In a condensed NBA season, there has been no shortage of highlights, disappointments, and drama. The 2012 NBA playoffs began with the usual 16 teams from the West and the East and you might say that the Finals boast the two teams expected to be there. However, the Finals rest in the hands of two players not expected to raise the Finals MVP award when it all comes to an end: Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook and Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade.
OKC is loaded with young and explosive talent led by a fearless, yet reserved, Kevin Durant. There is no debate where eyes go and where the ball is headed when the Thunder need a bucket. Durant is the best scorer in the league and he makes it seem so effortless. He has a quiet game with a bit of flare when he dashes through the lane off one bounce and posterizes an unsuspecting victim in the paint. He has fluidity in his motions when he comes off a double screen, catches squared up, and rips the net. He has a calmness that never spikes above a five on the "cool meter" when his team is down. Durant is too hard to guard with his quickness, length, and knowledge of the game.
For the Heat, it may not be clear to some who the leader is, but to anyone who knows the game of basketball, it is no other than LeBron James, and the Heat has been a better team as a result. Dwyane Wade may not have publicly stated that he has passed the torch to LeBron, but he has.
James is a man amongst boys in respect to his physical gifts. Throw in his phenomenal court vision, willingness to share the wealth, improved inside game, and more confidence in himself, and you have the most physically gifted and talented superstar to step foot on NBA hardwood since Michael Jordan.
However, the very things we drool over LeBron for are the same things we use to bash him: his willingness to pass when he should shoot; his hesitance to attack the basket when it is clearly for his taking ('07 Game 5 against Pistons); and his inability to (recently) knock down last second shots. But any honest person can tell you that LeBron is a basketball God. Even without giving us everything we want, he gives us much more than any other top 10 player can ever give us -- an improbable 30 point, 8 rebound, and 8 assist game every night. LeBron is so dominant at times, he can even add two block shots, and two steals. But with all that said, LeBron is not the key for the Heat in the Finals.
I once told a friend that OKC would rule the West after they lost to Dallas in the 2011 Western Conference Finals but I was scared because I expected the Heat to rip off not one, not two, not three, but multiple titles. The Heat would be Durant's kryptonite just as the Lakers were to Chris Webber in Sacramento and the Pistons to a young Michael Jordan in Chicago.
I figured Durant would not be able to contend with the James/Wade tandem for the four games needed to win a championship. I told my friend that Durant needed Westbrook to be not only his Robin, but even Batman sometimes when a defense clamps down on Durant with traps and solid rotations.
In one year, the time has arrived for Westbrook. Can he be that 27-point, 11-assist, 8-rebound, and only 2-turnover guy we witnessed in Game 1 over the entire series? I don't expect so. But can he deliver a string of 22-point, 8-assist, and 6-rebound games with 3 or less turnovers? Yes, and he needs to be just that.
The Heat do not have a guard to stay in front of Westbrook when he has a full head of steam toward the hoop. Nor do they have a big man who can slide over quick enough to challenge his shot before Westbrook flushes or sidesteps into an effortless finger roll. If Westbrook hits his go-to 18 footer consistently, or just enough that it keeps defenders guessing, the Thunder has the best odds at closing out this Finals as 2012 champions.
But if, and when Wade gets the ball rolling, this Finals may go down as one of the best ever played. Wade is by no stretch of the imagination incapable of rekindling his hot streak during the later games of the Pacers series. Wade may be struggling with a few injuries but he hasn't been fully healthy since '05. Wade is not looking for an excuse, or at least he shouldn't be. The Heat need this championship for the sake of its team, its city, its two main stars. Promises of 7 plus titles can't wait two years -- LeBron can't wait two years. Vindication and celebration will be the only way LeBron can put his past behind (even if it will always haunt him). He can only reach serenity when the NBA Finals trophy is stretched above his head.
LeBron needs Wade to be focused, interested and assertive on the attack, and shameless when he is on the court. Wade needs to be able to take the pressure off LeBron even when LeBron posts monstrous numbers.
Even though neither Westbrook nor Wade will win the Finals MVP award if their respective team wins, they will be the main reason why their team raises a banner come the 2012-13 season home opener. Westbrook has to find a way to take care of ball while remaining aggressive and efficient. Wade has to find a way to tap into his killer instinct of the past.
Can both players do it? Only these next games will tell. I'm hoping we get the best of both Westbrook and Wade so this Finals lives beyond its hype and expectation.
My prediction: Thunder in 6.