The past two seasons for the Oklahoma City Thunder have been great years, but in each there has been a feeling of a missing piece. Not this year. Possessing the most dynamic duo in the game with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, quite possibly the 2012 Sixth Man of the Year in James Harden, and a defensive front court comprised of blocking machine Serge Ibaka and championship experience in Kendrick Perkins, the Thunder are primed to take it to the summit. And for you critics, it’s worth noting that the Thunder are 20-4 in games when Russell shoots more than Durant. The downsides of OKC? They lost reliable back-up guard Eric Maynor at the beginning of the season, and have replaced him with the older legs of Derek Fisher. They also currently average the most turnovers in the league at a clip of 16 per game, a disturbing statistic for the playoffs, where execution is paramount. But I have faith in Oklahoma City, especially when you see videos like the one above, because the sign of a great team is when you beat who you are supposed to beat, and never play down to the competition.
It must be an odd feeling to be tagged as failure at age 27, when the person you are being compared to didn’t win their first title until age 28. But this is the quandary Lebron James finds himself in, a Catch-22 situation in catching number 23. The Miami Heat are the definite title favorites to win it all, but if they lose, Lebron James will be analyzed, dissected, and crucified for his performance. Even if they win, pundits will undoubtedly point to the fact that his first title should have an asterisk beside the record, because you know, it’s a lockout season. Nevermind that the compacted schedule was actually more physically demanding. There’s no second place for Lebron this year. Even winning an MVP award won’t suffice in slaying the demons that are on his heels. But when you’re in a lose-lose situation, you pick the lesser of the two evils, and losing the championship this year would be the eighth deadly sin.
The last time there was a lockout, Tim Duncan gave a lecture on fundamentals to the whole league, rumbling to his first NBA title. And being that the San Antonio Spurs are the good guys of the NBA, you can rest assured that they are thinking of sending him off with his last championship in another lockout season. The difference this time around? In 1999, when Tim Duncan stepped in he was replacing the Admiral for captaincy of the team. Almost 13 years later, he finds himself in the Admiral’s old role, and passing the torch to Tony Parker, a perfect transition for a league that has become heavy on point guard emphasis. When you think about the top point guards of the NBA, Tony Parker’s name is rarely mentioned, but he should have an automatic place on the list. Don’t forget, Parker already has 3 NBA titles, and a Finals MVP award in his trophy case (not to mention an unblockable floater in his arsenal). I would also proclaim that he is arguably the most successful score-first point guard in the history of basketball (shout out to Dennis Johnson). All that without even mentioning Gregg Popovich, Manu Ginobili, and the return of Stephen Jackson.
If the playoffs were to start today, the Chicago Bulls would potentially have the hardest road to the NBA Finals. In the first round they would meet the New York Knicks, a wild card of a team if I ever saw one. In the second round, they would be expected to face a Boston Celtics team gathering for one last hurrah. And finally, a ticket to the finals would have to be punched by the Miami Heat, followed by whichever gargantuan comes out of the West. Though from what we’ve seen from Tom Thibodeau, he wouldn’t have it any other way. Derrick Rose has grown every year, is a championship the next logistical step? The answer lies in the condition of his back, ankle, groin, and whichever other bumps and bruises he has sustained along the way. But if the Chicago Bulls can have the machine running on all cylinders, they will undoubtedly be the best defensive team in the playoffs, and Derrick Rose could possibly inherit the vacated throne of His Airness. Under the bright lights, these playoffs are the backdrop to Derrick Rose’s baptism by fire. Tom Thibodeau? He’s John the Baptist.
Every year there are teams that are dark horses to win the title, but this year’s crop looks as brooding as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Playing the role of war is the Boston Celtics, with a core that could quite possibly be in battle for the last time. Under the banner of conquest is the Dallas Mavericks, the defending champions who aren’t even mentioned as favourites to repeat, until you start to think about who’s going to guard Disco Dirk? The third horseman, famine, is easily the Memphis Grizzlies. A team with grit inside from Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, but also bolstering a resurgent Rudy Gay. The way he’s been dunking, he’s hungry to prove his team would have made it further with him last year. And you could pick either team in Los Angeles, but I’m going with the Lakers playing the role of death. There is no other stone cold killer quite like Kobe Bryant in the game today, and this year he teams with an angry Andrew Bynum, and a Pau Gasol who literally played under the scrutiny of ‘reasons to keep me’ games after a number of trade rumours. Then again, since sports writers are wrong all the time I wouldn’t be surprised if Chris Paul lobbed it to Blake Griffin over Carmelo Anthony in game seven of the Finals... just to spite me.
My NBA Finals Pick: San Antonio Spurs vs Miami Heat