Robd: “It’s only right, it’s only right” said LeBron when asked about his opponents the Oklahoma City Thunder in the upcoming Finals. I couldn’t have said it any better.

“Only right” that the best two teams in the league are left to face off each other.

“Only right” that the best two young players in the league will go head to head in a matchup that will leave any NBA fan salivating.

“Only right” that LeBron is back in the Finals, one year after that demoralizing defeat, to try and prove the doubters wrong all over again.

There are enough storylines and subplots in this Finals matchup to drown the Internet, but I’m going to keep my prediction brief. It’s not about LeBron vs Durant or Wade vs Westbrook. It’s about the same thing it is every year – heart, hustle and defense. That’s all it is. People talk about this ‘clutch’ thing like it’s an enigmatic super-power that surfaces in the dying minutes of a close game. But ‘clutch’ is only a measure of those things, and the reason Dirk looked so clutch last year is because of his self-belief, his heart, and his team’s focus on the defensive end to make the key stops. LeBron looked very un-clutch last year, because of the opposite reasons.

So who wins the 2012 NBA Finals? That is no easy question because both these teams have displayed immeasurable amounts of heart, hustle and great defense in these playoffs. The Thunder dug themselves out of a 0-2 hole against the rampaging Spurs, a team that had the experience and supposed mental edge, but nevertheless couldn’t win 2 out of the last 5 games. The Thunder are not the young happy-go-lucky team you think they are. They beat the three best Western Conference teams of the past decade to get to this point, teams lead by Dirk, Kobe and Duncan. They are battle-tested as much as any championship team needs to be.

The Heat have looked shaky thanks to injuries and some underwhelming performances from Wade and James at times, yet when it came to the moment to stand up, they were undeniable and unstoppable. The Heat in Games 6 and 7 were absolutely everything you expect from a championship team. Watching them I couldn’t help be reminded my Pistons from several years back, who so often rallied from 2-3 series deficits. It’s that stubborn refusal to die, that unified will to win that can just overwhelm any weakness or injury. The Miami Heat have it this year. LeBron has it this year, and in his case, I think it’s a lack of self-awareness that is making this happen. More focus on the moment, rather than what everyone will think about the moment when it passes. That is Miami and LeBron right now.

If Bosh was 100% healthy I’d feel a lot more comfortable with my Heat prediction, which I haven’t changed since the start of the season. But for the reasons above, I think Miami can still overcome it. I think the Thunder will have a clear advantage inside, but I don’t know if Scott Brooks can engineer enough interior offense to take advantage of it. I know Durant will be amazing, but LeBron James is unquestionably the better basketball player (and seriously, it’s not even close). Wade and Westbrook will be fascinating, as will James Harden who will probably win a game himself.

But I will start and finish with LeBron, just as I think this Finals will. If LeBron James keeps being the LeBron James we’ve witnessed recently, he will get his first championship ring. The only thing that can stop him, is himself. That I firmly believe. The 2011 NBA Finals was an incredible learning opportunity for him, and I choose to believe that he is smart enough and good enough to avoid the same mistakes twice. To stay engaged for four quarters, to not be too unselfish, to not worry about what others think or how the LeBron James legacy will be affected.

I believe that because, ultimately, I believe the guy wants to win and he’ll do anything in his powers to make it happen. Right now those powers are unmatched in this league, and if we see the real LeBron, the Thunder will have no answer.

If.

Miami in 6.

Ash: As pretty as the Spurs offense was and as tough as the Celtics’ veterans were…you gotta know this was the Finals matchup everyone wanted. Storylines everywhere you can shake a stick at. LeBron v Durant. Brooks v Spoelstra (two of the better young coaches in the league). Small market Oklahoma City versus the glitz and glamour of South Beach. Good vs evil. Wherever you look there’s a story.

As we know, I like to play the matchup game for playoff series. I can’t find any area where one team has a clear advantage in this one. LeBron and Durant is a wash, so is Wade and Westbrook, and the Thunder also have Sefolosha to defend both those guys and take pressure off Durant/Westbrook on that end. If the Heat keep bringing Chris Bosh off the bench (which would be smart since he’s been extremely effective with the second unit the last two games) the offensive advantage OKC would have had with James Harden and their second unit is also neutralised. The only real advantage I can see for either team is Serge Ibaka vs the Miami front court, and if OKC can get the 1-4 pick and roll working with Ibaka the Heat may be forced to play LeBron more at the 4. But Ibaka is a fourth option whenever he’s on the court. Other than pick and rolls, putbacks and the odd 15 footer, he doesn’t offer enough offensively to really scare this Heat team.

In my opinion, this one’s going to come down to a simple question of who really, truly wants it more. And here’s the thing with Miami. As we know, I’m still not convinced of LeBron’s ability to come through in the clutch. These playoffs, however, he seems to have found a gear I wasn’t sure he had (but which I’m quite sure no other NBA player posesses) and I think it comes down to the fact that he wants this title more than anyone right now. I think it’s well established by now that LeBron is a guy who cares about how he’s perceived more than he probably should – however it seems that he’s finally figured out how to use it right and its rubbing off on the entire team (specifically Bosh and Wade the last couple of games) and this sheer determination to win, the like of which we’ve never really seen from LeBron before, may be enough to power him past his usual clutch heebie-jeebies.

I get the vibe with this series that it’s almost a reversal of last year, with Miami in the role of Dallas as the team who were so desperate to win and spill whatever blood to get there, and that alone may be enough to overcome a team that may have a bit of a talent advantage. You get the feeling that OKC know that even if they lose this one, there’s a good chance they’ll be back soon enough. Miami just seem like they want this too much. I still have my concerns with this team, but I’m taking the Heat in 7.

Other predictions:
- LeBron as Finals MVP although the worthy winner should be James Harden’s beard.
- Bron-Bron will still have a couple of those insane 40-10-10 and 30-15-10 games where even his haters (like myself) just watch one of the great athletic talents of any sport of our time (fuck, of all time) go to work.
- Durant will have at least one 40 point game.
- Game 7 will feature one of those Westbrook/Durant battle slash meltdowns that gives it to the Heat.
- James Harden’s beard will continue to be magnificent. (OK, I’ll shut up about the beard now).
- Chris Bosh will have a few 20-10 games off the bench. However, he will continue to look like the lovechild of a T-Rex and Avatar creature.

SP: A couple of months back I voiced my opinion on the Miami Heat winning the championship. I couldn’t see any way that a team would be capable of slowing down LeBron James when he got a head full of steam. I thought Wade would be producing at an elite level which would command enough attention away from LeBron and subsequently make the game easier for him. I thought that after two full seasons together, Miami would have gelled to the point that they had resolved the power struggles and appointed either James or Wade as the teams alpha dog.

However throughout the Celtics series only one of these scenarios would consistently ring true to me about this Miami Heat team – nobody can stop LeBron James when he gets a head full of steam. The only issue is that he doesn’t always have the easiest time generating this killer instinct, which Ash pointed out in his lengthy rebuttal to my LeBron James article.

But by now I’m sure all of our well-educated readers would know that even at the ripe age of just 23, Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder has already developed a killer instinct which has devastated every team they’ve faced in their run to the finals. I don’t care what advanced statistics say and I don’t even think it’s up for debate. Kevin Durant is the best closer in the NBA. The only problem I see with Kevin Durant closing out games is his notorious second banana, Russell Westbrook. Since Westbrook emerged as an elite scoring guard in the 2010/11 season, a power struggle also started to develop in OKC between the league’s leading scorer and his point guard. It’s no secret that the Thunder are at the best when they run the floor, just like it’s no secret that they’re at their best when Westbrook defers to Durant in the later stages of the big games. But things don’t always play out like that for the Thunder.

A potential storyline I could see developing throughout this series would be that the occasion got the better of Russell Westbrook. He is only 23 years old and every now and then He shows some growing pains as he develops in to the player he will one day become. But throughout this series all OKC fans will be able to do is take the good with the bad when it comes to Russell Westbrook and hope that he rises to the occasion and picks his spots effectively.

After watching the series’ which allowed both Oklahoma City and Miami to advance to the finals, it seems the Thunder are entering this matchup with an edge in momentum. They cruised through the West, having no real trouble taking care of any of their first 3 opponents. It’s not often that a team enters the NBA finals on a 4 game winning streak. However I’m going to maintain my stance that Miami have the most talented player in this series, and as much as the Thunder bench has been a key to their success throughout the season, I think James’ ability to play big minutes will essentially nullify their effectiveness.

I’m expecting Oklahoma City’s well rested and healthy bodies will give the Thunder a physical edge over Miami in this series, but this is the NBA finals and it’s going to take more than just physical superiority to take home the hardware. This will be a mental battle as much as anything and as each game takes on a personality of it’s own, the team who can stay mentally in tune throughout this series will ultimately be crowned champions. Like a true wanker, I’ll close the piece by quoting myself from the article I wrote a couple of months ago.

“If being mentally engaged for a full forty-eight minutes and showing a willingness to take the big shot is all that’s left for King James to conquer, then to me, I think the outcome is inevitable.” Heat in 6.

JT: In the preseason I predicted OKC to the win the title (over Miami) so I won’t back off that now. And stealing one from Sam, I’m gonna be a wanker and quote myself from back then: “The Thunder are still a bit green, but they have it all – a big defensive front line, a closer, multiple scoring options and an unselfish, team-first squad (I think the criticism leveled at the 23 year old Westbrook last season was garbage). Their depth (and LeBron’s shortcomings) will overwhelm Miami.”

I’d make one amendment to that. Clearly, LeBron’s game has evolved this year and he’s risen to some big moments and then some. But the question is, can he do it in the Finals? So in a sense, despite all he’s done these last few weeks (and it was remarkable) rightly or wrongly the defining moment still awaits him. If he plays out of his skin – which he’s more than capable of – the Heat could win, and I for one will then gladly eat humble pie. But in my opinion that’s what it will take for the Heat to beat the Thunder – an epic performance from LeBron James, the likes of which we’ve never seen before on the finals stage. So he will need to replicate some of these unbelievable games and go full throttle throughout, because your stock standard LeBron will not get it done here with this supporting cast and against this competition.

Personally, I’d love to see him take this out, silence the critics and put all this nonsense to bed, for good. But as I’ve been saying all year, the Thunder are flat-out nasty so I can’t see him reaching these peaks throughout the entire series, against this squad. I think. Thunder in 7.


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