March 16, 2011; Miami, FL, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) and Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) during a game at American Airlines Arena. Oklahoma won 96-85. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Miami Heat: NBA Finals Preview


The Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat will tip Game 1 of the NBA Finals tonight at 9 p.m. EST on ABC.

The Thunder and the Heat are the matchup the fans wanted. They are the two most talented teams each with one of the two most talented players in the league.

There are a ton of matchups to look at in this series and ton of important factors that will affect who wins.

Let’s start with…

Kevin Jairaj-US PRESSWIRE

Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant and LeBron James are the headline of this series. They are the two best players in the NBA and will be matched up for most of the series. It’s not all about which one is better though.

LeBron is better overall than Durant but Durant has the potential to outplay LeBron on any given night. And on those nights, the Thunder should win.

In the regular season, that’s exactly what happened. Durant outplayed LeBron in the first meeting and the Thunder won 103-87 at home then LeBron outplayed Durant the next time in Miami and the Heat won 98-93.

Durant’s first challenge will be scoring efficiently with LeBron guarding him. LeBron has essentially turned into the best defensive player in the NBA whose strength and power could bother Durant.

Durant needs to not be hesitant on his catch-and-shoot opportunities which should be plenty with the way Miami plays defense. Durant is the best in the league at those kinds of shots and taking them usually helps him find his rhythm.

Durant can get in trouble with LeBron on him when he tries to drive. LeBron will be physical with him and Durant isn’t going to get a ton of calls with LeBron on him. Durant commits most of his turnovers on drives and when he does against Miami, it will quickly turn into points at the other end.

Durant will need to continue with his improved passing especially in the pick-and-roll. Miami is going to hedge hard and double on the pick-and-roll ball handler and it will be crucial for Durant to make the smart pass when that happens and he doesn’t have an opportunity to look for his shot.

On defense, Durant has his work cut out for him…

Robert Mayer-US PRESSWIRE

LeBron James

LeBron won his third MVP this season and has been playing the best basketball of his life of late. He averaged 33.6 points, 11.0 rebounds and 3.9 assists while shooting .527 percent from the field in the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston.

LeBron is going to need numbers close to that for Miami to beat the Thunder but it won’t be as easy for him. Durant is an underrated defender when it comes to matching up with LeBron. He can bother him with his length and doesn’t have to play as close on him.

The goal for the Thunder will be to make LeBron a jump shooter. They will play him straight up too which will make it harder for LeBron to have his big assist nights which usually come when he sees a lot of doubles.

If LeBron gets out on the break a ton and gets easy baskets that way, it will spell trouble for the Thunder. All easy baskets for LeBron need to be limited by Oklahoma City for them to win. Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison know this and will be fouling hard every chance they get when LeBron is open inside.

For Miami to beat the Thunder, LeBron has to put him a stat line close to 32-10-6. Anything less and the Thunder should have the advantage.

LeBron does everything for this Heat team and while that is impressive, it will be harder for him to do so in the Finals when he is matched up with Durant. So much of LeBron’s energy will be spent on stopping Durant or scoring on Durant that it could make his overall impact less.

Kevin Jairaj-US PRESSWIRE

Russell Westbrook

The Thunder were able to beat the Spurs in six games with Westbrook not being the scorer he was all season long. Westbrook averaged 23.6 points per game in the regular season but just 18.2 in the Western Conference Finals. Westbrook did become more of a point guard against the Spurs averaging 7.3 assists per game.

With Mario Chalmers matched up with him, Westbrook will have to assume more of a scorer’s mentality against the Heat. He is at his best aggressively looking for his midrange pull-up jump shot and he should be able to get that shot a lot when Chalmers is on him.

If Westbrook can start hitting that shot, it will open up the rest of his game and likely force Dwyane Wade to start covering him. Wade did a nice job on Westbrook in the regular season but if he has to expend energy on defense, it will take away from his offensive production.

Turnovers are still probably the biggest concern with Westbrook though. While he has improved in this department, he is still capable of big turnover games when he becomes frustrated. Miami is the wrong team to do that against so staying under control and taking good, calculated shots will be extremely important for Westbrook.

Robert Mayer-US PRESSWIRE

Dwyane Wade

While LeBron has been on a tear this season and in the playoffs, Wade has had a drop in his production. Wade averaged 21.4 points per game in the Boston series and shot just .444 percent from the field.

Oklahoma City has a much better cast of defenders to throw at Wade than Boston did. Things will become more difficult for him and if he has a bad series, Miami may have no chance.

There is a lot of talk surrounding the LeBron-Durant matchup but it’s really Wade vs. Westbrook that may be more important. If Westbrook has better numbers than Wade, can you really imagine the Heat winning the series?

Wade has improved his post game this season and that’s where he could really hurt the Thunder. If Westbrook or James Harden is forced to try and handle Wade in the post, it will be really tough on the entire Thunder defense.

Mark D. Smith-US PRESSWIRE

James Harden

The Beard has taken the next step toward stardom as the Thunder have been taking the next steps toward becoming a champion. Harden has increased his output in the playoffs too and has not shied away from the big moment when OKC has called on him.

Harden is always important for the Thunder and their second unit and that won’t change in this series. In the regular season, Shane Battier often guarded Harden and did a very good job on him, reading his moves and anticipating passes and getting deflections. If Battier draws the assignment of Harden, expect things to be difficult for him.

Harden should be able to figure it out though and the further this series goes on, the better he will get. That’s what we saw against the Spurs. Harden attempted zero free throws in Game 1 of that series then figured out their defense, adjusted and started getting back to the line.

One area where Harden can struggle is on defense. We saw him have his troubles against Kobe Bryant two series ago and in crunch time, he may have to guard Wade some. Wade can hurt Harden with his back to the basket in a similar way that Kobe did and that may be a tough thing for the Thunder to overcome at times.

Robert Mayer-US PRESSWIRE

Chris Bosh

Bosh got injured in Game 1 of Miami’s series with Indiana and didn’t return until Game 5 against Boston. He played great in the final two games of that series and was a big reason as to why the Heat won.

If Bosh isn’t 100 percent, the Heat will have a near impossible time beating the Thunder in the Finals. Bosh needs to be hitting his spot-up jumpers which will pull Serge Ibaka away from protecting the paint and he also needs to be active on the boards.

Bosh is also going to be the Heat’s last line of defense a lot of times as Miami will play small a lot in this series. If Bosh is unable to make it hard on Durant, Westbrook and Harden to attack the rim, Miami will be in trouble.

The Bigs

The Thunder have a big advantage against Miami in how physical their big men are. Perkins and Ibaka will look to bang and crash the glass at will against a slim Miami frontline. If they can help the Thunder produce double-digit offensive rebound games, it will be a big advantage for the Thunder.

Ibaka and Perkins will also have a lot of opportunities to score like they did in Game 4 against the Spurs. Miami will want to take the ball out of the hands of the pick-and-roll ball handler which will open up lanes for Ibaka and Perkins. If they are active and look to score they could play a huge factor in the series.

Kevin Jairaj-US PRESSWIRE

Spot-up shooters

The spot-up shooters from both teams could swing a game or two in this series. Miami relies on spot-up shooting much more than Oklahoma City and will definitely have to hit their open threes to win games.

The Thunder are very used to defending spot-up shooting after playing six games against the Spurs so they should be able to do a decent job against Miami in this department.

Derek Fisher is the X-factor in terms of a spot-up shooter for the Thunder. We know Scott Brooks will play him crunch time minutes and the opportunities will be there for him to hit big shots, which he’s done before.

Prediction

This series is going to be a close one. Both teams are very good with stars on the roster and neither should get blown out in any way.

Home court advantage will be huge for the Thunder. It is hard to imagine them losing a game at home but with the Finals and its 2-3-2 format, there will be a lot of pressure for the Thunder to win both of the first two games.

Miami could be drained from the Boston series but the Thunder have never been to the Finals before so we might see some overexcitement from them early on in Game 1. You don’t want to get behind the Heat because they are the best team in the NBA at playing with a lead, although the Thunder can come back on anyone behind their home crowd.

I think the Thunder win the first two at home then Miami comes back to tie the series 2-2. I think the Thunder pull out Game 5 on the road then Miami hands Oklahoma City their first home loss of the playoffs in Game 6.

That will set up the ever epic Game 7 in Oklahoma City.

My money’s on the Thunder.

Tags: Chris Bosh Derek Fisher Dwyane Wade Kendrick Perkins Kevin Durant LeBron James Mario Chalmers Miami Heat NBA Finals NBA Playoffs Nick Collison Oklahoma City Thunder Russell Westbrook Scott Brooks Serge Ibaka