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Monday, June 11, 2012

The Stage is Set

If I have said it once, I have said it a thousand times. The NBA Playoffs offer the best theater of the four major professional team sports leagues’ post seasons. This season is no exception.

It is the only sport of the four (football, basketball, baseball, and ice hockey) that gives the viewer the atmosphere of a prizefight and, at the same time, requires incredible skill, strategy, and athleticism. It is the only post season that offers a heavy dose of the personality of the stars, right down to their facial expressions, mixed in with, often, the back and forth swings of momentum. It is the only postseason in which the final 60 seconds of any close game is always a chess match. It is made for television. It is athletic entertainment at the highest level of drama.

1

THREE ON THREE

There are twelve active players on each team during any given game. Five men for each team are on the court at any given time. But, with seemingly every other series in this year’s NBA Playoffs, the outcomes will be decided by the “Big Three” of each team.

Oklahoma City’s trio of league scoring champion small forward Kevin Durant (28 PPG, 8 RPG), point guard Russell Westbrook (24 PPG, 6 APG), and Sixth Man of the Year James Harden (17 PPG, 4 APG, 4 RPG; all but a starter at the shooting guard position) will square off against the efforts of The Heatles – Most Valuable Player small forward LeBron James (27 PPG, 8 RPG, 6 APG, 2 StlPG), shooting guard Dwyane Wade (22 PPG, 5 APG, 5 RPG, 2 StlPG), and power forward Chris (18 PPG, 8 RPG).

Now that I have blasted you with names and stats, let’s get down to business. What is going to be the difference in this series? Whose Big Three is going to bring home the Big Prize?

2
TALE OF THE TAPE – THE THUNDERSTICK

Oklahoma City has a substantial home court advantage. The Thunder won 4 out of every 5 games at home during the regular season and are a perfect 8 for 8 in the 2012 playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Anyone who has watched a game on television at OKC knows that the environment in that arena rivals that of an intense college basketball rivalry such as North Carolina vs. Duke or Michigan vs. Michigan State. Playing at OKC is real!

The Thunder have also played better, more consistent basketball during the playoffs. In my opinion, the only opponent to make the Thunder break a sweat during these playoffs was the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Thunder closed that series out in five games. “But Eric, San Antonio led them two games to none!” Yeah…two games in San Antonio, one of which (Game 1) the Thunder took its foot off of the gas and let slip in the final minutes. The only game in which the Thunder have both lost and been outplayed for the majority of the game was Game 2 in San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals. Otherwise, the Thunder have either won or allowed their opponent to beat them late (as opposed to the opponent imposing its will throughout the game).

These are the folks that DID NOT get in to the arena! 3

THE HEAT IS ON

The Miami Heat have provided a contrast to the Thunder. The Heat, at times, appeared to play down to the level of inferior opponents. They have provided bursts when their backs have been against the wall in the Eastern Conference Finals (trailed the Celtics 3-2 with Game 6 in Boston) and the conference semis (trailed Indiana 2-1 with Game 4 in Indianapolis). Those bursts got the Heat over the hump. But the Thunder are vastly superior to all of the Heat’s playoff opponents. A similar hole in the NBA Finals for the Heat will be tantamount to a grave.

The Heat however, have a (not so) secret weapon: Chris Bosh. Bosh missed nine games during the playoffs due to an abdominal strain. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra slowly worked Bosh back into the lineup with baby steps and Bosh’s impact was stronger and stronger with each subsequent game. By Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Bosh’s performance was such that one could reasonably argue the series may not have been close had Bosh been healthy.

Kevin Durant of the Thunder cannot be stopped, but even Superman could be contained. There is not a better defender in the Finals than LeBron James. Bosh is no slouch on D and his efforts against The Big Ticket in Games 6 and 7 of the E.C.F. may have turned the tide of the entire series. The Thunder will be pressured when they have the ball and if the Heat can capitalize on forced turnovers and missed shots in transition, it is not beyond the realm of possibility for the Heat to steal a game in Oklahoma City.

Well, that pregame "warm" up is predictable. 4

WHO WINS?

The Heat win if:
  • They can win one of the first two games of the series, played in Oklahoma City.
  • Kevin Durant can be held to less than 25 points per game.
  • Russell Westbrook is forced into making too many turnovers.

The Thunder win if: 
  • They go up 2-0 on the Heat.
  • LeBron James is neutralized in the 4th quarter.
  • Dwyane Wade gets into turnover trouble.
Advantage: Thunder
Expectation: Thunder in seven games

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1) Image from www.streetball.com
2) Image from www.bleacherreport.com
4) Image from http://miami.cbslocal.com

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