I've always been, even in my best moments, stuck in what can be charitably described as "an emotional disconnect," with greater humanity. I seem to trade in the minority opinion, a devil's advocacy on retainer, if you will. I'm stuck in this perpetual state of not seeing the forest for trees because I'm too busy hiding, waiting in ambush, hoping to collect definitive proof that they not only do they make a noise when they fall and think no one's around, but that noise is similar to the whining, panicked screech that I made Pop left Duncan on the bench the second time late in Game 6.
(I never, ever stop thinking about Game 6 for more than a few hours at a time. I wish I thought about the good times as often too, but the human brain just doesn't work that way. At least, mine doesn't.)
The point I'm trying to get at with my clunky prose is that on one hand I completely understand, with my rational brain, why most of the basketball-watching public, whether they're casual fans or NBA junkies, is salivating over the prospect of another Oklahoma City-Miami Finals.
On the other hand, my artsy, critical, this-is-why-you're-alone brain is left screaming to the heavens, screaming in silence, forever invoking the famous Will Ferrell line in Zoolander, "Am I taking crazy pills?"
We saw this Finals once already. It was mostly one-sided and terrible. Why would anyone want to see that again?
If you need a refresher, two seasons ago the Thunder took four straight from our beloved Spurs --after the San Antonio juggernaut had won 20 straight games-- to pull off a slight Western Conference Finals upset and they advanced to the championship round against Miami, who themselves came off the mat in the Eastern Conference Finals, down 3-2 in that series and needing to win an elimination game at Boston before finishing off the Celtics in another tight Game 7 at home.
The 2012 Finals, which at one point seemed to be destined for a match-up of geezer "big threes," and the ultimate winner-take-all showdown between two legendary power forwards in Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, suddenly shifted, maybe a year or two ahead of schedule, to a battle of younger dynasties in waiting, a duel between the two best players in the league in LeBron James and Kevin Durant, not to mention their celebrated sidekicks Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
Obviously it was debatable whether the Heat or the Thunder were truly better than the teams they just vanquished in the previous round --how much does a six or seven game sample size tell us, really, in the big picture when a couple of those games are decided by a controversial call or the bounce of a ball here or there?-- but no one could deny that these teams featured more dynamic, "above-the-rim" playmakers. The pundits were overjoyed that they wouldn't have to cover the staid Spurs or the grouchy Celtics and everyone seemed giddy over the prospect of what a "fun" series would be, a Lakers-vs.-Celtics for the 21st century. The TV executives were delighted about the prospect of promoting the first of what promised to be several Heat-vs.-Thunder Finals.
What they got, as it turned out, was more Lakers-vs.-Bulls than Lakers-vs.-Celtics. The Thunder started out brightly and won Game 1 at home, but after that they got a taste of their own medicine and lost four straight themselves, the last, Game 5 in Miami, an embarrassing rout, a coronation for the Heat midway through the third quarter. Only a nine point advantage in the fourth for OKC kept the final margin of 15 cosmetically respectable.
The Thunder lost a game in which Westbrook scored 43 points.
The Thunder were eliminated in five in a series in which Durant averaged over 30 points on 55 percent shooting, and 39.4 percent from downtown.
The Thunder weren't any competition for Miami with James freakin' Harden.
Miami's role players were superior, James and Wade blended their talents more coherently than the iso-driven my-turn, your-turn relationship of Durant and Westbrook, and Bosh outplayed his counterpart in Serge Ibaka, showing more composure and a greater wealth of skills. Most of all the Heat had a defensive spine when it mattered.
Are people really expecting them to be more competitive in the Finals this time around? With no Harden? With Westbrook's ever wonky knee? Based on what? Seriously, based on what?
Styles make fights and while I understand for most fans it doesn't get more complicated than "LeBron James and Kevin Durant are the two best players" + "They play on two of the best teams," = "I want to see them in the Finals," I think the nuanced fan has to understand, even if they have to be dragged to the conclusion kicking and screaming, that the Heat are just a bad, bad match-up for the Thunder. I mean, Miami is a bad match-up for anybody, but they're really a bad match-up for the Thunder.
To have any chance of winning a best-of-seven series against Miami, short of pulling a Jeff Gillooly on James' knee (and I'm thinking you'd need something more along the lines of a nuclear warhead at this point to actually injure LeBron than a simple lead pipe), a team needs to have five things:
1) A reliable post scorer
2) A bevy of three-point shooters
3) An offense that doesn't turn it over too much
4) An imposing shot-blocker
5) Athletic perimeter defending
The Thunder have one of those things, the shot-blocker in Ibaka, maybe two on a good day in the three-point shooting. They're among the most turnover-prone offenses in the league (the Spurs, even with their rash of turnovers lately, are only 12th). They're also 14th in three-point percentage.
The other three? Not so much.
According to MySynergySports.com, the Thunder use the post-up less than just about any team in the league, just 6.2 percent of their possessions (h/t to J. Gomez for his sleuthing in these efforts) and it's among the least successful things they do, as for as points-per-possession goes, though to be fair that's the case with post-ups for almost anybody. It's just not that efficient.
The Spurs, by contrast, post up on 9.1 percent of their possessions. You'll note it's more effective for them than, say, isolation.
The team that posts up the most, you won't be at all surprised to find out, is the Pacers, at 14.4 percent. Roy Hibbert's dominance had a lot to do with them taking the Heat to seven games last year, despite the Pacers having no bench whatsoever.
Looking at a couple of the other contenders, the Clippers only post-up 8.3 percent of the time, but they're third in the league in terms of efficiency with it, at .93 PPP. The Blazers post up 12.3 percent of the time, but aren't good at it at all, scoring just .83 PPP (not too surprising when you consider LaMarcus Aldridge's game).
Having an imposing shot blocker and just a strong interior defense in general is rather important against Miami because they just happen to be... wait for it... the most effective post-up team in the league, thanks to the efforts of James and Wade.
1.02 PPP on post-ups. That's just sick. It reads like something Wilt Chamberlain's Philadelphia Warriors teams would've pulled off. As you can see, the Heat are great, infuriatingly so, at just about everything, and as a testament to Erik Spoelstra's coaching, the stuff they're the worst at is the stuff they waste the least time doing. They play to their strengths.
Anyway, it's absolutely vital to have an interior presence against the Heat, or they'll just destroy you on post-ups, cuts, and drives to the rim, but their preference on playing small makes it hard for opponents to pack the lane against them. Only the Pacers seem to be able to get away with the "we don't care what you're doing, we're sticking with Hibbert and David West" mentality. West scores enough that the Heat have to account for him, the Pacers dominate the boards on both ends and even when the Heat try to spread the Pacers out Hibbert can still protect the lane all by his lonesome. For the Spurs or the Thunder to match this strategy, Tiago Splitter and/or Kendrick Perkins would have to be able to score as efficiently as West, and they just can't.
The final piece of the puzzle for combating the Heat is to have strong, athletic perimeter defenders and this is where Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Boris Diaw, and, to a much lesser degree, Manu Ginobili come in. The Pacers meanwhile have Paul George, Lance Stephenson and George Hill.
The Thunder, meanwhile, have who, exactly? Thabo Sefolosha has aged in dog years, to the point where the Thunder were reportedly trying to trade for Iman Shumpert from the Knicks, and he's their worst rotation defender outside of Westbrook and rookie Steven Adams. Durant has length but his defensive awareness and energy comes and goes. Derek Fisher's only weapon is trying to draw charges and Jeremy Lamb is a callow youngster.
Granted, I know the Thunder remain a bad match-up for the Spurs. They don't try to post-up at all, when interior defending is the best part of the Spurs defense. Their GM, Sam Presti, an ex-Spurs executive, practically built the team with an eye on exploiting all of the Spurs weaknesses, both philosophically and personnel-wise. The catch-22 of it is that roster building goes and grand planning goes poof against Miami, a "small" team that plays big in disguise. As much as Spurs fans have to secretly hope that someone knocks off the Thunder before they have to face them in the playoffs, Thunder fans have to be thinking along similar lines for the Heat (and, thanks to the Pacers, they have more of a chance for having those hopes realized).
I know OKC beat Miami and split this season, with each blowing out the other on the road, but I think the Thunder's win was mostly an anomaly, unless you really think Fisher, Lamb and Perry Jones will combine for ten threes again. That's just not gonna happen, especially in the bright lights of the Finals.
I've never been one to gamble on basketball, but I promise you that if the Thunder and Heat do meet in the Finals, like pretty much everyone at ESPN is desperately rooting for, I will place a sizable wager on Miami, and I'll encourage everyone to do the same.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'll be performing a ritual sacrifice so that match-up doesn't come to pass.