By John Schmeelk
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With the NBA Finals set to begin on Tuesday night, here is a closer look at the matchups that will be critical in determining the eventual champion.

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Dwyane Wade vs. Russell Westbrook – Obviously these two players play different positions, but both should find each other guarding one another an awful lot during this series and down the stretch. I’m not sure that Wade has the legs to play well offensively and check Westbrook on defense. Unfortunately for Miami, he’s the only Miami defender not named LeBron that’s athletic enough to stay in front of Westbrook. Westbrook, meanwhile, has come into his own this year, limiting his poor shot selection and getting his teammates involved more effectively. I’ll cosign with Wade that he might very well be the best athlete in the NBA not named LeBron James. The advantage that Westbrook has is that he won’t have to expend a ton of energy guarding Wade for long stretches because of Thabo Sefolosha’s defensive acumen. The Heat need to get at least a draw in this matchup to win the series, and I don’t think they will.
Slight advantage: Thunder

Mario Chalmers vs. Thabo Sefolosha – These players and their effectiveness will be determined by how they defend and hit an occasional open three. If Chalmers can guard Westbrook for long periods and give Wade a break, it will help the Heat immensely. I just don’t think he has the athleticism to do it. Sefolosha, on the other hand, should be able to do a decent job on Wade and give Westbrook a rest on that end of the floor by allowing him to guard Chalmers.
Slight advantage: Thunder

LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant – We get to see the two best players in the game guard each other over a seven-game series, and it should be a lot of fun. I hope that no one still thinks LeBron will wilt under the pressure after his late-series close out against the Thunder. I don’t think Durant will be phased by the pressure either, but I’m always concerned about Durant since above all else, he is a jump shooter. Sometimes shots just don’t go in. If Durant goes cold in this series, it could kill the Thunder. LeBron, on the other hand, can get to the basket at will and create in other ways. Defensively, I’ll be interested to see if Durant can stay in front of LeBron and if LeBron is willing to chase Durant across all those ball screens. This should be a lot of fun. If the Heat want to win this series, LeBron must outplay Kevin Durant.
Slight advantage: Heat

Chris Bosh vs. Serge Ibaka – Ibaka is a shot-blocking machine but he is still young and undisciplined. I’m also not sure he is quick enough to stay with Bosh and his myriad of moves from the perimeter. Bosh looks recovered from his abdomen injury and he must dominate this matchup if the Heat want to win this series. He is the X-factor. Ibaka has to watch his foul trouble and stay under control when helping on James and Wade driving to the basket.
Big advantage: Heat

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Joel Anthony vs. Kendrick Perkins – Umm … yeah. Ugly. This will be ugly. Look for hard fouls on the opposing superstars and some rebounds. That’s about it.
Slight Advantage: Thunder

Bench – With James Harden coming off the bench, this is obviously where the Thunder can dominate this series. Miami simply can’t match the Thunder’s depth and Harden could very well be the X-factor in this series for the Thunder, like Bosh is for the Heat.  Shane Battier’s defense off the bench against either Durant or Harden will also be key. I’m not sure he has enough athleticism to hang with either at this stage of his career. Udonis Haslem has to continue to hit the mid-range and rebound. I guarantee you that the over-the-hill Derek Fisher hits at least one big three in this series.
Big Advantage: Thunder

Coaches – Scott Brooks has finally gotten his team to buy into ball movement and actually running plays at the end of games. The Heat, for the most part, is still iso-city. Erik Spoelstra does get his team to play better defense. How well Brooks can get his Thunder to defend the Heat will be a huge factor. If the Thunder have a weakness, it’s their defense.
Slight Advantage: Thunder

Intangibles – More pressure is on the Heat, and they have played far more high-intensity games on their way to the finals. There’s a real question as to how much they might have left in the tank. The Thunder have a much better home-court advantage, but they are young and might play a little tight at times.

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What is your prediction for the NBA Finals? Who do you like to win it and in how many games? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…