|James and Durant working out during the lockout prior to this season.|
In brainstorming my pick, several factors came to mind that I had to address. The first factor was experience. Coming into the Finals, Miami should be the favorite because of one important reason, they were here last year. This exact same Miami Heat team was in this exact spot last year this time. After coming up short, Miami came back with the same dominant mentality this season, perhaps with a new and improved leader in 3-time MVP LeBron James. For the second year in a row he has led his team to the Finals, giving Miami an instant advantage because they know what to expect from this grandiose stage.
This is the first rodeo for the young Thunder, but does that mean they aren't ready? Absolutely not. This team has grown together over the last three years and have been tested together. We've seen them grow and mature into the best team in the West. After defeating a seemingly unbeatable San Antonio team four games in a row after falling 0-2, it has become clear the Thunder are more than just a group of young athletes; they are a resilient group with absolutely no fear of the moment.
I like to gain some extra food for thought in making my pick by talking to some peers, as well as hearing what NBA analysts have to say. I read an article by Shaun Powell from NBA.com that brought me to my own realization. In the article, Powell briefly compared the Big 3's for both teams. While Westbrook, Harden, and Durant average more combined points per game in the postseason (67.1) and more points per minute on the floor together than any other three-player combination (2.4), I actually prefer Miami's Big 3 because of their commanding presence on both ends of the floor. However, Powell made a compelling observation. If you were to take away the Big 3 for both parties, Oklahoma City would undoubtedly be the better off team. With role players like Thabo Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison, and Derek Fisher, all players who have been consistent in their roles throughout these playoffs, Powell claimed OKC could still muster a win over the Bobcats without their Big 3. An interesting comment, but could the same be said for Miami? While Powell's point may be irrelevant to some, I think it speaks volumes to my past criticisms of Miami's role players.
All that being said, while I prefer Miami's Big 3, I think Oklahoma City has the better team. I think they have more weapons and more reliable role players. In such a star-studded series, it is easy to predict what the superstars will do, they will be superstars. LeBron James was possessed in Game 6 against Boston, but Game 7 was more about his teammates than him. While James posted 31 points, his teammates gave him 70 points of support, going 27-49 from the field. I thought Shane Battier and Chris Bosh's three pointers were the real story of how Miami stayed afloat in Game 7. Personally, I don't trust Miami's role players because they are not consistent. I'm glad Bosh is back in the mix, because the Heat offense was seriously limited without him. However, if even one star for either team is somehow neutralized, it will come down to the 'others' making shots and making plays to help their clubs, and OKC's others have been more dependable thus far.
Needless to say, I'm conflicted. I think both of these teams have an equal chance of winning. Whoever wins, we will see something special. Either LeBron James gets the monkey off his back or Kevin Durant emerges as arguably the NBA's best player. I wouldn't mind seeing either. Neither team has faced an opponent like the other in these playoffs. Neither team has faced anyone as fast, athletic, or as talented as the other in these playoffs. What conflicts me is my belief in experience as being an unspoken factor on the big stage. That experience could be what gets Miami a steal in one of these first two games on the road, which I think is necessary for them to win the series. Beating Oklahoma City three times in a row would be a daunting task, even in South Beach. Some questions before I make my prediction:
1. Will Dwayne Wade be "The Flash" again?
LeBron James is clearly the leader of Miami, but going against such a high powered offense means LeBron and Wade must both be great for them to compete, not just one.
2. How fast is too fast?
Easily the two best transition teams in the league, we will likely see uptempo games. Miami hasn't seen anyone yet that can keep up with them, but neither has Oklahoma City. The team more under control will have the advantage.
3. Who does Shane Battier guard?
Having an extra defender is very important for the Heat. You don't want LeBron exhausting himself or picking up fouls guarding Durant, but Battier will have his hands full trying to keep up with any of OKC's guards.
4. Does Oklahoma City stay red hot?
Going against the fastest team in the league should mean harder close-outs and less open shots for OKC. As many have eluded to, the Thunder are a jump shooting team and must knock down the open shots they do get to win.
5. Who gets it done down the stretch/in the half court?
Even though Westbrook can get trigger happy, I like what OKC does in the half court more than Miami. Particularly down the stretch, the Thunder have had three legitimate weapons making big shots throughout the playoffs, and not one of them shy away from the moment.
Despite my uncertainty, and my gut telling me to pick Miami, I always go with who I feel is the better team. In this case I think its Oklahoma City. 6 games. If it goes to seven, I fear the moment might be too great, but my official pick is Oklahoma City in 6.