“The Perfect Storm” – An NBA Finals Preview, and Why the Oklahoma City Thunder Will Win it Allby Nam Le on Jun, 10 2012
Disclaimer: I don’t claim to be an expert, of course. I may be wrong. But don’t hold it against me.
This wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen.
It was supposed to be another year, maybe two, before the Oklahoma City Thunder were ready to take over the Western Conference. Too young, they said. Too inexperienced. Too volatile and turnover-prone (although, with Russell Westbrook at the helm, those criticisms weren’t exactly unfounded).
Judging from their last month of play, though, it seems safe to say that those forecasts were wrong. After sweeping the defending champions in an impressive fashion, toppling the Lakers in five games, and then downing the heavily favored San Antonio Spurs, the young’ns have made their arrival loud and clear in these playoffs – even if it may be ahead of schedule.
The fact that they outlasted and outgunned the old Western powers was impressive enough – but the manner in which they did that was even more impressive. Playing with a poise far beyond their years, the Thunder have won in nearly every fashion imaginable.
They have flat out dominated, taking victories this postseason by margins of 15, 16, 20, and 29.
They have fought through squeakers, including two last possession nailbiters against the Mavs.
They have rallied from deficits time and time again – most recently trailing 2-0 to the Spurs, and by 18 in the deciding Game 6, before eliminating them.
And as a result, they find themselves here, now just four games short of the game’s biggest prize. If everything plays out the way it has thus far, you can expect that it’ll be Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Clay Bennett holding up the Larry O’Brien trophy in a couple weeks, at Lebron and company’s expense.
Still not convinced, even after watching them tear through the much stronger Western Conference?
Here are a couple more things to factor in, then:
1) Homecourt advantage. Namely the fact that, Oklahoma City actually has one. Not only are they undefeated at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in the playoffs, but the place is perhaps the most appropriately named stadium in the NBA, as well. Watch any Thunder game this postseason and you’ll see what I mean – a building full of fans who explode with every big play and never give up, who know when to make noise, and when not to. These same fans also singlehandedly willed the team into coming back and closing out the Spurs, refusing to file out early, despite the deficit. A glaring contrast to the Heat, whose supporters have gained a reputation for general indifference and spotty attendance (if that).
2) The clutch. Lebron James’ struggles in the fourth quarter have been well documented, of course – but even if we ignore his previous (and admittedly numerous) shortcomings, he hasn’t been that much better recently. Lebron is shooting 38.6% in “clutch” situations this season, with running mate Dwayne Wade standing in at an equally paltry 37.8%. While Durant’s own clutch percentage isn’t significantly more impressive, we cannot ignore his numerous displays of coldbloodedness throughout the playoffs – the jumper to steal Game 1 against the Mavs, the 16 consecutive points in the fourth quarter that helped put away the Spurs, the little game winning runner against the Lakers, this list goes on and on.
Perhaps most memorable, though, was seeing KD go shot for shot in the 4th with Kobe Bryant, long thought to be the premiere closer in the basketball world…and winning. As Durant stole an errant Bryant pass – leading to this eventual go-ahead 3 pointer – the whole sequence unfolded almost too quickly to even believe. In a flash, Kevin had arrived on the stage Kobe used to rule alone, taking the spotlight away from #24 by force. Even if we ignore the obvious symbolism here, Durant’s presence in close games gives the Thunder an edge that Miami simply cannot match – and that’s without mentioning James Harden or Russell Westbrook, equally capable closers/shotmakers in their own right.
3) Depth. With most of their cap space eaten up by Bosh, Wade, and James, the Heat have had to forgo any sort of significant contribution from their supporting cast over the last two seasons. No one else can really be depended upon – as recently as their Eastern Conference Finals appearance against Boston, the Heat were trying out lineups with Dexter Pittman and Udonis Haslem at center, desperately trying to find a winning combination.
By comparison, Oklahoma City needs to do none of that. Despite their own big three, the Thunder role players have total understanding of what is expected of them, and have thrived throughout these playoffs as a result. Even with the loss of key sub Eric Maynor to an ACL injury earlier this season, Derek Fisher (yeah, that Derek Fisher), Nick Collison, Thabo Sefolosha, and Serge Ibaka have all played a part in getting the team this far – Sefolosha and Ibaka in particular. Just ask Tony Parker.
3b) James Harden. Of course, any discussion of the “d” word has to include this man. The NBA’s 6th Man of the Year could easily star for another team – his performance this postseason has had some whispering the words “max contract” already. But, as long as the Thunder still have him, he remains an incredible difference-maker for them, and them alone. Though he brings many different things to the table, Harden’s biggest strength is in the scoring burst he provides off the bench – a bearded bolt of buckets, if you will. At any given moment, Miami usually boasts two outstanding perimeter defenders in Wade and James, but when the Thunder Trio of Westbrook, Harden and Durant are on the floor together, basic math dictates that two cannot guard three. That alone should work in Oklahoma City’s favor.
But in addition to that, Harden gives the Thunder a secondary ballhandler and a non-Kevin Durant long range threat late in the games, a weapon that allows Oklahoma City much more flexibility in their offense – he did, after all, single-handedly assassinate Dallas late in Game 4. Apologies to James Jones, Mike Miller and the rest of the Heat scrubs that masquerade as a “bench”, but the Heat don’t exactly have that kind of a game-changer sitting on their roster.
4) Interior Defense. With the combination of Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, the Thunder boast one of the best front-lines in the league (if not the best one). Their length, bulk, athleticism and general shotblocking abilities should definitely bother Wade and James, two players who thrive on getting to the rim. Wade, in particular, hasn’t looked quite “right” in these playoffs – it’ll be interesting to see how he tries to attack the heart of the Thunder defense, considering his shot hasn’t been falling consistently.
I picked the Thunder before the playoffs. I don’t see any reason to change that now.
Yes, the Heat have the most talented basketball player in the world starring for them. Yes, he’ll probably put together one of his trademark 34/12/8 type games, one of those games that reminds us of how lucky we are to be able to watch him. But Oklahoma City is deeper, younger, more battle-tested, and most importantly, has the look of a champion right now.
Thunder in six. Book it.