Four topics for four writers, dissecting the budding Thunder-Heat (and LeBron-KD) rivalry. Here’s your Christmas appetizer before you devour the main course (OKC-Miami at 4:30 p.m. on ABC):
1. The gap between LeBron James and Kevin Durant is __________
Darnell Mayberry (beat writer) - Sizeable but closing. Both have gotten better in each of the past five seasons. LeBron’s head start, however, has kept him well ahead of Durant as the all-around better player. LeBron’s physical tools are just too imposing. Durant has his advantages physically with his height and length. But he doesn’t yet have the frame to dole out punishment in all facets like James and that’s the biggest difference at this point.
John Rohde (beat writer) - Narrowing. LeBron is 28 and the best basketball player in the world. Durant is 24 and trying to catch him. LeBron will always be four years ahead, but how much can Durant narrow the gap in talent?
Berry Tramel (columnist) - Still rather wide. The gap between Kevin Durant and whoever is No. 3 might be even wider, but LeBron’s ability to impact the game on the defensive end sets him apart. Durant is the better offensive player, but LeBron’s defensive abilities — able to guard virtually anyone in the league with the possible exception of Andrew Bynum and Chris Paul — sets him on a different plateau.
Anthony Slater (sports blogger) - Remaining pretty much the same. But that’s not to say their games are. Both superstars continue to raise their personal ceilings to unthinkable heights, refining their unique and unmatched games to become lethally consistent on an every night basis. I mean, seriously, when’s the last time either really had an off-night? The difference, like Berry mentioned, is LeBron’s defense. His freakish athleticism and basketball IQ allow him to read, react and dominate on the defensive end. LeBron hasn’t even committed a foul in the past six games, a telling stat, considering he’s played 250 minutes at his constant break-neck pace. Good news for Durant? LeBron has entered his athletic prime (usually between the ages of 27-31), KD is still a few years away.
2. True or false: Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka have become better sidekicks than Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh?
Mayberry - True. Westbrook has surpassed Wade as an offensive threat. Ibaka, meanwhile, is a better defender than Bosh and is growing into a similar contributor offensively as the third option in the starting lineup. Westbrook and Ibaka’s athleticism puts enormous pressure on defenses and make them threats in ways Wade and Bosh no longer are. But you can’t ignore the combined basketball IQ and experience of Wade and Bosh. In playoff battles, those are traits Miami’s sidekicks offer and intangibles that the Heat can bank on.
Rohde - True. It’s all about age. Westbrook is 24, Ibaka is 23 and both have gotten better every season. Their futures are bright. Wade is about to turn 31, Bosh is 28 and both have begun the back ends of their careers. They show only flashes of their previous brilliance.
Tramel - False. Westbrook and Serge might be just as potent of sidekicks as Wade and Bosh, but I don’t think better. And I’m mainly going off the playoffs. I don’t think you’re seeing the real Heat in the regular season. Miami has gone into cruise mode, much like San Antonio has done in recent years and, to a lesser extent, the Lakers. Everything is playoff-geared. I think you’ll see a rejuvenated Wade in the playoffs. With that said, Westbrook has found a higher gear (who knew that was possible?) and Ibaka is developing wonderfully.
Slater - True. There was a time when Dwyane Wade was universally considered the third best player in the world (remember how much LeBron was crucified for joining forces with him). But that seems like distant memory. Wade’s career is clearly on the downside. He’s still a top-20 player, but not what he once was. Westbrook has more of a constant impact from game-to-game, Wade turns it on and off (and he has to). Plus, the difference between Ibaka and Bosh is becoming slimmer by the day. Already the much better defender, Serge has made tangible offensive strides. For the foreseeable future, I’d prefer the Thunder pair. And I think most league executives would agree.
3. What’s the biggest reason OKC lost four straight to Miami last season?
Mayberry - Inexperience. It’s a vague answer, but the way the Thunder lost games two through four can only be attributed to youth. OKC had never been there before, and in each of those middle three games the Thunder was plagued by one uncharacteristic blunder after another. Turnovers, poor shot selection, poor defense, bad fouls, missed foul shots. All of it added up to contribute to the series loss.
Rohde - Miami’s role players played out of their minds. That’s not to say it was a fluke, but their timing couldn’t have been better. Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier and Mike Miller took turns burning OKC. Everything clicked for the Heat, not enough clicked for the Thunder, yet four of the five games could have gone either way.
Tramel - Well, not to sound too crass, but Scotty Brooks lost his collective mind. Here are Derek Fisher’s minutes game by game: 25:05, 23:59, 28:15, 22:06, 28:48. Twice in the series, Games 3 and 5, Fisher played more minutes than did Thabo Sefolosha. That’s crazy. Fisher was a great locker room addition, and a serviceable backup point guard, but Brooks played Fisher down the stretch of almost every game, almost like it was part of the agreement for Fisher to sign with OKC. You’ve got to have all hands on deck against Miami. And Thabo Sefolosha was a much better basketball player last June than was Derek Fisher.
Slater – Miami’s small ball lineup (with Shane Battier as the red-hot stretch four) shredded the Thunder defense, who took far too long to adjust. Kendrick Perkins has his times of use (and they’ve been well-documented), but against lineups like the Heat were running out there, 23.4 minutes per game for Perk is a sign of stubborn coaching. Serge Ibaka was forced into an uncomfortable position (trying to protect the paint but instead allowing his man rain triples over his head) and the Heat got rolling. It was over from there.
4. If an NBA Finals rematch started tomorrow, who you got?
Mayberry - Thunder. Miami seems to have more to figure out than OKC, and the Thunder is playing better basketball right now. The Thunder also has the bitter taste in its mouth after last year. But then again, Miami does have that LeBron James fellow.
Rohde – OKC in six.
Tramel - I’ll still take Miami. The Thunder still hasn’t solved the who-guards-LeBron problem, while the Heat at least has a who-guards-KD solution. With that said, I think the series would be even more competitive this season, and it was a heck of a series last summer.
Slater - Still gotta take Miami. But it’s not a solidified prediction. These two rosters are evenly matched and on another June collision course. Once they’re there, I’ll favor LeBron’s Heat (because of last time), but sit back and enjoy the competitive unpredictability.