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NBA Finals Preview: (2) Miami Heat vs. (2) Oklahoma City Thunder

Well guys, this is the end. It's been an eventful playoff season as we've witnessed great comebacks, amazing finishes, transcendent performances and unfortunately, heartbreaking injuries. Now, we are down to two teams. Representing the Eastern Conference from the SouthEast Division is the Miami Heat, led by the trio of Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. And representing the Western Conference from the NorthWest Division are the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are led by their own trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden & Russell Westbrook.

How did these teams perform in the regular season? Let's take a look:

2011-2012 season

Record

Pace

Offensive Efficiency

Defensive Efficiency

Turnover rate

Free Throw Rate

Effective Field Goal %

Opponent Effective Field Goal %

Miami

46-20 93.2 104.3 97.1 14.49 30.7 50.48 47.93

Oklahoma City

47-19 95.3 107.1 100 15.25 33.4 51.60 46.46

League Average

N/A 93.8 101.8 101.8 13.77 27.6 48.7% 48.7%

In this truncated season, the Heat were excellent once again. Their offense received enough contributions from non-members of the Big Three to be one of the league's best and their defense maintained its excellent play from the previous season. They were even able to withstand the absence of Dwyane Wade, who missed 17 games this season due to various ailments. As is always the case with the Heat, they lived at the free throw line as they were fourth in the league in free throw rate this season. I think the expectation with a team like Miami is that they should play at a faster pace in order to fully take advantage of the skills of James and Wade, but their offense has been great with the Big 3 so we can't complain too much.

Oklahoma City has taken another step forward. Their winning percentage has increased each of the past three seasons, and so has their success in the postseason. Their defense has improved 4 points from last season, as they allowed 100 points per 100 possessions vs. 104.1 per 100 last season. Much like Miami, Oklahoma City lived at their free throw line as they led the league in free throw rate. The core of the Thunder (Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka & Perkins) were extremely durable and only missed 5 games combined this season. They were slightly better than the Heat at the line (80% as a team vs. 77% for Miami), which led to their league leading True Shooting % of 56.7%. The teams were pretty even this year in terms of three point shooting (35.9% for Miami & 35.8% for Oklahoma) and rebounding (total rebound rate of 51.14 for Miami vs. 51.42 for Oklahoma City) so the teams are pretty even in that regard as well.

Matchup 1 in the regular season

Game 2 in the regular season

Before we dig into how the teams have performed in the playoffs and the individual matchups, let's take a quick step back and look at the teams' signature plays from their playoff runs. First up, Miami:

And Oklahoma City:

Tip off for Game 1 is Tuesday at 9:00 on ABC. All the games will be on ABC and only the Sunday games start at 8 PM. Take the jump!

How have these teams done in the playoffs? Since we're asking, let's find out:

2012 playoffs

Pace

Offensive Efficiency

Defensive Efficiency

Turnover rate

Free Throw Rate

Effective Field Goal %

Opponent Effective Field Goal %

Miami

87.6 108.4 99.4 12.9 26.5 50.1 45.8

Oklahoma City

90.9 112.6 105.3 11.2 25.8 51.2 48.2

The playoffs are slowed down, so the pace doesn't matter much in the grand scheme of things. Miami has done a really good job on the defensive end this postseason. Miami has held their opponents to a lower eFG in the playoffs than they did in the regular season. Granted, Boston, Indiana and New York aren't the greatest offensive teams in the league, but the Heat did a good job making life difficult for those teams on the offensive end. I was getting ready to say that the amount of turnovers committed by the Heat almost cost them a trip to the Finals, but that wasn't the case. Even in their losses, they didn't commit an exorbitant amount of turnovers (their high was 17, which they reached twice, once in the Game 3 win vs. the Knicks & the other in their OT loss to Boston in Game 4). Something else that surprised me was their rebounding this postseason. With Bosh out, I was expecting the Heat to struggle on the glass. But, thanks in large part to the efforts of LeBron James (more on him later) and Udonis Haslem, the Heat were essentially the same team on the glass.

For Oklahoma City, the big key to their success has been the lack of turnovers. In the regular season, they had the highest turnover rate in the league. And in the playoffs, they've had the second lowest turnover rate. Limiting the turnovers and getting more shot opportunities is always a good thing, it becomes even more important when you have excellent scorers like Durant, Westbrook & Harden. The defense has been a little worse worse than it was in the regular season, but that's due in large part to San Antonio's excellent shooting from downtown. In the Conference Finals, San Antonio shot 40% from three point range. And with three point shooters like Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, & Mike Miller (maybe James Jones too) that's something OKC should watch out for.

Now that we've taken a look at the teams as a whole, let's unpack the individual matchups.

Point Guard: Mario Chalmers vs. Russell Westbrook

In between complaints that he's not good enough to be along side the Big 3 &

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it would be reasonable to assume he isn't much of a player. But he's actually a pretty good player. He can finish at the rim, he's a capable passer, a fine defender and one of the better three point shooters at the point guard position. He had a tough time dealing with Rajon Rondo last round, as Rondo had the series of his life in a losing effort for Boston. He's gonna be facing another All-Star, but Westbrook is a different type of player altogether. Chalmers has a lot of confidence in his game, so he's gpnna have to be really active on the offensive end in order to keep Westbrook from saving all his energy for offense.

Westbrook can be hit or miss sometimes. When he's hot, he can be deadly near the basket and in the midrange game. When he's not, he becomes a black hole that looks off Durant/Harden and throws up a contested midrange jumper early in the shot clock. The marquee matchup is between Lebron & Durant, but Westbrook is perhaps the biggest key to this series. He'll be defended primarily by Chalmers & Wade, & he has the edge in terms of speed, quickness and athleticism between them. The Heat are probably hoping Westbrook takes a bunch of deep twos, so OKC needs Westbrook to orchestrate and find the best shots possible for himself & his teammates.

Advantage: Oklahoma City

Shooting Guard: Dwyane Wade vs. Thabo Sefolosha

A couple days ago, during one of Wade's crappy stretches, I said "Wade is doing his best Mo Williams in the playoffs impersonation right now." And like two seconds later, he made a difficult reverse layup along the right baseline. That pretty much sums up Wade this postseason. He has those awesome moments like Game 4 vs. Indiana or the entire Knicks series. And then he has those moments where it looks like he's breaking down in front of his very eyes & needs to be traded yesterday, like Game 3 vs. Indiana or the majority of the Boston series. Wade is gonna need to shoot a lot better for the Heat to win this series. He's shooting 47% from the field in the playoffs, which sounds good until you mention the absolute cold stretches Wade has gone through in these playoffs. There have been a bunch of games where he looks flat, has no explosiveness, and his jumper not going in. Wade's also gonna have to expend way more energy on the defensive end this round than he did in the Eastern Conference Finals, as he'll spend a good amount of his time defending Westbrook & James Harden, which is a major step up compared to an injured Ray Allen.

Thabo's gonna have a full plate this series, as he'll take turns defending Wade & James. He's more than capable, as he was one of the better perimeter defenders in the league this season. He can also hit the occasional three point shot so the Heat are gonna have to pay him some attention.

Advantage: Miami

Small Forward: LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant

In this corner, the Most Valuable Player. As someone who routinely fawns over the excellence of LeBron James, this playoff run is just another notch in his belt. He's been averaging 30/9/6 while playing the majority of his minutes at the power forward while subbing for the injured Chris Bosh. He also deserves a ton of praise for his great work on the defensive side of the floor, as he (and Shane Battier) locked up Carmelo Anthony in Round 1, contained Danny Granger in Round 2, limited Paul Pierce & helped to slow down (as best he could) Rajon Rondo in the Eastern Conference Finals. Adding even more praise to LeBron's awesomeness this playoff, he's accumulated the fifth most Win Shares in a single playoff in league history, & has had the ninth highest single playoff PER in league history as well. I could go on a spiel about clutch, clutch gene (whatever) & LeBron in end-of-game situations, but Andrew Sharp is a much better writer than I am & already did a great job discussing this. Moving back to the actual game, LeBron will have the responsibility of limiting Durant & facilitating offense for the Heat, which he's more than capable of doing. It would be great if LeBron converted more free throws since he gets to the line so much, but he more than makes up for it with his excellent play in other areas.

And in the other corner, the runner-up to the MVP. Durant has been spectacular this postseason, as he's been lights out shooting the ball. Earlier, I mentioned the Thunder's steady rise the past three seasons. That same rise can be seen in KD's playoff performance. His True Shooting %, Win Shares & PER have risen each year he's played in the playoffs. He's been solid on the glass and on the defensive end, as he did a good job limiting the effectiveness of Kobe Bryant in Round 2. Shane Battier will get a considerable amount of time defending Durant, and while he's still a good defender, he isn't the same as he once was and Durant should be able to get some good looks against Shane. When LeBron defends him, he'll have a tougher time accessing good shot opportunities, but Durant is a good enough scorer & Brooks is a good enough coach to design plays that get him in positions to score even with LeBron defending him.

Advantage: Miami/Thunder if Battier starts at the small forward position

Power Forward: Chris Bosh vs. Serge Ibaka

I'm assuming Bosh will be reinserted back into the lineup since he's 99.2% healthy. Now that he's back, he provides a needed element for the Miami offense. His presence will prevent Ibaka from playing free safety, as he will have to spend time worrying about Bosh's jumpshot, which will give James and Wade more freedom to operate on offense and free up the lane whenever they drive to the rim. Bosh was magnificent in Game 7, as his two corner three pointers in the fourth quarter & presence on defense helped ignite the Heat team and their fanbase as they drove past Boston for the win. And

Failfive_medium

just because.

Assuming Spoelstra decides to leave Bosh on the bench, Shane Battier would take his place in the starting lineup (I know LeBron would play the 4). At this stage of his career, Battier is a spot up shooter, which has a lot of value when you play with two superb playmakers in LeBron and Wade. His shot has been pretty erratic this playoff,as he's been shooting only 32% from downtown, which is below his career average of 38%. His shot was working in Game 7, as he hit four three pointers on the way to the Heat victory. And while he's not as quick and agile as he once was, Battier is still an intelligent defender that will make Durant or whoever else he's guarding work hard for their points. I've always been a Battier fan, and this New York Times article is another reason why.

In keeping with the theme of the Thunder improving through the years, we have Serge Ibaka. The improvement from Serge has shown itself in his jump shooting from 16-23 feet. In general, shots from 16-23 feet are usually contested and considered to be the worst type of shot in basketball, but Ibaka has improved in this area. His shooting % has gone up every year, and this year he shot 46% from 16-23 feet. That improvement manifested itself in Game 4 of the WCF, when Ibaka went 11-11 from the field and 4-4 from the line in the Thunder victory. His main claim to fame is his defense, which hasn't disappointed. There'll be some situations where he'll have to defend LeBron, but he's quick and athletic enough to at least bother LeBron's shot.

Advantage: Heat with LeBron at the 4/Even with Bosh at the 4

Center: Udonis Haslem vs. Kendrick Perkins

Haslem is the perfect "glue guy." He does great work on the glass, he's respected by his teammates, can consistently make the 15 foot jumper, is physical in the low post, and when necessary, willing to drop somebody in support of a teammate.

Last time Kendrick Perkins was in the Finals, he tore up his knee and the Celtics went on tho lose Game 7 vs. the Lakers in his absence. He's back now, and he's still perpetually pissed about seemingly everything. He's essentially useless on offense, but that's not why he's on the court. He provides some rebounding and a whole bunch of physicality, which OKC is gonna need if they hope to limit the effectiveness of the Big 3.

Advantage: Miami

Bench:

Miami: Shane Battier/Chris Bosh, Mike Miller, Norris Cole, James Jones, Joel Anthony

Oklahoma City: James Harden, Nick Collison, Derek Fisher, Daequan Cook, Lazar Hayward

Advantage: Oklahoma City

Any connections to the Nets: Um, LeBron was rumored to go to the Nets that one time and he's friends with Jay-z, so... there?

Series Prediction: Miami in 7

The teams are very closely matched, but due to the presence of Chris Bosh, I'm going with the Heat. Having him back will take some of the pressure off of LeBron and Wade, which frees them up on offense and can allow them to be (even) more assertive on defense. Look for Mario Chalmers to have a major impact on this series. I believe his three point shooting will be on target and he'll be able to make enough plays on the defensive end to make Westbrook work hard on both sides of the ball.

Series MVP: LeBron James

He's been playing at an unreal (even for him) level this playoff, and I feel that he will continue that in this series. He's done it all this playoff run: he's carried the entire offense (including Wade) to victory, he's delivered in end-game situations, defended the opposing team's best player, played out of position, and has managed to keep the Heat alive even when they seemed destined for self-destruction. He's got enough of an advantage over Durant that he'll be able to set the tone of their showdown with his physical play & intelligent decision making. He'll probably toss in a gamewinning shot along the way too.

They get to have the fun:

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