|The matchup of the century: Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James. (Getty Images)|
Breaking down the matchup advantages ... and disadvantages, for each of the major players in the 2012 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder.
Russell Westbrook: Westbrook is a tipping point in this series. He'll blow by Mario Chalmers. No question. How he does on Dwyane Wade and LeBron James is the question. Westbrook goes for the two-dribble-off-screen pull-up jumper a lot. If it's falling, he's unstoppable. If it's not, the Thunder lose a big component. The Heat want to lure him into shooting jumpers to keep him in front of them.
It's tempting to say Wade can't possibly stay in front of Westbrook, but don't forget the work Wade did on Rondo in the second half of Games 6 and 7 vs. Boston. The guy's still got some tricks. Meanwhile, James on Westbrook is fascinating. James can check Rondo, but not stop him. Can he do the same to Westbrook? Is Westbrook faster than Rondo? Will Westbrook have to accelerate to a point he can't control himself at the rim?
How Joel Anthony, Shane Battier, and Udonis Haslem get in front of Westbrook and if they can draw charges will be huge.
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Mario Chalmers: If he's stuck against Westbrook, it's just about trying to stay on the floor. That's it. Chalmers doesn't have the speed or ability to hang with Westbrook.
But he can offset some of that offensively. He'll have looks on the perimeter and has made some big threes. He has to knock down his looks and be aggressive. Chalmers can get to the rim. But that's one place where super shot-blocker Serge Ibaka could feast, presenting a wrinkle the Celtics did not possess.
Chalmers is facing the biggest challenge of his professional career.
James Harden: What a fascinating set of matchups. Harden wound up outdueling Manu Ginobili, but Ginobili got his licks in. Harden hit tough, contested shots. Will those go in vs. better defenders? Can he draw fouls at a high rate on Dwyane Wade?
Harden can make big defensive plays in passing lanes. Can he handle Wade or James head-up? Probably not. But he'll get help. Harden making contested threes is big for the Thunder offense. It doesn't seem smart. But very little about the Thunder offense seems smart, yet here they are.
Harden may face some time against Battier. When Harden's on defense, that'll allow him to help and gamble -- you can take chances with Battier making and missing threes. Offensively, it's a tough matchup, but Harden has enough speed to turn the corner. Pick-and-roll work could allow Harden to really do damage when OKC has the ball.
Thabo Sefolosha: Knock down open threes, like he did in the Spurs series -- only with a defender actually closing on you in the Finals. Anything Sefolosha provides offensively is gravy.
Defensively, Wade's the best matchup. Sefolosha could get brutalized by James in the post with Sefolosha defending -- or even face-up on the drive. Wade could struggle with Sefolosha's length. Thabo needs to take the Battier tack: Play off and push him baseline, contest on the jumper. You live with Wade doing damage. You're just trying to control his point total a bit.
Dwyane Wade: He's been struggling, but he's also faced a much tougher defense. Wade has to start getting to the hoop and stop settling for the jumper. He'll get a lot more opportunities at the rim in the Finals. If Ibaka doesn't block it, Wade can get points. But he's going to need the pick and roll to get into the interior. Wade's going to hit the deck. Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison will take care of that. Wade draws lots of fouls and trips to the free throw line.
Wade cannot afford to get frustrated. James Harden is going to draw fouls on him. He's got to play through it. He's got to get back in transition. If Wade lollygags getting back complaining like he did vs. Boston, that's going to kill Miami.
Wade could take punishment going through screens. He needs to go under screens, daring the mid-range jump-shooter, and he's going to have help out on the wing on perimeter drives. Wade also needs to get in the passing lane, which he was unable to do vs. the Celtics. He's proficient at creating steals and turning the Thunder -- like most any team -- diminishes their effectiveness.
Kevin Durant: He'll score a ton and will defend well. Durant is a force of nature and the Heat just has to live with it. You can't play him tight because he'll get around the defense. You can't play off because he's the best jump shooter alive. James will likely guard Durant down the stretch in tight games, with Battier being sacrificed on him for much of the game.
When he was with Memphis, Battier did excellent work on Durant in last year's playoffs (I can hear Thunder fans complaining about his physical play now. This is the Finals. Deal with it.). But that was last year. Battier will have his moments. Durant will have more. Durant has to make sure he keeps his position, because Miami will try and shove him off his spots -- preventing him from getting the ball where he wants it and the only real weak point of Durant's game.
Defensively, Durant may have to guard James for long stretches, which will wear him down, but Durant also has the length to challenge him in the post. The good news is they can counter that for long stretches by putting him on Battier or even Haslem to save energy.
Durant will have another absolutely huge series.
LeBron James: No one can stop him, at either end, but the Thunder have the personnel to at least deter him. Unless he's in Game 6-vs.-Boston mode. Then they're doomed. James is going to have to run the point a lot in this series. He's going to take hammering blows from Perkins and Ibaka. He's going to have to guard Westbrook, Durant and Harden at different times.
And he's going to have to do it after playing 48 minutes in Game 7 of a grueling series. Oh, and he's got to score 30 or more points every night.
So, you know, kind of some big expectations for James.
Shane Battier: He's Miami's Sefolosha. Knock down the open threes, don't turn the ball over. Anything he provides offensively is gravy.
Defensively, he must have the best series of his life. He has to do damage on whoever he's guarding, and he's still going to have to deal with being on highlight reels all night. It's about to be a hard knock life for Battier.
|Harden (on offense) and Sefolosha (defense) are keys for OKC's chances vs. Miami. (Getty Images)|
Serge Ibaka: Bosh is going to guard him in space, so those open jumpers he got vs. the Spurs will be much more contested. He can get some points inside, but the Heat also will foul him a lot to knock him off his game. This is going to be the most physical series he's been in.
When Ibaka's on defense, he'll be called plenty of times for goaltending and fouls. James and Wade are the league's two of the best at drawing fouls, and Ibaka's going to be eager to try and block their shots -- which means he's going to foul.
The worst thing, though? He's going to bite on Chris Bosh pump fakes if he doesn't watch it. He's got to keep good spacing, he's got to keep a hand up yet close down without getting sucked in. That is not easy for Ibake and could get bad, very quickly.
Chris Bosh: Depending on his health, he's going to feast. Ibaka is likely to fall for his chicanery, Perkins can't guard him in space and he has the length to battle inside. But thy physical Collison could throw a wrench into all that, so Bosh must to be aggressive to get fouls on Collison and get him out. OKC coach Scott Brooks hasn't trusted Collison as much in the playoffs. But Brooks may have no choice if Ibaka and Perkins get into foul trouble. When he has size mismatches, Bosh mush take advantage of them.
Defensively, Bosh just has to get a hand up on Ibaka. He's got to keep his rotations up. Pick and roll is going to be huge. He needs to push Westbrook to the edge and Bosh will get switched on picks to Durant. He needs play up on Durant to prevent the jumper and trust his help to contest Durant a the rim.
Kendrick Perkins: Fouls. So many fouls. Fouls on offense. Fouls on defense. Fouls in the air, fouls in the sea, fouls all the time.
If Perkins scores, that's awesome. You just can't rely on it. Joel Anthony vs. Kendrick Perkins is going to be the ugliest thing about this series. Same deal with Udonis Haslem. The big key for Perkins is to make the fouls count, control his emotions, and rebound. The Heat cannot get second chances. Controlling the glass is going to be Perkins' biggest priority.
Nick Collison: Expect a lot of minutes for the Thunder's smartest defender. If he can hit some layups and deter Bosh, he can swing the series. He should start, honestly, but he won't.
Derek Fisher: If he hits a few open shots and he will have done what he can. The Thunder can't live with Fisher on the floor defnsively for too long in the Finals. The Heat take a lot of three-pointers, which means Fisher can stick. But Chalmers can also get past him and any Heat guard will have the athletic advantage over Fisher.
Joel Anthony: Six fouls and some missed free throws. Anthony's help defense is going to be a big deal for the Heat. The Big Three won't have the stamina to contain everything, so there will be drives. Anthony has to manage his fouls in a smart way.
Udonis Haslem: Hey, he's not facing Kevin Garnett anymore, he's not going to get killed! Neat! Haslem needs to hit the dump-off jumpers, and that has become more and more of a losing proposition. Hustle points are bigger for Haslem at this point.
Norris Cole: Don't do anything terrible. (He will probably do something terrible. Rookies gonna rook, man.)
Mike Miller: Can only play when Sefolosha is on the floor. Otherwise, he's going to be a defensive liability. He's similar to Fisher in that regard, but only because his body is badly beaten up.
Scott Brooks: Emotion is a fine line and the Thunder's will be through the roof. He's got to make sure they have something for the fourth quarter and that they don't get discouraged. They're going to get some bad calls; they're facing three superstars. It's going to be physical. He has to keep them focused.
If he rolls out that Westbrook-Fisher-Harden lineup he was fascinated with in the first two games against the Spurs, he's going to get destroyed. How he matches up with the Heat when they go to lineups with James at point guard is going to be huge. They better have a scheme.
Erik Spoelstra: His team is exhausted and facing a great pick and roll team. Frustration could be an issue. He's got to throw as many looks at the Thunder as he can. He's got to blister them with changes in approach until they're blind. They can't just lineup and play. Spoelstra has to recover from a bad series.