Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James. The team built through the draft against the team built through free agency. Good vs. evil. Rabid, college-style fanbase vs. apathetic, "need-to-be-seen" spectators. There are so many ways this much-anticipated NBA Finals series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat will be cast. Simply put, it's going to be a great series between two incredibly even-matched teams.
But as with any series of that ilk, the outcome will be determined by several more detailed questions. The two teams are so close in talent that it is these questions that will determine the outcome. While Durant and James dominate the headlines with their individual performances, here are seven issues (okay, eight) that I think will determine the winner of the series.
1. Will LeBron James get fatigued?
I expect LeBron to play much, much better than he did in the 2011 NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. If he doesn't, though, I think the reason will be similar to what happened then: fatigue.
Last year, I think James got tired playing too many strenuous minutes. Not only was he carrying such a heavy offensive load, but he was chasing Jason Terry around so many screens on defense. Combine that with the regular-season minutes he played, and I think he just wore down.
Already, you can see the same scenario repeating himself. Terry may run around a lot, but he's nothing close to the player Durant is. How many times can James sprint around the baseline through hard screens by Kendrick Perkins until he loses energy? How many pick and rolls does he have to trap before his legs start to go on the other end? How many blown leads will the Heat have if/when he sits before coach Erik Spoelstra needs to use James for all 48 minutes, like he did in the final two games of the Celtics series?
If the answer to any of these questions is a finite number, the Heat may be in trouble. They'll need James to be superhuman on both ends, and while he's capable of doing it, he is also human.
2. Can the Thunder continue to avoid their regular-season turnover problems?
The Thunder's offense during the regular season was very, very good, ranking among the best in the league. The Thunder's offense during the playoffs has been spectacular, ranking among the best we've seen in playoff history.
What's the difference? Turnovers.
During the regular season, turnovers were the Thunder's Achilles heel. They coughed it up on 15.25 percent of their possessions, which was the worst in the NBA. There were so many factors -- the team's youth, the slow growth of Durant's playmaking, the many hard dribble-drives to the rim from Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, the sometimes stagnant ball and player movement -- but whatever the reason, the turnovers were the one area that threatened to hold the Thunder back.
Then, the playoffs started, and a shocking thing happened: the Thunder suddenly became sure-handed ball-handlers. Oklahoma City is turning it over on just 11.2 percent of their possessions in their 15 playoff games, a mark only exceeded by the Denver Nuggets among playoff teams. For some perspective: the Philadelphia 76ers, who flirted with an NBA record for lowest turnover rate during the regular season, coughed it up more frequently than the Thunder during each team's playoff runs.
The transformation has been painted as a sign of maturation from the Thunder's stars. They play together more often now instead of just relying on their own amazing scoring skills, or so the story goes. And this is true, to a large degree.
But there's another reason that doesn't quite fit the narrative: the Thunder's opponents.
Oklahoma City's three series victories have been against three traditional powerhouses in the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs, but none of those teams are especially good at forcing turnovers. The Mavericks finished 14th in that category during the regular season, but given their athletic disadvantage against the Thunder, they weren't exactly well-equipped to take advantage of OKC's weakness. The Spurs and Lakers were even worse, ranking 24th and 30th, respectively, in forcing turnovers during the regular season. While it was impressive that the Thunder posted turnover percentages below 10 in four of the five games against the Lakers, for example, it has to be noted that the Lakers forced turnovers on an average of just 10.9 percent of all possessions during the regular season, by far the worst mark in the league.
The Heat, meanwhile, are one of the league's best teams at forcing turnovers, ranking third in the regular season in that category. As we all know, they're especially dangerous on live-ball turnovers that can be turned into transition opportunities, thanks to the tremendous athleticism of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. No team in the playoffs, except for possibly the Memphis Grizzlies, is better equipped to exploit the Thunder's turnover weakness than the Heat.
Will it happen? It depends on how far the Thunder's offense has really come.
3. How will Kevin Durant be used?
Durant will obviously score plenty in this series, but I'm curious to see how the Thunder will get him shots. Quietly, his offensive distribution changed significantly this season. In the past, he relied so heavily on his teammates to get him shots, often by feeding him passes as he curled off screens from the team's big men. That changed drastically this season, as Durant suddenly scored a higher percentage of his points in pick and roll situations than coming off screens.
This was one of the major reasons why I felt like Durant deserved the Most Improved Player award. He transformed his offensive game in such a subtle, yet significant way.
But as this series begins, I wonder if it might be wise for the Thunder to revert back to running Durant off all those screens.
There are a couple reasons. Part of this is that I wonder if Durant can capably run the pick and roll against this Heat team. In the Heat's one victory over the Thunder in early April, they forced Durant into nine turnovers, and many of those came in pick and roll situations. But mostly, I think having Durant come off baseline screens is the best way to attack the Heat's defense.
Miami's defense is so good at pressuring the ball, but sometimes, they can be too aggressive. The most notable area this occurs is on baseline screens. For the past few years, the Celtics, a normally poor offensive team, have been able to generate good looks by running Ray Allen off baseline screens, waiting for the Heat to double-team him on the perimeter and having Allen find the open man for easy shots. The Thunder can use Durant in the same way, and in fact, they have. MySynergySports.com lists the Heat as being the second-best defensive team at "off screen" situations, but that's misleading because those only include plays where the man coming off the screen actually ends the play with a shot, foul or turnover. It doesn't include all the plays where the Heat double-team the perimeter guy, opening up shots for others.
Therefore, I decided to track every play in the two Heat-Thunder regular-season games where the Thunder ran Durant or another player off a screen where he popped from the baseline to the perimeter as the primary play in their offensive set. I counted a total of 25 possessions in the two games, and the Thunder scored 36 points on those plays, good for 1.44 points per possession. That includes four plays where the Thunder drew a foul, and they were just 4-8 on those free throws. Had they hit all four of those missed free throws, they would have scored 1.6 points per 100 possessions on these kinds of plays. That's very, very high.
The sample size is small, but you can see how the Thunder used the Heat's defensive pressure against them in the following screenshots. Here's one from the Thunder's win over Miami in late-March. Notice how Ronny Turiaf joins James in trapping Durant 22 feet from the hoop, forcing Udonis Haslem to have to guard both Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins. He chooses poorly.
And here's one from the Thunder's loss in Miami in early April. This time, James and Chris Bosh converge on Durant, leaving Serge Ibaka open for a layup on the roll.
Given the success of this play, the Thunder would be wise to use it often in this series.
4. How does Dwyane Wade get his points? Who does he defend?
The Heat star's struggles have been well-documented, and now, he faces a really tough one-two punch against the Thunder. On one end, he'll probably see a lot of Thabo Sefolosha, who stifled Tony Parker in the Thunder's series win over the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. Sefolosha's length on Parker changed that series, and it has the potential to limit Wade as much, if not more, than the Celtics' team defensive schemes stifled him.
But I'm more curious on what happen on the other end. Who will Wade guard? When Sefolosha is in the game, I think the Heat will probably put Wade on him to rest his legs and allow him to play in the passing lanes more. But when Harden enters the game, I expect Wade to slide over to defend Westbrook, in an attempt to replicate his success defending Rajon Rondo in the final two games of the Eastern Conference Finals.
The problem? Whereas Rondo is a reluctant shooter who struggles to finish around the rim, Westbrook is an eager shooter that explodes to the basket. Wade could duck under ball screens and play way off Rondo, but he can't do the same thing against Westbrook.
So, what happens then? Does Wade switch over to Harden, who is just as tough a cover? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, he'll have to expend lots of energy guarding somebody in this series, and that could hurt him even more than usual offensively.
5. Will Miami switch everything defensively?
On the flip side, the Heat can mitigate the defensive load James and Wade have to carry by employing the defensive strategy they used in the final two games against the Celtics. As ESPN's Beckley Mason wrote after Game 6:
If it appeared that Boston's offense was out of rhythm, it might have been because Miami and coach Erik Spoelstra changed the tempo.
What Miami did in Game 6 was switch as much and as often as possible. The strategy has two benefits: (1) defenders are no longer laboring through the Celtics' screen-heavy offense, conserving energy by trading assignments; and (2) those same screens might yield mismatches but not wide-open players.
While the Thunder's offense is not nearly as complicated as the Celtics', switching every screen could have a similar effect. With Bosh healthy again and Shane Battier joining Wade and James on the wings, the Heat almost never have to deal with a huge mismatch. By switching screens, they can revert the Thunder's offense back into one-on-one mode, which they have gotten away from successfully in the playoffs. It also may lessen the number of hard picks Wade and James have to fight through in the series.
I look to see lots of switching from the Heat in this series.
6. Will Chris Bosh start? How will he change things? Will he change things?
Personally, I think Spoelstra would be foolish to continue bringing Bosh off the bench. The Heat don't win Game 7 against the Celtics without his defensive versatility and perimeter shooting, and they'll need both things even more against a Thunder team that has great drivers and shot-blocking big men.
The numbers say the Thunder shined with Bosh on the court and struggled with him on the bench. Why? I'm not sure. Bosh did struggle a lot dealing with Serge Ibaka's athleticism, but that alone shouldn't tip the scales this much. The sample size is small, but there must be something I'm missing. Or, there's not and these numbers are not statistically relevant because we're talking about less than 100 minutes.
Either way, I think we can all agree that Bosh needs to play well for the Heat to win. If the Heat roll with smaller lineups, they can force Ibaka away from the basket and give Bosh more room to work. I suspect we'll see a lot of that.
7. Which small lineup wins out?
We should expect to see lots of small-ball in this series. The Heat have played James at power forward for a huge part of this playoff run, and the Thunder are known to play Durant at power forward as well. Both teams excel under this arrangement -- the Heat's four most-used lineups with James at power forward in the playoffs all have a positive plus/minus, while the Thunder's two most-used lineups with Durant at power forward both have a staggeringly great plus/minus -- so you could argue they'll cancel each other out.
A lot of it may depend on which big man each team uses in the small lineup. The Thunder have fared much better with either Ibaka or Nick Collison as the big man in the playoffs than Perkins, but that was also against far more skilled big men. Will we see more of Perkins to try to deter Wade and James from driving to the basket? I think it's worth considering if you're Scott Brooks.
On the other end, you'd think Bosh would be the small-ball center in a Heat small lineup, but over 21 of Bosh's 31 minutes in Game 7 against the Celtics came when paired with Udonis Haslem. The Heat were also reluctant to use Bosh as the biggest guy on the court against the Thunder in the regular season, as just five of Bosh's 68 minutes came at center in those two games. With Bosh healthy again, it seems like he's the obvious guy to use if the Heat want to go small. Will Spoelstra change his regular-season rotations to make it happen?
No matter what happens, both teams can and will use their star players at power forward frequently in this series. It's a sign of how far the game has come.
AND ONE. Which teams executes best down the stretch?
OK, fine, we'll mention this because it's sure to become a big storyline.
Both teams discovered an offensive set that could help cure their crunch-time woes in their last series. For the Thunder, it was a Westbrook brush screen to free Durant at the free-throw line, where he could take his man one-on-one in the middle of the floor. For the Heat, it was placing Bosh in the corner to open up the floor and sending two big men to set a screen for the ball-handler. I broke down the former a couple weeks ago; Grantland's Sebastian Pruiti described the latter a couple days ago.
It'll be interesting to see which pet play holds up, because both rely on elements that I'm not sure will be present in this series. The Heat are much bigger on the wings than the Spurs were, so they can switch the Westbrook/Durant screen and not be punished as much by Durant's size. On the other hand, the Heat probably can't count on Bosh, a career 29 percent three-point shooter, to consistently make defenders pay for leaving him in the corner. All this is to say that I'm not sure the two teams' "pet plays" will work as well against each other.
That means we should expect to see lots of isolations for LeBron James and Kevin Durant. That's what we all came for anyway, isn't it?
PREDICTION: The Thunder have home-court advantage, which is huge, but I think the Heat are a really tough matchup for them with their size on the perimeter. Assuming James holds up physically, which is no guarantee, I see the Heat winning one of the first two games, twice at home and then finishing this thing off in Oklahoma City. Heat in 6.