Wednesday, June 13, 2012

An NBA Finals Preview (and REview)

Astute readers will note that the NBA Finals have already begun, and that it's fashionable to "preview" something before it begins. Well, that's not how we roll here. At least, not here at the sports desk, which is currently covered in more paper covered in a lot of paper. If you read my completely serious playoff preview, you'll know that my pick for NBA Champion, the San Antonio Spurs, have already been fed through the woodchipper that is the Oklahoma City Thunder. Why, then, should you trust my analysis of the Finals?'re reading this already, so why don't you just read on to the end?

The Thunder won Game 1 last night, coming back from a 13-point deficit in the first half to win by 11 (Although, it should be noted that it was a five point game with 1:38 remaining...the final difference came because the Thunder are an excellent free throw shooting team and Miami had to keep fouling, trying to get back in the game). The Thunder have home court advantage, so might well have been expected to win (they were favored). In fact, there are a couple of historical notes that might serve to downplay the importance of this particular win.

First, the Spurs won Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals (against these Thunder) at home in similarly convincing fashion. Obviously, the Spurs went on to be defeated in the series. Secondly, the team with home court advantage in last year's Finals (it happened to be Miami) won Game 1 and went on to lose the series. It seems safe to say that this victory for the Thunder doesn't assure them of a championship.

Because of the old "a series doesn't really start until the home team loses" adage, last night's game has been turned into a referendum on the "LeBron James or Kevin Durant?" question. As you might imagine, it's not enough for them to both be wonderful players, we must decide which one of them is more wonderful. For instance, after the game last night, pundit Skip Bayless tweeted: "That clinches it: Kevin Durant is definitely better than LeBron." Here are their stat lines, for the curious:

Durant:  46 mins, 36 points (on 12 of 20 shooting), 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 block
James:  46 mins, 30 points (11 of 24), 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals

Pretty darn similar, right? The big differences are, first, that Durant was more efficient, shooting 60% from the field while James "only" shot 46%. 46% is a really good shooting percentage. 60% is great. The other main difference, and I suspect the one that Bayless is reacting to, is that Durant scored 17 points in the 4th quarter while James scored only 7. Am I living in a crazy world, or are first, second, and third quarter points worth just as much as fourth quarter points? I mean, you total the points from the whole game to decide the winner, right?

It doesn't seem like the "who is better" question can be answered during the careers of two competitors. It's hard enough to answer after retirement. Bird or Magic? Wilt or Russell? Durant was better last night. Not by much, but by enough to win.

Here's the thing about this series, in my opinion: Oklahoma City is a much better jump shooting team than Miami. The Heat sometimes fall into the habit of trying to "match" their opponent (they are the most notorious "play to the level of your competition" team in the league)...for instance, shooting a three when they've just given one up, etc. If Miami gets into a jump shooting battle with the Thunder, they'll lose, and quickly. For the Heat to have a chance, and I think last night's result proves that they can at least stay with the athleticism of OKC, LeBron and Wade must keep moving and cutting, barreling into the lane, and forcing the defense to react to them. Unfortunately for the Heat, I don't think they'll do it. I'm picking the Thunder in 6 games, because I think LeBron, for some reason, thinks he's a better jump shooter than he is. It's almost the only weakness in an otherwise super-human game, but it can be a crippling one.

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