By Anthony Macri
The Oklahoma City Thunder are coming off one of the most impressive feats in NBA history, winning four times in a row against a team that had previously won 20 straight. With a young, talented triumvirate in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, the Thunder possess a burst quality that makes them explosive offensively despite the tendency to revert to isolations and poor decisions. Their lack of true depth is something to consider, though it may be a mirage given the quality of their core group of players.
LeBron James’ play in the Eastern Conference finals was fantastic. He harnessed the Miami Heat to his back and carried them against the Boston Celtics despite the absence of Chris Bosh for most of the series and the inconsistency of Dwyane Wade in the last three games A man possessed for the entirety of Game 6 and in spurts of Game 7, James seems prepared to battle the demons of last year with a strong NBA Finals performance this season. However, he cannot do it alone. Wade must have a resurgence of mind and body, especially on the defensive end, and Bosh has to be ready for a much bigger share of the minutes. Heat coach Eric Spoelstra also has as much to prove as anyone going into this series, and must demonstrate the ability to manage emotions as this series promises to be full of runs for both sides.
These two teams split the regular-season series, with both winning on their home floors in less than 10 days’ time back in late March/early April. The games were nearly mirror opposites if you look at individual statistics, with OKC taking control in the second quarter of their blowout win and the Heat exerting themselves over the middle two quarters of their victory. The team that won the rebounding battle won both games, and the Thunder’s ability to move the ball effectively (or, perhaps, Miami’s inconsistency on the defensive end) was the most startling difference between getting a win and taking a loss.
Oklahoma City has not yet faced a defense as good as Miami’s in the playoffs, and Miami has not had to defend an offense as talented and explosive as the Thunder's. It makes for a truly classic matchup, and the most highly anticipated Finals of the past few years.
Five Keys to the NBA Finals
1. Battle of Cross-matching Defenses
While much will be made of the potential individual matchups (like Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade vs. Russell Westbrook, etc.), the reality is that those actual matchups will not be featured for the majority of any game. Both teams are adept at and will not avoid crossing their matchups.
Expect to see plenty of switching because of off-ball screens, some trapping of ball screens along with soft string-outs and jump switches. The Heat have approached a large piece of the past two seasons using this strategy to great results on the defensive end (they have had a top-five defense both seasons of the Big Three era). OKC had not done it much going into the Western Conference finals, but found the tactic effective against the Spurs and may try it again against the Heat.
Doing so gives a bigger advantage to Miami than it does to Oklahoma City. Miami can roll players into the post who are comfortable, strong and skilled enough to score down there without altering its usual offensive flow. When OKC rolls guys like Durant or Westbrook into the post, they still seem tentative and awkward, as they prefer to face-up and attack off the bounce.
2. OKC’s Iso Advantage
One of the things that Miami’s defense tends to do very well is contest every catch and force players to make one-on-one decisions against closeouts. They choke off passing lanes and their length forces teams into difficult shots, especially when Bosh is healthy and contributing big minutes. His presence allows the Heat defenders to press up and get into the feet of their opponents, and offenses tend to back away from this kind of pressure.
Oklahoma City, however, may be able to thrive in this situation. The one-on-one ability of their “Big Three," especially the always-in-control Harden, could become a difference-maker in this series. Miami closes out so hard that the Thunder’s ability to take advantage of the tendency to over-pursue could make a huge difference.
During the regular season, the Thunder assisted on less than 50 percent of their made field goals (49.7 percent). And while they were better in the series against the Spurs (54.7 percent assists on made field goals), for this entire postseason OKC is still hovering at 50 percent. This demonstrates strong offensive balance and means they have created a formula to win using the kind of on-an-island play that Miami likes to force teams into.
3. Using and Removing Emotion
A very interesting discussion will be had amongst sport psychologists and coaches who watch this series to see both the manipulation of and the elimination of emotion.
Many players talk about their ability to feed off the emotion of a situation, and attempt to increase or maintain their intensity by raising their emotional investment. This process is a dangerous one, because the emotions that can give a player the passion to perform are the same ones that can cloud judgment and encourage poor decision-making.
For Miami, focused and laser-like intensity is rare but potent. The Heat's ability to adjust and play with passion following halftime was well-documented during their series against the Celtics, and when the James-Wade-Bosh trio is all similarly adjusted, they become terribly hard to stop.
OKC must avoid letting the moment become too big, and play through the emotion without it overwhelming its sense of purpose. The Thunder’s main advantage in this regard seems to be their youthful ignorance of the enormity of their accomplishments. They simply play, without a sense of the historical implications -- a mental advantage to be sure.
In this series, we should have full view of this battle for emotional control throughout, specifically in the form of scoring runs for both teams. Few teams were as explosive throughout the season as these two, as they both do an excellent job of converting defensive rebounds and turnovers into points at the other end. In fact, their efficiency in doing so will likely lead to multiple 8-0, 12-2, and 20-6-type scoring binges for both sides. The winner of those scoring spurts will likely win the series.
4. Taking Advantage of the Empty Lane
One thing that both teams share is bigs who can knock down jump shots. Whether it is Bosh or Udonis Haslem for the Heat (Haslem’s recent poor shooting notwithstanding) or Serge Ibaka for the Thunder, either team can remove their more interior-minded post players (Joel Anthony or Kendrick Perkins, respectively) and go to a near five-out offensive look.
In a series like this, without a ton of bruising size in the middle, the lane becomes a launching pad for acrobatic assaults at the rim, and the “post war” becomes more about which team’s natural perimeter players are better able to slide into a post-centric attack.
These two teams are relatively equal when it comes to rim attacks off of face-up situations, though Miami’s rotations to prevent easy aerial assaults are more precise than Oklahoma City’s. Expect to have plenty of times when it appears the lane opens for a swooping Durant drive, a freight-train attack from LeBron, an eye-popping explosion from Westbrook, or a shifty euro-style finish from either Wade or Harden.
However, Miami does own an advantage in its ability to post up any of their Big Three with effectiveness. This allows the Heat to go over a weak or foul-plagued defender more readily should they choose to, and their offensive flow is less disrupted in doing so. Provided the Heat attack is strong off of their post-ups toward the middle of the floor, they should find daylight and win the empty lane.
5. Matchups Down the Stretch
While there will be plenty of instances of cross-matching and switching throughout games, matchups will be accentuated in the closing minutes of games as these two teams go to offensive attacks that involve less screening and more one-on-one play. As a result, how these teams line up defensively will mean a great deal.
In this area, Miami again has the advantage over Oklahoma City. Th Heat's ability to put Shane Battier on Durant and slide James to either Westbrook or Harden gives the Heat the greater benefit of versatility.
Of course, Wade’s propensity to gambling could affect this plan if he gets caught out of position too often late in games. In their last two series, Wade has demonstrated a dangerous tendency to overextend, reaching for steals in passing lanes that end up allowing offenses to carve up the Heat on the backside. As the clock winds down, and both teams revert to a more hero-brand style of basketball on the offensive end, Wade must fight back the urge to make the hero play defensively, because it may just cost his team a possession or two late.
Prediction: Miami in six