Durant Snatches The Torch From Durant

Game 1 of the NBA Finals didn’t really teach us much. Mostly it reconfirmed everything we’ve known for days, weeks, even years. Kevin Durant can take over any game, having recently developed the “edge.” LeBron James has a tendency to become less than the most talented athlete on the planet during the fourth quarter of Finals games. Dwyane Wade still looks hurt. And Russell Westbrook is the Tasmanian Devil.

By way of what we might have learned from this one game, it was a relatively placid affair—as should probably be the case for singular events.  However, it did signify the passing of the torch.

For first time in the last 14 years, neither Dirk Nowitzki nor Kobe Bryant nor Tim Duncan is representing the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. And, in an apparent alignment of the basketball cosmos, the Thunder rolled past the Nowitzki’s Mavericks, Bryant’s Lakers and Duncan’s Spurs on their way to this year’s championship round.

This means something.

Suddenly, Bryant doesn’t seem so interesting. He is on the cusp of being pressed out of the narrative of NBA champions, resigned to pushing for the all-time scoring crown. Duncan and Nowitzki may have playoff runs left in them, but their chances look increasingly unlikely as the Thunder grow more impressive with every game.

A generation of players and teams, long dominant, is giving way.

“Precocious” has become the word of the month in NBA circles, and for good reason. Durant and Westbrook are each 23, not yet close to their primes. James Harden and Serge Ibaka, each 22, have become stars in their own right. Reggie Jackson was born in the 90’s. The 90’s!

The Heat, led by James (27) and Wade (30), look like fogies by comparison.

We haven’t seen this sort of shift since the late-90’s with Michael Jordan’s (second) retirement, and the quick decline of a decade’s worth of dominant big men in Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing. The turnover of superstars is good for the league, surely, but it’s no less a strange sight.

We are quickly reminded that our heroes age, and we with them.

Fortunately, Durant and Westbrook are no Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury circa 1998. They are no Chris Webber, no Antoine Walker, and there are no “back in my day” complaints to be made of the Thunder. There is only basketball—good basketball—to take in, and a fresh age of superstars to watch grow into a dynasty.

As LeBron James might say, “We are all witnesses.”

Some Bold Predictions For The NBA Finals

Thanks to a great idea from Justin Wells, the HOOPSADDICT.com staff emailed me who they thought the NBA Champions would be, their Playoffs MVP and they picked a “glue guy” for the playoffs.

Chuck Nunn: I’m calling it for Oklahoma City, with Kevin Durant as Finals MVP. Serge Ibaka’s defense and his ability to get out and run the floor will be a key difference maker in the series, so he’s my glue guy for the Thunder.

Chris Deacon: I think Oklahoma City have a real chance at going all the way this season but it’ll go right down to Game 7. They’ve defeated strong opposition on the road to the final series, including the Lakers and the Spurs, and this means they’ve already had to up their game and succeeded. If the Thunder are crowned champions then MVP must go to Kevin Durant, he’s been outstanding in postseason. That means I think James Harden is the glue guy, his win share off the bench is as good as they come.

Hiren Joshi: I have Heat in seven games. OKC looks great but I think Heat finally pull this out. The role players (Battier, Chalmers, Miller, Jones, Haslem etc) all key to the stabilization of the series for the Heat. LeBron James will be named MVP. Fatigue will be the only issue, but he looks like a man on a mission. Glue guy is Shane Battier. Brilliant NBA mind, great leader, fantastic defender. Thabo Sefolosha on the other end for the Thunder. Both have an interesting dynamic, smart defenders, smart players.

Matt Cote: OKC Thunder will become Champions, Russell Westbrook will win MVP and the glue guy is Kendrick Perkins.

Caardel Eeady: The Oklahoma City Thunder have shown all season that they are too deep not to win. These finals will prove that and that is why the Thunder will win this series 4-2. As a team they present a very tough challenge that the Heat can not stop. The Thunder not only score, but play very solid defense to win games. This is their season and that is why they will win. The finals MVP (Most Valuable Player) will be Kevin Durant. His offensive game is just unbelievable right now. He can make any shot at any time, no matter the defensive pressure. This season Durant has proven that he can hit clutch shots and help get his team to the finish line. Chris Bosh is the “glue guy” for the NBA Finals. Without Bosh the Heat are a very weak team who can not win without his scoring. Bosh is very underrated with his defensive abilities, but expect him to be a big factor on that end of the floor.

Robert Kester: I’ve got the Heat over the Thunder in seven games. The Thunder have arrived, but Miami’s new found resolve will carry them in the Finals. LeBron James has put his team on his back this entire postseason and will continue to dominate games in the Finals and take home his first ever Finals MVP. Chris Bosh needs to play big in the Finals. If Bosh can stay healthy he will be the “glue guy” keeping the Heat together when they face adversity against the Thunder.

Heather Newsome: To win the playoffs I say OKC. I don’t think the Heat have it in them to be consistently good, they’ve proven in recent past games that their top stars can’t always make the shots and then they get discouraged easily. Wade in game 7 was 3-8 in the first half. It’s just not good enough for the NBA Finals. MVP for the playoffs should go to either LeBron James for his determination or to Kevin Durant for pulling it out for his team when they’re down and being able to keep everyone involved so its not a one man show. The “Glue-guy” again would be Kevin Durant. He knows how to rally his team when they are down. He’s not a selfish player and helps everyone on the team get their shots off and then takes his own. He’s key to OKC winning the Larry O’Brien Trophy this time around.

Danny Lovi: Before the playoffs started I predicted that the NBA Champions would come out of the West. As tempted as I am to pick Miami over Oklahoma City, I am sticking to my guns and predicting that the Thunder will beat the Heat in six games. Conventional thinking tells us that the best player on the winning team will be the MVP. Therefore, it’s a foregone conclusion that Kevin Durant will be the MVP. I am not going to go against conventional wisdom, although I think the Thunder’s success relies heavily on Russell Westbrook. Durant will get his (even while being smothered by LeBron James or Shane Battier), but the Thunder goes as far as Westbrook goes. I think Westbrook is the most important player even though he probably won’t win MVP. Besides Westbrook, I think the two players who will have the biggest impact are the two guys with championship experience: Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher. Look for Perkins to be aggressive in the post not only on defense, but on offense as well. Fisher continues to live up to his reputation as a clutch playoff performer, and he will be the cool head in the huddle, keeping guys focused when things go astray. When Fisher signed with Oklahoma City, didn’t you picture him hitting a big shot to clinch a Thunder victory? I think the NBA Finals is the perfect stage to see that picture come to fruition.

Zach Salzmann: OKC dismantled a great Spurs team in 4 straight games, and look unbeatable when they limit their turnovers. James has had an unbelievable post-season, but OKC has too many weapons. Thunder in 6. My pick for Finals MVP is Kevin Durant and my glue guy is Serge Ibaka — protecting the lane and knocking down the open jumper.

Will Guillory: I’m going to take the Miami Heat to win the NBA Finals in six games. I simply just think it’s their time and not the Thunder’s. OKC is a great team but Miami is the better defensive team and much more ready for this moment. I believe the MVP trophy will be handed to LeBron James at the end of this series. This has been his year and every time his team has needed him to step up and put them on his back he has done it (i.e. Game 4 against Indiana and Game 6 against Boston). Also, his defense will make life a lot tougher on Kevin Durant than it has been thus far these playoffs. My key glue guy(s) of this series will come down to the matchup between Chris Bosh and James Harden. While these two will not be guarding each other this series, both teams need major contributions from these two players in order to achieve their maximum potential. Bosh’s ability to hit the outside jumper and pull Serge Ibaka/ Kendrick Perkins out of the paint to give James and Dwyane Wade more driving lanes will be the difference.

Jakob Eich: I think the Oklahoma City Thunder will win the championship this year. The Wade/LeBron duo is a little better than Durant/Westbrook, but Miami does not have anyone beyond those two players. The Thunder have Ibaka, Perkins, Fisher, Sefolosha, Cook, and Collison, just a lot of depth. Dwyane Wade and LeBron James will probably not sit for long stretches, but after all you have twelve players on your roster. Chris Bosh is a better offensive player, but Serge Ibaka is a lot better defensively. The rest of the Heat are seriously outplayed by OKC. Especially the option to give Wade and Lebron different looks by putting Sefolosha, Durant, and Harden on him is a huge advantage. Therefore the Thunder will win the championship in six games. If the Thunder should win there is no way around Kevin Durant being named MVP. He is their best player and closer. I don’t expect too many close games but he will undoubtedly put his fingerprint on this series. He has become much better defensively, although I do not believe he will outplay LeBron, he will earn the award. James Harden has been named the X-Factor all throughout the playoffs and he still is. He is the difference maker, a supremely talented player with a great shot and great defense and great attitude. Not many players with his talent have been willing to be a sixth man so … well, willingly. If he keeps on performing at this level he will give the second unit such a big lift that the Heat won’t be able to overcome.

Jerel Marshall: Both of these teams have their fair share of star power, but the Thunder will benefit from a wealth of contributors. Miami has struggled with depth ever since LeBron James and Chris Bosh decided to take their talents to South Beach. Oklahoma City will also enjoy a bit momentum after snapping the most impressive win streak in recent history by beating the San Antonio Spurs four straight times. Kevin Durant is one of the few players who can seamlessly combine playing unselfish while still being a big shot taker and a big shot maker. He very rarely forces things on the offensive end, but if he is feeling it or if the game is on the line he will burn you every time. Dwayne Wade and James will have their hands full chasing around the trio of Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Durant. Sefolosha will be responsible for making sure that Wade has a tough time on the offensive side of things as well. If Sefolosha can continue to pester scorers while knocking down an open shot here and there, the Thunder should have no problem becoming this year’s champs.

Michael Collins: I think the Thunder take it, in six games. Miami showed a lot of potential flaws against a Boston team that was nowhere near as athletic or fast as OKC. Having Bosh back obviously made a difference, but it won’t be enough to get past the Thunder. If the way he finished off the conference finals is any indication, I think Kevin Durant will be the MVP. He has the ability to just put the team on his shoulders and go. The battle between he and LeBron should be epic, however. I think despite losing, Chris Bosh will be the ‘glue guy’ for the Heat, and for the Finals. It will be through his ability to make plays and to keep others focused that Miami will even stretch this series to six games. This would be the one disadvantage I give OKC, as they don’t really have a ‘glue guy” in my eyes. When Durant is having a bad night, he doesn’t know how to keep the team focused and moving forward, and (as witnessed in the first 2 games of the WCF) his team suffers.

Ryan McNeill: Kevin Durant and LeBron James battling each other is going to be a match-up for the ages, but Thabo Sefolosha is one of the better defenders in the NBA and he should be able to contain a hobbled Dwyane Wade. Where this series really starts to swing in OKC’s favour is at the point guard spot because Russell Westbrook should have his way against Mario Chalmers. Chris Bosh, who had a huge impact in the final few games of the Eastern Conference Finals, will have a tough time battling against Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins in this series. The final nail in the coffin of Miami is the fact nobody on Miami’s bench will be able to slow down James Harden. I’ve got OKC winning in six games. My MVP is Durant and my glue guy is Ibaka or Sefolosha. Sorry, I couldn’t choose.

Justin Wells: I’ve got OKC Over Miami in 7. Thunder just have too many mismatches, and Ill take scott Brooks over Erik Sploestra all day long. My MVP is Russell Westbrook because Lebron will be shadowing Kevin Durant most of the series. My “glue” guy is Serge Ibaka. If Ibaka can maintain the lane like he did all season, Anthony/Turiaf/Haslem will hate him.

Kevin Brolan: Give me Thunder winning in 6, Kevin Durant MVP, and Nick Collison for glue guy.

Tom Westerholm: Miami in six. I think LeBron’s defense will affect Durant more than people are expecting, and OKC’s offense has struggled in the half court in the playoffs. My MVP is clearly LeBron James. Let’s be honest, this is a two man race for Finals MVP between James and Durant, and if I’m right about Miami winning, it will be LeBron.  A glue guy? Like someone who keeps the team happy together? Juwan Howard. He gives us all someone on Miami to make fun of instead of the Big 3.  JUWAN IS OLD, GUYS!!!

Lance Rinker: Having covered the Indiana Pacers’ postseason run, I was fortunate enough to witness one of the greatest individual playoff performances in recent memory: LeBron James in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. I watched James compile a stat line of 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists. And I saw a wrecking crew of two, James and Dwayne Wade, virtually outplay an entire team. With Chris Bosh back, the Heat are close to full form and will emerge as the top team in the league. In my mind, James is the greatest player in the world. When he is focused and on a roll, there is little a defense can do to contain him. Whether it be scoring, defending, or finding an open teammate, James does it all. After finally winning an NBA title, James—and the media—will relinquish the monkey from his back. Haslem and Wade are the only players remaining from Miami’s 2006 championship team, and although Haslem isn’t getting the same minutes he did six years ago, he still makes significant on-court contributions. Even with Bosh back in the rotation, Haslem will be depended on to haul down rebounds and provide a scoring option in the frontcourt. Simply put, in the 16 postseason wins thus far, Miami is nearly six points better with Haslem on the court. In their six losses, Haslem has struggled, and the Heat are about five points worse with him on the floor. The ninth-year forward makes a much larger impact than most spectators might think.

Perspective Is A Funny Thing

Perspective is a funny thing.

Basketball fans love to hate the Miami Heat because of their supposed arrogance. But, the reality is, all they did wrong was boast about winning NBA Championships a bit premature.

LeBron James didn’t endear himself to fans when he made a bad P.R. move and allowed ESPN to air The Decision. It instantly made him the most hated man in Cleveland and NBA fans sprained ankles jumping off of his bandwagon.

But none of Miami’s stars have run afoul with the law.

Heck, none of them have done anything off of the court that should taint their names or reputations.

Fans loathe players who show up only for a paycheck and don’t care about winning, yet James, Wade and Bosh all took pay cuts to ensure they would have the chance to battle for NBA Championships.

Instead of fans rallying around this selfless chase of championships, the Miami Heat have had a bull’s eye placed on their backs for the past two seasons. It’s baffling how two years later fans still haven’t been able to shake two relatively-small mistakes that can be chalked up to youthful folly.

Meanwhile, the Boston Celtics have been viewed as the good guys and they were the team most NBA fans cheered for in the Eastern Conference Finals this year.

Likewise, the Oklahoma City Thunder are fan favourites in the NBA Finals because they have produced their own talent through the draft while making a few shrewd trades along the way. In many ways, the Thunder are the ideal team for David Stern and the NBA to market and promote.

Basketball fans are quick to forget Oklahoma City’s owner, Clay Bennett, literally stole the franchise away from some die-hard fans in Seattle over some politics and the chance to make more money by moving the team.

That has to be worse than wanting to play with two buddies in South Beach or an ill-conceived TV special, right?

While the players on the Thunder have a squeaky-clean image, the same can’t be said about the Celtics. Kevin Garnett cusses non-stop during the course of games and has been known to bully younger and International players. Rajon Rondo was suspended a game for bumping an official in the first round of the playoffs. Earlier in his career, Pierce had some problems off the court and enjoyed his fair share of shenanigans.

It’s puzzling to me how fans are quick to turn a blind eye to some troubling aspects of the Thunder or Celtics, yet they continue to focus on some trivial things Miami has done off the court.

Plus, Boston started the whole “Big 3″ idea when Danny Ainge traded for Allen and Garnett in a flurry of summer moves that changed the entire landscape of the NBA. It’s not like the Heat started something new when three friends united to play for championships and live in Miami. And, if you’re being honest with yourself, wouldn’t you do the same? Personally, the idea of playing with two of my best friends and living in South Beach would be too tempting for me to pass up.

Somehow, fans are more than willing to turn a blind eye to all of this because they want to root for Boston or Oklahoma City. The reality of the situation is Boston and Oklahoma City both have their fair share of warts that could prevent fans from cheering against them. But, for whatever reason, fans are blinded to this in their hatred of Miami.

Hopefully you don’t fall into the trap of rooting against Miami because they are perceived as being the bad guys. Because, if you take a real close look at things, you’ll probably realize Miami isn’t really worth hating.

But, it all depends on your perspective, right?