In my alternate universe the Lakers are preparing to host the Celtics tonight in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. It’s the third meeting in five years for the two teams, the two most storied franchises in the league. Both teams own a title. Seven games to break the tie, even if the Celtics still hold a decisive edge on the big board.
Fortunately this year, the real championship should be even better than my fake Finals. While I would have loved another Lakers-Celtics matchup, it also would have been a bit tired, just like the players on the teams. The Thunder rolled through the Lakers, and the Heat outlasted a Celtics team that seemed to age 10 years with every minute that went by in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. These are certainly the two best teams. Many people predicted these Finals before the season started, before the lockout even ended. The Spurs became favorites for awhile but the Thunder were always there, toying with the best record in the West before finally pulling away in the WCF. And the Heat will be favorites in the East until either LeBron James or Dwyane Wade leaves the other behind in free agency.
Hopefully this series lives up to the hype, because we might see it several more times in the next few years.
I’m picking the Thunder to win. I want the Thunder to win. Maybe that second sentence plays too big of a role in the first one.
Part of what makes this series fascinating is that the strengths both teams used in the conference series are negated by the opposition in the finals. Actually, negated is the wrong word. Shared. At various times the Thunder simply overwhelmed the Mavericks, Lakers and Spurs with their athleticism, youth and relentlessness. They trailed late in the first two games against the Mavericks but they just kept coming and won in the final seconds. In Game 4 of that series they closed it out with a big fourth quarter rally, as James Harden just kept charging toward the basket. Same story against the Lakers, as the Thunder rallied in Game 2 and again in Game 4, that time on the road. Against the Spurs, even when San Antonio put on its clinic in Game 2, the Thunder cut a 20-point deficit down to 5. It foreshadowed the larger comeback still to come. In Game 6 they trailed big in the second half but they keep attacking, with threes and defense and drives and that crowd. Russell Westbrook perhaps symbolizes the relentlessness more than any other player, even more than Kevin Durant. Westbrook plays aggressively every minute he’s on the court. He barrels toward the basket time and again, when he’s not pulling up for his jump shot, where it looks like he’s leaping 10 feet straight in the air.Those traits occasionally land the Thunder in trouble, but they’re more likely to pull them out of it.
But will the Thunder athletically overwhelm a team with James and Wade? Maybe, simply because those two are surrounded by the elderly and decaying. But doubtful.
The Heat pulled off similar acts in the East. After Indiana took a 2-1 lead, the Heat went to another level. And against Boston, when trailing 3-2, LeBron went to a new level himself, while the other Big 2 followed in the final six minutes of Game 7. Indiana and Boston simply didn’t have the firepower to hold back those 10-0 runs the Heat produce during the time it takes you to go from the fridge back to the couch.
But will the Heat offensively overwhelm the Thunder? No. OKC will match Miami basket for basket, dunk for dunk, drive for drive, glare for glare, flop for flop. This series should feature numerous jaw-dropping individual moments. Will LeBron go for 30 in a half again? Will Durant go for 45? Will Wade and LeBron both reach 40? Will Durant and Westbrook?
Still, the Thunder seem to simply work better as a team. Every player knows his role, from the stars to the role players like Derek Fisher, who’s there to miss his first six threes and hit his last one, and Kendrick Perkins, who’s there to provide solid defense and complain about every single foul call, no matter how obvious. The Heat still so often play like a collection of parts, like a team that’s never been together until 30 minutes before tipoff. Who’s at center, who’s at point? Is Battier bricking threes or hitting them? What about Miller? And where’s Bosh, in the middle or drifting outside? Of course Wade and LeBron can erase all those problems in any game? But can they do it four times?
At some point — whether it’s in Game 1 or Game 7 — one of the players who’s not an All-NBA performer will decide the game, but the final outcome of the series will result in verdicts for only Durant and James. Is that unfair to the one who loses? Of course. Will too much praise be heaped on the victor? Absolutely. With LeBron, there seems to be a backlash to the backlash, as you see more and more people saying, “It’s time to let go of The Decision; he’s undoubtedly the best player in the league, let’s appreciate him; he’s answered his critics; let’s lay off.” I might be experiencing a bit of backlash to the backlash to the backlash. He has been amazing in these playoffs. And we should appreciate him for what he is, and stop trying to compare everyone to Michael Jordan. But pointing out his past struggles in the Finals is not unfair. In 10 NBA Finals games his high point total is 25. That from a guy who seems to have 10 by the time his warmup comes off. Has LeBron ever played any other 10 game stretch in his career where he failed to score more than 25 in any of them? Last year’s Finals did happen, that eight-point performance and oddly withdrawn play was not erased by his destruction of the Celtics in Game 6. He was just as incredible last year in the Eastern playoffs against the Bulls. There’s still another step, and it’s not just scoring more than 25.
And if he loses it will be a team loss, even if the headlines don’t say so. But the burden for basketball players is also their blessing. Yes, you get more blame than individual players do in other sports, but you also get more credit. And the reason is simple — they have more impact. In baseball and football you can have the best player in the league and never come close to winning a title. Hoops is different. One dominant player changes everything. If LeBron played for Charlotte they probably win 45 games in an 82-game season. He’s that good and one guy affects the team that much. So when the best player in the league fails to win a title, it is a mark against him, especially when his teammates include two other top players.
In NBA history, has there ever been a player who was recognized as the best player – no doubt the best, according to so many – for a four-year stretch and hadn’t won a title? That’s LeBron since 2009, when he won the first of his three MVPs. Moses Malone won his third MVP in 1983 and he won his first title that year. If LeBron doesn’t win this year, he’s the first three-timer to not have a crown. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with Skip Bayless or dismiss all his accomplishments or carry a grudge because of a television show and Jim Gray interview. But it would mean…something.
What will it mean? I don’t know, ask me after the Thunder win it in six.