Every year, springtime brings fresh conspiracy theories about the NBA’s nefarious role in manufacturing popular postseason matchups. Almost every year, the league ends up with a finals matchup that suggests one of two things:
1) The NBA is not fixing the playoffs
2) The NBA is very bad at fixing the playoffs
Looking at the list of finals matchups since the Bulls run of dominance ended, its hard to identify more than a couple (Lakers/Celtics I? Heat/Mavs I?) that qualify as out-and-out crowd-pleasers. Far more common on the list are teams like the Spurs (of whom many were pretty tired by the 2nd or 3rd go-round), Pistons (who lacked the star power to make a dent in the non-NBA national zeitgeist), and 2009 Magic (who, while plenty of fun to watch, got in the way of the Celtics/Lakers rematch and LeBron/Kobe showdown that the league and its fans would have preferred by far).
Come now the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder, employers of 6 of the NBA’s 30 best players. The greatest among these rank as some of the league’s most explosive physical specimens and compelling character studies; even the perceived least among them are worthy of their own memes. Surely there are those who feel regret that LeBron/Kobe may never come to pass, others who had hoped to watch Derrick Rose’s ascenion, some purists who would have seen the wily old Spurs and Celtics have at each other. For the most part, though, this year is a rare case in which we got what we wanted. And that is a Finals matchup with as much star power as any since Lakers-Celtics in 2008, as much explosiveness as any since Bulls-Sonics in 1996, as much ability to define the future of the league as any since Bulls-Lakers in 1991 (debate on all three points encouraged!).
We won’t be running a traditional preview here. There’s been an insane amount of analysis on this Finals in the past couple of days, throughout the TrueHoop Network and elsewhere, and I would encourage everybody to go dive into it because a lot of it is fantastic (Sebastian Pruiti, Zach Lowe, and the gang at Hardwood Paroxysm deserve special mention). I don’t have anything on that level, but I generally see a close series that will ultimately be decided by each team’s ability to protect the rim while playing their small lineups, each coach’s ability to cut off dominant stretches with on-the-fly adjustments, and, perhaps most of all, LeBron’s ability to carry the Heat on offense while also chasing around Durant, who is probably the most exhausting forward in the league to guard. The more the Thunder can force the Heat to cross-match, the more they neutralize the biggest reason that LeBron is a better basketball player than Durant. And the smaller the gap between the impact of those two players, the better the odds that the Thunder’s depth can carry the day. That said, I just think LeBron is too good, and I think Bosh seriously complicates the way the Thunder would prefer to defend LeBron and Wade, and I think the Heat will steal one of these first two games and win the series in either 6 or 7. But I’d be surprised if we didn’t have a lot of really close games ahead of us.
There is one more (maybe unpopular) opinion I wanted to put out there (first stated in a series of tweets earlier today) and then I’ll get out of the way and leave the discussion to the commenters. I have hated the Heat since the days of Mourning and Hardaway and Brown and Majerle and Lenard. God knows I still can’t stand Pat Riley. However, the unyielding hypersensitivity and stagnant dialogue surrounding LeBron — which, in some cases, means the entire league by extension — has reached a point that I don’t think is worthy of the talent and charisma of the NBA’s players and the intelligence of its fans. I would love to move past the point where “LeBron is a choker! No he isn’t!” is the primary debate during a postseason that has had so many wonderful performances and compelling storylines. Games are won and lost by teams, “Clutch” is a malleable concept, and counting titles is not the sole criterion in evaluating stars. I totally get a lot of the negative feelings toward LeBron and I share some of them. It’s fine to articulate these misgivings, fine to argue that he’s not the league’s best player. But I look forward to a time when the default way to make that argument is not to lazily invoke a tired trope that becomes more detached from reality with each passing historically great season and big-time postseason performance. We should all want to have a more interesting conversation than that.
I like the Thunder. I hate the Heat.
Comments and discussion regarding Game 1 of the NBA Finals below. Hopefully we will have a recap up later. Enjoy!