After six years of tertiary education and numerous part-time positions within sport and recreation, Daniel secured an ideal full time role within local government in November 2010.
Away from work, Daniel has 18 years of cricket experience under his belt and has coached and served on committees at numerous clubs. He also plays baseball in winter and is again a member of the club committee.
Sport and recreation is an obvious interest for Daniel and his articles reflect that, especially his knowledge of cricket and football.
The owner, manager and editor in chief of Pen & Paper Sports, Daniel hopes to see the site grow from strength to strength in the future.
On the 1st July last year, the 4th NBA lockout began. None of us hoop fans knew how long it would last, whether or not we’d have to go an ENTIRE season without the game we love, or whether this was just another scare tactic by the team owners in order to gain leverage in complicated CBA negotiations (Yeah, let’s not even try and go into specifics here). Point is; no one was sure what was going to happen next. But almost as if the NBA meant for this to happen, the lockout lasted 161 days, meaning that the season would finally begin on Christmas Day. Hoop fans screamed “Thank you, Jesus!” as loud as they could, and I’m pretty sure they weren’t thanking the Lord for the turkey they were about to devour. And so, the season began, and everyone was happy again.
Now, 170 days after the first tip-off on Christmas Day, the NBA has granted hoop fans an early Christmas present this year, in the form of the Miami Heat vs. Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals. Yes, the fantasy matchup is here folks. LeBron/Durant IS HAPPENING! But I’d be foolish to get excited simply because the world’s two best players will lock horns. This is bigger than that. So much is at stake. This will go down as the most important Finals series in over 10 years (see why later). So let’s meet the contenders who will slug it out for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Fighting out of the Blue Corner....
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
It’s incredible to think that ANY team could win four CONSECUITIVE games against the San Antonio Spurs, but that’s the beautiful thing about Basketball; you never really know how these things are going to play out; it keeps fans on the edge of their seat (or couch for those playing along at home) the entire time. While by no means this was the biggest upset of the year, everyone (including yours truly) thought that the Spurs already had one hand on the trophy. To come from 2-0 down only to then win 4 games in a row against this Spurs outfit is incredible. They look ready. I don’t mean the “let’s go out and give Miami a good fight” ready. I mean the “We’re gonna win this godamm thing, and we will make each and every team fear us for the next 5+ years” ready. Durant is playing to the best of his abilities, averaging 28 points a game these playoffs, and looking more imposing on defense, something he’s never really done before. James Harden, the man I said in my previous column would be the X Factor for the Thunder, has continued to grow his stature as a player by shooting a ridiculously good 45% from behind the arc this post-season, and looking more and more like a crazed werewolf each day with that beard. This would be comical to opposing fans; until they remember that HE HAS GAME.
As for the Miami matchup from a Thunder perspective, it’s time to see what these young men are really made of. Time and time again they continue to defy their lack of big game experience, and they even dispatched the title favourites by winning four games IN A ROW after being 2-0 down. Yes, me repeating that was necessary. How does that even happen? But back to the series at hand. The Thunder will be relying big on their bench players to provide that extra lift here, as Miami’s starting 5 is much more ominous than any of that in the league. Dwayne Wade is someone who they MUST keep in check. While “The Flash” hasn’t been performing to his exhilarating best these playoffs, he didn’t get that nickname by accident. Keeping Wade away from the lane and the FT line is something that Scott Brooks must think long and hard about. Chris Bosh, fresh from his stint on the sidelines, looks to be getting back into rhythm, and on his day, can be as dangerous as a Velociraptor (sorry, had to do it. True hoop fans will get me). Having said that, Bosh must be played with more physical attention than most, as his light frame will be tested over a long series. Look for Kendrick Perkins to have a say here, proving lots of inside heat (no pun intended) for Miami’s big men.
The obvious key matchup for the Thunder is Kevin Durant on LeBron James. And what a matchup it is. I can’t remember the last time the leagues two best players have lined up directly on each other in a Finals series (even Magic and Bird played different positions). But this is what will happen. For Durant to effectively guard LeBron he’s going to have to... to... wow, this is hard to figure out. Really, it’s impossible to stop LeBron by playing him straight up. Forcing him wide into traps may be looked at, as the pressure of finding an open teammate who can actually shoot in the clutch may prove to be harder for Miami than you originally think (refer back to Haslem’s missed WIDE open shot in the Boston series after LBJ passed it to him). All in all, keep LeBron out of the paint, and you may have something to work on. The only other thing you can do is pray the ‘LeChoke’ curse is true. But one thing is for sure; Miami has more matchup worries for the Thunder than the Spurs did. Brooks’ value as a coach will be tested here.
And fighting out of the Red Corner...
Seeing this situation in front of them will have Miami fans still feeling bitter that they couldn’t win it all last year, as the road does not get any easier from here. After a 7 game (yes, like I predicted) series against mortal enemy, the Boston Celtics, the Heat carry over into the Finals more questions than I had on my year 12 exams combined. From injury concerns to LeBron’s legacy, the media has certainly put Miami on trial, and no team in recent memory has ever been under more pressure to win in the Finals. While the Boston series proved they can grind out a series to the very end, the Thunder are an entirely different outfit. Old School is out, and the New School is in. Miami are actually coming into this series as underdogs. But despite the odds seemingly against them, the talent and the potential of this roster is something to be wary of. I’ll be honest. The Heat will not win the NBA Title unless EVERY member of the roster lifts that little 10% more. This couldn’t be more true for the role and bench players, who are consistently made to look good, hiding behind the “Big Three” of LBJ, Wade and Bosh. They simply must have a greater impact on the team. Miami’s bench currently ranks in the bottom 10 of the entire league in 10 vital statistical categories, including 29th for assists and 21st in points allowed. For a team contesting the Finals, that’s not good enough. Miami’s X Factor won’t be one player this series, it’ll be all 7 men who watch the opening tip from the best seats in the house.
As for the Big Three, they have a mammoth task of their own. Bosh was back to his best in Game 7 of the Boston series, but he’ll have Perkins and Ibaka giving him hell for this one. Bosh must find a way to compete with fierce aggression (something he’s not usually known for) and remain unhurt for the entire series. As maligned as he has been, Miami sorely missed him up till this point, and a healthy Bosh means a less thing LeBron has to worry about (like he didn’t have enough already). Now as for Wade, I don’t know whether it’s a lack of passion, or older age, but he has gone colder than a Melbourne winter day these playoffs, with the exception of 1 or 2 games. The soul of Miami must redeem himself, because the Thunder are more than willing to let Russell Westbrook shoot all day long if Wade shows up less interested than a male in Supré . Wade must find a way to explode. He simply has too. If his fire gets ignited, then this series will become a million times more compelling than it already is.
Now, LeBron. His job is simple. Show the world why you are the most naturally talented player the NBA may have ever seen. Simple, right? ... right? Oh, if only theory and practice always went hand in hand. Here’s the thing. No player on the Thunder can guard LeBron to the point where he is no longer a factor. In fact, no one in the NBA can. Durant will try, but it won’t be Durant that stops LeBron. No. If LeBron is to fail in his role, it’s going to be because LeBron James said so. Every single “LeChoke” moment in his career serves as my evidence to this claim. And this is just on offense. Defensively, LeBron is more sound, but again, he must find a way to stop Durant, the best pure scorer in the NBA. I told you his job was simple!
Now that you’ve met the two challengers to the NBA throne, it’s time to see just exactly why this Finals series is the most important this century (so far).
This is the first time these franchises have met in the NBA finals.
While this is the case for many teams who contest the NBA finals, the first duel will always be talked about for years. This could not be more true in the case of these two particular teams. You know that this won’t end here. The Thunder and the Heat epitomise the New School way of the NBA. They play the game of Basketball with such high energy, and such raw talent, that you simply can’t help but wonder how on earth the NBA could be in better shape. This is will be the next great rivalry in the league. Mark my words.
If Miami lose, the Big Three will most likely be broken up.
Remember that big party that Miami threw back in 2010, welcoming LeBron and Bosh, while Wade had a smile so big, you could actually see it from space? Remember LeBron jokingly stating that Miami would win (get ready to count boys and girls) not 1, not 2, not 3, not 4, not 5, not 6, not 7, but 8, 8 championships? Remember ESPN virtually crowning the Heat the 2010/2011 champions before the season began? Oh, we ALL remember that. Now read that first sentence in bold, again. Yep, that’s right. This is a very real possibility. Just TWO years after that South Beach rave party, Miami’s core could be broken up, if they don’t win. Bosh is the obvious scapegoat here, but there are numerous possibilities, with the exception of trading LeBron. Watch this space people.
The LeBron vs. Durant rivalry suddenly intensifies to a new level.
For a good few years now, the NBA and its fans have been screaming out for a new one-on one rivalry, to define a generation. Well, they have it. And it couldn’t have looked any better. They are the two best players in the world, they play the same position, and they are both still young, with Durant at 23, and LeBron at 27. James has the current edge, with a record of 12-4 against Durant head to head, as well as being a 3 time MVP; however Durant has been the scoring champion for the past 3 years. Bit of trivia for you all. It's the first time the MVP and scoring champ have met in the finals since 1997, when Michael Jordan's Bulls knocked off MVP Karl Malone and Utah. That sentence alone should tell you how good these two young men are. Whoever wins in these finals will have bragging rights, and fans for both players will make their opinions known, you can bet on that. What a great win for Basketball.
The career and legacy of LeBron James will be put on trial.
There’s a special reason why LeBron’s legacy is currently more important than that of any other player. And that is, because no player since Michael Jordan has managed to create as much fascination over a career, than that of LeBron. Whether you love him, or hate him, you cannot deny that this is one of the most interesting sporting careers, ever. It’s ridiculous enough that the man is only 27 years young, and people are already talking about him like he’s a historical figure. But that’s the thing about LeBron; he already is. No matter what happens in his career from now on, people will be talking about him in 50 years time, in whatever way they choose. But as for this year, so much is at stake. If LeBron wins, the monkey is off his back, the jokes come to a halt, and the floodgates may open for multiple titles. But if he loses, another off-season of jokes resume, people will remind him that for all of his individual success, he still hasn’t proved anything, and the legacy takes a hit, having lost 3 Finals series without a win. There really is no middle ground here. No man has had more attention on him to win before. This is the defining moment of LeBron’s career, and I didn’t even mention the “Durant got a title before LeChoke” fallout if he loses. The stage is set, and the world is watching. Another chapter will be written in his story. Time for LeBron James to reveal who he really is.
This is unbelievably hard to pick. Current form would tell you that the Thunder will have the advantage. Miami will be more desperate to win, based on everything just explained above. I’m splitting hairs really. You could make valid arguments for both sides. However, I believe that one team will settle as the series progresses, buoyed by a 3 game home stretch in the middle of the 7 games. That team is Miami. As good as the Thunder are, I don’t think this is their year. I think they’re in that 1990 Chicago Bulls mindset, where you have enough talent to win, and you have everyone believing that you can, but you haven’t figured out how to really make it happen yet. The Heat will have a compulsive need to amend themselves for last year, and having been to the finals as a team before, know what this stage is like. The 3 games at home in a row is the greatest gift the Heat could get, as they only need to win one game in OKC in order to really have a shot at winning the series early. That said, I think that the Heat will need to win 2 games away, to remove any doubt. They have the talent; they just need to show up on the night. The Thunder will be back and I have no doubt they will win one at some stage, but I think that the Heat will want this particular one more in the end. So much rests on it.
Miami Heat in 6 games.
Image courtesy of Odds Shark