Over the past four days, no matter what I’m doing, one thought jumps into my brain every minute or so. Other than, “Has it been long enough for me to eat something again?” I mean.
Holy $%@!, the Oklahoma City Thunder are in the NBA Finals.
I know this was always part of the plan and we all acted like we knew it was eventually coming, but until the moment really was here, until Perk sealed it with a two-handed dunk, that reality still seemed like a dream. It’s different to just talk about getting to The Finals, and to actually get to The Finals.
And that’s where the Thunder are. Four wins away. Four from hanging a banner. Four from rings. Four from assured legacy. Four from Oklahoma City immortality.
Which is the point. There are still four wins to be had. The achievement of reaching The Finals and taking the next step is an incredible one, an absolute awesome one, but there’s more. Glory isn’t had by simply reaching The Finals. Glory is winning it all. You can’t go hanging a “Mission Accomplished” sign up yet. Because the mission is just now getting started.
I don’t think for a second the team is complacent with its accomplishment. I don’t think they’re patting themselves on the back. Winning the West, overcoming the Spurs and advancing to The Finals is a major move but nobody is so shortsighted not to see that it’s only part of the bigger picture. There’s been a lot of talking about how the Thunder are validating their future and how this sets them up for a massive run the next five years or so. Well, those five years can wait. Because it’s about now. We’ve been hearing about the promise and the future of this team for a while. Forget that. They’re there now and that’s what matters. Can they win multiple titles? Not unless they win their first one.
Getting to this point isn’t easy and definitely isn’t something to be taken for granted. There’s no way to assume just because it happened this season that it’ll happen again. I think it will, but it’s no guarantee. The Thunder have broken through and the landscape has now changed, but until they hoist the trophy and raise that banner, the process isn’t complete.
You may disregard the window dressing around the series like legacies, head-to-head matchups and all that stuff, but I think it matters. It’s just reality that winning an NBA championship changes things for a player, and a coach. If the Thunder win, Kevin Durant is an NBA champion. Scott Brooks is a championship coach. Russell Westbrook a championship point guard. Oklahoma City a championship city. All of it matters. Like I said, the future isn’t promised and while I would love to dream that KD and the Thunder have multiple seasons like this in the cards, that’s for later. Win now, dream later.
The Thunder have drawn the team they have seemed destined to face for this moment. The supposed anti-Thunder, the evil Heat built on the whim of free agency decisions and not the carefully crafted sculpting that Sam Presti and company put together. LeBron, the bad guy and Durant, the saint. It’s the matchup we’ve all really wanted to see and we’re getting it. That doesn’t seem to happen all that often in sports but here’s a Finals matchup for the ages. Just so happens our team is participating.
Think about this: This isn’t just a big NBA Finals matchup. It’s maybe the biggest in the last 15 years. Star power, major storylines, tons at stake. The NBA landscape will be forever changed in two weeks, one way or the other.
If you’re not freaked out, then you don’t have a pulse. You can be confident, you can be sure. The Thunder have homecourt, which is huge. They’re deeper. They’re probably better. They’re favored. But until it’s done, it’s not done. It has felt like the Thunder’s time this whole postseason run. This has appeared to be the moment.
Now go get it.
FIVE BIG THINGS
1. Chris Bosh’s health. Nothing is more important. Nothing will swing this series more. Bosh’s impact on the series will be huge, whether he’s having one or just sitting on the bench. He makes the Heat completely different offensively. He spaces, he scores, he provides an outlet for points. Remember: With Bosh in the starting five, Miami was one of the three best teams in the league all season long. People seem to have forgotten that.
One very underrated aspect of having Bosh on the floor: It makes Serge Ibaka defend. Instead of being able to prowl the paint, sag off of Ronny Turiaf of Udonis Haslem, Ibaka has to pay attention to Bosh in the pick-and-pop game. Ibaka can’t just patrol the rim, which should open up more driving opportunity for LeBron and Wade.
Remove Bosh from the equation and I’d likely consider the Thunder in five games, maybe even a sweep. He means that much, especially against OKC. In the two meetings, he didn’t play extraordinarily well by any stretch but minus him, the Heat are now relying upon both Wade and LeBron to have supernatural games, or get unexpected contribution from Mario Chalmers/Shane Battier/Haslem/Norris Cole. And the Thunder, unlike the Pacers, can take away a two-headed monster as well as outscore it.
2. James Harden. The Heat and Thunder have a lot of similarities, except for Harden. The Heat have nothing like James Harden. Their bench is terrible and in terms of a third ballhandler, Harden separates the Thunder. Bosh is is a third scorer, but he has to be spoon fed by LeBron and Wade. Harden is different, and makes the Thunder much different structurally.
In terms of X-factors, Harden and Bosh are precisely that for each of their teams. But Harden makes the Thunder more diverse, and gives OKC something Miami doesn’t have.
3. Durant vs. LeBron. For a whole lot of different reasons, this is important.
But let’s look past the historical ramifications and just at the actual matchup for a second. Because it’s the most important in the series. The two best players on the floor, primarily guarding each other. Consider this: In the two regular season matchups, LeBron only played three total minutes without Kevin Durant on the floor. And Durant only seven without LeBron.
Per 36 minutes, LeBron shot seven percent under his season average with KD on the floor, averaged three fewer rebounds and 3.4 fewer points. Durant maintained his averages mostly with LeBron on the floor, but averaged 2.7 ppg and a 2.0 rpg less per 36.
I kind of wish I didn’t have a stake in this series. Because this is one of those dream matchups that I’d love to just kick back and enjoy the crap out of.
4. Small vs. Small. Both teams are versatile and can go small. If OKC wants KD at the 4, Miami can match it with LeBron. The one difference is that a small Thunder lineup puts Bosh at the 5, something the Heat don’t prefer to use. OKC can stay bigger, while going small, if that makes sense. It’s not the kind of series where either team can really dictate matchups much.
5. Turnovers. The sample size is small, being only two games, but the team that won the turnover battle in the regular season, won the game. The Heat gave it away 21 times in OKC’s blowout and the Thunder turned it over 18 in Miami’s home win. Both teams feast on turnovers because it starts the transition game, something both squads live for.
Plus, a turnover means a stop without a shot. The fewer attempts at goal you give Durant, Westbrook and Harden means the less opportunity for points. Same goes for Wade, LeBron and Bosh. It seems a bit too simple to just pin the series winner on turnovers, but it really might actually be that straightforward.
FOUR LEFTOVER THOUGHTS
1. 3-point shooting. Neither team is prolific, but in the Heat’s win over OKC, they hit 10 3s. And won despite shooting 37 percent from the floor. Extra points found from deep are big. Miami has a couple guys that can hit in Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers and James Jones.
2. 2-3-2. The structure of The Finals changes the approach. It puts a hefty importance on the first two home games because lose one, and you potentially can see the series slip away without ever bringing the series back to your city. And even still, win both home games and if things hold to serve, you’d come back home facing elimination. The 2-3-2 format can have a big impact on the series, but it can work either way. Win both at home, then look to steal a game on the road in Miami and now you’ve got two home chances to win an NBA championship.
3. Russell Westbrook. Who will the Heat use to defend him? He’s a problem for Miami, and a big one. They’ll likely use Chalmers early, but Wade and even LeBron will likely get their turns. I think one interesting wrinkle could be to use LeBron on Westbrook and Battier on Durant. If the Heat don’t make an adjustment, Westbrook could be looking at a monster series.
4. Centers, canceled. Both Kendrick Perkins and Joel Anthony essentially cancel each other out. Neither impact the offense much, and they don’t need to worry about defending each other. Their jobs will largely focus around screening and rebounding. And it means we might not see much of either late in games.
The pick: Thunder in six. I’m going against myself. Preseason, I had the Thunder and Heat in The Finals, with Miami beating OKC. What’s changed? I’ve seen the Thunder are really, really good.
Being a favorite in this circumstance is a bit terrifying because when you become expected to win, everyone starts picking you apart and looking for reasons why maybe you won’t. People start drawing comparisons and parallels, trying to find an example that shows why we need to slow down on the Thunder. It makes you nervous.
There’s a whole lot at stake in these Finals and once it gets going, we’ll all quickly realize it’s one of the biggest, most hyped ever. Stress added on top of stress. But the Thunder are definitely good enough to win this thing, and do it convincingly. Fearing LeBron and Wade is wise because both are otherworldly talents and can put together four transcendent games collectively, or individually.
But it just seems to be the Thunder’s time. It feels like their moment. This team has grown up and become something incredible and inspiring over the last two years and any time my confidence wavers, I just remind myself that I believe in Kevin Durant. I believe in Russell Westbrook. I believe in James Harden. I (now) believe in Scott Brooks. And most importantly, I believe in the plan Sam Presti so carefully crafted five years ago.