My Rant Examining the NBA Finals Thunder vs Heat

Understanding basketball, or any sport for that matter is not the most difficult concept to comprehend. My friend and I often joke about a great coaches half time and post game press conferences explaining his teams' latest performance.

Bill Belichick, of the New England Patriots, often will comment (I am paraphrasing) "we need to play better defense," "we need to hold them to fewer points in the second half," "we need to outscore them in this second half," or "they scored more points than us today" when answering why his team lost. Sports - basketball, baseball, football, hockey, soccer, etc boils down to outscoring your opponent.

Understanding the nuances is what makes sports great and impossible to master. While a great sports analyst will be able to break down a game to enable the masses to understand his insight - I am not such an analyst; but I do enjoy breaking down my predictions of what will happen. I wrote this in anticipation of the opening NBA Finals game tonight.

The NBA Finals is going to be an exciting series - for basketball fans to enjoy and debate. That is one of the beauties of sports. Perception and interpretation force there to be no certain answers but instead constant debates and arguments. There will be a winner and loser after each game - and after the final buzzer sounds crowning the NBA champion the reasons why the outcome occurred will be debated and analyzed by countless experts or novices for too many hours (that is how ESPN capitalizes on having approximately 8 24 hour sports channels).

The most difficult part of predicting a series is understanding the countless potential possibilities that could and will occur - while highlighting the one or two matchups that will determine the series. When examining the Heat versus Thunder final I want to examine how each team will defend the other- the saying defense wins championships is not over used because basketball is simply outscore your opponent to win.

The Thunder have several options for defending the Heat. Many analysts have echoed the fact that Bosh's ability to shoot the outside jump shot opened the lane versus the Celtics, enabling LeBron and Wade to attack the rim- this truth will force the Thunder to make an interesting decision; not how to guard Bosh but instead what type of lineup do you want to implement to try and stop LeBron? Each option has advantages and disadvantages. But with Wade clearly not himself with his ailing knee I believe you can guard Wade more as the secondary option - especially when looking at his shooting percentage from beyond 15 feet.

Philosophy 1: Thunder Go Big 
Collison, Perkins, and Ibaka would be the key help defenders (2 of these must always be on the court). While one of these defenders will be forced to guard Bosh away from the rim, the use of two bigs would enable easy help and rotation with bigger bodies protecting the basket.  This style of help defense enabled the Celtics to control games 3, 4, and 5 of their series with the Heat. Forcing the Heat to become 3 point shooters puts immense pressure on the role players to knock down shots (Chalmers, Battier, Miller). Kevin Garnett patrolled the lane and wreaked havoc until Bosh returned and made key jump shots.

The Thunder have the personal to make this work, because unlike the Celtics they have more than one big (Garnett was the Celtics only big) versus the Thunder who have two centers great at help side defense (Collison and Perkins) and one shot blocking freak (Ibaka).

Part two of this philosophy boils down to who do you matchup against LeBron -
  1. Thabo Sefolosha provides length and lateral quickness yet LeBron would be able to post him up on the block and Thabo is often finding himself in foul trouble. 
  2. Kevin Durant is the made for TV matchup all fans should hope to see - while Durant has the desire and athleticism to take on the challenge, his lack of strength would cause him to possibly get into foul trouble and wear down. (See comment from last post on LeBron - guarding the post is energy zapping - this is how LeBron should attack Durant if this matchup occurs forcing Durant to burn energy and force double teams).
  3. Ibaka is the final option - I am curious to see the insanely athletic potential of Ibaka to guard LeBron. This would take away the potential help from the rim - yet Ibaka could force LeBron into shooting jump shots with his size. 

Philosophy 2: Thunder Go Small
This lineup provides a better offensive group and on the defensive end the Thunder could force jump shots from LeBron and emphasize a collapsing defense that forces kick outs to the Heat's supporting cast. 

I would matchup Durant on Bosh enabling Durant's length to bother Bosh and force the Heat to post Bosh up playing against their normal offensive sets.
Thabo on LeBron - despite the potential foul trouble I think that this makes the most sense. 
Harden on Wade - with Wade's ailing knee and diminished explosion this matchup would become an interesting conversation between an underrated 6th man and the supposed NBA elite shooting guard Wade. This would be similar to Harden's matchup versus Kobe - while the matchup might zap some energy from Harden it could lead to Wade struggle with the strength of Harden.
Westbrook can wreak havoc with his quickness and help defense versus Chalmers.
And Ibaka can play the rim guarding the remaining player - Haslem or Battier. 

All of these decisions will cause the domino effect that will cause every matchup to play out differently but I believe the Go Small philosophy would be best for the Thunder. But this is why basketball is so fun to watch - any option could occur and will cause debate.

The Heat Options: How do you matchup against the most explosive offensive this post season?

If I were drawing up the match ups I would put

  • Chalmers on Westbrook (Wade offers the best option and should guard Westbrook in the 4th quarter but after watching Rondo consistently penetrate against Wade I would be hesitant to use this matchup the entire game - yet this is the biggest problem for the Heat - their matchups will cause possible burnout)
  • Wade on Thabo (because Wade will need to conserve energy and step up his scoring I would use this matchup)
  • LeBron versus Durant (this is the matchup I hate - I think LeBron should guard Durant the entire game but I do not know if this is too much to ask - Durant is the best scorer in the NBA not only does he have the length and shooting range to force opponents to guard him too close enabling him to get to the rim, his off the ball movement and cutting has greatly improved this year; yet, for the Heat to win this series I believe that LeBron and the Heat must hold Durant below his avg - LeBron must win this matchup by approximately 10 points a game for the Heat to have a chance); 
I would debate a matchup of Battier on Durant to start the game but with a shooter like Durant you cannot let him even get started.

  • Battier on Ibaka and force the Thunder to want to post him up
  • Bosh needs to guard Perkins. 
If the Thunder go small - Wade should guard Harden. If the Heat want they could shift LeBron off Durant and allow him to play help defense against a lesser offensive option.

All of these options are why basketball is so intriguing. This NBA championship series has a collection of the best athletes ever to compete in this showcase.

If you have read thus far hopefully you have walked away with a few insights. This rant was not supposed to be a prediction but more of a look at the fact that no matter what analysts discuss there is no one answer or one X factor - in a seven game series there are too many options for one factor to be the key for the entire series. After each game analysis and reflection will occur leading to the next adjustments.

In my humble opinion, the key questions are that will need to be analyzed and evaluated are

  • How do the teams matchup with each other? See the breakdown above
  • How is Wade's ailing knee going to impact his ability to perform on the offensive and defensive end? 
  • Can Westbrook, Durant, Harden and Co continue to learn the lessons of basketball movement that adapted during the Spurs (this is the best offense versus the Heat's defense to avoid isolation and instead utilize the great basketball skill sets the Thunder enjoy)? 
  • Can LeBron take on the burden required for the Heat to win this series (for the Heat to win LeBron needs to play 44+ minutes a game, guard the leagues best scorer (Durant), and score 30+ points a game because the matchups will dictate he be the focus of the Heat's offensive sets)?

The games will involve more than a few moments of Durant versus LeBron and this is truly exciting as a fan as it will only fuel the debate of who is better - and debates are one of the most fun aspects of sports (next to caring about your team). In the end I predict Heat in 7 but just like the coach and players my prediction will be analyzed and adjustments maybe made after each game.

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