With the return of Chris Bosh, the Heat’s Big Three is intact. Will that be enough to defeat the Thunder? Eric Fisher’s NBA predictions have been incredibly accurate. Will he stick with his preseason pick (Thunder) or switch to the Heat?
The first challenge of the NBA Finals is to avoid getting bogged down in weather references. That’s not easy when the Heat are facing the Thunder.
This series, however, is more about the stars in the universe beyond the sky than Earth-level Heat waves and Thunder storms. (And there goes my effort to avoid weather references.). The Heat are anchored by three stars: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The Thunder stars are Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, as well as sixth man of the year James Harden.
Both teams fought off increasingly difficult challenges to reach the finals. The Heat easily dispatched the Knicks, struggled a little before beating the Pacers, then rallied from a 3-2 deficit — after losing three straight — to redeem themselves with a victory over the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. The Thunder swept the defending-champion Mavericks, cruised past Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, then rallied from a 2-0 series deficit to eliminate the Spurs in six games.
The Thunder’s road has been more difficult. The Mavericks are better than the Knicks, the Lakers are better than the Pacers, and the Spurs, who extended their winning streak to 20 games before bowing out, were a much more difficult opponent than the Celtics. The Thunder have a greater inside presence than the Celtics, who have Kevin Garnett and not much else. Don’t expect the Heat to get three or four straight offensive rebounds against the Thunder, as they did against the Celtics.
James and Durant may cancel each other out. The Thunder have a huge advantage at point guard, although Wade may cover Westbrook instead of leaving that task to Mario Chalmers. If the Thunder can shut down Bosh and prevent rebounds and second-chance points, the advantage will swing toward the Thunder.
There are also nagging doubts about the Heat’s performance during close games. During this postseason, the Heat are 1-4 in games decided by five or fewer points. By contrast, Durant has demonstrated the ability to make tough shots at the end of the game, when the pressure is at its highest.
I won’t guarantee my playoff predictions, but I will point out that I’ve had a remarkable NBA season in terms of predictions. In this supposedly unpredictable season, with its condensed schedule, I correctly forecast 15 of the 16 playoff teams (the Blazers instead of the Jazz was my only mistake). In the first round, I correctly predicted six of eight series, with the Sixers-Bulls and Grizzlies-Clippers series, which I described as the toughest series to predict, being my only mistakes. I haven’t got a series wrong since the first round, going 4-for-4 in predicting the conference semifinals then correctly picked the Heat and Thunder to win the conference finals.
Which team am I picking to win the NBA Finals? Read the rest of the preview to find out.
HEAT vs. THUNDER
Heat: The Heat begin this series with their Big Three intact. Chris Bosh, who strained an abdominal muscle at the beginning of the Pacers series, returned just in time to help the Heat capture the Eastern Conference finals, scoring 19 points during their Game 7 victory over the Celtics. LeBron James took over the end of the Celtics series, including a 45-point masterpiece in Game 6. James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade were responsible for more than two-thirds of the Heat’s offense during the regular season, and nothing much has changed. Other than Bosh’s 19 points, no other reserve scored for the Heat in Game 7. That must change against the Thunder. Udonis Haslem gave the Heat solid minutes in place of Bosh in the starting lineup and Shane Battier gave the Heat quality minutes against the Celtics, but the Heat will need more consistent contributions from their role players against the Thunder. Point guards Mario Chalmers (9.8 points, 3.5 assists) and Norris Cole (6.8 points) and former sharpshooter Mike Miller (6.1 points) must provide more offense. Center Joel Anthony can help on defense, but he’s a non-factor (3.4 points) at the offensive end.
Thunder: The Thunder swept the defending-champion Mavericks in the first round, although three of the four games were close, and then dispatched the Lakers in five games. But their most impressive series victory was defeating the Spurs, who had won 20 straight games before the Thunder prevailed in the final four games of the Western Conference finals for a 4-2 series edge. The Thunder’s talent begins with Kevin Durant (28.0 points), the NBA’s leading scorer. Point guard Russell Westbrook (23.6) is a force to be reckoned with, as is James Harden, who was an overwhelming choice as the NBA’s sixth man of the year. Some of the intagibles are supplied by forward Serge Ibaka, who averages 9.1 points, 7.5 rebounds and an eye-popping 3.65 blocked shots. The Thunder rely heavily on these four players. Former Laker Derek Fisher (5.6 points) provides a veteran and championship presence, but nobody outside the big four averages more than Fisher.
How they got here: The Heat beat the Knicks, 4-1, the Pacers, 4-2, and the Celtics, 4-3. The Thunder swept the Mavericks, 4-0, beat the Lakers, 4-1, and ousted the Spurs, 4-2.
Prediction: The difference in this series may be Ibaka. His shot-blocking presence should discourage drives to the basket, or at least make them more difficult to complete. With the stars likely to cancel each other out, this series could be decided by the role players and reserves. The Thunder have Harden, the winner of the Sixth Man of the Year Award. By contrast, the Celtics, with Ray Allen forced into the starting lineup by Avery Bradley’s shoulder surgery, had little production off the bench. The bench and the Thunder’s advantage at point guard — although Wade may cover Westbrook instead of having Chalmers cover him — add up to a Thunder title. Besides, I picked the Thunder before the season. With the finish line in sight, this is not time to change horses. THUNDER in 6