NBA Finals, baby! And we got a good one. As much as I wanted the Celtics to beat the Heat, I must admit that the Finals are better with the Heat vs. Thunder (by the way, will The Weather Channel be broadcasting these games?). We've got two noteworthy teams. We've got the two best players in basketball with the throne on the line. And we've got a team to definitively root for. What more could you ask for? Leggo...
1. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder.
The most historically successful strategy for a star player to win in the NBA goes like this: Get all of your teammates involved for three quarters, seize control whenever your team goes through a lull, and then take over come the 4th quarter. Michael Jordan did this better than anybody. Kobe Bryant struggled with this idea internally, but found his greatest successes following this formula. It took Dirk Nowitzki to the mountain top last season. Slim Thugga followed this blueprint to a tee in the Western Conference Finals. It was impressive to watch. I give Durant the advantage over Lebron simply because he has become more trustworthy in the 4th quarter. For an 82 game season? Give me Lebron. For Game 7 of the NBA Finals? Give me Durant. In a 7 game series for the right to be called the best basketball player in the world? Well, we're about to find that out.
2. Lebron James, Miami Heat.
Lebron James is a lot like Tim Tebow. No, seriously. And here's why. Both their biggest fans and their biggest critics are exactly right. Yes, Lebron James is the best basketball player in the world (contrary to my rankings, there's a difference between being the best and being the most successful). And yes, he has clearly struggled down the stretch of important games before. Now, take Tim Tebow. Yes, he's a terrible quote, unquote quarterback. But yes, something in his DNA breeds winning football games. (The ironic part is that the two players' successes are directly inversive to one another). Not many athletes can prove their biggest fans and their biggest critics right on a nightly basis. My suggestion for enjoying the spectacle of it all? Sit firmly on the fence. Because hopping down on either side of the fence doesn't allow you to enjoy all of the many aspects offered to us by Lebron James. Marvel at him with the ball in the open court. Criticize him for shooting too many jump shots. Appreciate his hunger to dominate every single time he steps on an NBA court. Question his hot potato instincts that kick in with the game on the line. You're doing yourself an injustice by blindly following one side or the other (ahem, Nick Wright). Embrace both sides of the most compelling athlete of our time. Trust me.
3. Russell Westbrook, OKCT (like TMNT).
Westbrook is downright scary. For both his team's fans, and his opponent's team's fans. Because of his style of play, Russell "Stringer" Westbrook can singlehandedly win or lose a game for his team. If he's hitting his shot from the elbow, he's damn near unstoppable. When he loses control, and starts wildly driving to the basket, he becomes something of a liability. Westbrook, and the Thunder, are at their best when he's taking the same amount of shots as Kevin Durant, something to keep your eye on throughout the Finals. P.S. I had totally forgotten that Westbrook signed a 5 year extension this past offseason, all but guaranteeing the immediate future for this Thunder team. That could be a damn shrewd move, especially if they were to win it all this offseason, erasing any doubts that Westbrook might want to go be "the man" elsewhere.
4. Dyanwe Wdae, Maimi Haet.
My most hated player in the NBA. I don't like people with a strong sense of entitlement. I don't like people that feel the need to advertise what type of person they are (look how tough I am guys! I keep getting up after all my self-inflicted flops to the ground!). I don't like people who mock my namesake and then get their asses kicked. I don't like players who get handed NBA Titles for little to no reason. I don't like players who won't face the media after a loss. I don't like players who get off scott free, while their teammate, who is better, faces the scrutiny of the world. And I don't like you, Dwyane. The only good part about watching Wade take part in another series is that I get to continue my Hye Dnwyae series.
5. Chris Bosh, Miami Heat.
It'll be interesting to see what role Bosh plays in these Finals. I think I liked him better coming off the bench for this Heat team. He seemed to play with more energy and showed no rust whatsoever on his jumpshots. Is that purely because he's coming off the bench? No, probably not. But if you got something that's working for him, why change? Also, I've never understood the logic behind starting your best 5 players. Anybody notice that the Sixth Man Award has recently rotated between Manu Ginobili (Spurs), Jason Terry (Mavericks), Lamar Odom (Lakers), and now James Harden (Thunder)? Those are the most successful teams in the NBA. There's an irrefutable pattern there. P.S. I fully expect Spoelstra to move Bosh into the starting lineup and watch him flounder.
6. Serge Ibaka, Okc Thunder.
Iblocka. Chewbaka. I block you. Interested to see what role Ibaka plays as well. While Ibaka is a terrific shot blocker (most shot blocks per game since Theo Ratliff's expiring contract in 2000-01), I'm not sure if he's a great on the ball defender (my best evidence is Dirk roasting him in last year's WCF). So, while I think Ibaka will start out on Bosh, I think he'll eventually be the Thunder's only big man in a smaller lineup, and will feel free to roam the lane off of Udonis Haslem.
7. James Harden, Thunder.
Amazing that a rising star in the league could be the 7th best player in these NBA Finals. And he's hot right now. Harden shot 61% from 3-point range against the Spurs. He also had the balls to hit the biggest shot of that series, a Paul Pierce-esque three with 30 seconds left in Game 5. He is also foul call dependent, benefitting from a tightly called game as much as anybody. Harden is the ultimate X-factor because he is the 4th option that the Heat don't have.
8. Mario Chalmers, Heat.
Or do they? Chalmers has blossomed into a legitimate NBA point guard. I know this because I've been rooting against him for two straight years, so all homerism has been removed from the equation. He's gotten downright crafty at finishing around the rim lately, polishing off a nice floater that Jeff Van Gundy will rant and rave about ("every guard in the NBA needs that shot"). My favorite running joke of these NBA playoffs so far? Remember the days when Dwyane Wade was better than Mario Chalmers.
9. Thabo Specialosha, 'Der.
My favorite of all the role players in this series. This will be the man assigned to stop Lebron James. Is he up for the task? I dunno, but he HAS to be a better choice than Brandon Bass (Seriously, Doc? Brandon Bass? BRANDON BASS?!?). He's got the quickness and height to hang with him. And I'm not sure if Lebron's post up game is polished enough yet to take advantage of the size difference. I think he'll do a solid job.
10. Shane Battier, Heatles.
He was great in Game 7 against Boston. The Heat don't win without his 3-point shooting in that game. He'll always make the smart play. Can never be trusted because of his wrinkly head.
11. Nick Collison, oKC.
One of my favorite players to watch in the NBA. He'll never get the respect he deserves because of his dorky style of play, but I love it. Great hands, great feet, tough, efficient scorer, rebounder, and defender. Immensely underrated. I think he plays a bigger role in this series than...
12. Kendrick Perkins, Dun 'Der Cheap.
Not the series for The Big Scowl. Kendrick brings one big strength to the table - post defense. But the Heat don't have any players that score in the post. With his strength all but negated, Perkins becomes somewhat of a liability against a smaller, quicker lineup. I think Perkins keeps his spot in the starting lineup but plays less than 20 minutes a game the latter half of the series.
13. Udonis Haslem, Heatorade.
I have absolutely nothing to say about Haslem.
14. Derek Fisher, Laker 4 Life.
Hits big shots. Seriously bad defender.
15. James Jones, Souff Beach.
Don't understand why this sharpshooter doesn't see more time on the pine. He's deadly from outside.
16. Mike Miller, Welcome to Miami, Bienvenido a Miami.
Ever wondered what a punk rocker with a broken back would look like in an NBA Finals game?
17. Joel Anthony, Heat.
I love when he goes to the free throw line and everybody sitting at home simultaneously thinks, "Huh, I didn't know he was left handed."
18. Cole Aldrich, Thunder.
Has really refined his bench game. We may be seeing the next Mark Madsen blossoming right before our eyes.
19. Juwan Howard, Michigan Wolverines.
26. Lazar Hayward, Okc.
#ThunderTits. If you don't know yet, you will soon.