It is the triumph of youth in the 2012 NBA FInals, with the Oklahoma City Thunder representing the West and the Miami Heat carrying the East. It has been a long time since the NBA has seen a marquee matchup of this sort, the reigning league MVP LeBron James going head to head versus scoring champion Kevin Durant.
Both teams are young, with the just-about-30 year old Dwayne Wade as the resident geezer in this pack. Wade, the man who won the first NBA championship in franchise history for Miami in 2006, is joined by fellow members of that great draft class of 2003. James of course was the high school phenom out of the great state of Ohio who went straight to the pros. Chris Bosh was in that class as well. All three came together last year in South Beach, in what many said would be a championship team for the ages. Things have not quite worked out as planned. Bosh and James are also pushing 30 but are in their hoops prime. This is a Big 3 looking to go for all the marbles right now and into the near future.
Oklahoma City is even younger, with all their key stars at 24 years or younger. This is a team that will likely dominate the NBA landscape for the next decade or so, establishing a new dynasty. That they beat the more experienced Heat 105-94 in Game 1 of the Finals is already a major step toward that. Durant is simply a freak of nature, a 6-foot-11, long-limbed jumping jack who can play all five positions just like Magic Johnson a generation ago. He is joined in their youth core by guard Russel Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka and newly-crowned NBA Sixth Man of the Year James Harden. Steadying the ship are veterans pointguard Derek Fisher, late of the Los Angeles Lakers, and center Kendrick Perkins.
Oklahoma took a relatively easier route to these Finals, losing only three times in the Western Conference Playoffs while bouncing erstwhile champion Dallas, the Lakers and the aging San Antonio Spurs. Miami had to fight through a 2-3 series deficit in their Eastern Conference Finals versus the tough and battle-hardened Boston Celtics, as that series went the full seven games. They reactivated Bosh only in that Game 7 after he suffered through an abdominal muscle injury.
Oklahoma is a deeper team with springs for legs. They can easily run right past or jump over any other NBA team, which they showed throughout the playoffs. They certainly made these heat look older than they are with all the running and jumping they did in Game 1. Ibaka and Durant had easily the best dunks done with total impunity in opponents' faces in a Finals series since Shaquille O'Neal was in a Lakers uniform. But the prettiest shot to my mind was when Westbrook made a stop-on-a-dime pull-up jumper in transition that found nothing but the bottom of the net. It was a display of pure athletic prowess that the Heat simply were unable to match.
This Game 1 showed not just the best players in the world going at it. It also showed why a team game beats sueprstar isolation plays every time. While Miami insisted on all manner of high post, dribble drive and isolation plays featuring James or Wade, the Thunder barely saw the ball touch the floor in their halfcourt sets. Those end-game dunks by Nick Collison that all but giftwrapped the game for the Thunder came off simple short passes and movement without the ball. It was as if the Heat suddenly forgot what a screen-roll and a pick-roll looked like. They drove and they drove and they drove, and yet consistently ran into fast feet on the Thunder defense, cutting off driving lanes, with equally fast hands disrupting passing lanes. Sefolosha had a heck of a time picking passes that resulted into swooping dunks for his teammates.
Durant led all scorers with 36 points. James had 30 for the Heat. Wade was woeful from the field, missing 10 or 11 of his first dozen or so shots. He still wound up with 19 points and eight assists, but was practically invisible in the second half, leaving James to try and fight the Thunder on his own. Wade insisted in the post-game that he'll do better in Game 2. Durant and Westbrook seemed too polite in the wake of probably the biggest win of their young careers.
Game 2 will be another raucous night in Oklahoma City. These finalists may be young, but they are far from restless.