Team versus talent?
That's the basic question you must ask when determining whether Miami or Boston is best for the Oklahoma City Thunder as its NBA Finals opponent.
The Heat have gotten by on the extraordinary talents of two players, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade -- and not necessarily in that order. The Celtics, meanwhile, continue to rely on teamwork, with Boston being most effective when using its entire roster, however old or decimated by injury, to succeed.
The Thunder figures to be the favorite against either Eastern Conference heavyweight. But with the decisive Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals now set for Saturday following the Heat's 98-79 win at Boston on Thursday, the Thunder's opponent remains unclear.
THE THUNDER-HEAT REGULAR SEASON SERIES: The Thunder split the series 1-1, with both teams winning on their home courts.
GAME 1 SUNDAY, MARCH 25: The Thunder thoroughly outplayed the Heat before notching a 103-87 win inside Chesapeake Energy Arena. Kevin Durant outclassed James and tilted the MVP race to his favor by scoring a game-high 28 points with eight rebounds and eight assists. Durant's defense was every bit as dominant as his all-around game, as he helped to hold James to 17 points on 8-for-18 shooting. While Durant garnered the headlines, the more significant story of the game was how the Thunder murdered Miami's defense with unselfish ball movement that allowed even its defensive-minded big men to be huge offensive threats. Serge Ibaka scored 19 points with 10 rebounds, and Kendrick Perkins added 16 points and six rebounds. The two interior anchors combined for 16-for-21 shooting and left Miami utterly mystified on how to defend the high-powered Thunder.
GAME 2 WEDNESDAY, APRIL 4: The Heat got even with a 98-93 win inside American Airlines Arena. James solidified his himself as the MVP with a dominant 34-point, seven-rebound, 10-assists, four-steal performance. Durant scored 30 points with four rebounds and three assists, but James' defense hounded him into a career-high nine turnovers. Still, the Thunder's defense held up against the Heat in their building. OKC limited Miami to 37 percent shooting and held Wade and Chris Bosh to a combined 25 points on 11-for-32 shooting.
This potential series would showcase the most intriguing Finals matchup in recent memory in Durant versus James. They're two of the best players in the league and just so happened to play the same position, which means they would match up throughout the game. It would make for riveting theater. James' teams have gotten the best of Durant's in the head-to-head meetings since 2007, with James owning a 7-2 record against Durant. In those nine games, Durant has averaged 27.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists. James has averaged 26.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 7.1 assists.
Other intriguing matchups include Wade against Thabo Sefolosha, Russell Westbrook against Mario Chalmers and Ibaka against Bosh. The X-factor matchup very well could be James Harden versus Shane Battier in an offense-defense chess match that could determine how effective the Thunder is offensively. In Scott Brooks and Erik Spolestra, the coaches pacing the sidelines, we would see two of the best up-and-coming coaches in the league. Spolestra got his team to the Finals last year. Brooks has been there as a player but is a first-timer as a coach.
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James versus Durant is the most compelling subplot possible in either of the Finals scenarios. The two finished one and two in MVP voting in two of the past three years, and appear to be neck and neck in the race for honor of the league's best player.
Team building 101: organic versus manufactured rosters. The Heat have become the NBA's evil empire because of how it assembled its three-headed monster of James, Wade and Bosh. Miami's three stars joined forces through free agency and created a ton of resentment for forming what's been described as a super team. The Thunder, on the other hand, built through the draft and took the slow and steady approach, turning Oklahoma City's organization into the lovable franchise that has been described by some as America's team. Both franchise have already established blueprints for team building. But the winner of this series is likely to have other franchises quickly attempting to follow suit...if they haven't already.
The Heat's legacy. Get ready for it now. If the Heat make it, most of the attention will be on Miami. Thunder fans shouldn't take it personal. Miami is under heavy scrutiny for how it built its roster and is now facing great expectations to deliver "not one, not two, not three, not four..." championships. Coverage of every game, both during and after the contest, is likely to be geared heavily toward the Heat. Win or lose, the Heat will continue to be a big story.
THE THUNDER-CELTICS REGULAR SEASON SERIES: The Thunder won 2-0.
GAME 1 MONDAY, JAN. 16: The Thunder won 97-88 inside TD Garden, taking advantage of a Celtics team that sputtered out of the gate and fell to 4-8. It was Oklahoma City's 12th win in 14 games. Westbrook stole the show in this one, canning two 3-pointers in the final two minutes before finishing with 26 points to go with seven rebounds, four assists and three steals. Durant added 28 points as well as seven rebounds and four assists. Paul Pierce led the Celtics with 24 points, but Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce all struggled, combining to score 30 points on 13-for-48 shooting while turning it over 12 times.
GAME 2 WEDNESDAY, FEB. 22: Oklahoma City won with ease, taking a 119-104 victory over a still struggling Celtics squad. The loss was Boston's fifth straight. But the Celtics played without Rajon Rondo as he sat out the second game of a two-game suspension. In Rondo's absence, the Thunder led by as many as 27 points before going on to notch its 11th straight home victory. All five Boston starts scored in double figures, including 23 apiece by Pierce and Garnett, but it wasn't enough to overcome a 31-point night by Westbrook, 28 points by Durant and 17 points by Daequan Cook.
Consider it a potential battle of big fours. The Thunder's foursome includes Westbrook, Harden, Durant and Ibaka. The Celtics would counter with Rondo, Allen, Pierce and Garnett. Boston's has been there and done that. The Thunder is now looking to do the same. The two most intriguing matchups would be Rondo against Westbrook and Pierce against Durant. Each player is among the top five players at their respective positions and all four have the ability to take over a game.
What hurts Boston and helps the Thunder, however, is the Celtics' severe lack of depth, which has been brought on by injuries. The Celtics are missing Avery Bradley, Chris Wilcox, Jermaine O'Neal and former Thunder forward Jeff Green, all of whom were lost to season-ending surgeries. The Thunder has the clear edge from a depth standpoint, but the question is how much can the Celtics' experience make up for it?
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Old versus young. Boston's roster has an average age around 32 years old. The Thunder's counterparts are, on average, about four years younger. The difference is significantly great if you count just the core guys for each team. Thus, once again, it's a test of the age-old argument that old beats young in the NBA. The Thunder took out old in its first three rounds. Can they do it once more, or would the Celtics' experience thwart the Thunder's exuberance?
Royalty versus novelty. The Celtics have won 17 NBA championships, the most in league history. The Thunder is just making its first trip to the Finals. But it's a challenge the Thunder will gladly accept. On the road to the Finals, the Thunder took out the Mavericks, Lakers and Spurs, three franchises with a combined 20 titles. The Thunder won't have any trepidation against the tradition-rich Celtics. But the series could complete the changing of the guard that's taking place in the NBA and the Thunder's coronation as the heir to the throne.
Rondo versus Westbrook. We didn't forget about Perkins possibly playing against his old mates, the same ones he one a title with in 2008. It's just that that is much more of a sentimental sidebar in this clash. Rondo against Westbrook would be much more significant in deciding the 2012 champion. The dueling point guards are flat out two of the fiercest players in the league. They take every challenge personally and simply don't like the player put in front of them. That makes for a dogfight over a seven-game series, one you will not want to miss.