After an incredible Game 6 performance from King James, the Miami Heat were able to defend home court in Game 7 and advance to the Finals. After a very competitive series, one that turned out to be far closer than I thought it would be, the Heat showed flashes of greatness. However, they also showed some glaring weaknesses.
Miami is easily the most criticized and scrutinized team in the NBA, and while it's pretty clear why, it creates a very interesting dynamic. Every time the Heat appear to be down (falling behind 2-1 to the Pacers, or falling behind 3-2 to the Celtics after taking a 2-0 lead), everyone, including myself at times, wants to pile on the Heat. And the reason seems to be that our expectations for them are so high. We think to ourselves that this team came together, three of the best players in the league, and yet we see them struggle the way any other team might. It appears that the reality of the situation is that regardless of how they came together, the Big 3 of Miami are simply NOT substantially better than a handful of other teams in the league.
In the prime of his career, Michael Jordan and the Bulls were not challenged. It was clear who the best team was, and Jordan's Bulls would usually have the series in hand before there was ever even talk of a Game 7. We lived through this, and wonder why LeBron can't seem to yield the same results, in spite of joining forces with Wade and Bosh.
And the truth of the matter is that the league is just more competitive today; not as a whole, but at the top. In the Jordan era, we didn't think there were five or six teams at the top, any of which could realistically win it. I used to be a die-hard Knicks fan, and they were a playoff team year after year. But I knew in my heart that Ewing and Starks and Oakley simply were not going to beat Jordan and Pippen. And they never did. Before free agency became as prevalent, teams simply did not change enough. And Jordan and Pippen were simply better than Malone/Stockton, Olajuwon, Ewing, Barkley, etc. The question was not which of a handful of teams will win it all. It was will any other team rise up and really challenge the Bulls?
Today, we feel that Miami should be that team because of the way that they came together, and the incredibly high expectations we have for those three players. But as we've seen, Miami is a very good team; often a great team. But they simply are not head and shoulders above the rest of the league. And when they struggle, we come down on them as if they should be Jordan's Bulls, rather than simply acknowledge that maybe they're not.
With all of that said, for the second straight year, Miami is headed back to the NBA Finals. It wasn't always a pretty road and it wasn't always apparent that they would emerge, but once again they have, setting up the NBA's dream matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Celtics and Spurs put forth valiant efforts to make what appears to be one final run for each team, but in the end, we are witnessing the changing of the guard. It's the two faces of the NBA, the three-time MVP versus the three-time scoring champion. It's good versus evil in a series that will have just about everyone outside of Miami (and Seattle) rooting for the Thunder.
Oklahoma City was incredibly impressive against San Antonio. All year, I have felt that the Thunder were a good team, certainly one of the best in the league. But I definitely thought that they were still a bit young, and with the way the Spurs had been playing, I was more than a bit surprised that they were able to overcome a 2-0 deficit to win four straight. It's ironic the way we judge Miami's Big 3, as OKC's Big 3 is every bit as good. James Harden has been playing like the unquestioned best "third option" in the league, if we can still call him that. And Oklahoma City seems to be winning by not only pouring on the points, but on the defensive end as well.
The Thunder are the favorite to win the title, and deservedly so.
They were more impressive overall than Miami was, and went through a more difficult road, knocking off three championship-caliber teams. Still, I can't help but feel like LeBron isn't going to let anything stop him this time. I felt the same way last year, and I still feel that Miami was better than Dallas was last year. Just not at that moment in time. Dirk Nowitzki had one of the top-five greatest playoff performances in history. If Durant can mimic that kind of effort, it could spell the same kind of trouble for Miami this time around.
However, LeBron is just as capable as Durant of having that kind of a series, and while the Heat have some weaknesses, James has been taking it to another level in the playoffs. He appears to be less concerned about being criticized and is more focused on taking games over. He looks like Cleveland Lebron, except he finally might have enough of a supporting cast.
I am as excited for this series as I have been for any series I can remember, and I look forward to watching the two best players on the planet go at each other. When Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook aren't the headliners, you know you're in store for a pretty great matchup. This series could go either way, but I've felt that in a seven-game series, Miami has been the best team all year. And I still feel that way today.
Miami in seven.
[Editor's note: This post is by John Trifone (@JohnnyT0122). Get tickets to the NBA Finals from TicketCity.]