Though “Heat” and “Thunder” sound more like a clash of weather phenomena than an NBA Finals matchup, there most definitely will be a collision of sorts starting Tuesday night when the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder meet in Game 1 of the NBA Finals before a capacity crowd at Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Energy Center.
The Heat advanced on Saturday night by defeating the Boston Celtics, 101-88, based largely on the continued strong play of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. James, who scored 31 points while pulling down 12 rebounds, tallied at least 25 points in all seven games of the Eastern Conference Finals - an historic accomplishment.
Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra was once again careful about working in big man Chris Bosh, who’s still mending from an abdominal strain he sustained in the quarterfinal series against Indiana. But when he did hit the floor, Bosh hit it running, scoring 19 points in 31 minutes of game time.
As to the Celtics, their problems were several and significant. For one, they simply hit the wall with their inability to score down the stretch. From a high of 27 points they achieved in the first quarter, their scoring dropped off in each succeeding frame (to a low of 15 in the fourth period) and, after clinging to an 82-81 lead midway through the fourth quarter, allowed Miami to go on a 10-2 scoring run that they just couldn’t answer.
Secondly, Boston received exactly two points from their bench. Mickael Pietrus, whose heroics in Game 5 helped give the Celtics a series lead, simply disappeared. This particularly hurt Boston in the fourth period as their starting forward Paul Pierce went freezing cold with his shooting – managing only 7-of-18 from the field for the game. And even as all five starters managed to tally double figures, it just wasn’t enough as the team ran out of gas in the critical final minutes. In fact, the starters were pressed into unusually long service, each logging an average of just over 40 minutes on the floor. That’s particularly rough on veteran legs.
Tuesday’s matchup with Oklahoma City, by contrast, will feature powerful and youthful matchups – most notably between the Thunder’s three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant and the Heat’s three-time MVP Lebron James. But the supporting cast for each squad is arguably as talented and deep, with speedy and quick-handed Thunder guards Russell Westbrook and James Harden seeing duty against the Heat’s Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers, as well as the Heat’s Bosh who will hit the post against Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka in what likely will be a shot-blocking extravaganza.
One of the main, and more sensational lines of discussion in the interim between last Saturday night and this evening’s Game 1 has been the relative importance of Oklahoma City’s “home grown” big three of Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden versus Miami’s “cherry-picked” trio of stars: James, Wade and Bosh. But regardless of whether the core of a team is either organic or synthetic, the fact remains these are both highly disciplined and skilled squads that have been battle-tested at the highest level.
Probably a better question, aside from whose “Big Three” will show up, is whose supporting cast will make a substantive contribution? With Bosh still seeing limited minutes, will the Heat’s powerful outside shooter Shane Battier or rebounding phenom Udonis Haslem fill the void? Or will Thunder big man Kendrick Perkins pick this series to make a meaningful and resounding statement? Regardless, the fight in the post will be “Thunderous”, if not “Heated”.
As far as coaching is concerned, this is a relative wash. Scott Brooks of Oklahoma City and Erik Spoelstra of Miami, though serving as lightning rods for criticism by their most vocal fans, also are supreme motivators who have the respect and appreciation of their respective rosters. They’ve successfully navigated the mine-laden regular and playoff seasons with an aplomb that has made Tuesday’s matchup all but a foregone conclusion for many in the NBA community.
Though this is the second visit for Miami in the Finals – having been humiliated by the Dallas Mavericks last season – Oklahoma City has the distinction of being the first team since the 1997-98 Utah Jazz to break the San Antonio Spurs/LA Lakers/Dallas Mavericks’ monopoly on the Western Conference title.
In the 'Finals' analysis (to coin a phrase), the home court advantage in pressure situations tends to be of huge significance, and has a great deal to say about how a series goes. The team with home-court advantage has won 20 of the 27 Finals since the league switched to the 2-3-2 format in 1985.
ESPN commentator Chris Mullin, an NBA veteran himself who has visited both the Thunder and Heat venues, asserted that Oklahoma City’s 18,000+ capacity arena is unlike any other home court advantage in the NBA that he’s ever experienced. He likened it to a college rivalry atmosphere, complete with tailgating and with raucous fans showing up hours before each game to cheer on their team.
And with Oklahoma City’s ascent into the rarified air of the Finals, the spirits of an entire state have been dramatically lifted. And that’s a powerful recipe for victory. The Thunder wins in seven games.