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With the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder facing each other in the NBA Finals, basketball prognosticators have very little historical data to use when predicting the series outcome. Since Miami’s Big Three came together before the 2010-2011 season, the two have played each other just four times, splitting their regular two-game series in each of the past two seasons.
On paper, both teams match up pretty evenly. Miami outscored opponents by 7.2 points every 100 possessions during the regular season, OKC by 7.1. Miami is a better rebounding team (the Heat have the 10th best defensive rebound rate in the NBA, OKC has the 8th worst), and OKC more turnovers than the Heat, but the Thunder are acknowledged to be a more deep and balanced team than the Heat. Who has the edge? Let’s take a look.
Frontcourt (Heat: Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem, and LeBron James; Thunder: Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Kendrick Perkins): Miami usually starts Chris Bosh and Ronny Turiaf instead of Battier and Haslem, but injuries have forced a lineup change that seemed to work against Boston. Battier and Haslem are undersized compared to Ibaka and Perkins, but both are usually praised for their defense. Both grab a ton of offensive rebounds, meaning Haslem and Battier will have to know where they are on the court whenever the Heat take a shot.
While James won the MVP award this season, Durant was the league’s leading scorer. Whoever wins this series will surpass the other in the “best player in the NBA” debate, for better or worse. Durant actually leads the Thunder in rebounds, so James will have to watch him around the glass. Durant averaged 29 points a game against the Heat this season, while James scored 25.5 per game with 8.5 assists against OKC. Advantage: Thunder
Backcourt (Heat: Mario Chalmers and Dwyane Wade; Thunder: Thabo Sefalosha and Russell Westbrook): Sefalosha is one of the more intriguing players in the Finals. He scores less than 5 points per game, but his defense against San Antonio’s Tony Parker in the Western Conference Finals was crucial to shifting momentum in favor of the Thunder. Wade struggled consistently during the Eastern Conference Finals, shooting just 44% (compared to 50% in the regular season). Westbrook is one of the brightest young stars in the NBA, but he could be tested against Chalmers, who is underrated defensively and shot 39% from three-point range this year. Advantage: Heat
Sixth Man (Heat: Chris Bosh; Thunder: James Harden): Harden won the Sixth Man of the Year award, but he faces one of the Heat’s Big Three in this category. Bosh has not started since returning from an abdominal injury in Game 5 of the ECF, though that could change in the NBA Finals due to OKC’s size advantage in the frontcourt. But he played one of the most complete games of his career in Game 7 against Boston, getting to the free throw line on some interior drives while also hitting a ton of big shots from outside that would help free up the lane in subsequent series for James and Wade. Harden is no slouch, either, averaging 17 points and 6 rebounds a game in the playoffs off the bench. Advantage: Push
Bench: Joel Anthony, Mike Miller, James Jones, and Norris Cole could all see significant playing time against OKC. Miami will need its three-point specialists to be on target. The Heat have struggled when their three-point percentage dips. Miami’s bench gets maligned very often, and it sometimes seems like they disappear. OKC’s bench scored 31.8 points per game this season (including Harden’s contributions), compared to 23.7 for Miami. OKC’s Daequan Cook, a former Heat guard, could be particularly dangerous against Miami thanks to his three-point shooting and Miami’s tendency to allow wide-open looks from downtown. Advantage: Thunder
Coaching: Heat coach Erik Spoelstra tends to receive too much of the blame when the Heat lose, and get very little credit when they win, but he surely outcoached Boston’s Doc Rivers in the ECF. Using Chris Bosh off the bench and alternating small and big lineups to confuse Boston’s defense, it was clear who won that chess match. OKC’s Scott Brooks won NBA Coach of the Year two seasons ago, and similarly outcoached a former champion in the WCF, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich. Spoelstra could not come up with many successful counter-moves in the Finals last year, can he avoid repeating that mistake against Brooks? Advantage: Push
Karma: Sure, everyone still hates LeBron for The Decision and ruining the lives of Clevelanders, but Thunder owner Clay Bennett arguably did much worse: He took an entire team away from Seattle (RIP Supersonics). Some may argue that James was the entire team in Cleveland, but let’s not split hairs here. Signing a free-agent contract in another city is commonplace in modern sports. Buying a team, publicly saying you want the team to stay in the only city it’s ever called home, then moving to the Sun Belt after two seasons, is not. James will be considered the villain by much of the country in this match-up, but his crimes against Cleveland pale against Bennett’s betrayal of Seattle. Advantage: Heat
Series Prediction: Heat in 7. Miami cannot count on OKC running out of gas the way Boston did in the ECF, but the team finally appears to be clicking in Year 2 of the Big Three experiment. The blossoming of Chris Bosh and contributions from other role players mean Wade and James do not have to win by themselves this season, which could be enough to put the Heat over the top.
Game 1 tips off in Oklahoma City on Tuesday at 9pm.