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Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Thunder-Heat: NBA Finals Preview?

ESPN.com

Leading MVP candidates LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant. The Miami Heat vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder in a possible NBA Finals preview. Our 5-on-5 crew weighs in on the big game (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).


1. LeBron or KD: Whom would you take for the next three years?


Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: LeBron -- but it's a closer call than it's ever been. Mileage is a funny thing, and for the first time in 11 seasons, there's a sense that LeBron is being more selective about when and how to exert himself on both ends. Meanwhile, Durant is at full throttle, chewing up the league on a nightly basis. Still, in a seven-game series, I'll take the full-strength LeBron over the full-strength Durant for the time being.

Israel Gutierrez, ESPN.com: These are my favorite kind of decisions. How can you go wrong? It's like choosing between winning the Florida lottery or the Connecticut lottery. In this case, though, I'll take LeBron. There's no real sign that he'll be dropping off in the next few years. That might be a lack of vision on my part, but we haven't seen Durant elevate his team to a championship yet. We know LeBron can.

Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Insider: LeBron. I'm torn. Durant's stretch has melted my brain with awesomeness, but I also don't want to be a prisoner of the moment. Right now, Durant looks like the right call, but come playoff time, I'm going with motivated LeBron. This is becoming harder and harder for me to say, but I still think the reigning MVP is the all-around better player.

Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: LeBron. You can't go wrong with either of these guys, obviously. But I prefer the one who already has had four trips to the Finals on his résumé, with two NBA titles and four MVP trophies. LeBron is also the easiest superstar in the league to build a team around because of his versatility on both ends of the court. And he's not even 30 yet.

Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: LeBron, but whoa, this is a tough one. This is really a question about how LeBron's game will age, because the next three years should be the back end of his prime. I believe his game will age beautifully because he is already well into his transition from a player who bases his game on athleticism to one who bases it on power. Durant seems to be on the verge, though, and it's something to see. I'm sure a team would do very well to get their hands on either for that span.


2. Which team has a bigger statement to make tonight?


Arnovitz: There's no such thing as a statement in January, but the Heat need to continue building on their Sunday win and the idea that, when the games have meaning, they're still the most complete team in the league. For the Thunder, a respectable loss on the road at Miami without their second-best player is easy to explain away.

Gutierrez: The Heat, if only because the Thunder are playing with house money at the moment. They're not whole without Russell Westbrook, while the Heat had their entire roster healthy and available for the first time Sunday. Individually, LeBron needs to do more to catch KD in the MVP race. And his teammates would love to help him do that.

Haberstroh: Thunder. Do two-time defending champs make statements in January? The Thunder have a host of unproven youngsters -- Reggie Jackson, Steven Adams and Jeremy Lamb, to name a few -- who could make a name for themselves in the national audience. Not to be a Debbie Downer,  but answer this honestly: Will we remember this game in four months?

Wallace: Heat. It's their home game. Dwyane Wade said he expects to be back in the starting lineup, which means Miami is closer to being at full strength as well. At the end of the day, this game won't define the rest of the season for either team. But on a basic level, the Heat would stand to have more questions to answer if they lose than OKC would.

Windhorst: Heat. Though I don't really think the two-time champs have a true need to do anything in the regular season. It's a home game for them and they are trying to get some traction going as they head into the meat of their schedule.


3. Which star's health is more important: Wade or Westbrook?


Arnovitz: Wade's -- which is a greater statement about the emergence of Reggie Jackson than it is a debate about Wade vs. Westbrook. It's doubtful either team could win a title without its best guard, but the Thunder have a bit more depth at the position.

Gutierrez: Westbrook. It's a tricky question, though, because Wade can play while battling his knee issues. Westbrook can't. And we've seen the Heat win a title without a fully healthy Wade, while the Thunder lost in five games to the Grizzlies in the second round without Westbrook. Durant looks like he can carry his team past anyone right now, but the playoffs require Westbrook.

Haberstroh: Wade. With free agency around the corner, a potential dynasty is on the line. You can't say the same about Westbrook, KD and company, who are still in diapers by comparison. If Westbrook doesn't get back 100 percent this season, there's always next year. The Heat don't know what "next year" looks like.

Wallace: Westbrook. The Thunder have a far more difficult path to navigate in the deeper Western Conference. Durant has done a remarkable job of thriving in the short term amid the injury absence of Westbrook. But OKC's All-NBA point guard needs to be healthy for his team to have a shot to reach the NBA Finals. LeBron can carry this Heat team to the Eastern Conference finals with or without Wade.

Windhorst: Westbrook. I don't think the Heat can three-peat without getting timely contributions from Wade but I still think they probably could be a huge threat even if he's not there. But I don't think the Thunder make it through the West playoffs without the Westbrook-Durant combo. In the playoffs, it's just too tough for one player to carry such a burden when the game plans are so much more detailed.


4. Is this a preview of the 2014 Finals?


Arnovitz: It's possible, but the "field" in the West is still formidable, as is Indiana in the East. But let's say with some conviction that one of these two teams will be playing for the title.

Gutierrez: I've had this matchup since the beginning of the season, and I'm not bailing now. The Clippers are coming on strong, and it's impossible to rule out the Spurs despite their struggles against the elite teams. But if Durant is playing like this now, Westbrook's return should provide that separation from the Clips, Spurs and Blazers. But he needs to stay healthy this time.

Haberstroh: No. If you can guarantee me that Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade will be healthy for the postseason, then I'll change my answer. But until then, I'll go with the field. The Warriors, Clippers, and Spurs are right there with the Thunder out West (I'm still not sold on the Blazers' D). And the Pacers could take the Heat with Wade limited.

Wallace: Definitely maybe. But I'll still stick to my preseason pick of a Heat-Clippers matchup in the Finals. I haven't given up hope on Chris Paul returning to form and ultimately leading his crew out of the West. If Westbrook gets healthy and the Thunder can overcome some of Scott Brooks' questionable tactics and the Kendrick Perkins usage dilemma, an OKC-Heat rematch would be a welcomed consolation prize.

Windhorst: I believe so. I picked it this way in October and I will stay with it. I totally respect the Spurs and I'm keeping an eye on the Warriors and Clippers, but if Westbrook is healthy the Thunder are such a load, especially if they have home-court advantage. The Pacers are an extreme challenge to the Heat -- it could be the toughest Eastern series they've had in four years, but as of now I'm staying with the champs.


5. Who wins tonight and why?


Arnovitz: The Heat, because (a) they're at home, and (b) LeBron has been hearing footsteps in the Greatest Player on the Planet race. When he's feeling the urge to assert himself, LeBron doesn't jut his lower jaw or howl at the moon. He just transforms himself into a large utility vehicle and commandeers the floor. Expect to see that for long stretches of possessions Wednesday.

Gutierrez: Heat. You've seen LeBron turn to second-half mode since that win over the Lakers last Thursday. When he's playing with that intensity, especially on the defensive end, the Heat are at their best. And you know LeBron and the Heat will enjoy the challenge of slowing Durant, taking their chances that Reggie Jackson & Co. can't make them pay. Now, Durant could have one of those nights where the defense doesn't even exist. But Miami's the slightly safer bet.

Haberstroh: Miami, for two reasons. The game is being played on 601 Biscayne Blvd. and I'm expecting a motivated LeBron James to show up. If he doesn't, Durant can start stirring the cement mix for his first MVP.

Wallace: Heat. LeBron is at home in a high-profile matchup. That means the Heat are likely to get the favorable whistles, their 3-point shooters going and a difference-making play or two in a clutch moment from Chris Bosh, who is arguably the hottest-shooting player in the league this week not named Kevin or LeBron.

Windhorst: The Heat. They're just deeper right now and they're motivated at the moment and they're playing at home. Durant will get his 30, he may get his 40, but I expect the Heat to put up at least 110 points and just outscore the Thunder at home.