Howlin' Around the NBA: NBA Finals Preview

For the first time since 98, the top two MVP candidates meet in the Finals. Excited? So are we.

For the first time since '98, the top two MVP candidates meet in the Finals. Excited? So are we.

Note: Since the Wolves season has come to a close, this is the fourth in a series of email exchanges between Tom and Derek about the NBA playoffs. Enjoy! As always, Derek can be found on Twitter (@DerekJamesNBA), as well as Tom (@Tom_NBA)

Tom: So. I find myself slowly recovering from the Eastern Conference Finals, and as part of the healing process, I’m becoming more and more excited for the Finals. Let’s be honest: I deeply wanted to see the staunch old Celtics break through one last time, even if it would have meant getting swept by Oklahoma City. But they didn’t, the better team won, and as a result, we will be treated to one of the most anticipated Finals in recent memory. Or at least since 2010. Whatever. It’s going to be awesome.

Let’s touch briefly on the LeBron/Durant match up, and I do mean briefly, because it is being studied and exhausted everywhere else. But I do want to say this: a lot of people, including very respectable basketball thinkers like Royce Young of Daily Thunder, are saying that if the Thunder win, it will prove that Kevin Durant is better than LeBron James. I feel like I’m watching reasonable basketball thinking drive a car 80 mph off a cliff while I stand behind it screaming “NOOOOOO!” in slow motion. Kevin Durant is an elite scorer, a good passer, and a decent defender. LeBron James is a slightly-less-elite-but-still-elite scorer, an elite passer, an elite defender, and a physical specimen unlike anything we’ve seen in this league. Durant is believed to be better “in the clutch,” and NBA StatsCube backs that up…kind of. Durant’s TS% is much better than LeBron’s, but in most other statistical categories (assists, rebounds, usage rate, defensive ratings), LeBron is superior. And here’s something weird: in these playoffs, LeBron is 40% from 3 point range in the “clutch” (last five minutes of a game in which a team leads by less than five) while attempting 4.7 shots. Durant is just 17% from 3 point range while attempting 5.7 shots. Tell me: who would YOU rather have on your team.

Saying that these Finals will somehow prove one way or another which player is better is nothing more than a RINGZZZ!!11! argument and it sincerely bums me out that intelligent basketball thinkers, even ones as understandably biased as Royce Young, believe that to be the case.

Derek: I said this a few days ago on Twitter, but I’ll repeat it again. It’s like the season starting on Christmas Day was our early present before our real present – Thunder v. Heat – arrived 7 months later. This matchup also proves that I suck at predictions. For example, for weeks and weeks, I was telling people, “No, no it won’t be Thunder and Heat because this season is weird. It’s gonna be two weird teams!” Add that to my Conference Finals predictions, and there’s a pretty compelling case for me to get out of the prediction business.

Anyway, this is going to be great. One of my followers, @JazzInJersey, was able to answer my question about when the last time we got the top two vote getters in the Finals. Sure enough, this is the first time since Jordan and Malone that we’ve had this happen. This is one of the many reasons why basketball is awesome.

I think you’re absolutely right about this matchup. There are so many narratives swirling, and this may be the most prominent one abound. Thing is, I like LeBron, and I like KD, but I find myself dreading the possibility of having to hear about how Durant is better because he has a ring. I want to know why we just can’t appreciate both players’ greatness, but that’s not the way the internet works, I know. If it comes down to who’s most likely to shutdown who one-on-one, my money is on LeBron. (Defense is a big reason why I give LeBron the nod over Durant, in case anyone cares.)

For the Heat, they need Bosh to effectively draw Ibaka out of the paint to open up lanes for guys like Dwayne Wade. On that note, the Heat need Wade to play more than two quarters of basketball per game, and take advantage of those lanes. Otherwise, Heat fans are pinning their hopes on the likes of Shane Battier, Mike Miller, and Mario Chalmers.

I’ll also be interested to see how the coaching matchup goes, since both Spoelstra and Brooks have at least a little to prove.

Tom: You didn’t expressly say this, but I’m going to pretend you did so I can argue. I keep hearing that the Thunder are a deeper team than the Heat, and I’m honestly a little confused by the sentiment. Miami has Wade, LeBron, and Bosh. Oklahoma City has Durant, Westbrook, and Harden. For the sake of argument, let’s call them even (LeBron is better than Durant, Westbrook is better than Wade, Harden and Bosh are incomparable, good enough for me). Apart from those three, who scares you on the Thunder? Ibaka? He shot 11-11 one game, but you and I both know that won’t happen again. Sefolosha? A good defender, but he won’t kill you. Fisher? Nope. Perkins? Not a useful player against a team like the Heat. Collison? An undeniably valuable player, but not someone who can swing significant minutes in OKC’s favor.

Meanwhile, ask Celtics fans about how well Mario Chalmers has been performing in these playoffs. Ask them if Shane Battier can get hot from three and swing an entire quarter in Miami’s favor. Ask about Udonis Haslem’s monstrous work on the glass. Actually, don’t ask them about any of those things. Boston’s fans have suffered enough. But the Heat are deeper than you think.

I’m not trying to discredit the Thunder, nor am I saying that Miami has a deeper team. I’m just saying that the depth advantage is overblown, and I don’t think it will be a big factor in this series, unless LeBron is a lot more exhausted than he looked against Boston.

Since you just posted on the importance of post play, let’s talk about post defense for a minute. The reason the Heat struggled so much against the Celtics was Boston’s interior defense. For five games, LeBron and Wade were (mostly) stymied on their forays to the rim by Garnett, who lurked underneath the hoop and helped off Miami’s hapless big men, preventing easy baskets. In Game 6, of course, LeBron went into God-mode and started hitting jumper after jumper, which stretched out Boston’s defense. Here’s the problem for OKC: they have nobody who is talented enough to help correctly on LeBron. Durant isn’t going to want to guard him too closely on drives because he won’t want to pick up cheap fouls. So when James gets by Durant and approaches the hole, who is going to step up and contest the way Garnett did? Perkins isn’t nearly quick enough. Ibaka isn’t nearly talented enough as a defensive stopper. Collison’s best defense of LeBron is to get in the way, fall down, and hope that he can draw charging fouls. You know, in the Finals, against the greatest player in the world, who arguably gets more superstar calls than anyone besides Kobe Bryant.

Ultimately, this series comes down to LeBron James. If he fades away in the bright spotlight of the Finals, Miami has absolutely no chance whatsoever. If he plays like he did against Boston, Oklahoma City is in for a hellish matchup. I don’t think he will fade. Miami in 6.

Derek: I was actually thinking about the depth of these teams. You’re probably right since both teams have a big three and then a few steady role players. Ultimately, I couldn’t tell myself one team was far and away deeper than the other.

The matchup point is especially true if Bosh can be successful and draw Ibaka out of the paint. I agree, too, with the idea that the Bosh-Ibaka matchup will be a greater issue than Harden-Wade for the Heat. I said this about the Spurs last series, but the Heat will also need to make sure that they don’t get beat by both Westbrook and Durant, or they will have a much shorter series than they like. The best bet on LeBron is for the Thunder to be as physical as possible, and make LeBron as uncomfortable as possible, since Durant sure won’t shut him down.

To be honest, I’ve thought about this for days, done research, and still have no clue how I like in this series. I won’t end on a cop-out though, I promise.

I looked at the teams’ rebounding, and that didn’t help. Miami has out-rebounded OKC 40.5 to 40.3, and each team has given up 39.8 and 40.5, respectively. And as far as rebounding percentage, the Thunder have nabbed 49.9% to the Heat’s 50.4 Neither team has been outstanding on the boards this postseason, so I’m still left pondering my pick.

Advantage: Even

Then, I looked at offenses and the Thunder have averaged more PPG (102.3 to 96.1), and a higher FG% (46.9% to 45.9%), but defensively the Thunder have given up more PPG (95.7 to 88.1) and a higher FG% (43.4% to 42.4%).

Really? You can’t be serious…

Offensive Advantage: Thunder, probably
Defensive Advantage: Heat

Maybe my answer lies in the turnover battle. We may have something here since the Thunder are averaging 5 turnovers per game fewer than the regular season, 16.3 to 11.5. Is that sustainable, against a top-5 defensive team? We’ll find out, I guess. The Heat have been better protecting the ball too, though, by almost 2 per game. While the Heat forced about 2.5 more in the regular season than the Thunder, yet they only average half a turnover more per game this postseason.

Considering the defensive advantage, and their history of forcing turnovers, I’m going to give the slight edge to the Heat in turnovers.

Advantage: Heat

I’d get into the coaching matchups, but they’re fairly even. Heck, these teams split the season series 1-1. At 1,600 words, too, I’m not going to over-think this and say Heat in 7 because of what I listed above, and I want seven games. Although by saying that, I probably just guaranteed the Thunder a championship.

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