Heat v. Thunder Matchup Represents Dawn of New NBA Era

June 12, 2012

For fans of those teams that did not make it to the 2012 NBA Finals, this year's series will be a pretty good consolation prize. Frankly, as far as pure entertainment goes, this series is all that a basketball fan could want.

The Thunder and Heat will meet in the NBA Finals Tuesday night, and as entertaining as this matchup promises to be, it will do a lot more than simply determine the league’s best team.

In other words, this series will fittingly showcase a new era in the NBA, one dominated by athletic guards and swingmen of all shapes and sizes.

Gone are the days when a traditional roster of Guards, Forwards, and Centers was necessary for success. That formula has been made seemingly extinct by an influx of incredibly gifted perimeter players that have come to dominate the game we know and love today.

Perhaps the NBA has made it easier as well, by instituting the defensive three-second rule and creating greater restrictions on player contact, both of which have made life increasingly easier for guards. Whatever the reason, it’s a guard’s league now, and some of the best of the best will be on display starting Tuesday night.

In a battle of “Big Threes,” it will be Durant, Westbrook, and Harden versus Lebron, Wade, and Bosh. Five out of those six stars feature perimeter-oriented games.

With the rise of this new era has come the demise of a previous one, characterized by a flurry of superstars who are collectively facing the twilight of their careers.

Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan -- the last remnants of the post-Jordan era's first generation -- all were too old and too brittle to keep up with the young legs of OKC and Miami in these playoffs.

It’s often a cop-out of an excuse to simply say they were “too old,” but in this case it really proved to be the difference.

For example, the Lakers executed a perfect game plan in 3 of their 4 losses to OKC, as did Boston in some of their losses to Miami. Nevertheless, they simply didn’t have the energy to close out those games. Father Time is merciless, and unfortunately for LA and Boston, it was the difference.

Fittingly, OKC broke the 13-year streak of Western Conference champions coming from either Dallas, LA, or San Antonio, as the Thunder beat those three teams en route to the Finals this season.

This might be the best Finals matchup we've encountered in quite some time, and potentially the most exciting since those epic Celtics-Lakers matchups that captivated the country in the '80s.

These two teams will showcase the same style of uptempo play that made those series between Boston and LA so much fun to watch, but with a never-before-seen level of athleticism.

Magic, Kareem, Worthy, Bird, McHale, Parish – those guys were a blast to watch compete and are undeniably legends. But despite those legends' vastly superior skill level, they couldn’t run and jump like these new guys, save for Worthy.

Everyone, including the NBA itself, has salivated for years over a Kobe-Lebron showdown in the Finals. However, the Durant-Lebron matchup is perhaps more relevant. They're closer in age, and closer in terms of their one-of-a-kind athleticism.

The way Durant and Lebron stack up athletically, they take after multiple superstars of the past, and one could say they represent a conglomeration of past legends.

Durant has qualities reminiscent of Bird and Jordan, but at the height of 6-10, he's got a wingspan previously possessed by the league's often-uncoordinated big men.

Meanwhile, Lebron's court vision and ballhandling contain slight traces of Magic in them, and his scoring potential reminds some of Jordan. Although his heavy-duty body brings back memories of power forward Karl Malone, Lebron can play the  point on offense, and can guard nearly any position on defense, which alone is a rarity.

However, given the supreme talents of each team’s three stars, one may justifiably assume that they may end up cancelling each other out.

What should then determine this series may actually have less to do with the stars and more to do with each teams supporting cast. Or more specifically, OKC’s interior defense, and Miami's lack thereof.

The weak link in the formation of the Miami trio has often been thought to be Chris Bosh, who, while being a premier power forward, plays too much on the perimeter to appropriately accomodate the combo of James and Wade.

Miami severely lacks a low-post presence on both the defensive and offensive side of the ball, and that should make the difference in this series. OKC has a very solid and trustworthy frontcourt of Perkins and Ibaka, both of whom are two premier defensive players, in terms of their physicality and shot blocking ability, respectively.

Homecourt advantage is also a compelling asset for OKC, for more than one reason. First, they have perhaps the most rowdy and color-coordinated home crowd in the league. Second, OKC has the kind of youth and energy that is perfectly suited to flourish in the chaotic atmosphere that their arena provides.

Meanwhile, the Heat have perhaps one of worst home crowds in the league, as their fans have been laughably unenthusiastic in big games throughout the postseason. Winning at home is a must in any playoff series, but when that means having to win three consecutive games in the Finals' 2-3-2 format, that burden becomes all the more cumbersome for Miami.

Moreover, it provides a comforting task for the road team in that scenario: Just win one out of three, and go back home to finish it off.

Ultimately, for basketball purists, this isn't exactly the ideal state of affairs for the NBA.

These two teams, best characterized as having the most superior athletes, beat two other teams that were marvels of teamwork and fundamental basketball.

Boston and San Antonio were the best coached and had perhaps the best chemistry, which temporarily compensated for their athletic deficits. They were teams in the truest sense of the word, relying on their collective parts rather than any one or two players.

But it wasn’t enough. Not in 2012.

This is what the NBA is now -- a league dominated by guards and swingmen that move unbelievably fast, and fly unimaginably high.

As a new era comes to fruition Tuesday night, one thing’s for sure:
It’ll be whole lot of fun.

By Max Rucker
Contributing Writer for The Daily Sports Herald

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