Sunday, June 10, 2012

Finals go deeper than LeBron-Durant

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 Up for grabs in the NBA Finals: the ring, the title of best player in the world (LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant), the reprieve from not-quite-there criticism. Our basketball nation turns its eyes to James and Durant for the next two weeks, and we won’t be turning away.

The rivalry makes sense. They play the same position, small forward, and are less than four years apart in age. (James is 27, Durant 23.) They possess unguardable assets: James’ strength and speed, Durant’s length and leap. They finished first and second in MVP voting this year, and no one would be surprised if they traded the next five trophies.

The Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat provided all sorts of intriguing matchups, but these NBA Finals will be remembered for James and Durant. We expect at least one game of traded shots between the stars. Durant will use his 7-5 wingspan to shoot over James and whomever else the Heat throw at him. James will power through and around and over any and every Thunder defender he gets. They’ll guard each other on key possessions, but both coaches might spare the stars from a one-on-one war, at least early in games.

USA TODAY Sports takes an early look at four other key matchups that could go a long way to determining the NBA champion:

Dwyane Wade vs. Russell Westbrook. Wade spent much of the Eastern Conference finals defending Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, and it’s difficult to imagine any other Heat keeping up with the Thunder point guard. The Heat will look to do anything they can to get Westbrook to force shots, but he found his rhythm in the final two games of the Western Conference finals vs. the San Antonio Spurs.

Chris Bosh vs. Serge Ibaka. After Bosh’s 19-point, eight-rebound Game 7 performance against the Celtics, the Heat forward could return to the starting lineup. Ibaka would be the Thunder’s best answer for Bosh’s smooth jump-shooting, but the matchup would pull the NBA’s top shot-blocker away from the basket. Bosh is too quick for Kendrick Perkins or Nick Collison, but he could open up the paint if he draws Ibaka.

The Heat bench vs. James Harden. Bosh was the only Heat reserve to score in Game 7. If he starts he likely would replace either Shane Battier or Udonis Haslem, who both have the Heat’s trust, but Miami needs more consistency from Mike Miller, James Jones and Norris Cole. Harden is the NBA’s sixth man of the year because he gives the Thunder a third star, with Durant and Westbrook. He’s best at taking advantage of opponents’ tired starters late in quarters, and he was tremendous in fourth quarters during the West finals. Miami has no direct answer for Harden off its bench, but the starters would be greatly aided by more regular rest.

Erik Spoelstra vs. Scott Brooks. Celtics coach Doc Rivers went out of his way to praise Spoelstra after Game 7, saying the criticism that the 41-year-old receives is unwarranted. But Spoelstra has a lot to prove to his doubters. He was handed a team of superstars, and the expectations are clear: championship or bust. Brooks might have an even more talented roster, but he is given credit for building the team. The 46-year-old is considered one of the best young coaches in the league as he took Oklahoma City from 23-59 in 2008-09 to 47-19 this season.
Source: Tucson Citizen

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