Kragthorpe: In NBA Finals, Thunder's run continues vs. Heat
Already in the 2012 NBA playoffs, the Oklahoma City Thunder have taken down the proud Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs the only three Western Conference teams to have played in the NBA Finals since the Jazz's last appearance 14 years ago.
All that remains in this remarkable run is overcoming King James, who never actually has worn an NBA crown.
Welcome to the most compelling NBA Finals matchup in a long, long time. The pairing of the young, homegrown Thunder and the otherwise assembled Miami Heat offers the league's most intrigue since Michael Jordan was taking his supposed last shot against the Jazz in 1998.
This series may top that one. I'm saying the Thunder will win in seven games, and I hope this thing lasts that long for the sake of entertainment.
The real fascination of this matchup involves how everybody will respond in this setting. In other words, who will wilt? The heat is on the Heat, as always. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh could not have delivered any more emphatic answer than their fourth-quarter showing Saturday, accounting for all of their team's 28 points against Boston in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Miami has overcome Bosh's nine-game absence during the playoffs and fought off the Celtics after trailing 3-2.
To reach its first finals, Oklahoma City had to come back from 2-0 down to San Antonio, impressively winning the last four games.
Disregarding how they were built, these teams actually are a lot alike. The NBA is a star-driven league. The Thunder's Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden are comparable to the Heat's threesome, it's just that they arrived in the draft in successive years instead of uniting mainly via free agency.
Technically, Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki broke the streak last season by finishing just below the first team in the All-NBA voting, having missed 35 games due to injury. But beginning in 1997 with Karl Malone and resuming this season with Durant, the West's contestant in the finals consistently has featured an All-NBA first-team selection one of the league's five best players.
The Thunder remade themselves the old-fashioned way, by being lousy. In Seattle and Oklahoma City, the franchise went through a three-year run of 74-172 (.301), while relying on some combination of lottery luck and other teams' drafting mistakes to get where they are with three top-three picks. This team endured a 2-24 start in 2008-09, the Thunder's first season in Oklahoma City. That history makes them markedly easier to root for than Miami, unless you to happen to be from Seattle, which lost the team.
Like the Heat, Oklahoma City's star power is its distinguishing trait as opposed to fundamental basketball. The Thunder finished last in the NBA in assists, but they do score points.
There's also the ex-Jazz factor, with Thunder guard Derek Fisher. Five of the past six NBA champions have included former Jazz players: Shandon Anderson with Miami in '06, Jacque Vaughn with San Antonio in '07, Fisher with the Lakers in '09 and '10 and DeShawn Stevenson with Dallas last year.
The Heat are becoming more tolerable, merely by facing some adversity. James has been phenomenal when Miami needed him most in these playoffs. Yet I'm remembering James' basically saying that those of us cheering against him against Dallas last June might find temporary pleasure in the Heat's defeat, but we'd soon have to return to our own pathetic lives.
Thanks for taking the fun out of it, LeBron. I'm still picking the Thunder this time.