With Game 1 of the NBA Finals just hours away, the Basketball Prospectus team of NBA analysts gathered in the office break room to discuss the series.
Kevin Pelton: Let's start at the finish. In my preview yesterday, I picked Oklahoma City to win in seven games. Do you agree? Am I crazy?
Dan Feldman: I agree. Obviously, anytime you predict a seven-game series, there would be no shock in seeing the other team win. I think Oklahoma City is slightly better, a bit more complete, but Miami could easily pull out the victory.
Bradford Doolittle: I agree that it'll be a long, tight series. It's a great matchup. I'm picking Miami in six. If it goes to a Game 7 at Chesapeake Arena, then I think you'll be right. Even though I think the Thunder is playing slightly better entering the series, I just think it's Miami's time. OKC has one more year's worth of dues to pay.
Neil Paine: Without running the numbers yet, I've actually been leaning towards OKC in fewer games than that.
I have a crazy theory that, before the series starts, we all like to talk ourselves into the Finals being closer/more competitive than they actually will turn out being. I know Miami was missing Bosh for huge chunks of time, but they needed a superhuman Game 6 performance from James and a second-half Game 7 comeback to win--with home-court advantage--over a team that got taken to seven games by an extremely flawed Sixers team and had to go six against an even-more-flawed Hawks team. The Thunder just dispatched the league's hottest (and, on paper, best) team with four straight wins following two early road defeats. This after crushing the Lakers and sweeping the defending champs.
I have a strong suspicion that when the dust clears on a convincing Thunder victory, we'll look back and ask, "Why did we ever think this was going to be close?"
Of course, I could be wrong. I have a competing theory that LeBron will channel Michael Jordan to Durant's Clyde Drexler circa 1992, after a year spent trying to convince ourselves that the clear-cut #2 player in the league (Drexler/Durant) is better than the clear-cut #1 (Jordan/James) if we squint hard enough. Difference is, those Bulls were by far the best team in the NBA all season. In 2012, the Thunder has been as good or better than the Heat for most of the year, culminating in the playoff run.
That's why I'd say my first theory is the more likely outcome.
Kevin: I was definitely guilty of that in 2007, when I picked the Cavaliers and Spurs to go the distance. Yeah, not so much. I think Neil brings up one of the most interesting storylines, to me. Was the Thunder's dominance over San Antonio over the last four games a matter of their matchup advantages in terms of athleticism, length and quickness that won't carry over against a more athletic Miami team? Or was it simply Oklahoma City reaching its peak as a team? I'm not sure what to think.
Dan: My question, along the same lines, did Oklahoma City get better during those last four games, or was that just meant to be a six-game series and that the Thunder won its four games in a row only coincidental?
Bradford: The Thunder definitely seemed to figure some things out on the defensive end during that San Antonio series, but I'm not sure we can look at it as a moment of chrysalis for the franchise. The Heat presents another level of athletic challenge. OKC has the size advantage, but no perimeter players that combine strength and speed near the level of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, and I say that while acknowledging that Durant is a lot stronger than he looks. If the Thunder can slow down James, then I think we can look at these playoffs as the time when OKC upped the ante on defense.
Kevin: As Neil already mentioned, all eyes will be on the Durant-James matchup. We know his vote. Anyone think Durant gets the better of James?
Bradford: I doubt Durant wins the head-to-head matchup with James. I noted in another piece that in nine career games against James, Durant has averaged just under 28 points on about 48 percent shooting. For him, that’s average. He’ll get his points, but James should be able to limit his efficiency. Also, James just has more ways in which he helps his team, with his elite defense and playmaking. I’ll say this: If James doesn’t win the matchup, Miami has no chance to win.