Why I’m Cheering For Miami

If you’re looking for insightful projections into just what will happen once the NBA Finals kick off in Oklahoma City on Tuesday night, you can find the two cents of many Hoops Addict correspondents here. This piece comes less from the perspective of an NBA analyst and more from a fan of the game, as well as its narrative.

The fundamental storyline of these Finals leans heavily in favor of the Thunder. Among the leading men of the two clubs, Miami’s LeBron James is the hated villain for a generation of fans unwilling to forget his painfully misguided “Decision”, while OKC’s Kevin Durant is the anti-LeBron – a down-to-Earth superstar that quietly re-upped with the franchise that drafted him while James and co. were doing this.

There are, however, two main issues with this overly simplistic outline of what will be a multi-layered series. Not only is it an outdated take that fails to account for James’ recent growth as both a player and a person (as well as the exceptionally unique pressure he faces), but it fails to acknowledge the rest of what are two diverse, varied rosters of interesting players.

But first, a few words on James. Much has changed since he turned the better part of the country against him and the Heat by taking his talents to South Beach. His tone-deaf demonstrations of self praise and premature celebration have been replaced by a hoodie-wearing symbol of support for Trayvon Martin in precisely the type of socially conscious display that superstars like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods have been famously loathe to engage in.

On the basketball side of things, he has been lauded as a great teammate who is leading by example in both selflessness and worth ethic. While LeBron critics may choose to focus in on his disappearing act during the 2010-11 postseason, his 2011-12 playoff stat line currently reads 30.8/9.6/5.1.

At the same time, while the public perception of the 27-year-old may not have changed much, there might be at least a partially enhanced understanding of just what it’s like to be in his shoes. A Newsday story from last week features the now-famous words of teammate Shane Battier explaining what life is like for LBJ:

“He sneezes and it’s a trending topic on Twitter. He is a fascinating study because he’s really the first and most seminal sports figure in the information age, where everything he does is reported and dissected and second-guessed many times over and he handles everything with an amazing grace and patience that I don’t know if other superstars from other areas would have been able to handle.”

James’ team-first approach may have been helped along by his inherently likable supporting cast. Dwyane Wade has officially ceded top dog duty his younger and more physically imposing teammate, but he retains far-reaching popularity that has pretty well remained untainted by anti-Heat backlash.

Chris Bosh, on the other hand, was maligned as the undeserving member of the “Big 3″ before finding success this season by growing comfortable in his third-option role and even serving as an emotional rallying point in his Conference Finals return.

Outside of the three dominant personalities of the Heat, several character guys round out a roster of players who seem to genuinely enjoy each other. Battier has lost a step, but continues to be a valuable glue guy and reigns as a much-respected veteran in the locker room. Ronny Turiaf and Juwan Howard aren’t getting consistent minutes, but they both offer visible support from the bench.

Meanwhile, Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller have all learned how to best complement their superstar teammates while not being afraid to get their own looks (Chalmers, in particular, has no problem taking open shots in clutch situations).

No disrespect to the equally (if not more) likable Thunder, but this is LeBron’s time. Lost in the digital, 24-hour news cycle age is the pure simplicity of watching the greats win. Durant (and, to a lesser extent, Russell Westbrook) may well be among those greats, but he’s also just 23 with plenty of prime years ahead of him. With James turning 28 later this year, he is firmly within what should be his prime.

When he earns himself an NBA championship ring (even if he doesn’t win six, or seven, or eight…), we will have all been witnesses.

Mavs On The Brink Against A Better Team

Queue up Al Pacino’s locker room speech from Any Given Day because this Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder playoff matchup has fully proven the ‘Game of Inches’ theory. The inches went Kevin Durant’s way in Game 1 and didn’t for Dirk Nowitzki in Game 2.

And now the Thunder are up two games to none with full control.

By using the crazy concept of mathematics, this series appears close on many levels. Only separated by four points over two games, the pace and scoring has been nearly identical so far with the Thunder scoring 99 and 102 points and the Mavericks with 98 and 99 points, respectively.

Despite a run last night where the Thunder led by double digits for a short period of time, the first couple of games have been stocked full of ties, lead changes, and play closer than the distance between Dirk Nowitzki’s elbow and Russell Westbrook’s face. That’s what tends to happen in a rivalry of teams who know each other so well and let there be no doubt, this Oklahoma-Texas duo has quickly become a rivalry.

Shocking, I know.

Still, despite the numbers, how close actually are these two teams? There is a reason the Thunder are the two-seed and the Mavericks are the seven: The Oklahoma City Thunder are better than Dallas this year. They’re better than most anyone. The Mavs aren’t underdogs like in so many (all?) of their series in last year’s playoffs, they’re the actual inferior team this time around. There’s nothing wrong with that as upsets happen all the time, but it means their margin for error is extremely slim and they’ll have to work harder for everything they get.

Specifically, the dispersion of scoring causes stress for one team and is a non-issue for the other. On Oklahoma City, Kevin Durant can shoot 5-17 in Game 1 and Russell Westbrook or James Harden can be consistently counted on to contribute in a scoring role. When scoring can be so easily relied upon by a few, good things begin to happen for that team. Guys like Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and, my God, Derek Fisher can get on scoring rolls that makes the opponent feel like their collective sky is falling.

Everything seems to come so easier for the better team who has things rolling. We saw it last year in Dallas.

Right now on the Mavericks, a 5-17 shooting night for Dirk Nowitzki would almost certainly bury Dallas on that night. Jason Terry has proven he can be that additional scorer, but with defenses rolling to him late in the game, it’s Nowitzki or bust so far.

So far, by a few inches, that hasn’t been enough.

Still, we’re not done here. Thanks to Rick Carlisle’s adjustments and overall mastery of anything Thunder coach Scott Brooks is capable of, the Mavericks are a tough matchup for the Thunder who can’t seem to gain consistent separation from their seven-seed counterparts. They’re beating the Mavericks, but Rick Carlisle, along with Nowitzki, deserves massive praise for not allowing this to get out of hand.

It’s not quite smoke and mirrors, but Carlisle certainly isn’t working with the same group he has in 2011. He and the Mavs have had very little margin for error, but coming home for two game on Thursday and Saturday will crack that window open a bit more.

They’ll need it, too. Counting the preseason, playoffs, and regular season, the Mavericks are just 1-7 against the Thunder this year. Considering that, it will be quite a tall order to take four of five games from Oklahoma City over the next few days to win the series. It may feel like the Mavericks barely lost the first two games, but they need to make some drastic adjustments to turn their fortunes around. They can start with a return to their ball movement oriented offense and someone stepping into a consistent scoring role next to Terry and Nowitzki in order to pull off the relative miracle.

And perhaps a center can show up for Dallas, as well.

It starts on Thursday in Dallas where the Mavericks face their first must-win game of the season. The inches, among other things, need to start falling in the favor of the Mavs.