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."
Ian Thomsen (Sports Illustrated): "It's the most likely matchup for the Finals, and if these teams wind up meeting in June then I'm sure we'll all be looking back at this game for clues. But the Lakers and Spurs are going to make the Western side of the playoffs difficult for the Thunder, and the Bulls have earned maximum respect in the East. It's a provocative game for sure, but it's not like it's this year's version of the Celtics-Lakers. Because neither OKC nor Miami has earned the kind of respect where you say no one is going to be able to beat them. That's not so much opinion as it is fact — when they've earned that respect then we'll all know and take it for granted, but it's up to them to earn it. So while this is a very good game it's not that big of a deal — yet. On Fisher: I think that was a great pickup for OKC by way of the daily example he will provide to that young team. The Lakers may not miss him so much now, but they'll wish they had him in the playoffs, because that's when the Thunder will realize his value."
Lang Whitaker (SLAM): "I do see this as a Finals preview. I picked the Heat and Thunder to make the Finals in the SLAM NBA Preview before the season started, and so far I've seen nothing from these teams to make me change my mind. And I love the Fisher signing for the Thunder — gives them depth, shooting, leadership."
Chris Sheridan (Sheridanhoops.com): "Did I miss something? Did Derrick Rose get traded to the Heat? Because unless he did, this is NOT an NBA Finals preview (although one of the teams, the Thunder, remains my pick to emerge from the West). No disrespect to Miami, but they are not getting past Chicago in the playoffs. They are not deep enough, especially at center, and they do not put the ball in Dwyane Wade's hands enough at the end of close games. Also, they do not have a latter-day version of Robert Horry as the Thunder now do following the signing of Derek Fisher. He will win at least one playoff game with a dagger of a 3, mark my words."
John Schuhmann (NBA.com): "I think this is a likely Finals preview, but I've actually come to think of it as a little less likely over the last few weeks. The resilience that Chicago has shown this season (playing well without Derrick Rose) has me thinking that Miami's road back to The Finals will be tougher than it was last year, as long as Rose is healthy by May. In the West, I think the Lakers became a much bigger threat to knock off the Thunder by upgrading from Fisher to Ramon Sessions at point guard. They've been a good defensive team all season, and Sessions should give them the lift they need offensively. OKC's addition of Fisher doesn't change my thinking at all, because I don't see him having much of an impact."
Mark Murphy (Boston Herald): "I absolutely look at this as an NBA Finals preview, though I think a hot Rose could upset the Miami half of this pairing. Derek Fisher is a nice veteran addition to any team, but at this stage in his career I don't think he seals the deal for any team. There's a lot of good point guards out there, and most can take him individually."
Mitch Lawrence (New York Daily News): "I picked Miami to beat OKC at the start of the season and still feel that way. As long as the LeBron, Wade and Bosh are upright and playing at the tops of their games, I don't see anyone beating them in a seven-game series. Injuries, of course, could change all of that. I hope for Scott Brooks' sake that Fisher can give him some punch. But I am also aware of Derek's age — who knows how much tread he has left on his tire. And also, I think his role as NBAPA president during the lockout prevented him from doing what he had to do in the offseason to prepare for another NBA season, and that probably has had some adverse affects, too. I did a column earlier this year where Patrick Ewing — who was the union prez the last time there was a lockout — pretty much chalked up his injury-plagued lockout season to the fact that he was not able to devote nearly as much time to working in the offseason as he previously. As Patrick told me, too much negotiating and not enough working (on the court)."
Brian Mahoney (Associated Press): "Bulls-Thunder was my pick this year. Wouldn't surprise me at all if Heat beat Bulls, but I see no reason not to stick with the Thunder pick, whether they had Fisher or not."
Eastern Conference scout (as told to ESPN.com's Marc Stein): "There's nobody super scary in the West, so they're solid enough to get to the Finals. And they picked up just the right guy (Fisher). No. 1: Fisher's been through the wars and he might have a calming influence on Westbrook. No. 2: He's been a big shot-maker for a long time and someone you have to respect at the end of the game. You're not just going to leave him. He's got the rings, baby. The ring's the thing. All the stuff (OKC's young stars are) trying to get, Fisher's already got. So I think they'll listen to what he has to say. And from a competitive standpoint, Fisher going there kind of gets back at the Lakers. I don't know if the Lakers can stand in (OKC's) way. Harden's playing at a high level, Durant is Durant and Westbrook is Westbrook. Their front line looks pretty small sometimes when they're playing against the Lakers, but when Durant goes to the 4 and Fisher is spreading the floor, it's going to be pretty hard to guard them if they can figure it out."