We're down to two teams -- the two teams we all thought we'd get before the season began -- and if common consensus is accurate, we have no idea who wins now. The 2012 NBA Finals begin Tuesday, and it's hard to remember the last time you could find so many arguments as to why either competitor could win this series. The Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder seem remarkably even, with each carrying specific advantages and general momentum. It's a really, really tough pick.
But that hasn't stopped us. SB Nation's NBA crew makes its predictions below. Stay tuned through Tuesday for additional previews before Game 1, and of course for coverage of the series itself. Until then, here are our picks.
STEVE PERRIN: OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
I have to go with Oklahoma City in the Finals for a number of reasons. First of all, being a West coast guy, I'll cop to at least a bit of a Western Conference bias. While the East certainly had some solid quality at the top of the conference this season including the Heat, the West has been the better conference overall for years, and this year was no exception. So in general, there's a logic to picking the West champ over the East champ.
More specifically, the Thunder have been playing great ball in the playoffs, posting a 12-3 record overall, including an 8-0 record at home -- very significant when you consider that the Thunder have home court advantage in the Finals. (One wonders if Miami regrets tanking its final regular season game against the Wizards now, as a win there would have given the Heat home court in these Finals.)
Finally, for me it comes down to this: with Chris Bosh back and very effective in Game 7 against the Celtics Saturday, Miami's big three is back in tact; but OKC has a big three of its own, and the supporting cast around Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden is far superior to the scrubs in Miami. So even though LeBron James will be a very difficult matchup for Durant or really anyone on the Thunder, in the end I just think Oklahoma City has the quality and depth to win it all. OKC in six.
SCOTT SCHROEDER: MIAMI HEAT
It's been said plenty of times over the past couple of days, but really, don't the fans win -- regardless of the outcome -- with this year's NBA Finals? The matchups are all compelling, and while the good vs. evil narrative isn't as simple some seem to try and make it, the more casual basketball fans are going to have little trouble finding a rooting interest in regards to this year's champ.
My personal pick, however, is going to be the Heat in seven. In all honestly, I'm not 100 percent confident in that pick and will be happy just to watch seven games of solid basketball, but would rather see LeBron James and Co. get their ring just to see what the mainstream decides to chide them with going forward. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden will hopefully be the Thunder core for quite awhile and should eventually get their championship, but I think they might need to suffer defeat before they figure out how to make it over this last little hump.
ANDREW SHARP: OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Check out Sharp's full preview on Tuesday.
Because the Thunder are worlds better than the Celtics and Pacers were, and the Spurs probably would've beaten the Heat in five games. Because Kevin Durant has turned into an assassin the past six weeks. Because Dwyane Wade's not the same assassin he used to be. Because Chris Bosh still isn't 100 percent, because nobody can guard James Harden or Russell Westbrook, and because Miami needs LeBron to be at that Game 6, "F--k You" level for 4-5 games here, and I'm not sure he's got it in him. Thunder in 6.
BOMANI JONES: MIAMI HEAT
Check out the full Bomani Jones Finals preview. Here's an excerpt. Also be sure to check the Bomani & Jones episode on the 7 Things You Need To Know About The Finals, embedded below.
When the Western Conference Finals began, many assumed it was the de facto Finals. Both teams, supposedly, had too much scoring and/or size for either Miami or Boston to contend with.
Well, does that still hold for Miami now that Chris Bosh is back (and, apparently, making corner three-pointers)? Can Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison or Kendrick Perkins deal with Miami's pick-and-roll now that Bosh has returned? If the Thunder go small -- which they'll have to do to get James Harden's scoring and Thabo Sefolosha's defense on the floor at the same time -- can Harden contain Dwyane Wade? And while there isn't a soul on the Heat's roster who can guard Russell Westbrook, will the Thunder get caught standing around on offense and make that job a lot easier for whomever's in front of him at a given time?
MIKE PRADA: MIAMI HEAT
Check out Prada's full preview on Tuesday.
To me, the Heat are a really tough matchup for the Thunder. One of the major reasons the Thunder eventually ran away from the Spurs was because San Antonio's defense could not stop the Thunder in any way, shape or form. OKC's defense was decent, but it was offense that overwhelmed the Spurs and was the catalyst for the four straight wins. The Thunder possessed a size matchup on the wing and did all they could to exploit it. Their pet play -- a Russell Westbrook down screen to free Kevin Durant around the elbow in the middle of the floor -- worked because the Spurs couldn't switch it, since the Thunder would punish them with their size advantage.
No such advantage exists with the Heat. By the end of the Celtics series, the Heat were using their perimeter length beautifully to switch every pick, preventing the Celtics from gaining any sort of advantage with their maze of screens. Very few teams can do this, but the Heat can, thanks to the defensive versatility of LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem and Dwyane Wade. That means that if the Thunder run plays to try to create one-on-one matchups in desirable locations, the Heat will be much better prepared than the Spurs, who had to deal with having Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker switched onto Durant too often.
There are mitigating factors here, of course. If Durant can guard James in this series as well as he did in the regular season, that'll tip the scales. Westbrook also poses a different kind of challenge than Rajon Rondo for Miami because the Heat can't sink five feet back against him defensively. Bosh will also need to play better, because he really struggled against Serge Ibaka in the regular season. But I think all these things can happen, particularly if Erik Spoelstra is smart and uses a lineup of Mario Chalmers/Wade/Battier/James/Bosh to pull Ibaka away from the paint.
I also think James is finally ready. I see this series being tied at 2 heading into Game 5, and then I see James shedding his demons and winning Games 5 and 6 for the Heat. Heat in 6.
TOM ZILLER: MIAMI HEAT
Ziller's The Hook breaks down the coaching duel on Monday. On Tuesday: delving into Russell Westbrook.
For every argument I can make for the Heat, there's a trump card pulled by the Thunder. And for every argument I can make for the Thunder, there's a trump card pulled by the Heat. So lay them out.
Each team has a top-two player, both of whom (Durant and LeBron) are incredible, efficient scorers and practically uncheckable. But LeBron is a better defender than KD. That's not in question at all. So, even though Durant is genius, you'd figure that James could guard him a little more effectively than Durant can guard James. And in fact, when KD isn't guarding LeBron, the Thunder are in a tough spot: they have to use a smaller (Thabo Sefolosha, James Harden) or bigger (Serge Ibaka) defender on James. That can work in moments (see: Brandon Bass in the East finals), but it's not sustainable (see: Brandon Bass in the East finals). To defend KD, the Heat can go with Shane Battier, which is a better match-up (even though KD can still torch him, because KD can torch anyone).
But where Oklahoma City makes up the difference is with James Harden and Russell Westbrook. First of all, that's the best backcourt in basketball (maybe). You could have pointed to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili before the Thunder torched them four straight times in the West finals. You can probably rate Derrick Rose + [anyone] very highly. On pure confidence, you can even toss Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis up there. But seriously, even though Harden comes off the bench, the two play together plenty, and they are terrifying.
And Miami has no way to counter both of them. You'd expect Dwyane Wade to both score enough to counterbalance one of them and take turns defending each. But again, there are two of them. Erik Spoelstra will have his hands full balancing minutes of Wade and Battier to ensure they can guard Wade and Harden; James Jones might get a look, too. But remember that Mario Chalmers or Norris Cole are typically out there for Spo, and man, those dudes are going to get slaughtered by Westbrook.
The Heat counter with Chris Bosh, who certainly looked healthy as he took over the paint late in the fourth quarter of Game 7 on Sunday. Bosh didn't look great in his first game back from injury (Game 5), but was excellent in Games 6 and 7. Ibaka's a dandy of a defender, but derives most of his defensive value at the rim as the league's best shotblocker. The key to Bosh is how he pulls defenders away from the rim due to his beautiful shooting stroke. Those three corner bombs in Game 7 perhaps aren't repeatable. But you can bet they are making Scott Brooks and Co. think twice about coverage plans. The Heat's playmakers -- Wade, and especially LeBron -- are exceptional passers. If Bosh pulls Ibaka out to the perimeter and Serge drives in on the LeBron/Wade penetration, they can hit Bosh for the jumper all night long. Or they can keep Bosh low and just drop the ball off when Ibaka commits -- and commit he will. He'll commit fouls, too; few are better than LeBron and Wade at drawing them.
In the end, I think Miami has just enough defense to prevent total Durant-Westbrook-Harden offensive Armageddon, and just enough arsenal of its own to break through OKC's defense. But it'll be a close one, and I'm pleading we receive at least a few (if not seven) fever pitch, tight fourth quarters.