Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook shoots against the San Antonio Spurs during the second half in game six of the Western Conference finals.
Writer’s Note: I usually try to work college sports into my articles, but I’m a weekly sportswriter whose assignment fell on the opening day of the NBA Finals. I’m pretty much legally obligated to write a preview, right?
It’s almost anticlimactic.
After an extended lockout, bizarre shortened season and thrilling playoffs, the NBA Finals are upon us.
And yes, it’s a bit disappointing that the series will feature the preseason favorites to win it all. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch.
Here are five themes to look out for while you watch Miami and Oklahoma City duke it out for the title.
1. Dr. Westbrook or Mr. Russ?
For Oklahoma City fans, star guard Russell Westbrook is almost as frustrating as he is talented. The fiery 6-foot-3 point man can be brilliant — after all, he’s averaging 21-5-5 on 43 percent shooting in the playoffs — but his quick trigger finger has gotten the Thunder into trouble already. Westbrook often attempts to put the team on his back in crunch time, which would be fine except that he plays with Kevin Durant.
This is a subject of constant frustration among OKC fans. Don’t believe me? Go on Twitter next time Westbrook jacks a contested three with 5 minutes left in the game and 20 seconds left on the shot clock. It’ll be entertaining, I promise.
2. The redemption of Chris Bosh
Maybe it’s because he’s quiet, maybe it’s because he was relatively unknown to casual fans until two years ago — hell, maybe it’s just because he looks like a dinosaur. For whatever reason, Chris Bosh has always seemed like the odd man out in South Beach’s vaunted Big Three.
But without Bosh’s lights-out shooting in the Game 7 Saturday night, the Boston Celtics might be representing the East in the Finals. The Heat have seen what it’s like to play without him, and a big performance against shotblocker extraordinaire Serge Ibaka will solidify his legacy as a star.
3. Battle of the bench
This isn’t a battle, really. The Thunder’s bench is light years ahead of the Heat’s. What will be interesting is whether Oklahoma City Head Coach Scott Brooks will take advantage of that fact.
Miami’s Erik Spoelstra will try to keep one of his Big Three on the floor at all times, but if that ever becomes impossible due to fatigue or foul trouble, it might turn the tide in the Thunder’s favor. Even a two-minute span of James Harden and Derek Fisher annihilating the Heat’s weak bench could give Oklahoma City the upper hand in a tight game.
How Brooks elects to defend the Big Three could determine the outcome of the series.
Smart money says he starts out with Swiss vault Thabo Sefolosha on James, Westbrook on Dwyane Wade and Ibaka on Bosh. But what happens when Westbrook gets into foul trouble trying to stop his explosive counterpart? What if James takes the much smaller Sefolosha into the low post? Spoelstra is faced with equally frustrating dilemmas, like who Wade will guard when both Westbrook and Harden are on the floor, and how the hell to stop Kevin Durant.
As I’ve pointed out before (Link: http://www.usatodayeducate.com/staging/index.php/sports/basketball-stars-transcend-positions-ushering-in-new-era), position definitions are evolving. These coaches are going to have to get creative to stop each other’s athletic freaks from scoring, and the chess match should be highly entertaining.
5. Third time’s the charm
There’s no getting around the biggest story in this year’s finals: LeBron James’ third attempt at an NBA title.
Nobody in the league is as vilified as “King James.” The 27-year-old forward has led teams deep into the playoffs nearly every year he’s been in the league, but repeated failures to come through in the clutch have garnered him the “choker” label among many fans. Though his performances against Boston in Games Six and Seven were amazing, LeBron needs a title to truly dispel the “choke” talk. And he knows it.
Happy watching, everyone.
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