Two years ago at the FIBA World Championship, Kevin Durant put the rest of the world on notice. Durant finished as the tournament’s Most Valuable Player with an average of 22.8 points per game including a masterful championship game against the host country Turkey. He carried a USA team filled with some of the best young talent in the NBA to their first FIBA World Championship since 1994.
Durant and the World Championship team, labeled the “B Team” by many, earned an automatic bid to the World Championship when LeBron James and the 2008 US men’s basketball team took gold at the Summer Olympics. Team USA rolled through the tournament going 8-0 and outscoring their opponents by an average of 27.9 points per game. The 2008 team was filled with the NBA’s most established stars. LeBron was second on the team in scoring with 15.5 points per game behind Miami Heat teammate Dwyane Wade.
On Tuesday night in game one of the 2012 NBA Finals, Durant and LeBron will again be on the biggest stage. For LeBron, it will be his third Finals appearance. As a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron was swept in 2007 by the San Antonio Spurs. Last year, after joining the Heat, LeBron again lost in the Finals to the Dallas Mavericks. Durant will be making his first appearance in an NBA Finals game after starting his career with a record of 37-117 in his first two seasons.
The Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder are reminiscent of those 2008 and 2010 US national teams. The Miami Heat, filled with the established stars of Dwayne Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh, look a lot like that 2008 Olympic team. The Oklahoma City Thunder, constructed with some of the top young talent like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka, take a similar form to the 2010 World Championship team. Both teams were dominant, but one constantly overshadowed the other in the spotlight.
When these two teams face off in the Finals, either LeBron James or Kevin Durant will get their first championship ring, the ultimate measure of a great player. The world will not only be watching the Miami Heat versus the Oklahoma City Thunder for the ultimate prize in professional basketball, but they will also be seeing LeBron James versus Kevin Durant for the right to be called the best player in the NBA. Whether or not that topic is up for debate by NBA fans doesn’t matter. That is how most of the world will look at the result of this series.
Both teams and both players finished up remarkable regular seasons. The Heat winning 46 games and the Thunder winning 47. LeBron James averaging 27 points per game and Durant 28.
The Thunder are on the rise. Whether or not they win this series, the 2011-2012 season will have been a success for them. In the Western Conference Finals, they fell to an 0-2 deficit to what looked to be the best team in the NBA. They climbed out of the hole and won four straight to advance to the Finals.
The Heat, in their current incarnation, are in their second season together, but it is considered by many as a last ditch effort. If the “Big 3” do not find a way to win a championship this year, the media explosion that will follow will likely lead to some changes somewhere in the organization. It could be Spoelstra that is ousted. It could be Bosh.
In their two meetings against each other this season, the Heat and Thunder split the series. On March 25, the Thunder beat the visiting Heat 103-87. Durant led the way with 28 points, but it was Ibaka, Perkins and Harden who made the difference and combined for 54 points. In that game, Miami got just 26 points from everyone outside of their big three. On April 4, the Heat beat the Thunder in Miami 98-93. Durant and Westbrook combined for 58 points and the rest of the team added 35.
The Thunder need to find a way to get Perkins and Ibaka involved to win this series. Much like the Indiana Pacers, the frontcourt of the Thunder will be their biggest advantage. When David West and Roy Hibbert weren’t able to leave their mark on the game, the Pacers faltered against the Miami Heat. The Thunder cannot make the same mistake. The decision-making of Russell Westbrook will be the ultimate deciding factor for the Thunder. If he plays with the flow of the game and takes what the Heat give him, the Thunder will beat the Miami Heat. If he forces shots, the story will be different.
The Heat are a very different kind of team. They need big games from Wade and LeBron to succeed. At any point in time, Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers or Shane Battier can land a barrage of three-pointers, but that really isn’t a consistent option for the Heat. Their greatest strength is their fast break game with Wade and LeBron running the floor and making highlight plays. The key to a Heat victory will be their ability to score out of half-court sets when they can’t pull away from the young Thunder in transition.
Their one game advantage in their regular season record earned the Thunder home court advantage in the Finals. The Oklahoma City crowd has been huge in the playoffs, providing energy for their young players to feed on. This advantage heavily tips the scale in favor of the Thunder. Since 1985, the NBA Finals has been a 2-3-2 format, with the home team playing the first and last two games of the series on their home court. In the last ten years, only three teams have won the NBA championship without home court advantage. One of those teams was Dwyane Wade and the 2006 Miami Heat. Of the three teams who failed to win the NBA championship with home court advantage, the 2011 Miami Heat are the most recent. Home court advantage is everything in the NBA Finals.
With Bosh returning to the line-up, both teams are at full strength. Just four more wins to immortality. Durant and LeBron both know what it is like to win at an international level. The burning question is which one will be able to get their first Larry O’Brien trophy. That one point and that one win will be the difference between a champion and a loser.