Basketball, they say, is a game of matchups. Regular season stats can only tell you so much about how a playoff series will go when two teams compete head-to-head for seven games. And what happens in the first three rounds of the playoffs can only tell you so much about how the Finals will turn out.
I’m disappointed that the Oklahoma City Thunder lost to the Miami Heat.
It’s not because Oklahoma was “my team” during the regular season. And it’s not because I was quietly (okay, not so quietly) rooting for Derek Fisher to make an impact as the smallest and oldest guy on the floor (6′ 1” and just shy of 38 years old, if anyone’s counting), the veteran who was supposed to be Yoda to all the young Padawans.
No, I’m disappointed because a win by OKC would have made a better story.
Coming into the playoffs, Kevin Durant and Company were pegged as young, talented, and athletically gifted. But they were also relatively inexperienced. How deep could they possibly go?
The conference finals against the Spurs was the turning point in the story (see earlier post). The Spurs were the more experienced, more methodical team, and had been unstoppable. When San Antonio took the first two games, it was supposed to be all over for OKC.
But when the Thunder dropped the Spurs by winning the next four games in a row, people sang a different tune. They were more mature, more Finals-ready than anyone had thought. The Force was with them.
Meanwhile, the Heat had struggled in the Eastern Conference finals, taking seven games to dispatch what was supposed to be a comparatively creaky Celtics team. How would LeBron and his teammates handle the young guns in Oklahoma?
Then, too, there was the matter of all the basketball fans–not just in Cleveland–who just wanted to see Miami fail. Fans have long memories for things like LeBron’s infamous televised Decision to join Wade and Bosh in Miami in pursuit of a championship.
From a storied standpoint, the Finals were a dream matchup. On one side: LeBron James and his famously outsize ego, leading a team seemingly put together like a mercenary army to achieve their singular objective. On the other side: the relatively quiet and humble Kevin Durant, leading a team whose stars had all been legitimately drafted rather than bought. LeBron wasn’t exactly Darth Vader, but the stage was set for a clash that was about more than just basketball.
Reality, as it turns out, is more complicated than the story I wanted to tell.
For all their determination and poise in defeating the Spurs, when they reached the Finals, Oklahoma was inconsistent and often looked, well, inexperienced. The James Harden who was supposed to be their # 3 option simply vanished. And while Miami wasn’t touted to have much depth beyond their Big Three, someone kept stepping up to make significant contributions: Shane Battier; Mario Chalmers; Mike Miller. It was a different guy every night. OKC had no comparable answer.
And then there’s LeBron. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying his talent. Whether making jumpers or circus shots, or punishing double-teams by finding open shooters, or refusing to quit on the offensive boards, he did it all, and with flair. This was not the LeBron who seemed to fade out against Dallas in last year’s Finals. This was a man who knew his role and trusted his teammates.
So, I have to tell a different story. OKC will learn from the experience. Durant, Westbrook and friends will be back, wiser. LeBron and company will be back too, with less to prove than before. Will that make them less dangerous?
I doubt it. But that’s another story.