The Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat will play Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Finals tonight. Even though there is no previous history between these two teams or even any genuine animosity, they will give not only the NBA nation but also the sports world a spectacular series to remember. Since the Utah Jazz faced off against the Chicago Bulls in the late ’90s, there has never been the possibility of having this many playmakers on the court at one time. Even though LeBron James and Kevin Durant are the faces of this series, four other young faces (two much younger than the others) will be ready to step up if the time comes.
So, who will take home the Larry O’Brien trophy once this war comes to a close and either a three-time scoring champ or three-time MVP is crowned a champion? Who will start the supremacy of their Big 3 era right now?
X-Factor (Heat): Dwyane Wade
No, it’s not Chris Bosh, Erik Spoelstra. Even though he hit big shots in the latter parts of the Eastern Conference Finals and contributed in an entirely new way with this ability to stretch the floor, this team has shown they can win series without Bosh even playing. Look what they did against the Pacers once LeBron and Wade began playing like LeBron and Wade.
So, which Dwyane Wade will we see tonight and for the rest of this series? A five-points Wade or a 41-points Wade? Well, the Wade we have seen up to this point in the playoffs has shot 28.9 percent from 15+ feet. That’s horrible. Now, he has obviously found a way to stop relying on his jumper and pound the ball in the paint. But to compete against a Thunder team that has Ibaka controlling the paint, Wade will need his shot to be much more reliable.
Wade has also struggled to shoot from this distance even without a hand in his face. The 2006 NBA Finals MVP is shooting an abysmal (for him) 71.4 percent from the free-throw line. With the Thunder shooting a league-best 83.5 percent from the line this postseason, the Heat need Wade to find his touch and make his freebies. Also, Wade provides LeBron with the teammate he needs to share the scoring load since this group of Heat players is not built with many athletes that can light up the scoreboard. James might have the media focusing on his every move, but Wade will need to make his own moves wisely if he desires to take down the Western Conference champions.
22 points, six rebounds, five blocks. Two points, four rebounds, one block. These first two playoff games for Ibaka show the difference or indifference he can have on a playoff game. Even though his team came out on top both times, they will need Game 1 Ibaka when going up against the Heat rather than the flawed Dallas Mavericks.
Since Scott Brooks sets up his defense in a way that allows Ibaka to roam around the rim, rejecting all that comes his way (3.65 blocks per game in the playoffs), he has a lot of freedom with his decisions on the defensive end of the court. Sometimes, this leads to laziness as he won’t step out to contest a jump shot. Well, the Heat will shoot many mid-range jumpers in this series, so he can’t fall into this lackadaisical manner. Furthermore, if he goes up against Bosh and the Heat’s power forward finds a way to continue to efficiently put in baseline shots like he has since coming back from his injury, Ibaka must tirelessly work to cover his opponent on the edges of the court while also sinking back to the middle when his team needs help defense.
On top of this imperative, ever-shifting defense from the Conglese man, putting the ball in the hoop has to happen. Yes, he seems to be acclaimed solely for his defensive work, but his scoring made the difference in the Western Conference Finals. In their first two losses, Ibaka averaged only 6.5 points. In the next four wins, he averaged 14.8, including Game 4 when he shot a perfect 11-11 from the field. If Ibaka brings the swatting and the swishing, the Heat might have too much talent on their hands to handle.
The Thunder will use the Westbrook/Durant and Harden/anybody-else pick-and-roll to command the offensive side of the court. Even though they don’t necessarily rack up the assists, this team has so much more movement in their offensive sets than the Heat. They are constantly using screens and picks or moving without the ball. If Miami isn’t in transition or semi-transition, the ball simply stops. LeBron or Wade gets the ball up top and drains the clock. On the other side of the court, the Heat won’t have enough firepower from players outside of their top three players that scored the last 31 points of Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals. Yet, it’s not only about the scoring. Oklahoma City has more players that have the ability to make an impact in more than one facet of the sport. And if any of these games comes down to one or two possessions, the Thunder clearly have the better closer and the better free-throw shooters to come up “clutch” when it matter most. Sorry LeBron, you have played phenomenally, but you will not get the ring that you just can’t seem to find. Prediction: Thunder in 6.
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