Sunday, June 10, 2012

2012 NBA Finals preview

By Rick Morris
Sure, with David Stern’s historic hostility to small markets, you could be forgiven for thinking that he had an aneurism at the thought of Oklahoma City representing in the NBA Finals this year.  But that’s taking the short view of it.  He’s got to be thrilled, because ever since he instituted the individual-over-team marketing of the early 1990s “See Jordan and the Bulls take on Barkley and the Sixers,” the league will see two candidates to carry the torch forward battling each other for the first time. [Although, as our associate Platinum Smalls points out, Finals ratings have plummeted since ABC/ESPN took over from NBC notwithstanding copious appearances by ratings magnets Kobe, Shaq, Lebron and Wade during this period of time.]
Think about it: Kobe and Duncan didn’t go through each other (they couldn’t do so in the Finals since they were in the same conference).  Jordan went through Magic, not Barkley, Hakeem, The Admiral or Stockton/Malone.  Magic and Bird didn’t square off for their first NBA championship against each other.
No, this one is unique.  Lebron James first played in the Finals in 2007 and tried to rip the torch from Duncan as Jordan did back in 1991.  He came up short then and last year also, raising pertinent and surprising questions along the way about his ability to execute in the most critical of moments.
Kevin Durant is here ahead of schedule in some people’s minds, but transcendent talents wait for no man.  He has a chance to leapfrog Lebron for that first ring, which would do a tremendous amount for his legacy already at age 23.
While the teams were assembled in polar-opposite manners, each rides a Big Three into the showdown, as James-Wade-Bosh goes up against Durant-Westbrook-Beard.  Neither team has a ton of scoring depth behind those players – something Oklahoma City will rue if they lose the Finals, inasmuch as they had the cap room to add an additional piece at the trade deadline – but a few useful role players.  Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers have helped to offset the corpse of Mike Miller for the Heat, while Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins provide extra muscle for the Thunder.
On the earlier-mentioned “ahead of schedule point” … a surface reading of the league’s recent history indicates that Miami should be favored as the more experienced team (although one shouldn’t forget the Thunder’s Derek Fisher, arguably the most proven winner on either team).  Their run to the Finals fits more with the “logical progression” theme … or does it?
Consider that Oklahoma City lost to the eventual champion LA Lakers in 2010 (yes, in the first round, but they also extended them to six games) and lost to the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks in the conference finals last year.  This spring, they took one of the most impressive routes ever to the Finals, eviscerating the Mavs and Lakers before rebounding from an 0-2 start against the 20-games-in-a-row-winning Spurs to sweep the next four.  In so doing, they took out every Western Conference champion since 1999 (to put this in additional perspective, the only Western Conference champions since the last OKC win – in the guise of the Seattle Sonics in 1996 – that the Thunder did not take out this spring was the Utah Jazz, winners in 1997 and 1998).  Is that an impressive enough progression for you?
Compare and contrast this to Miami’s road back to the Finals: blowing through a mediocre Knicks team before struggling mightily against Indiana and Boston.  Given that Chicago bowed out early thanks to Derrick Rose’s injury, Miami didn’t even have to face the other tough guy in the conference.  The contrast to Oklahoma City’s journey could not be more pronounced.
There are other major factors that favor Oklahoma City:
^ Most observers would give the coaching edge to Scott Brooks over Erik Spoelstra, if for no other reason than the fact that Brooks’ stars never undermine him.
^ OKC has home-court advantage and what is arguably the loudest arena in the league, with a collegiate-type atmosphere  -- the teams split the season series, but the Thunder won big in their barn.  Home court has been destiny in the 2-3-2 era with 20 of 27 teams with the advantage taking the title and the team without home court advantage only winning the three straight in their building two times.  If form holds with all of these factors, Miami’s BEST-case scenario is going back to Oklahoma needing to sweep the final two games to win their title.  As was first predicted exactly by this pundit at the outset of the season, Oklahoma City wins over Miami in 6.

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