If you are a fan of track-meet basketball, then the Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Miami Heat matchup in the NBA Finals is a pure best-of-seven dream. OKC is the young and brash force of 20-somethings, all speed and length, with a three-time scoring champ in Kevin Durant. Miami is returning for its second consecutive Finals appearance, but this time they don't come in as the overwhelming favorite. LeBron James -- at least in the public eye -- has finally broken through to alpha-male status, leading the Heat over Boston, while sidekick Dwyane Wade struggled to regain his normally deft scoring touch.
Such a clash is truly a sign of the new times in this league, where youthful legs trumped experience in both conferences. Here are a look at the five keys to the Finals.
1) The Half-Court Game
No teams are more lethal on the break than these two, but Miami is the side that needs to run; OKC loves to run but doesn't necessarily have to. As great as LeBron has been in these playoffs, the Heat has still struggled to generate quality half-court offense for extended stretches. In Game 5 against Boston at home, it shot under 40 percent from the floor because its offense lacked movement. According to Synergy Sports Technology, 14 percent of Miami's offense this season came in transition. Much of this comes from a swarming and opportunistic defense that forces turnovers. The difference is that the Thunder, who rank second in the league in offensive efficiency, is a real force when it slows the pace. The combination of Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden off the bench gives OKC three terrific isolators, but also three guys who all excel in screen-and-roll. Nick Collison, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins are all used in such situations, giving the Thunder ample options. With the exception of Chris Bosh, Miami lacks any real big-man threat with whom to run ball screens. Relying on Bosh to keep hitting three-pointers is simply not a game plan going forward. In essence, whoever can control the pace of this series may very well win. Miami has to run to score points with consistency; the Thunder does not.
2) OKC's Defensive Plan
After dismantling San Antonio and stopping its 20-win playoffs streak in the West, Thunder coach Scott Brooks now faces the task of defending a super-confident LeBron. The question becomes: Will OKC double-team him, or try and live with his scoring while attempting to shut down Wade, as Doc Rivers did? James is a brilliant facilitator and selfless playmaker, but this team is most dangerous when he is in full attack mode, finishing at the rim and pressuring the defense. Brooks is not going to stop that, but he can at least contain it by sending doubles early and forcing James into more perimeter jumpers.
If they do decide to focus on Wade, Brooks is likely to turn to Thabo Sefolosha. Brooks made a critical coaching decision when Tony Parker destroyed Westbrook in the Spurs' first two wins of the Western finals. Sefolosha is a 6-foot-5-inch weapon who plays great on-ball defense while consistently forcing his man to catch the ball several feet off his original line. When he was guarding Parker, the latter's field goal percentage on attempts between 8 and 24 feet fell by over 31 percent in Games 3 through 6 (per ESPN Stats & Info). Sefolosha's task will be to slow Wade, who in many ways is quite similar to Parker. Wade may be bigger and a far more explosive athlete than Parker, to be sure, but he too relies on attacking the basket and using his pull-up jumper within 16 feet. Evidence suggests that Sefolosha should be able to slow him, as well: Over the past two seasons, Wade's field goal percentage with the Swiss guard defending him has fallen roughly 10 percent. Furthermore, Wade shot just 44.4 percent and averaged over three turnovers against Boston.
3) Will Russell Westbrook Continue To Defer To Durant?
This has been my overwhelming concern with OKC for much of the past two seasons. Westbrook is an absolute blur and a tremendous weapon, but it can be a polarizing talent. At times he is more unstoppable than Durant because of his remarkable ability to penetrate and get in the lane. As a pure point guard, though, his discipline is lacking. Watch him closely enough and you can see the inner struggles. There are times when he should take over and there are times when he shouldn't; the latter often happens when Durant needs touches or when the offense gets stagnant. To beat a team like Miami, he must understand that Durant is this team's first priority. Getting Durant the basketball when he can score should be Westbrook's primary focus. So while Westbrook was terrific for most of the San Antonio series, he still had two- to three-minute stretches when he deviated from the offense and over-dribbled into complete isolation. Miami and its fourth-ranked defense will feast on his errant shots and turnovers and instantly turn those opportunities into transition offense.
Then again, Westbrook outscored the Lakers' Ramon Sessions by an average of 26 to 7 in the conference semifinals; after going head-to-head with Parker for six games, he will have another great opportunity to control this series against the slower and less dynamic Mario Chalmers.
4) Chris Bosh's Health
Perhaps it's only fitting that one of basketball's most maligned players over the past couple years is now being praised as one of the X-factors of the Finals. Bosh remains an essential component in this series because of his ability to make jumpers, but it's also a little more complicated than that, too. When Bosh is on the floor, he forces the OKC bigs to play him from 18 feet. As good as Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka are at protecting the rim, neither is especially comfortable that far away from the basket. For one, they become exposed laterally and highly susceptible to foul trouble hedging high ball screens. Secondly, and maybe more importantly, it removes them from the painted area where they can alter or block shots.
There is a reason why the Heat was 42-15 in the regular season when Bosh played, but 4-5 when he didn't. It's the same reason why the Heat is 6-1 in the playoffs when he plays at least 20 minutes and just 6-5 the rest of the time. LeBron and D-Wade are very similar players, as we know: Both are attacking playmakers who excel off of switches on screen-and-roll. With Bosh on the floor, the Heat have more flexibility and are a threat to extend the floor and create driving lanes. For the Heat to win this series, it has to execute a legitimate half-court offense, making Bosh's health a key factor.
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