Monday, June 11, 2012

MAMBINO's NBA Finals Preview: Keys to a Miami Victory

In many ways, the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder are mirror images of the same team. Guided by three athletic superstars and one of the youngest coaches in the league, both teams had to survive the old powers in their respective conferences to make it here. The Thunder played the Mavericks, the Spurs, and the Lakers, who collectively represent every single NBA finals representative from the West since 1999. The Heat took out Boston for the second straight year and prevented the C’s from getting to the Finals for the 3rd time in 5 years.  In terms of NBA narrative, however, these teams could not be more different.  The Heat will undoubtedly be the villains in this series and most casual fans will side with the Boy Scouts from OKC.

OKC is the homegrown model, the team created by smart lottery draft picks, cap flexibility, and opportune trades. With their culture and management structure, they are set up to be the Spurs of the next decade if they can find a way to lock up their young core. And with Harden still on his rookie deal, OKC has the added advantage of the kinds of role players that Miami wished it had. My heart says that OKC will win, but my brain is telling me that I’m merely hoping instead. Miami certainly has more experience, as both Wade and LeBron have 2 appearances in the Finals each under their belts. You might say that the Thunder are merely precocious and that the Heat are still the current generation of stars. Either way, this is the time for the Miami Heat to establish a dynasty if they’re ever going to.

Looking at the numbers, you can see that we're looking at two teams that can both score and defend at a high level. Everyone expects this to be a competitive series. If Miami is going to take home the title, they’re going to need their A-Game. Here are my keys to the series for the Heatles:
Ready for some
Boy Scouts, Bron?
  • Stars Need to Shine: This is truly a generational battle of NBA superstars and the Heat have a lot less margin for error than against Boston. LeBron has been unreal in these playoffs, but Kevin Durant has been outstanding too. In the Finals, LeBron needs to be invincible. LeBron still has dimensions that KD is just starting to develop; however, it’s time for him to show that he’s the best player in the league, not just in the regular season. The Heat cannot afford the erratic performances Wade has been providing, particularly with Sefolosha playing so well right now. The 8th ranked Heat struggled mightily on offense at times against Boston and OKC has a lot of athletic defenders to throw at them. Their stars need to be nothing less than transcendent.
  • Tough, Team Defense: The Heat allowed Boston (the NBA’s 27th most efficient offense this year) to score punches in droves. Now they face OKC’s 2nd ranked offense and you can’t afford it against a team that can score like that AND get easy points in transition off of your mistakes. Miami’s team thrives on defense and its time to rediscover that identity. In the Western Conference, teams tried to exploit OKC in the frontcourt and play their stars physically. The Heat don’t have the same advantage, but they have incredibly athletic defenders in Wade and LeBron that can disrupt the OKC stars. Spoelstra is a defensive maestro and it’s time for him to earn the title with his schemes, particularly at disrupting the OKC pick and rolls and making their stars into jump shooters. It can be done, but the Heat need a game plan when Harden, Westbrook, and Durant are all on the court.
  • Steal One on the Road: The NBA Finals has an interesting 2-3-2 format, so the Heat will get three games in Miami in a row. Their best chance is to avoid the pressure of having to win all three at home by taking one in OKC. OKC is a great home team with a raucous crowd, but they are not unbeatable there. Both the Lakers and the Mavericks lost big leads on the road at OKC that were eventually the nails in the coffin for them. If Miami can avoid the same trap and strike early, they can go home with 1-1 and head home with a lot of momentum.
  • Counteract OKC Depth: There’s no question that OKC has a deeper team, with Collison, D-Fisher, Ibaka, Perkins, and Sefolosha backing up the Big 3. Starting with Bosh, who is demeaned here because he’s been out too much these playoffs thus far, the rest of the Heat need to step up. We discussed why Bosh is so important on offense, where he can drain mid-range jumpers while preventing the wear and tear of LeBron playing PF, which saves him to close games. Bosh will also need to hit the boards and contest shots at the rim against OKC. Aside from Bosh, Mike Miller and Shane Battier need to provide some tough defense and hit outside shots. Mario Chalmers needs to play big, especially on D, and someone else (e.g. James Jones, Udonis Haslem) needs to show up.
  • Hold Down the Boards: With Ibaka and Perkins supported by real NBA back-ups, OKC has a substantial advantage on paper in the frontcourt. One of the most impressive things about the Boston series was that the Heat were able to win the rebounding battle even without Chris Bosh contributing his usual share. This series, it’s even more critical that they corral the boards to keep OKC from getting easy putbacks or using them to fuel their transition game. The Heat need some competent minutes from Joel Anthony and the rest of their piecemeal big men, as well as support from LeBron and the guards.
D-Wade is the superstar whose game has
suffered these playoffs
All narratives about Miami being an evil force in the NBA aside, they have a real shot to win this series and fulfill some of the promise (but perhaps all not 6 or 7 of them) that signing Bosh, LeBron, and Wade gave the city of Miami. It really wouldn’t be surprising for this to be the first round of a series of NBA Finals featuring these franchises. If Miami’s stars can assert their will on offense and their team can create havoc on defense, they will win this series and partially validate the scorched earth they left behind in Cleveland and Toronto.

Miami in 7

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