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One ring to rule them all

Alex Dimond June 12, 2012


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Tuesday sees the start of the 2012 NBA Finals, after a whirlwind season rushed somewhat as a result of the lockout saga that threatened to cause the whole campaign to be lost to the lawyers.

An agreement was eventually reached in time to organise a hurried 66-game regular season, however - the preamble to an intriguing post-season that has seen the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat progress to the Finals to compete for the greatest prize of all.

Both sides were the second seeds in their respective conferences, but they have taken remarkably different paths to the final.

The Thunder routed the defending champion Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Lakers before getting the better of the previously unbeaten San Antonio Spurs over six games in the Western Conference Finals - with big performances from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook the key, but also significant contributions from role players (James Harden, Serge Ibaka) at big moments.

The Heat, meanwhile, were saved a potentially gruelling series after Derrick Rose's season-ending injury effectively ruled the top seeded Chicago Bulls from contention, as they made light work of the New York Knicks before struggling to a six-game success against the hard-working but superstar-lite Indiana Pacers. That set up an Eastern Conference Finals against the arch-rival Boston Celtics, and the Heat again threatened to go out before two huge performances from key man LeBron James lifted them to a 4-3 win in the best-of-seven series.

That is old news, however; now it's all about the Finals. The Thunder - formerly the Seattle Supersonics, before they relocated four years ago - having never won the big prize, while Miami last claimed the title during a controversial series back in 2006.

They haven't won it all since James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in South Beach, however, and - after losing to the Mavericks in the Finals last year - will be determined to make amends this time around.


How they reached the Finals

2012 NBA PLAYOFFS ROUTE
Stage
Oklahoma City Thunder
Miami Heat
First Round
Beat Dallas Mavericks (7) 4-0
Beat New York Knicks (7) 4-1
Conference Semis
Beat Los Angeles Lakers (3) 4-1
Beat Indiana Pacers (3) 4-2
Conference Finals
Beat San Antonio Spurs (1) 4-2
Beat Boston Celtics (4) 4-3


The two teams

Oklahoma City Thunder

James Harden was this year's NBA sixth man of the year © Getty Images
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Starting five: Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant, Kendrick Perkins

Characteristics: Rely heavily on Durant and Westbrook for scoring and tempo, although the pair have a sometimes 'disconnected' relationship on court. Perkins offers height and physicality while Ibaka and Sefolosha are diligent defenders - while James Harden, arguably the team's third best player, orchestrates things off the bench.

Summary: Westbrook, Durant and Harden - all picked up through the NBA draft - provide the team's core scoring options, while Ibaka and Perkins are big men with defensive skills. In Scott Brooks they have a smart coach who re-jigged things to turn around a series against the Spurs that they looked destined to lose. Much depends on whether Westbrook (who has an, erm, interesting fashion sense) is playing well on any given night, while you fear they don't have the shutdown defender who can stop James and Wade during key possessions.

Miami Heat

Dwyane Wade was been to the Finals - and won - before © Getty Images
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Starting five: Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Ronny Turiaf

Characteristics: Everything goes through James (who often brings the ball up-court and can find the basket from pretty much anywhere), with Wade providing leadership and regular scoring as the nominal second option. Bosh offers height and low-post scoring but the rest of the cast is sub-par - although Chalmers, Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem offer certain useful individual attributes.

Summary: The Thunder have greater depth than the Heat, but that was also true of the Pacers and the Heat eventually overcame them with some ease thanks, ultimately, to sheer talent. Wade and James fill up the scoreboard with remarkable ease and in a variety of ways, while the return of Bosh from injury gives them some height to defend the low post. Wade and James are both great defenders but the rest of the roster leaves a lot to be desired - Chalmers and Battier contribute but it is very much a three-man (well, two and Bosh) operation.


Key Players

Oklahoma City Thunder
Kevin Durant

The league's scoring champion this season, notching 28.0 points per game over the course of the season to edge out Kobe Bryant. Durant is a lanky forward who, unusually for his size, is as dangerous from three-point range as he is in and around the basket.

He is a young, humble man who works in tandem with Westbrook - delegating to him when the point guard is on form, although he perhaps doesn't take matters out of his hands enough when Westbrook is edging towards selfish - and trusts James Harden to lead the second unit. He lit up Rucker Park to widespread delight during the off-season but on the waxed floor his defence needs work, and it is there where he may find himself really tested if he gets drawn into an up-and-down battle with James.

Miami Heat
LeBron James

The league's MVP after one of the best statistical seasons in living memory, James has elevated his game even further in the post-season to will the Heat to the Finals for a second consecutive season. Ridiculed for the infamous "The Decision", where he announced he was leaving home-town Cleveland for South Beach, James has since had to cope with constant questions about his ability to close in the dying moments of key games.

James has tended to go missing - read, pass up key shots - in the clutch, but he has tempered that unwelcome trait in recent weeks and is nevertheless the main reason Miami are where they are after two monster games to salvage the series against Boston. With Dwyane Wade seemingly fighting injury to finish out this campaign, James has played almost every minute of the post-season for the Heat and, as a result, the team's chances will ultimately live and die by how he performs.


Schedule

Game 1 - Oklahoma - Tuesday, June 12
Game 2 - Oklahoma - Thursday, June 14
Game 3 - Miami - Sunday, June 17
Game 4 - Miami - Tuesday, June 19
Game 5 - Miami - Thursday, June 21*
Game 6 - Oklahoma - Sunday, June 24*
Game 7 - Oklahoma - Tuesday, June 26*

*if necessary


Prediction


Click here for more information on all bet365's betting markets for the NBA Finals

The manner in which the Thunder regrouped and defeated the previously unbeaten (in the postseason) Spurs has led many to cast them as favourites, but it is difficult to bet against the Heat when James is in such form and they have been to this stage before.

The challenges that proved too much for them last time out against the Mavericks - Dirk Nowitski's size and scoring prowess, Jason Terry's energy, Jason Kidd's orchestration - are attributes the Thunder also have (although Perkins is not at the same level Tyson Chandler was last season), but you sense the Heat have grown and improved from 12 months ago.

What is more, while Nowitski, Terry and Kidd were all experienced players last time around, the Thunder are still a very young team who may initially struggle to adjust to the biggest spotlight of all. They have the quality and time to win multiple rings over the next few years, but on this occasion you sense that the Heat will just about find a way to vindicate the controversial decision to unite the 'Big Three' on South Beach.

LeBron James will silence - until next season begins, at least - most of his critics by claiming the Finals MVP award, while Wade will add to his Hall of Fame career with some decisive contributions down the stretch.

Prediction:   The Miami Heat to win in six games


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Alex Dimond is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk