This year’s NBA Finals features one of the better individual star matchups in recent history between LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Both teams feature a trio of stars led by these two, but while the Miami Heat are returning for their second straight NBA Finals appearance, this is the first for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Heat’s experience may aid them in this series, but the Thunder have beaten the Mavericks, Lakers, and Spurs to reach this point. Those teams comprise ten of the last thirteen NBA Champions. Also aiding the Thunder is the lesser degree of physicality surrounding their series victories than the Heat have faced against the Pacers and Celtics. Coming into this matchup, James has played 763 minutes and Wade 704 minutes, while Durant has only played 624 and Westbrook 556 in this year’s playoffs.
History shows that the team with the more experience generally prevails, but this trend has been bucked in recent years with the Thunder making consecutive deep playoff runs as well as the Chicago Bulls last season. If you look at the effective age of each team (measure of a team’s average age, but weighted by minutes played), which eliminates outliers such as Juwan Howard who barely plays and his age of 38 skews the number, the Heat are at 29.5, while the Thunder currently are 24.8. In the 2000′s, the average effective age of an NBA Champion is 28.6.
These two teams both pose difficult matchup problems for each other, with the Thunder likely relying on Thabo Sefolosha and Durant to guard James, and the Heat likely relying on Battier exclusively to guard Durant. James will matchup with Durant down the stretch, but he will likely avoid this as much as possible as he will be forced to play mostly all game this series again, so head coach Eric Spoelstra will try and preserve his energy on defense by matching him up with Kendrick Perkins.
The Thunder will need to exploit the matchup between Russell Westbrook and Mario Chalmers. Rajon Rondo was able to find success against the Heat, but Westbrook is a different breed of point guard. His ability to take Chalmers off the dribble as well as his outside shooting pose different matchup problems for the Heat. Westbrook struggled in the two meetings in the regular season, shooting a combined 13-42 (31%). The Thunder will need this number to improve to take some of the pressure off Durant.
In the first ten playoff games, Westbrook averaged 4.5 assists, but in the last five this number increased to 7.8. Rondo was able to both score and distribute against the Heat, but as Westbrook is only averaging 5.6 assists per game in the playoffs, the Thunder will need this number to improve against a very talented Miami defense. Westbrook generally is considered a score-first point guard, but finding a balance will be important for the Thunder. The key to beating the Heat’s swarm defense is ball-movement, and as the point guard, Westbrook must establish the tone.
In the regular season matchups, Westbrook primarily guarded Wade, but after head coach Scott Brooks shifted Westbrook away from Tony Parker in the Conference Finals, the Thunder were able to slow down the Spurs offense. Brooks will likely employ this strategy again and use their best perimeter defender Thabo Sefolosha on Wade. This will help Westbrook not only stay out of a foul trouble, but potentially limit Mario Chalmers as well.
James and Wade might get the most attention from the Thunder, but Bosh will be the key to opening up the Thunder defense. The presence of Bosh forces Ibaka to honor his outside shooting, which will keep him away from the basket where he excels in blocking and altering shots. This will allow James and Wade to penetrate the ball, and if Ibaka commits to either of them, they can find Bosh on the outside. This difference was present in Games 6 and 7 against the Celtics as Kevin Garnett was forced to commit to Bosh on the outside, which eliminated his defensive presence he had utilized so well in the earlier games.
As of now, Eric Spoelstra has not announced whether or not Bosh will start or come off the bench. If he is held out of the starting lineup, the Heat will have someone whose scoring output could equal James Harden’s, but if not, the advantage Harden provides is unmatched.
Both teams are extremely efficient on offense, but when all three Thunders stars are on the floor, their offensive efficiency has been higher than the Heat’s in the playoffs. The Thunder have been averaging plus-18.1 per 48 minutes, whereas the Heat are averaging plus-16.9 with their respective big three’s on the court. The advantage for either team comes when one of the three are sitting. In this format, the Heat are still averaging plus-9.9, while the Thunder’s number dramatically decreases to minus-1.2 per 48 minutes. This number might be mitigated if Scott Brooks elects to play James Harden more than the 31.1 minutes he’s averaged thus far in the playoffs, but for now this is a big advantage for the Heat.
Since the Thunder play with such a rapid and aggressive offensive scheme, they are bound to commit turnovers. They led the league in them during the regular season, but somehow reduced this number from 16.3 to 11.5 during the playoffs. Keeping this number low will be crucial because the Heat can kill you with fast break points. In the regular season game the Thunder lost, they committed 18 turnovers, which the Heat converted into 20 points. In close games, these easy baskets can likely be the deciding factor between a win and a loss.
While these two teams have many similarities, the Thunder rely on three-pointers to a much greater extent than the Heat. They are very proficient from behind the arc, but as the Spurs experienced, this can be difficult to maintain. Thus far in the playoffs, the Heat are actually taking more threes per game than the Thunder, but shooting significantly lower. Both teams will need to continue their strong rotational defense to limit the opponents three-pointers, but the Thunder will particularly need to hit the shots they are given. Harden has been particularly effective hitting from behind the arc 25/56 (44.6%), and Durant has hit more threes than anyone thus far in the playoffs.
Another thing to watch between these two teams is foul trouble. With the exception of Bosh, the rest of the team’s stars are all averaging over five free-throw attempts per game. While the Heat don’t play an expansive rotation, James and Wade have been extraordinarily well at limiting their fouls. How this plays out between the two teams will be interesting, and as stated above, the Heat are still able to maintain a high level of offense without one of their three stars on the court.
Of all the NBA Final’s series in recent memory, none compare to this season’s in terms of individual matchups. If James is able to win his first ring, it will finally get the gorilla off his back, but if Durant and the Thunder are able to win, the 23 year old will be in legendary company. No matter who wins though, it is very likely these two teams will find themselves matching up again down the road.
Prediction: Heat in 7