Monday, June 11, 2012

Your Thoroughly Worthless NBA Finals Pick That's Not Just A LeBron-Durant Thing

As we are now in Day Two of the four day LeBron-A-Thon, brought to you by ESPN and no one but... I thought I'd actually break this down into actual basketball, rather than The Great One Vs. The Great One. Because, um, there are eight other players on the floor. Sometimes nine and even ten. And they will decide things, actually, because this is basketball and not a steel cage wrestling match. No matter how much The World Wide Lemur would like you to think otherwise...

First and most importantly, expect next to nothing involved with the centers, Kendrick Perkins and Joel Anthony. Both men will be little more than six hard fouls and keeping Serge Ibaka and Chris Bosh clear of each other for rest. This will also be the first NBA Finals ever where the centers don't matter, and amen to that. Moving on.

Next, the benches. They never really matter as much as people think in the Finals, which is a serious advantage for the Heat. The Finals have extra days between games, extra commercials at breaks, extra timeouts for more and more replay challenges, and so on. So what is a minor advantage for the Thunder pretty much wipes out, assuming, of course, that Bosh is healthy. The stars are all going to play 40+ minutes in these games, assuming they don't get fouled out and/or freak out for technicals. Which could happen. More on that later.

Let's go to the coaches next. Both Erik Spoelstra and Scott Brooks have been justifiably pilloried during this playoff run for failing to move quickly to changing situations, for misusing timeouts and personnel, for failing to get plays run in crunch situations, rather than just going to Heroball. And yet, both men have kept their composure and their locker rooms. Spoelstra could have easily lost the Heat in the swirls of negativity in both the Pacers and Celtics series. Instead, he got James back on track, didn't overuse a rusty and defense-challenged Bosh, didn't bury Mario Chalmers for the occasional moment of use he got from Norris Cole, showed faith in Mike Miller and Shane Battier that got paid off. Oh, and he also got past Doc Rivers. Brooks kept Perkins in the lineup when the world was screaming for him to be dropped in a dumpster, never stopped giving minutes to Thabo Sefalosha, kept spotting Nick Collison perfectly, and got past Gregg Popovich. Both men had the better hands to play, but both men won the damned hand. Some respect needs to be shown.

See what I did there, ESPN? I didn't use the phrase "give credit." Try it sometime in the next two weeks, please?

Now, on the factors that will actually decide this.

1) Dwyane Wade vs. Russell Westbrook. The single biggest reason, from a basketball standpoint, that the Thunder should feel good about this. Wade's been secretly terrible for much of these playoffs, shooting a ludicrously low percentage from distance and the arc, not generating his usual insane number of free throws, turning the ball over and not clamping down defensively in his usual fashion. You might have noticed how Rajon Rondo nearly single-handedly stole the ECF for Boston; that' can be put on Wade's door. You might also notice how Ray Allen looked better and better as the series went on. That's also on Wade.

Now, he gets away from the Boston players that know him like the back of their hands, but he goes straight into the waiting arms of Sefalosha. Not exactly a step up in athleticism. If he can draw fouls at an aggro rate, this isn't a death knell, but I'm not seeing it. Especially on the road.

On the other side, the Heat have no one -- absolutely no one, not even James -- that can stay with RW on penetration. The Thunder are going to have open shooters all series long, and RW is going to have more than a few games where he throws down multiple back-breaking dunks. And the Heat, well, aren't. Chalmers is going to disappear for vast portions of this series, Wade won't react well to being the de facto point, and the halfcourt sets will devolve into HeroBall far too often.

All because, well, Westbrook is a lot better than Wade. Except, of course, when he isn't. Which is also going to happen for a couple of games, most likely in Miami. Remember when we talked about technicals before?

Westy isn't quite on the Rondo level of deranged (seriously, that Battier kick was a foot or so away from being his second game suspension+ moment of stupid in the playoffs), but he's Got Issues. Against Wade, who is reaching John Stockton levels of dirty in his later years, he's going to have to keep his temper and mouth in check. He won't in every case. But not often enough to offset the advantage.

2) Next up, James Harden against Battier. This isn't as big of a win for the Thunder as you might imagine; Harden can take you out of games as well as win them for you, and Bats still gets an incredible amount of leeway from the refs. He's also revived his corner three game, and Harden's a willing member of the Paratrooper Club on defense. But the thing that Harden brings, along with incredible range and a willingness to take big shots, is a PG-worthy handle in transition. That's not to be underestimated; the Thunder have three guys that can handle and finish, while the Heat only have two.

3) Moving on to the bigs, it's Ibaka and Bosh. Unlike the centers, this one matters, because both men run well enough to keep up with the greyhounds on the court. If Bosh can get his jump shot working often enough to take Air Congo out of the paint, it's going to make the penetration lanes for Wade and James much more passable; if he can't, it's going to be over far too soon for the world's attention and sponsors. Ibaka also saved the Thunder in a major win with his perfect shooting game against the Spurs; if he does anything else like that in this series, it will be a huge addition for the Thunder. But the more likely thing is for Bosh to regain much of his pre-injury form and provide a mild win for the Heat on this matchup.

4) The spare players who will share the court with the essentials in crunch time -- Derek Fisher and if Brooks were smart, Daequan Cook for the Thunder, Udonis Haslem, Miller and Cole once Chalmers is sent to the showers for the Heat -- probably aren't going to have any real impact here. Again, the timeouts are too much, and while there's going to be a ton of points in these games and baskets that will seem big, it's the runs that will do it in either direction. Miami might have a little edge here because Haslem has played the best of the group, but you aren't winning a playoff game on Udonis Haslem. Moving on.

5) The finale... well, even I can't avoid it, because it's going to happen, mostly because each guy cares enough about defense to want to try to shut the other guy down when it matters. James vs. Durant, the King vs. the Next (?), #1 vs. #2 in most people's estimations of the NBA.

I love Kevin Durant. I think he's the most effective volume scorer that I've seen in thirty years of watching pro ball. I think he's going to eventually be an all-NBA defender, that he makes his teammates better, that he's an underrated rebounder and a willing passer, that he doesn't really care about his numbers and gets them anyway. He's an oustanding closer, probably the best in the game, because he's such a good FT shooter, does not shy away from contact, and can beat you from all over the floor. The next dramatically stupid thing he says into a mic will be the first, and I trust, hope and pray that he'll never do anything so brazenly idiotic as James' "Decision" moment. I'd watch any Thunder game for the opportunity to see him in it.

He's not as good as James...

But here's the rub, and the horrible little secret about James: when you finish the sentence...

when James is on his game.

First through Third Quarter LeBron is the best wing defender in the Association, to the point where he was the Heat's most effective guy on Kevin Garnett in the Boston series. In the open court, he's an unstoppable freight train, and when the distance jumper is working, he turns bad possessions into made three pointers, time and again. The points he scores are Shaq-esque, in that they are more damaging to the opponent than just the numbers on the scoreboard. He handles big minutes and yes, unreal expectations, better than almost anyone.

He is better than Kevin Durant. He'll have better numbers. If they traded sides, the Thunder would win in five. He's going to average something like 35-12-5 in this series; Durant is going to be something like 30-8-4. James might win them a few games all by himself, and he might even win the MVP.

But he's not better in the last five minutes. Mostly because he's had to work harder than any man in NBA history in the first 43. Also, he's way too self-conscious late, because it hasn't gone well for him so many times, and he's not comfortable at the line in those situations, either.

But beyond that, James isn't going to win the series, because at least two of the Thunder wins are not going to be decided there.

Because, well, the Thunder have advantages in more places. Because they have home court, and more weapons, and a closer who makes his free throws and doesn't carry the baggage of the world with him in those situations. Because when Durant passes out of the waves of defenders to the open man, he has Harden burying the dagger deep, or Westbrook, rather than Wade clanging it or Haslem or some other leaky vessel of no-confidence. Because the Thunder's best chasedown block artist is their #4 scoring option, not their first. Because the Thunder have three remarkably effective finishers at the rim, and the Heat have two. Because the Thunder can score without killing themselves in the half court. Because, well, they come from the better conference, they've played better opponents to get here, and they have one of the best home court advantages in NBA history. And home court, too.

So that's where we are at. The best player in the world will remain ring-less. Many will assume, incorrectly, that this does not make him the best player in the world, or that James is just a loser, or that the world's concentrated hatred is manifested in a wall of Thou Shalt Not Pass. And when all of that noise is being spread, when all of the Pantheons have been rewritten and the blather goes on to the point where you think you could, in fact, hate Durant just as much as you hate James, because the media is just like that, really...

Just watch Game. It will be pure, it will be great, it will be racehorse, and it will be more than enough.

And the Thunder will win it. In six.

(Year to date: 11-3, with the only losses being Sixers over the Rose-less Bulls, the Lakers surviving in seven over the Nuggets, and Thunder taking out the 20 in a row Spurs. Having a pretty good year here.)

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