The NBA Finals start tonight in Oklahoma City, with the Thunder hosting the Heat. There are lots of storylines being discussed w/r/t this series, and as usual these storylines are mostly pretty dumb, but because it’s the NBA Finals any stupid storyline is elevated and treated as though it is something of import.
As I pointed out in March, when I was dreaming about this matchup, a Heat/Thunder Finals is a thrilling simply because they are two stellar basketball teams. We don’t need the fake LeBron/Durant contrast, we don’t need to hear about how the young Thunder were Built The Right Way and are facing off against the greedy Heat, we don’t need anything but these two teams and these stars facing off.
These Finals happen to offer something that the NBA hasn’t seen for years: The two best players in the league facing off in the final series. This was an impossibility during most of the post-Michael Jordan years, where the best players (Shaq, Kobe, Duncan) all resided in the same conference and couldn’t meet in the Finals; the Kobe-LeBron Finals never materialized, much to Nike’s chagrin. The last time this really did happen was 1998, when Michael Jordan and Karl Malone played in the Finals for the second consecutive year.
It has been a long 14 years since Jordan’s famous steal/push-off/jumper. Yet this matchup might be even better, because unlike Jordan and Malone, LeBron and Durant play the same position. Dwyane Wade will likely be guarding Russell Westbrook. These one-two pairings are probably the best in the league, and even though Chris Bosh and James Harden probably won’t tangle much, they are still stellar third options for both of these teams.
Both teams made it here through unsteady and uncertain circumstances. The Thunder were dead and buried after San Antonio took that 2-0 lead in the conference finals (remember when the Spurs had won 20 straight and people thought we might be witnessing one of the great modern teams?), before winning four straight and finally fulfilling their potential in making the Finals. The Heat were lagging behind the Celtics in a 3-2 series going back to Boston, and everyone (myself included) thought Miami was done. They responded with two thrilling games and returned to the Finals for the second consecutive year.
There is a particularly delicious irony in that the Heat — still so loathed, or at least still believed to be loathed, even if I don’t believe people despise them as much now as they did two summers ago (after watching them lose in the Finals, after watching them struggle and win in tough circumstances, after watching the sheer joy that has been some of LeBron’s transcendent basketball, it should be tough for many fair-weather fans to truly hate the Heat with the same passion we saw post-”Decision”) — are facing the team formerly known as the Seattle SuperSonics. Seemingly any team slotted against Miami would become the fan favorite, is how the logic went; they were the villains, and anyone playing them could become the heroes. Yet in rooting for the Thunder, fans are rooting for ownership that stole the team from Seattle. It might not be quite as bad as rooting for, say, a team owned by Donald Sterling, but it’s close.
As for predictions, I won’t even bother because there is no point. I thought these teams would meet in the Finals this year, just like I thought it last year, and I thought/hoped the resulting basketball would be astonishing. I think Oklahoma City has a depth Miami lacks, but I also think Miami (despite Dwyane Wade’s first-half struggles of late) has the more consistent two leading superstars. I guess Miami in six? I’ll say Miami in six, even if I sincerely want this thing to go to seven. I have no idea what will happen. As a Miami fan, that’s worrying; as a basketball fan, it’s a delirious dream.