Remember when Oklahoma City was the overwhelming favorite to roll through Miami when the NBA Finals started? Am I the only one that feels like that was two months ago? Please don’t be afraid to admit that you were one of the people who jumped on the blue and white bandwagon at some point during the playoffs.
The trendy pick before the series started was a team whose three best players are just a year older than I am (23) and yet it seemed that an overwhelming amount of people believed that this was the Thunder’s year, after all they did knock out a Spurs team that was viewed as a much more complete team than Miami was.
And those comparisons do ring true. San Antonio played a more complete style of offense than Miami. Greg Popovich did a masterful job switching his team’s identity from a defensive minded group to a make the next pass type of offense that steamrolled its way to a 20 game winning streak. Their execution forced Scott Brooks to make his offense evolve on the fly in the Western Conference Finals. He was able to do that over the course of a three day window because their organization has the second best player, the third best point guard, and the best sixth man in the league. The Thunder offense went from being very good, to an offense that scored at the second highest rate per 100 possessions since the NBA put the three point line in the ‘79-’80 season.
Immediately following the game six defeat of the San Antonio Spurs, the masses clutched onto Oklahoma City as the favorite to win the championship no matter who came out of the East. However everyone was forgetting that the best player on the planet was still in the tournament.
Somehow Lebron James came into this series as underrated. People are so drawn to his failures not only off of the court, but on the court and when you combine that with the fact that our society has become so obsessed with how many rings a person has that people become blinded when they are seeing greatness.
Not only are we all witnesses to a reincarnation combination of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, but we have the type of series that we will be talking about to our kids unfolding in front of our eyes:
This has been the most entertaining NBA Finals since the Jordan era. Every game has been filled with the type of electricity that makes the hair on the back of your neck scream with enthusiasm. The best part is that this appears to be only act 1 of what could become a modern day Lakers-Celtics rivalry, even though more people hate the Thunder in Seattle than in Miami.
Lebron and Wade Vs. Durant and Westbrook:
Kevin Durant is going to be a great player, perhaps one of the top three all time scorers in the history of the league, but this is Lebron’s time. He’s playing the best basketball of his career (a magic esque 29.2/10/6 in the finals and a ridiculous 32.1/10.7/5.3 since game four of the IND series which was the first “must win” for the Heat in these playoffs).
Sure there are going to be people who are saying that Lebron’s stats are ref aided (you know who you are), but realize that it is his style of play that has forced Joey Crawford and his crew to make a decision every time that he drives into the lane. James forced Kevin Durant into foul trouble in game two and three, which made KD change the way he played game four. The consequence? Durant played by far his worst game of not only the Finals, but the entire playoffs.
I said back in April that I wanted to see a Thunder-Heat finals because it would be the best tag team match the NBA could produce. James left Cleveland because he needed Wade’s services and even though Skip Bayless doesn’t want to admit it Kevin Durant needs Russell Westbrook if this team is going to win a championship. A team has to have a very good to great second option if a championship is going to be in their destiny (that makes me think about just how special the Sixers run to the finals in ’00-’01 was, Iverson did EVERYTHING for that team, but Kobe and Shaq were not going to be stopped).
Russell Westbrook has been the biggest wild card in this series. Years later when we look back on game four of this finals his Chris Weber like foul of Mario Chalmers will be the talking point when his name is brought up, but know this, the game would not have even been close if it wasn’t for his play in the first 47 minutes. He had the best game of an OKC player in this entire playoffs. Without his 43 points, Juwan Howard would have gotten the chance to tell his grandchildren how he played in an NBA finals game.
While Westbrook is the big wild card, Dwayne Wade has slowly become comfortable playing in the second row of the string section while Lebron sits comfortably in the first chair. At first I wasn’t buying into the comments that he understands his role on the team, but I have to admit that I was way off. Wade is letting the Cleveland LBJ rise from the dead.
While Lebron goes out and dominates, Wade picks his spots. After Dwayne nailed his second three pointer off of the dribble in game 4, ESPN’s John Hollinger tweeted that if Wade is going to do that we can just all go home. John tomorrow he might just grant your wish.
Side note: Wade has let Lebron take over as the leader of the Heat, but he can’t be touched in the fashion department. It’s almost as if Wade has challenged Westbrook to a fashion show after every game. Who woulda thunk that David Stern’s plan to improve the image of his players after games would have turned into a fashion week that doesn’t involve snobby rich people flaunting their ridiculous outfits in New York City.
It’s funny, as I think about what have been the best highlights of these last four games the first thing that pops into my mind is Serge Ibaka’s blocks. I’m not totally sure what it is about them, but every time he stuffs a shot I’ll make a noise that gives my girlfriend a chance to laugh at from across the room. What I’ve narrowed it down to is that he stops plays that few people in the league can do. I mean how many times have we seen Lebron go up for a dunk, bring the ball back only to have it knocked out of his hand… (That block gave us the best SI cover since Jimmer was on the cover in 2010.)
This one was just as good:
Here’s the mandatory Durant closing a game highlights:
This is my personal favorite. It’s the type of play that shows just how high LBJ’s basketball IQ is and why he’s the best passing “big man” (Barkley would be happy that I put that in quotes) in the league.
I’m surprised that ESPN hasn’t created a top ten list with just highlights from the finals so far (with the Heat getting 7 of the 10 spots), by the end of this thing they could amass a week of top ten lists if the series goes back to OKC, but one player that would be left out of all of those highlights is the reigning sixth man of the year, James Harden.
First came the rumblings that Harden wasn’t satisfied with his 6 shots in game 1:
“So they come to Miami for Game 3, and Westbrook stands defiant of his 20-for-50 shooting in the series, and Fisher and Kendrick Perkins had to play the part of tough-guy veterans to ease the frustration of Harden after he got only six shots in a Game 1 victory, sources said. Fisher and Perkins reminded Harden the Thunder had won a Finals game and nothing else mattered.” Adrian Wojnarowski
The first half of game two was Harden’s swan song of the season. Those 17 points were just false advertising as it went from bad to worse for the beard. In game 3 Harden was invisible (2-10), in game four Harden was flat out terrible. It wasn’t the stats that told the story though (for the record he was 2-11 from the field). He became a tentative shell of the player that is considered the most dangerous scoring option off of the bench in the league.
It reminded me of the guy playing a pickup game who stands away from the action so he doesn’t touch the ball because he’s already missed a layup, can’t find his shot and almost commits a turnover every time he touches it. Everyone on the guy’s team looks at him when he’s open and sees that please don’t pass me the ball look on his face. That’s the kind of look that Harden had in the fourth quarter on Tuesday night. On a crucial possession in the fourth quarter, he received the ball just beyond high post and simply had no idea what to do with it. His mind was overcome with such empowering nerves that had numbed his brain to a passive state. It’s a shame because even an average game out of him might have ensured that the series would be going back to the Chesapeake Energy Center.
Now that task seems mighty grim. Even though (personal rant alert!) I still think that this series is going to go to a seventh game. David Stern McMahon doesn’t want this series to end in game 5… Let me just stop right there.
The Thunder aren’t that far off, but Scott Brooks is going to have to coach the equivalent of a perfect game if the series is going to make it back to Oklahoma City let alone a seventh and final game. Harden is going to have to get his swagger back. Westbrook is going to have to knock down those jumpers again. Durant has to find the balance between being aggressive and being smart. The big man combination of Nick Collison, Serge Ibaka, and Kendrick Perkins has to actually play like bigs! That’s what they are! It’s sad for OKC when Lebron has been the best “big” in this series and he’s 6’8”. Still this team did come back and win four straight against a Spurs team that many regarded as the best in the league over a two month span. BUT IDK Miami recognizes that glory is in their grasp, I doubt that they’re going to let three 23 year olds keep them from glory (personal rant over).
One more 48 minute contest is all that stands in the way of Lebron James’ and immortality. The three time winner of the most valuable player award has played at a level beyond everyone else ever since the Pacers crushed the Heat in game 3 of their Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup. It was after that game that the bandwagon of Lebron James “haters” and media jumped over the Heat like a pack of wolves on a dead animal. Chris Mannix from Sports Illustrated declared that the Pacers were going to beat that Heat. It was fun again to pick on Lebron; now it certainly looks like he’ll be the one laughing and smiling as he looks up at the rafters.
Follow me on twitter @scottdargis.