus. As for Fisher and Cook, I think Fisher has been playing far too many minutes in the playoffs (over 21 a game) for a guy who's washed up, but he did deliver two "Derek Fisher" shots in the clincher over the Spurs, and there's something to be said (albeit over-stated) for having a vet like him out there. Daequan Cook was put on the Earth to get shots up, and that's his only value to this series. Heat check! On the Miami end, I've been pretty critical of Dwyane Wade's contributions in the 2012 playoffs and I stand by it. Let me say first, that he's still a fantastic, valuable basketball player, and nobody just falls into 23/5/4 with a 22 PER like he's had in the playoffs. That said, Wade's defensive efforts have been laughable at times (and throughout the entire playoffs in transition), and his true shooting percentage of 53% in the playoffs would represent easily the lowest of his career in any regular season or playoffs. What does it mean? I think it's a combination of poor decision-making and possible injury. If he's hurt, then all bets are off a bit, but with what saw him do in Indiana in games 4-5-6, I don't think it can be all injury-related. All of that said, I think Wade's energy level (and resulting output) may be the single-biggest key of the series. If he outplays Westbrook, Miami has a chance. If he doesn't, Lebron would have to be in Game 6 mode at least 4 times for Miami to win. Elsewhere, Mario Chalmers is playing 35 minutes a night in the playoffs out of necessity, and he's about as Jekyll/Hyde as it gets. It seems that Wade and Lebron really don't like playing with him, but he has averaged 12 points a game, hit some big shots, and done some important things for them in the playoffs. It would greatly benefit Miami if he's passable offensively, if for no other reason than the Heat are going to need his defense on Westbrook throughout the series. Miller is a one-trick pony on jumpers, and Norris Cole has looked painfully overmatched in the playoff stints that I've seen. Advantage: OKC
- OKC (K. Durant, S. Ibaka, K. Perkins, N. Collison) vs. Miami (L. James, C. Bosh, J. Anthony, S. Battier, U. Haslem) We're going to cover the Durant/James battle in more detail in the next section, so we'll concentrate on the other guys for now. I'm wildly interested to see the deployment of Ibaka and Perkins in this series. Miami doesn't have the benefit of a low-post option, as their best "big" is Chris Bosh, who is an almost-pure pick-n-pop guy. Kendrick Perkins' chief NBA skill is that of a post defender. Do you see where I'm headed with this? I think Perkins will be neutralized to the point where he should only play <20 minutes a game in the series, and "small-ball" will be played on both sides a lot. Serge Ibaka is a big-time rim protector, but if Bosh's minutes increase (and they will), it will be Ibaka covering Bosh a lot at the center position, and Bosh is so great in the 17-foot-range that it will be difficult for Ibaka to collapse on the penetration of Wade and James. Lineup construction will be huge here. Collison provides the ultra-toughness/rebounding component that every team wants, and the winner of the Haslem/Collison match-up has a leg-up. We mentioned Bosh already, but after playing 14, 28, and 31 minutes in the final three games of the ECF, I'd expect a full 35+ minute output from Bosh all series long. The hate on Bosh has gone too far. He's a fantastic 3rd option who can be a key to this series if he neutralizes Ibaka's rim protection and takes some scoring off of the load of Lebron and Wade. Elsewhere, Battier isn't the player he used to be by any stretch, but he's still an above-average defender, and if he shoots 9-of-19 from three (like he did in the final 4 games of the ECF), that's found money for Miami. Advantage: Push
BEST PLAYER IN THE SERIES
- Lebron James vs. Kevin Durant. This is an interesting one because the best player on Earth is Lebron James. That's my opinion and one that I likely will not waver from unless Kevin Durant averages a 40/10 in this series, and even then, I'm STILL not sure he'd be the better player. Lebron's regular-season PER in 2011-12 was 30.8 which is over 3 full points better than 2nd-best in the league (Chris Paul) and 4.5 points better than Kevin Durant. That's a massive gap. In the playoffs? Lebron is at a 31.25 (higher in the playoffs! take that, media) and Durant's has risen to just under 28. I know that PER isn't the end-all-be-all, but Kevin Durant has never played an all-court game like Lebron did in Game 6 of the ECF, and while it's unquestioned that Durant is the superior scorer (and arguably the better offensive player overall), Lebron's defensive additions can't be overlooked in the grand scheme, and his positional flexibility is frightening. The key matchup is obviously Lebron's ability to guard Durant. No one on the planet can "stop" Kevin Durant defensively, but if there was someone built to do it, it'd be Lebron, and the only real question is whether Miami will be willing to give up some of Lebron's offense to unleash the league's most powerful defensive weapon. Would it shock me if Durant averaged 30+ even with Lebron on him? Absolutely not. Durant's offensive game is about as scary as it gets, with 30-foot range, a growing ability to get catches in favorable positions, impeccable free throw shooting, and a rising assist rate. I would forecast a 35 ppg for Durant in the series, and Lebron still "outplaying" him due to defensive contribution and a 28/8/8 type of line. SLIGHT Advantage: Miami
- For the season, Miami and Oklahoma City are side-by-side in rebound rate as a team at just over 51% for each, good for 5th and 6th in the league respectively. In the playoffs, Miami has taken a larger lead, and I'd expect to likely continue in this series. If my assumptions that Kendrick Perkins (and his 10 rebounds per 40 minutes) sit on the bench more in this series in favor of more Fisher/Harden/Cook/Thabo, and Miami actually gets Bosh back to 35+ minutes hold true, the advantage can only go further toward Miami. If you're looking for a reason why the undersized Heat would have the advantage here, look no further than this. Lebron James had the 3rd-highest rebound rate at his position (SF) in the entire league this year, behind only Shawn Marion (legit), and Matt Barnes (come on lol), while Dwyane Wade posted the 5th-best rebound rate in the entire league among 2-guards, behind such stalwarts as Mike Miller, Tony Allen, and Manny Harris. In summation, Wade and Lebron are ELITE at rebounding for their positions. I don't think this is a huge advantage for Miami by any means, but for anyone looking at OKC's size advantage and assuming REBOUNDS(!), they'd be wrong. SLIGHT Advantage: Miami
- Always a key in any series, because it's the way the league is going. 7 of the top 8 teams in effective field goal percentage (which incorporates threes in with 2s) this year were playoff teams, and even further than that, were top-5 seeds in their conferences. This isn't a coincidence. The 3-ball can change the game, and there are several guys in this series who could swing a game (or more) by making their open triples. On Miami's end, it is absolutely crucial that they get something out of Battier and/or Miller, as well Chalmers. Both of the wing guys have fallen off athletically in recent times, and Miller is visibly injured, but both are plus-shooters from downtown when open. Consider this, Mike Miller has shot 47% from 3 in Miami's wins this season. In losses? That number lowers to 39%. For Mario Chalmers, it's 42% in wins, and 31% in losses. That's not statistically insignificant, and Battier follows the same trend (admittedly to a lesser degree). With the volume of defensive attention that Wade and Lebron command, it creates open threes for these three guys to knock down open threes in this series. For OKC, the story is remarkably similar. Thabo Sefolosha exists in the NBA to play defense, and I'd readily admit that. With that said, however, OKC can't play him big minutes unless he can make jumperes, and I'd cite the same stat for him as I did for the Miami guys. In OKC's wins this season, Thabo shot 46% from three. In their losses, he shot 35%. There's a direct correlation here! Sefolosha is the only hit/miss guy from 3-land on the OKC roster, but Derek Fisher's only positive contribution on the court would likely come from made 3's as well, and as a career 37% shooter, it'd be helpful (since he'll apparently be playing) for him to hit some triples. Oh, did I mention that Kevin Durant was 4th in the league in 3's attempted and still made 38.7% or that Dwyane Wade is a putrid 3-point shooter (27%) that still attempts 2 per game for reasons passing understanding? Lebron's 36% from three this year (career-high) will help a bit, but the Durant factor swings it. Advantage: OKC
First, the home-court advantage in this series could prove huge for two reasons. #1 is that OKC has one of the best (THE best IMO) home-courts in the league, with raucous sell-outs every night, and a fan-base that is all-in, while Miami's arrive-late, leave-early fan-base that can't be relied upon to take them to a different level. Add-in the fact that OKC has 4 home games and the already-mandated 4-5 point edge for home teams? That's mounting. And #2, the 2-3-2 format is a weird one for me. To eliminate travel time (and for no other reason, no matter what the NBA says), the NBA goes to 2-3-2 in the finals, and it's a daunting task for the road team to try to win 3 straight home games in the middle of the series. On the one hand, if Miami can steal one in OKC, they would come home with 3 home games to win the series. But if they go down 0-2, they'd desperately need to get all 3 at home, and that's a tough task. Just food for thought.
Secondly, a lot will be made of the "Durant vs. Lebron" aspect of this series, and while that is certainly a subplot that we'll all be monitoring, I think the bigger match-up is the defense-first team in Miami against the juggernaut offense in OKC. The Thunder's offensive performance in the San Antonio series is the stuff of legend, and it's tough to imagine them being totally slowed, but Miami's defense (despite their "star" mantra) has been their calling card, and with the ultimate Durant-stopper awaiting in Lebron, it's really interesting to see how this goes.
Finally, the word "legacy" is thrown around too much in this business, but the reputation (a better word for in-the-moment examination) of Lebron James, and to a lesser extent, Kevin Durant, is on the line. Would it be Lebron's fault if he averaged a 32-9-7 in this series, and the Heat lost? Absolutely not. Would it be the worst thing in the world if Lebron averaged a 21-10-5 but played shut-down D on Durant and the Heat won? Absolutely not. But for the purposes of Lebron's reputation/legacy/etc., he must put up gawdy numbers, make a clutch shot or two, and have the Heat win the series despite being the underdog, and the worse team on paper. That's a pretty tall order, and I want to set the record now that while I believe that Miami won't win this series, I firmly believe that it won't be Lebron James' fault when they don't. Kevin Durant is top-5 player in the league, and at twenty-three years old, his ceiling hasn't been reached yet. Give him the better supporting cast, the better coach, and the better home-crowd? I'll take the Zombies in 7.
Enjoy it, everybody. I love this game.