NBA Finals: A changing of the guard
After two games in the Western and Eastern Conference Finals, it looked like the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat were on a collision course to dispute the 2012 NBA Finals.
After all, both had 2-0 leads against the Oklahoma City Thunder and Boston Celtics respectively, and both were riding the coattails of their superstars. Oh, how quickly things change within the course of one week in the NBA.
The mighty Spurs rattled off 20 straight wins from the end of the regular season to two playoff rounds and all the way to the Western Conference Finals. Tony Parker became the focal point of the offense. Tim Duncan was no longer dominant, but could still be counted on for a double-double in points and rebounds when needed. More importantly, the Spurs had gotten young talent in Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter, while re-acquiring ex-Spur Stephen Jackson.
Young, athletic and hungry, Coach Scott Brooks’ boys were pre-season favorites to represent the West in the Finals. Despite losing the West’s top seed to the Spurs, the Thunder were still title favorites because of the presence of Kevin Durant. It didn’t look like much of a match after two games, but when the series shifted to Oklahoma City, the Thunder kicked it into overdrive.
By placing defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha on Parker, Brooks finally slowed down the Spurs. Sefolosha also added 19 points and six steals as OKC snapped the Spurs 20-game win streak.
In Game Four, Serge Ibaka, known for his shot-blocking and high-leaping dunks, turned into an offensive threat. He went 11 for 11 from the field, four for four from the free throw line, for a career-high 26 points, while Durant had 36 points of his own.
When the series shifted back to the AT&T Center, the Thunder had to deal with Ginobili returning to the starting lineup and a 34-point explosion from the Argentinean. Just when everyone thought San Antonio was taking Game Five, Durant and Westbrook calmly got back in the game. James Harden then nailed a triple with 28.8 seconds left to preserve a 108-103 win.
San Antonio looked like they were going to a Game Seven after building an 18-point lead in the first half. But just like they did against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Thunder slowly chipped away at the lead. With Durant playing every minute of the game and dropping 34 points with 14 rebounds, the Thunder eliminated the Spurs 107-99 to enter their first NBA Finals since they were still known as the Seattle Supersonics in 1996.
Some may say that it’s too soon for this young quintet to reach this level but Oklahoma City is here and ready to host Game One of the Finals.
Over in Boston, the Celtics looked to mirror OKC’s roadmap by stomping away at the Miami Heat. Two out of the first four games in the series went into overtime, with Miami winning Game Two and Boston winning Game Four.
In a series featuring two teams that were getting more physical as the games went on, bad blood simmered on both sides. Despite Rajon Rondo’s 44 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists, the Celtics lose Game Two in OT, 115-111, leaving Boston wondering if they had enough to stop Miami.
A return to the TD Garden saw Kevin Garnett snare 24 points and 11 rebounds while Paul Pierce had his own 23 points for a 101-91 win and a 1-2 series deficit.
The crucial fourth game of the series saw both teams once again going into overtime to settle things. Just like in Game Two, Paul Pierce fouled out of the game. This time though, LeBron James also fouled out in OT to balance things out. Rondo’s 15 points and 15 assists, along with a little trash talk about Miami’s whining to officials during halftime, helped Boston snatch a 93-91 win to knot the series at 2-2.
The crucial Game Five followed the pattern of previous games in the series, each team withstanding the other’s physical play and rallies from both sides. When Miami looked to close the gap, however, Pierce calmly sank a triple over James’ outstretched arm with 52.9 seconds left to give the Celtics a 94-90 win as well as the chance to eliminate the Heat.
Even thought the game was held in Boston, James wasn’t going to allow it. Finally getting the focus that made him a three-time MVP, James destroyed the Celtics to the tune of 45 points, 15 rebounds, and 5 assists for a 98-79 shellacking, forcing a decisive Game Seven in the process.
With both teams on the precipice of history, Chris Bosh, that often forgotten member of Miami’s own Big Three, delivered his best game for the Heat. Three triples from Bosh, the last one triggering the final Heat run, sent Miami back to the Finals, 101-88.
James led the way with 31 points and 12 rebounds, while Dwyane Wade had 23 points of his own to send the Celtics packing, probably signaling the end of their 2008 championship core.
Now only two remain: Oklahoma City hosts Miami in Game One of the Finals starting Tuesday, Manila time.