June 12, 2012
The NBA Finals get underway Tuesday night, the penultimate series in a bizarre, lockout shortened season that failed to go according to plan. Both the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder had the second best record in their respective conferences, but the parallels to their postseason runs grind to a halt after the facing of seventh seeded teams in the opening round of the playoffs.
While the Thunder dealt with each of the three teams that combined for every NBA Finals appearance on behalf of the Western Conference since 1999, the Heat brushed aside teams without that sort of championship pedigree. The loss of Derrick Rose crippled the top seeded Chicago Bulls, who didn’t even make it out of the first round of the playoffs. Their defeat made the Heat’s road to a second consecutive NBA Finals appearance even easier.
Let’s take a look at how each team made it to the Finals and in part two of the preview, we’ll focus on some key matchups that may well decide the series.
MIAMI HEAT (46-20 regular season, Won Southeast Division, 2nd in Eastern Conference)
Eastern Conference First Round: Defeated #7 New York Knicks 4-1
Eastern Conference Semifinals: Defeated #3 Indiana Pacers 4-2
Eastern Conference Finals: Defeated #5 Boston Celtics 4-3
The Heat’s path to the NBA Finals started with a breeze past the New York Knicks in the opening round. Miami dispatched the Knicks in five games, with New York suffering a series of serious injuries during the five games. Iman Shumpert went down with torn knee ligaments in Game One and then lost Baron Davis with a dislocated kneecap in Game Four. Amare Stoudemire missed Game Three after damaging his hand when he punched a case holding a fire extinguisher. Jeremy Lin, the rags to riches point guard that turned the Knicks around, didn’t play at all in the postseason after injuring his knee in early April.
In round two, the Heat had to deal with adversity of their own: Chris Bosh, the third member of Miami’s star triumvirate that includes LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, suffered an abdominal strain in Game One of the series. He would not play in the rest of the second round and much of the conference finals. Indiana used their size advantage inside to pound Miami and claim Games Two and Three to take a 2-1 series lead. It was their last high water moment of the series as Wade and James exploded, helping Miami claim the next three games and the series.
Miami’s toughest challenge came in the conference finals against the battle tested, veteran laden Celtics. The Heat jumped to a quick two games to none lead, only to see Boston battle back behind Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and company to take a three games to two lead and put the Heat on the brink of elimination. Bosh reappeared in Game Five for the first time since his Game One injury against the Pacers. He would prove to be critical as the series went on. In Game Six, James became the first player since Wilt Chamberlain to score 45 points, grab 15 rebounds and have five assists in a postseason game.
With their backs against the wall in Game Seven, James had 30 points and 13 rebounds while Wade added 23 and Bosh had 19 points off the bench. Miami rallied from a seven point halftime deficit and pulled away from a tie game at the end of the third quarter to win 101-88 and advance to the Finals. After a gritty seven game series against Boston that didn’t end until Saturday night, one has to wonder if fatigue will begin to set in for Wade and James, who had to carry Miami most of the series.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (47-19 in regular season, Won Northwest Division, 2nd in Western Conference)
Western Conference First Round: Defeated #7 Dallas Mavericks 4-0
Western Conference Semifinals: Defeated #3 Los Angeles Lakers 4-1
Western Conference Finals: Defeated #1 San Antonio Spurs 4-2
The Thunder was leading the Western Conference for much of the season and were 40-12 after a 14 point victory over the Bulls on April 1. Oklahoma City struggled down the stretch however, finishing the season 7-7 over their final 14 games, while San Antonio won their last ten to claim the top seed and home court advantage throughout the postseason.
In the opening round, the Thunder swept aside the defending champion Mavericks. Kevin Durant hit a game winning jumper with less than two seconds to play in Game One to set the tone for the series. Dallas was unable to protect a lead in the closing minute of Game Two as well, allowing the Thunder to claim a three point win and take a 2-0 series lead. After a 16 point blowout win in Game Three, Oklahoma City completed the sweep with a six point victory in Game Four, ending a tumultuous season for the Mavericks and their floor leader, Dirk Nowitzki.
In the conference semifinals, the Thunder was faced with the daunting postseason experience of the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers had been extended to seven games in the opening round by the run and gun Denver Nuggets and the fatigue that developed from that draining series quickly showed through on Los Angeles’ older legs. Oklahoma City bombed the Lakers by 29 in the opening contest and rallied from seven points down late in Game Two, scoring the final nine points to win 77-75 and take a 2-0 series lead.
The Lakers claimed Game Three thanks to a near perfect performance from the free throw line, though despite shooting 41 of 42 compared to the Thunder’s 26 of 28, Los Angeles only escaped with a three point victory. The Lakers were poised to knot the series in Game Four, leading by 13 with eight minutes to play, only to see the Thunder finish the game on a 25-9 run to win by three. Kevin Durant had 10 of his 37 in the fourth quarter, including a tie breaking three pointer with 13.7 seconds remaining. Severely demoralized after the Game Four meltdown, the Lakers folded in Game Five, losing 106-90 despite Kobe Bryant’s 42 points.
That propelled the Thunder into the Western Conference Finals against the top seeded Spurs, who swept through their first two playoff rounds to run their winning streak to 18 games. San Antonio would extend that streak to 20 after taking the first two games over the Thunder in a series that pitted two of the highest scoring teams in the league. The Spurs won 101-98 and 120-111 to put the Thunder in a 2-0 series hole. With their backs to the wall in Game Three, Oklahoma City responded, thrashing San Antonio 102-82 to end the Spurs’ winning streak. The Thunder was alive and back in the series, which they promptly knotted with a 109-103 win in Game Four.
In a series that the home team had won all four games, Oklahoma City stole the momentum and the series lead with a 108-103 win in San Antonio for Game Five. In Game Six, San Antonio raced out to an eighteen point lead, but their short bench and old legs began to wear down. The Thunder limited the Spurs to 36 points in the second half while scoring 59 of their own to rally from a 15 point halftime hole and expunge San Antonio from the postseason, 107-99. Russell Westbrook had more assists than San Antonio’s Tony Parker in the series, a major accomplishment for Oklahoma City. The Thunder finished dead last in the league in assists per game during the regular season.
Coming up in part two of the NBA Finals preview, we’ll take a look at key matchups in the series, including three time scoring champion Kevin Durant versus the three time MVP LeBron James and whether Mario Chalmers can contain the explosive Westbrook at the point. Stop in tomorrow and take a look at the matchups and a look at Game One of the series.