In past finals, we’ve seen how the matchup between two systems or philosophies — think Dallas’ spread, 3-point heavy attack pitted against Miami’s frantically rotating defense — is almost as important as the matchups between individual talents. However, in the 2012 Finals, the talent is so transcendent that the “offensive systems” are really just simple actions to get great players in position to attack one-on-one.
During the regular season, the Thunder were dead last in terms of the percentage of made buckets that came from assists and the Heat were a the bottom six team in that regard. Both teams use screens to create isolations and run pick-and-rolls designed to get the ball handler to the rim, rather than just into playmaking position (like, say, Boston’s Rondo-heavy offense).
The point here is that how individual matchups play out is going to be crucial, and none more so than between Kevin Durant and LeBron James, the two best players in the NBA. It’s exceedingly likely that one of these two guys is going to be the Finals MVP. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be directly matched up, especially considering how both Scott Brooks and Erik Spoelstra prefer to use defensive specialists, and that both coaches found success with switch-heavy defenses in the conference finals.
With that in mind, we’ll preview the most prevalent matchups each superstar will face, starting with the defensive specialists.
LeBron James versus Thabo Sefolosha
As the Thunder’s de facto stopper, the Swiss wing will spend significant time checking Miami’s driving force. Sefolosha has shown the ability to change a game defensively, most notably in Game 3 against the Spurs. But slowing the quick but diminutive Tony Parker is hardly the same task as the one awaiting him in the Finals.
James’ trump card, as is nearly always the case, is that he totally outclasses Sefolosha physically. To make up for this disadvantage, expect Sefolosha to stick to his solid defensive fundamentals. He will work hard early to push James off his spots, funnel him to help when he has the ball and use his length in an effort to contest without fouling. Sefolosha actually has a bit of a problem with being too eager to block shots, so expect James to deliver a high volume of freeze and shot fakes before or after drives and post-ups.
Those post-ups are perhaps the most concerning action Sefolosha will have to deal when marking the reigning MVP. Miami likes to help James get deep position with a little-on-big cross screen that frees James as he moves toward the opposite block. Given his long frame and lack of bulk, Sefolosha has a tendency to get caught up in screens, so even ones involving Mario Chalmers could give him trouble. Expect quite a bit of difficulty for Sefolosha to deny James deep catches off this set, and do much to stop him once he has the ball.
Kevin Durant versus Shane Battier
Shane Battier was a three time defensive player of the year in college, when he played power forward. In Miami’s run through the playoffs, he’s drawn on that post defense knowledge and experience to provide effective fronting and tough one-one-one defense near the paint. But his success against Brandon Bass and David West also reflects the fact that Battier, much like Metta World Peace, is today more suited to defending near the rim than he is on the perimeter.
As was evident when the two faced off in the 2nd round of last year’s playoffs, Kevin Durant is too quick and deceptive for Battier, especially with a live dribble — and that was before Durant became a visibly more confident and skilled ball handler. When Battier can crowd Durant, his knowledge of angles and tendencies can still make a difference. Though he isn’t the stopper he once was, he’ll still be able to do a passable job of fighting through screens. But in space, something Durant is increasingly adept at finding, Battier’s dwindling athleticism is evident. This, simply put, is not a good look for the Heat though it is one they’ll no doubt rely on a decent amount, especially when Miami goes to its “no point guard” closing line up.
But hey, at least he’s not Mike Miller.
LeBron James versus the switch
While he’s gone some length to curb this desire, James still has a frustrating tendency to settle for a deep jumpshot any time a big man switches out on him off of a pick-and-roll. The few larger players who can match his strength and approximate his quickness (think Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson) are a good option because James struggles to get to top speed in one or two steps and, unlike in years past, it seems, doesn’t pull the ball out like Manu Ginobili or Derrick Rose to give himself room to really accelerate against big guys.
But James learns quickly. With his tremendous ability to think the game, any consistent strategy is one James has the power to unlock.
James’ instincts when it comes to exploiting mismatches have come a long way. He knows how to be patient and work his way to the post against smaller players (almost everyone) or drive and kick against bigger players (everyone else). Still, switching when possible (that is, not with Kendrick Perkins) isn’t a terrible option, as it at least affords the defense a chance to wall off the paint, a strategy that, even with all the ways his game has grown, is still the best bet for stopping James. However the switch has to be a genuine switch, not the soft switches that the Pacers ran which gave James plenty of room to get up a head of steam heading to the rim.
Kevin Durant versus the switch
Miami suffocated Boston’s offense in Game 6 by switching just about everything on the defensive end of the floor. Their smallish, but mobile frontcourt has allowed them to aggressively employ this strategy for nearly the entire season and the Finals should be no exception. Given Durant’s involvement in screening action both on and off the ball, he will no doubt see plenty of different defenders in this series.
Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony and Chris Bosh will be the trio likely to see a handful of possessions a game when Spo employs this strategy. Bosh and Anthony will give Durant the most resistance. Bosh will use his length and positioning to force Durant to bad spots on the floor while Anthony will most likely use pure aggression and, frankly, those weird long arms, to frustrate Durant, especially in switches closer to the basket. Expect Anthony to be as physical as possible with the lean Thunder star when forced to check him.
A switch that will certainly work in OKC’s favor is when Durant finds himself facing off against Haslem. Haslem is tough as nails but has athletic limitations that will leave him extremely vulnerable in space. Durant will unleash a jumper when given extra cushion and drive past Haslem whenever the old vet gets too ambitious bodying him up.
LeBron James versus the wildcard: Serge Ibaka
It’s hard to speculate on whether Scott Brooks would consider something so radical, but Serge Ibaka is, to our eyes, an attractive option to defend James. Yes, it makes it harder for him to help on drives to the rim, which is one of his most valuable attribute in this series. But consider this: he’s 6-10, pure muscle, stupid long and shockingly quick. Ibaka can handle James in the post, give him a sizable cushion on the perimeter and really contest at the rim.
Ibaka will probably guard James primarily on planned switches as he did with varying success against the wily Manu Ginobili. But as discussed above, James isn’t as elusive as Ginobili off the bounce; he prefers to get an edge then power his way to the rim. The main problem for the Thunder here is Ibaka’s footwork and defensive savviness, neither of which are on par with someone like Kevin Garnett or even Taj Gibson. Focus and cheap fouls would be a concern. But in terms of pure athleticism and intensity, Ibaka has what it takes to herd James away from the paint and challenge him eleven and a half feet off the ground.
Kevin Durant versus the wildcard: Dwyane Wade
One of the most clever wrinkles Scott Brooks has instituted in the team’s playbook is an inverted screening action featuring Durant and Thunder co-star, Russell Westbrook. This play caused the Spurs fits in the Western Conference Finals and the Heat will get plenty of chances to stop it in the Finals, especially down the stretch.
It is not out of the question then, that we’ll see Wade switched onto Durant in the pinch post for multiple possessions late in games. Durant clearly has a size advantage in this match up, but Wade has the length and physicality to make things interesting. If Wade can slow Durant down in this set, it could have a major impact in the outcome of this series.
None of these cross matchups are particularly appealing, or, in our opinion, sustainable. Given each team’s roster and how both James and Durant punish individual mismatches, it becomes clear that the players best suited to cover these two future hall of famers are each other.
Which is what, when you get right down to it, everyone hopes we see anyways.
We’re going to get what we want, and it’s going to be awesome.
Read Part Two for our assessment of how these two will play against each other.