NBA Finals Thunder vs. Heat
Associated Press basketball writer Brian Mahoney previews the NBA Finals between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat, which begin tonight (with playoff stats):
Thunder (47-19, 12-3) — C Kendrick Perkins (4.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.5 bpg), F Serge Ibaka (10.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 3.3 bpg), F Kevin Durant (27.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 4.2 apg), G Thabo Sefolosha (5.5 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 1.4 apg), G Russell Westbrook (21.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 5.6 apg).
Heat (46-20, 12-6) — C Udonis Haslem (5.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 0.8 bpg), F Shane Battier (5.7 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.4 apg) or Chris Bosh (13.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 0.8 apg), F LeBron James (30.8 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 5.1 apg), G Dwyane Wade (22.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 4.1 apg), G Mario Chalmers (11.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.9 apg).
Thunder — G James Harden (17.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg), G Derek Fisher (6.5 ppg, 1.4 apg), F/C Nick Collison (3.4 ppg, 2.9 rpg), G Daequan Cook (2.6 ppg, 0.7 rpg), C Nazr Mohammed (2.3 ppg, 2.0 rpg).
Heat — F Battier or Bosh, G/F Mike Miller (4.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg), C Joel Anthony (3.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg), G James Jones (2.5 ppg, 0.9 rpg), C Ronny Turiaf (2.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg), G Norris Cole (1.4 ppg, 0.8 apg).
Season series: Tied, 1-1. The Thunder forced 21 turnovers and rolled to a 103-87 victory at home on March 25 before the Heat rallied for a 98-93 win in Miami on April 4. Durant averaged 29 points, though committed a career-high nine turnovers in the second game. Westbrook made just 13-of-42 shots and scored 20.5 per game, and Ibaka and Harden each scored 19 points in the Thunder’s victory, but combined for only 16 in the rematch. James had 34 points in Miami, doubling his total from Oklahoma City, and added 10 assists and seven rebounds. Wade averaged 20.5 points and Bosh added 15 per game.
Story line: James and Durant, two of the league’s biggest superstars, go head-to-head in search of their first championships. Considered the favorites last year when they fell to the Dallas Mavericks in the first year with James, Wade and Bosh together, the Heat are the underdogs this time against the Thunder, who are poised to reach the top of the NBA despite a core of young players in their early 20s.
Key matchup I: Durant vs. James. James will try to add the finals Most Valuable Player trophy to the regular-season award he beat Durant to claim. Whoever’s team wins the series earns an advantage in the debate as to who is the best player in the game. Besides everything he has to do offensively, James must use his considerable defensive skills to slow down Durant, who won his third consecutive scoring title this season. James is the top scorer in the postseason, averaging 30.8 points.
Key matchup II: Ibaka vs. Battier and Bosh. Ibaka, the league’s leading shot blocker and runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year, has turned into more than just a one-way player. He shot 11-for-11, making a number of jumpers, in the Thunder’s Game 4 victory over the San Antonio Spurs that evened the Western Conference finals, and his 55.6 shooting percentage is tops in the playoffs among players who advanced past the first round. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will have to decide whether to return Bosh to the starting lineup or stay with Battier, and both looked like good choices in the Heat’s Game 7 victory over the Boston Celtics. Bosh scored 19 points and made three 3-pointers in his third game back after a nine-game absence because of a lower abdominal injury, while Battier nailed four 3-pointers.
X-factor: Perkins. He doesn’t have the offensive game of the Indiana Pacers’ Roy Hibbert or the Celtics’ Kevin Garnett, centers who have hurt the Heat in this postseason. But Perkins had his best offensive game of the season with 16 points in the Thunder’s regular-season victory over the Heat. If he provides any type of scoring in this series, it will cause problems for a Heat team that hasn’t been able to settle on and stay committed to a center option all season.
Prediction: Thunder in 6.