With the first meeting of the season between the Thunder and Miami Heat on Sunday at 7 p.m., we asked national experts if they viewed the game as an NBA Finals preview, and if their opinion changed following the OKC's acquisition of five-time world champion Derek Fisher on Wednesday.
Sam Smith (Bulls.com): "Frankly, it doesn't feel much like a Finals preview. Sort of a paraphrase of the Potter Stewart pornography definition of knowing it when he sees it. This doesn't seem like one. Though, of course, it could be. Neither team has been dominant in any way, which hardly means it cannot win as evidenced Dallas last season. But Miami has been lagging back in second most of the season and even lost to Chicago without Rose. You still see James and Wade look at each other as if wondering what to do at the end of games, and the Heat has had issues with teams with size. They are hardly feared as they were expected to be. The Thunder is first, but like their games should be first by a lot. They win a lot of games at the end you can't figure out why they weren't up 20. The Spurs and Lakers have had all sorts of issues while the Thunder has been as healthy as any team and yet unable to produce any significant space. Plus, they continue to lose to inferior teams and get pushed to the limit by teams that have no business being in games with them, like the recent game with Minnesota. There's a feel to regular season so called Finals previews like when the Celtics and Lakers were dominating their conferences and looking for a great opponent, the Bulls in the 90s, for example, the 76ers in the early 80s, the Lakers in the 2000s. One problem is the lockout season as last time New York rose from eighth and it's difficult to get a handle on teams who are not dominant with this sort of schedule. The Thunder and Heat are good teams that could be in the Finals, but few would be surprised if they aren't, though more so Miami because they were there before. It sets up more as a potentially entertaining regular season game, and that's good in itself."
Chris Broussard (ESPN The Magazine): "I do believe the Heat-Thunder game on Sunday is an NBA Finals preview. I think both teams will have tough challenges in their respective conferences, but I feel they are the clear Finals favorites. The Heat's biggest challenge in the East will, of course, be Chicago. The Thunder's toughest challengers out West are the Lakers and the Spurs. I felt Oklahoma City was already the Western Conference favorite even before the acquisition of Derek Fisher, but now that they have him I think their chances of winning it all are even greater. Fisher brings stability, veteran leadership, championship mettle, and the ability to perform in the clutch to this young Thunder squad."
Peter Vecsey (New York Post): "I'm as big a Derek Fisher fan as most, but his trade hardly had me reaching for my snub-nosed poison pen to rip the Lakers for trading their 5-time champion or reach for my violin. Apparently those doin' all the slow singin' and flower bringin' forgot loyalty in professional sports is a no-way street. The Lakers moved Fisher because the addition of Ramon Sessions upgraded their backcourt, and the free agent left the Lakers flat to join the Warriors in 2004 when it financially benefited him. In hooking on with a legit title contender, Fisher didn't exactly do badly this time either. When Eric Maynor went down for the season, the league's elite teams silently celebrated the Thunder's loss of outside shooting and backcourt brains. Fisher gives them some toughness and experience they lacked. Now James Harden doesn't have to direct the offense when Russell Westbrook is out. Scott Brooks also has the luxury of using Westbrook at the two and Harden at the three opposite Kevin Durant. Very few are more competent at making double-downing teams pay dearly than Fisher. Regarding a preview of The Finals, it's as close as it gets without dismissing the Bulls' obvious chance to beat the Heat ... as long as Derrick Rose maybe is fully healthy. Maybe Rip Hamilton has to be near full strength as well."
Eddie Sefko (Dallas Morning News): "The Thunder will be very lucky to get out of the West. The Lakers got better with Sessions. The Spurs got better with (Stephen) Jackson. The Mavericks got Lamar Odom. OK, maybe they aren't better. But they remain champions until proven otherwise. Bottom line: the Thunder is still a year away."
Marc Spears (Yahoo! Sports): "The (signing) was extremely valuable for the Thunder because it got them one thing they were desperately missing, a respected veteran who has been through the fires in the backcourt. Derek Fisher has played in (seven) NBA Finals winning five of them. It gives Westbrook an uncle-like figure he can lean on that has been there, done that, played against that and played in that situation before. Being that he grew up watching Fisher in Los Angeles play in big game after big game, how could Russ not welcome and respect that voice? The move also matures the Thunder and adds a big veteran voice in the locker room other than Kendrick Perkins. Plus, it allows Russ to play shooting guard when he is on the floor with Fish and gives them another perimeter threat who can make and take the big shot. Great move for Thunder. While the Thunder are still missing an intimidating inside scorer, they are even more intimidating in the West now with Fish."
Ric Bucher (ESPN The Magazine): "I had this as an NBA Finals' preview at the start of the season and I could see the Heat still holding up their end, but I'm beginning to wonder if the Thunder are good enough to come out of the West. It's not anything they've done — although I'm troubled by their spotty defense and their league-leading turnover rate — but the fact that the Spurs have melded old with new to be as good as they've been."
Mike Monroe (San Antonio Express-News): "It's way too presumptuous to call one game in March a preview of The Finals, especially when one of the two teams hasn't fully established itself as the best in its conference, and I mean the Heat. Even with Rose missing 15 games the Bulls have the best record in East and play the best defense in the East, and that's what wins titles. Plus, there's that little ol' team from Texas (apologies to Dusty Hill and Billy Gibbons) that seems to have the Thunder's number and improved itself in the buyout market more than the Thunder did with Derek Fisher, whose defensive deficiencies are just what a playoff team doesn't need. Fish can stick a big shot under pressure, of course. Nobody knows that more than the Spurs."