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How does Thursday's showdown between the visiting Miami Heat and the West-leading Oklahoma City Thunder shape up? Our 5-on-5 crew provides their thoughts.
Jason Gallagher, Ballerball: It's very close but I'm currently in "don't bet against LeBron until he proves you wrong" mode, so I'm picking Miami. The first time these two teams met in a series, Oklahoma City refused to adjust anything in its game plan. It looks like OKC is pulling away from that stubbornness and starting to adapt to other teams, which is the last thing Miami wants. Like so many others, though, my money is always on LeBron in a series.
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Insider: The fans! OK, fine: the Miami Heat. We're splitting hairs here, obviously. These teams are loaded, but I'm not ready to pick Oklahoma City unless I know that Russell Westbrook is close to 100 percent. And I don't know that right now. Emphasis on "right now." This could change.
Seerat Sohi, Hardwood Paroxysm: The Heat are 6-1 since Oklahoma obliterated them on Jan. 29, sporting the league's best offense, but they've yet to crank up their defense. In the same time, Oklahoma registered the league's second-best point differential -- usually a decent indicator of playoff success -- and Kevin Durant remains torrid. It's getting easier and easier to bet against the defending champs. Thunder in 6.
Michael Wallace, Heat Index: Heat. The experience factor would be huge under such a scenario. They've established an impressive track record the past three seasons of going into hostile environments and winning big playoff games on the road. Give LeBron James and crew a neutral-site series, and it would become a de facto set of home games. Then again, that might not totally be an advantage, considering Miami thrives on adversity and hostility.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Pass. Am I allowed to say pass? I lean toward the Heat if only because they're the more proven team. They've won back-to-back titles, meaning they haven't been beaten in a playoff series since the 2011 Finals. And despite the Thunder working Miami over with ease in the previous meeting, it's hard to shake the lasting images of the five-game series between the two.
Gallagher: Durant. I won't be the first person to wave the 30.97 PER ranking flag in the air, but it's just that impressive. What's even more impressive is that it's not completely out of the question for LeBron to leapfrog Durant and finish with a better season. Comparing these two players should be a celebration, though. What these guys have given to the game of basketball this season is such a rare thing and I'm just happy to witness and pay homage.
Haberstroh: LeBron James. As he's made abundantly clear before, inspired LeBron James is the best player on Earth. What's fascinating is that he's averaging 20 field goal attempts per game in the past month, which is up from his rate of 16. I guess he took the KD jealousy matter into his own hands.
Sohi: I'd be remiss to hand the crown to Durant before the two unleashed their playoff chops, but if we're talking this regular season, Durant has been better. His 30.9 PER is reminiscent of LeBron's MVP seasons, as is Durant's overall dominance. His playmaking is remarkably evolved, he's morphed into the best wing rebounder in the league and even defensively, he has been a notch above LeBron.
Wallace: LeBron James. When factoring in the complete impact both players have on a game, LeBron still gets the edge because of his versatility on the defensive side of the court. There is no longer a defensive assignment that makes him uncomfortable. We're splitting hairs here a bit, because Durant is having the more MVP-worthy season at this point. But the fact remains that LeBron is still the overall best player in the league. Even right now.
Young: Kevin Durant is currently playing at a higher level. That doesn't necessarily mean he's the better basketball player, though it's far closer than it has ever been, and the fact this question is viable enough to be asked says a whole lot about Durant's progression as a player. Remember: He's four years younger than LeBron. I think the fairer question to ask is: Who was better at 25? And to that, I think it's Durant.
Gallagher: For the Heat it has to be age. The defense appears to have taken a hit, somewhat due to LeBron coasting on that end of the floor, but mostly because guys like Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen and Shane Battier aren't able to rotate and help with the same speed they used to. Oklahoma City's big Achilles' heel is a stubborn obsession with certain lineups. Although coach Scott Brooks sitting Kendrick Perkins for as long as he did in the previous OKC/MIA game might be a sign that this particular liability could be dwindling before our eyes.
Haberstroh: For the Thunder, it's Perkins. I've made it clear that I think he's the most corrosive regular in the league and his effects are exacerbated against the Heat's speed. For the Heat, I'll go with Wade's fragility, which is the fulcrum of the Heat's three-peat chances.
Sohi: In Oklahoma, it's the rotation. When Westbrook returns, Derek Fisher's minutes need to be siphoned to keep Reggie Jackson on the floor. Up front, the Thunder are devastating when they play small, yet Perkins is a key cog in their rotation. For the Heat, if their defense can't revert to a suffocating, trapping frenzy, it's easy to envision the Pacers making mincemeat of them in the conference finals.
Wallace: For the Thunder, it's center Kendrick Perkins. And that's especially the case when OKC is facing a team with a non-traditional center who is capable of stepping out and knocking down midrange jumpers. Perkins is a specialist whose only job is to bang with opposing plodding, paint-clogging centers. For Miami, the biggest concern is Dwyane Wade's health heading down the stretch. But the team's biggest liability is the persistent rebounding struggles.
Young: Perimeter shooting. The Thunder don't rank all that bad shooting 3s, but the inconsistency they've experienced behind the deep line is concerning. With the effectiveness Durant has played with in terms of being a setup man, he could be spraying the ball all over to knockdown shooters, much in the way LeBron has with the Heat the past few years. Instead, he's the Thunder's best outside shooter and despite his otherworldly powers, I don't think he's figured out how to pass to himself.
Gallagher: Ibaka. Without him, Oklahoma City's defense is obviously much worse. He's just so good at giving that help from the weak side that teams are noticeably timid about driving to the basket. Plus, Ibaka's offensive game continues to get better and better, which makes him essential to Oklahoma City's success.
Haberstroh: Chris Bosh. I'm tempted to put Ibaka here because of his shot-blocking abilities and midrange game, but Bosh wears more hats for his team. Bosh can be the post-up guy, the blitz-the-pick-and-roll guy, the corner 3 guy, the midrange assassin, the dribble-drive guy . . . you name it. Bosh is the backbone.
Sohi: Since the Thunder lost Westbrook, Ibaka is putting up 15.7 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. One can't deny his defensive impact, either. Per SportVu, opponents attempt 9.4 shots at the rim against Ibaka but convert just 44.5 percent, making him the anchor of a top-3 defense. Folks, that's the ballgame.
Wallace: Ibaka. It took plenty of thinking and rethinking to get to this answer, because the Heat don't have another player on the roster capable of giving them the offensive versatility in the paint that Bosh provides. That said, Ibaka is highly underrated as an offensive force, but his defense and shot-blocking are as essential as Durant's offense to OKC's success. Neither team reaches the Finals without its respective best bigs. But Ibaka's defensive prowess puts him over the top here.
Young: Bosh. Ibaka's rim protection and weakside defensive help is a critical aspect of the Thunder's swarming, top-tier defense. But subtract Bosh from the Heat, and LeBron is playing with what now appears to be a banged-up Wade and a cast of misfits and aging role players. Bosh gives LeBron an elite secondary option, while subtracting Ibaka still leaves the Thunder with a couple of quality options.
Gallagher: Oklahoma City. Happy Westbrook Is Back Day! Now that OKC has its point guard and full lineup of young legs, it can run all over Miami without any reservation. Sadly for the fans, it's a regular-season game and the Heat are an aging team with a few injuries -- meaning they'll need to monitor minutes out of preparation for the playoffs.
Haberstroh: Oklahoma City Thunder. Chesapeake Energy Arena is normally bring-your-earplugs loud, but it may burst at the seams when Russell Westbrook steps out onto the floor. The Thunder haven't lost at home in a month and a half and I don't see that streak ending even with the defending champs in town.
Sohi: Westbrook might play but with the kind of rust he'll be shaking off, his impact could favor either team. Still, the Thunder have lost just three games at home this season. The Heat's long road trip comes to an end in Oklahoma. Chances are, they'll head home with a loss.
Wallace: Thunder. There's simply no reason to pick against the team with the league's best record that also happens to be playing at home. The irony here is that I would feel more comfortable about the Thunder's chances if Russell Westbrook doesn't play than if he returns from a seven-week absence. OKC is a better team with Westbrook, but there will be an initial adjustment period that could disrupt the rhythm Durant has had this team in the past few weeks.
Young: Thunder. While the pending return of Westbrook could cause a few rugged moments as they recall the ebb and flow of the offense, playing at home having already shrugged the Miami monkey off their back means the Thunder can play loose, and actually use some of the hometown arena's emotion to their advantage.