Five questions for four writers, previewing Thursday night's monumental showdown between Kevin Durant's Thunder and LeBron James' Heat. Here are the responses:
1. Who has more pressure to win the title this year: Durant or LeBron?
Darnell Mayberry (beat writer) — LeBron. It's a level of scrutiny he signed up for when he signed on alongside Wade and Bosh. And it's something he supplemented with his infamous “Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” bit. LeBron will have more pressure for as long as he's with that collection of talent in Miami. Durant, at 25, still gets the benefit of the doubt that time is on his side.
Anthony Slater (beat writer) — LeBron. Still. He's older and his team's future is far more uncertain. Plus, he's LeBron. The pressure is always on. But Durant's time is coming. With each ringlets year, the pressure will mount. And for the Thunder, it's crucial now. You don't want him getting to free agency without that engagement ring. But MJ was 28 when he won his first. LeBron was 27. KD is only 25.
Jenni Carlson (columnist) — Durant. Not sure that was the case when the season started, but now that KD is playing at such a high level and has what sure appears to be his best team around him, there is a great opportunity to win a title this year. Great opportunities don't come along very often. As one of the best players in the world, about the only thing KD doesn't yet have on his resume is a title. Having the chance to change that this season puts more pressure on him than on LeBron.
Berry Tramel (columnist) — Durant definitely has more pressure. When you haven't won one, the pressure is immense. It was severe pressure on LeBron until he won one. Now he has two. It's not even close. Durant is on a team that has proved to be the NBA's best through four months. He's playing great. The table is set for OKC. The pressure's on Durant.
2. Fact or fiction: Serge Ibaka is a better player than Chris Bosh.
Mayberry — Fiction. Better shot-blocker, sure. Better player? No. Bosh has carried his team as “The Man” and is now blending in as the third banana on a top-heavy roster. That's not easy to do. He's also played out of position for the better part of three seasons, which illustrates his versatility and adaptability. Ibaka continues to expand his game, but he's still not the all-around player Bosh is.
Slater — Fiction. It's still Bosh. The nine-time All-Star has become underappreciated the past couple seasons. He's become the Heat's second best player. But I'm not sure either team would trade one for the other. Bosh is vital to the Heat's positionless, spread-it-out attack and he's an underrated defensive anchor. Ibaka, meanwhile, is an ascending 24-year-old forward, an elite rim protector and nearly automatic midrange shooter. Ibaka's future is brighter, but Bosh is better now.
Carlson — Fact. And that's not a knock on Bosh. Great player. But Ibaka has become an absolute gem. His shot blocking and defending continues to make him one of the game's best on the defensive end, but now, he's adding all sorts of new wrinkles on the offensive end. Plus, he's getting so consistent offensively. To me, we're picking between great players here, but I'd go with Ibaka over Bosh.
Tramel — I'm going to say fact. Bosh has a slightly better PER (a complicated performance rating, which is based mostly on offense but does include blocked shot), but the difference is Ibaka's threat of a blocked shot. Bosh is a wonderful player himself. But Ibaka is something else.
3. Whose injury issues are more concerning: Westbrook or Wade?
Mayberry — Wade. In the short term and long term. Westbrook's issues still don't seem like a big deal.
Slater — In the long-term, Wade. After 11 years as a fearless crash-test dummy, his body is breaking down. But in the short term (this season), it may be Westbrook. Miami can coast through the first two rounds in the East, spotting Wade time here and there. And he's shown he can rise up in important games. But OKC won't be able to make it through the West's minefield if Westbrook isn't at or near 100 percent. He's too important.
Carlson — Depends on your perspective. If you're the Heat, it seems like they just go out and buy stars. So, if Dwyane Wade is coming toward the end of his career — which these injuries would lead you to believe that he is — the Heat will probably just go sign another top-shelf player and pay him whatever he wants. But it seems to me that the injuries to Westbrook are more concerning because he's still so young and such a part of the Thunder's present and future. Do I think Westbrook is going to have to retire in a year or something? No way. I think he's got a long career in front of him. But three knee surgeries in less than a year on a player who's biggest strength is his athleticism is concerning. Concerning to Westbrook. Concerning to teammates. Concerning to Thunder Nation. Heck, it's concerning to the NBA, which loves to tout its stars, and Westbrook is one of those guys.
Tramel — I'll say Wade for now, because you know they are going to remain. He's a beat-up basketball player. But if Westbrook doesn't come back as good as new, then there's trouble in paradise. The meniscus injury to Westbrook keeps lingering and lingering, as much over surgical procedures as anything else. Fool me thrice, shame on you. Fool me …
4. Where is the Thunder's biggest advantage in this matchup? Miami's?
Mayberry — Russell Westbrook against anyone who stands in his way. Kevin Durant has that other dude to deal with. But the Heat doesn't have a counter for No. 0. Miami's biggest advantage against everyone, even the Thunder, is LeBron. He's still going to get his, and he's still going to make his teammates better.
Slater — The Russell Westbrook/Reggie Jackson point guard combo is lethal against anyone. Probably the best starter/reserve combo in the league. And it can be especially deadly against Miami. Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole are respectable. But beyond center (where OKC won't exploit), point guard is the Heat's weakest position. Miami's advantage comes in spacing. They've had a top-10 3-point shooting team every year since LeBron moved to South Florida, better than the Thunder each year. And in the 2012 Finals, the Heat shot OKC's lights out.
Carlson — The Thunder's biggest advantage in this matchup is its biggest advantage in every matchup — Durant. He's playing at such an unbelievable level. He gives the Thunder a leg up regardless of who they're playing. The Heat's biggest advantage used to be the matchup problems that it caused with its smaller lineup, but as long as Scott Brooks counters with his small lineup, that big advantage is gone. So, I'd go with LeBron's competitiveness. The dude abhors being anything less than No. 1. Durant and the Thunder are threatening that status, and I suspect LeBron will be motivated to prove a point Thursday night.
Tramel — When Westbrook is healthy, he's OKC's best matchup. Wade was a great player and remains a good player. Mario Chalmers is an excellent defender. But Miami couldn't check Westbrook. Remember the 43-point game in Game 5 of the 2012 NBA Finals. But if Westbrook isn't 100 percent, which I assume he won't be, then the Thunder doesn't have a huge matchup edge. And neither does Miami. LeBron and Durant to some extent cancel out each other. Bosh and Ibaka, the same.
5. Who wins Thursday? Who wins should they meet in June?
Mayberry — I'll go with the Thunder on Thursday for no reason other than OKC is at home. And are we sure Miami will make it to June?
Slater — Thunder on Thursday. OKC is at home, with a week off, already playing incredible basketball and about to get a Westbrook-sized boost. The atmosphere is going to be electric. But come June, I'm still leaning to Miami. LeBron's last two Finals appearances are too hard to ignore. Could see it going either way, though.
Carlson — I'll go Thunder on Thursday night and in June. Unless something unexpected happens between now and the playoffs, this Thunder team is better than the Heat. Plain and simple. And in a seven-game series, I see that being played out.
Tramel — I'll go with the Thunder on Thursday night. I think emotions will be high, and while that often plays against the Thunder, I'm betting it works out for OKC this time. If they meet in the Finals, let's go OKC. Why not? Durant's elevated play wipes out the Heat's biggest edge, which was LeBron.