By John Schmeelk
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The Miami Heat are in for a rude awakening when the NBA Finals start Tuesday night.
The Celtics were a veteran team with tons of experience, but they were not an upper-echelon squad like the regular-season Spurs, Bulls or Thunder. Boston barely got home court in the first round of the playoffs. The Heat actually had a rather easy draw getting to the Finals, avoiding Chicago, thanks to the Derrick Rose injury.
Miami also now has to deal with the 2-3-2 format, a detriment to the road team in the finals. If they want to beat the Thunder, they’ll have to play much better than they did in the Eastern Conference portion of the playoffs.
The Heat’s final two wins against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals had much more to do with individual brilliance than Miami actually solving its problems. In Game 6, LeBron James had a performance for the ages. In Game 7, it was a combination of the Celtics getting tired and looking old, Chris Bosh becoming a three-point shooter, and James once again playing out of his mind.
Miami will now move up a class in competition and will have to do all that — and more — to beat the Thunder.
After three straight series against slow and methodical teams like the Knicks, Pacers and Celtics, they have to take on the young and super-athletic Oklahoma City Thunder. James and Dwyane Wade will have to work harder on defense against the likes of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook than they did vs. the older (and slower) Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. No other team that took on Miami — other than the Knicks with Carmelo Anthony — can say they have one-on-one players as good as those three. (That’s including Paul Pierce.)
I would expect the Heat to look a step slower in their series opener against the Thunder, and get regularly beat in transition. It’s impossible to simulate that type of speed and athleticism in practice and Miami will have to adjust to it on the fly.
I’ve also seen a lot more growth from the Thunder than the Heat in the playoffs. They’re better as a team, sharing the ball more and actually running plays at the end of games. The Heat keep relying on their stars making big plays in one-on-one situations. James bailed out the Heat with his great play in Games 6 and 7 of the conference finals, but odds are that won’t continue. He won’t hit a 30-plus foot three of a high screen and roll, nor will the Thunder leave someone like Brandon Bass on LeBron James for an extended time in the fourth quarter.
(Let me take this time to take some shots at Doc Rivers, who I think is one of the best coaches in the league. Why he left Bass on LeBron for most of the fourth is beyond my comprehension. At least twice, James went right around him for dunks. The Celtics’ lack of help-defense showed their old legs and fatigue, but Bass also made a strategic mistake by playing way to close to James. Make him shoot jump shots! It’s basic. I didn’t understand the strategy from top to bottom.)
Now, it’s more than possible that James will continue to play in his unconscious state and single-handedly carry the Heat to a championship. But the Thunder, despite being younger, play better team ball and are at least the equal to Miami in terms of athleticism.
I and many others thought this would be the finals matchup before the season started and it should be a good series. In the end, I think the Thunder play as a better unit and their stars are nearly as formidable as Miami’s.
Take the Thunder in five.
I’ll break down the matchups tomorrow…
You can follow me on Twitter for everything NBA playoffs, Knicks, Giants, Yankees and New York sports @Schmeelk.
What’s your prediction for the NBA Finals? Be heard in the comments below…