Some quick thoughts on Heat-Thunder:
* Props to J.A. Adande and a few others on Twitter last night for bringing this to the fore: “Before you automatically cast LeBron as the villain, would you rather have a player leave town or an entire franchise bolt?” It’s telling — and sad — that fans are leaping to the Thunder bandwagon, with Oklahoma City as the last roadblock to LeBron James winning a title, while just about nobody’s leaping to the Heat, as Miami’s the final barrier to Clay Bennett getting his. Teams have moved in the past, and they’ll move again. I get that. But if you’re going to root vindictively, this one isn’t even close — Bennett wronged Seattle far more than James did Cleveland.
* The future is never as bright as the present. With the Thunder having bested the three teams responsible for the last twelve Western Conference championships this postseason, and the Heat having escaped what’s almost certainly the Celtics’ last great challenge, it’s easy to assume this will be the first Heat-Thunder Finals matchup of many. It might be. But it very easily might not. The Thunder have only one more year before James Harden and Serge Ibaka hit restricted free agency and see massive offer sheets — something’s going to have to give. Oklahoma City, at least, knows none of its four best players have hit their primes. Miami’s core three are in them (and that might be generous to Dwayne Wade at this point) with a supporting cast that’s nearly entirely behind them. James is playing basketball right now as well as anyone has ever played basketball; if Miami doesn’t win a title this year, it won’t be fair to blame him — but it will be fair to ask, given the Heat’s cap inflexibility, when they’re going to have a better chance. (To argue with myself, Miami could easily keep reaching the NBA Finals by default: Boston’s likely done, two of the conference’s top players could be playing in the West soon, and their chief rival’s best player might be out for 2012-13.)
*If the Heat weren’t The Heat, in this series, they’d be the Celtics — a veteran, defensively committed group facing a team that just might be too athletic for them to handle. For all the James-to-Wade-to-James dunks that dominate SportsCenter, the Heat (and before that, the Cavaliers) have constantly ranked among the NBA’s defensive efficiency leaders. They’re a swarming defensive monster, despite lacking a true big man; it’s Ibaka into-the-stands rejections on one end, Shane Battier drawn-charges on the other. In the world of sports cliches, the Heat didn’t build their team the right way” (which, evidently, is tanking), but if they win, defense wins championships.
* It’s rare in sports, even sports as predictable as the NBA, to get The Final Everyone Wants at the start of the season, or at least the playoffs. Heat-Thunder marks the first time since 2008 that NBA fans have received this, giving LeBron-Kobe matchups the intervening three years. It rarely comes along in leagues more random than the NBA — the 2009 Saints-Colts Super Bowl, when both teams started 13-0, probably qualifies, as does 2009’s Barcelona-Manchester United clash between an emerging soccer dynasty and the defending champion. Great championship contests can occur without this dynamic; no one asked for Chelsea-Bayern Munich last month, but no one had reason to complain after the fact. Usually, though, there’s a reason everyone wants something; two great, for the most part equal teams are going to play each other at roughly the peak of their powers. There’s no Cinderella, no aging giant on its last legs. Instead, we have one of the most impressive collections of talent to take the same floor in recent league history, two teams that absolutely deserve to be here. Dallas delayed the inevitable last year; the future very much is now.
*The pick: Miami in six. Remember, the Miami squad that struggled against Indiana and Boston was the one missing its second-most important player; Chris Bosh probably won’t shoot 75 percent from 3-point land again, but he’s so, so vital to everything the Heat do.