The abbreviated NBA season has come down to a glorious finale, the matchup that most fans wanted when they were starving for basketball at Christmastime.
Miami Heat vs. Oklahoma City Thunder. East meets West. Beach town vs. cow town.
The NBA Finals, starting Tuesday night in Oklahoma City, gives us a conflict between polar opposites. At least it seems that way.
The No. 1 attraction is LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant. James, the athlete America loves to hate, is making his second straight attempt to win an NBA championship with the Heat. In his ninth season, can King James — despised as a “choker” and “traitor” — live up to his nickname?
Durant is a baby-faced superstar adored by fans. He’s just 23 but already the league’s three-time scoring leader. He could have moved to a larger market, but chose to sign a long-term contract with the Thunder because he likes the small-town feel and friendliness of Oklahoma City. He’s not interested in clubbing or conspicuous consumption. He’s a humble homebody who wants to bring a title to the team that was built from the ground up through the draft.
Durant, who embodies loyalty, is being set up as the foil to James, who abandoned downcast Cleveland for the glitz, glamour and Big 3 alliance with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.
Never mind that James and Durant are, at heart, genuinely good guys who respect their mothers and practiced together before the season during a one-on-one “hell week,” as James called it. They are the two best players in the NBA.
Just as irresistible is Russell Westbrook vs. D-Wade. Thunder point guard Westbrook will take up where Boston’s Rajon Rondo left off with the Heat except that Westbrook is blur-fast — his first step is reminiscent of the young Wade — a suffocating defender and an improved jump shooter. Wade has looked sluggish and hesitant as he defers to James. He’s not the same player who led Miami to its one and only title in 2006 with a 34.7 point average. But he still amazes in the fourth quarter.
That’s not all confronting the Heat in Oklahoma, where the wind and the Thunder’s bottomless roster come sweeping down the plain.
Sixth man James Harden’s lucky beard is big, bushy and bad. It has its own website. Harden could hide a basketball in there. The Tulsa World printed cutout beards for spectators, who will arrive merry and hairy.
As for OKC’s front line, the Boshtrich will have his hands full. Serge Ibaka — a native of the Republic of Congo who fled to Spain during wartime and speaks Lingala, Catalan, English and French — averaged a league-high 3.6 blocks and has a soft jumper. Bruiser Kendrick Perkins won a title with Boston.
The Heat won’t be playing the senior-citizen Celtics. The Thunder has four fleet stars age 23 or under, and they recovered from 0-2 against the red-hot San Antonio Spurs to win four in a row.
The two cities also seem to be a study in contrasts. In OKC they have real cowboys, and one of the largest working stockyards in the country. In Miami we’ve had Cocaine Cowboys. And a Causeway Cannibal.
Miami is the capital of Medicare fraud and foreclosures. Oklahoma City’s economy is thriving as Texans and Californians flock to the city recently named “startup capital,” a place with affordable housing and no traffic. We’ve got Joe’s Stone Crab. They’ve got chicken-fried steak at the Cattlemen’s Café.
OKC, usually consumed by mania for Oklahoma and Oklahoma State football, has gone wild for the state’s only major pro team. That’s not unlike Miami, where, given the recent fortunes of the Dolphins and Hurricanes, Heat fever is contributing to the high temperatures.
“This was a college market where your allegiance was defined by which school you supported,” said Oklahoma City Mayor and native Mick Cornett, a former sportscaster who was in the Orange Bowl in 2000 when the Sooners won the national championship. “Now we have one entity everyone can pull for. The players inspire us. We’ve watched this group grow from one of the worst in the NBA. It’s not the same as the emotional bonding we felt after the Murrah Building bombing 17 years ago, but it has similarities.”
The Thunder is perceived as sentimental favorite. Three years ago they began the season 3-29. The Thunder chaplain even gave a sermon Sunday entitled “Don’t Underestimate Me” based on the Bible story of David vs. Goliath. The Oklahoman ran a mockup Monday of the Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely-Hearts Club Band” album cover with photos of the Big 3 plus Coach Erik Spoelstra headlined “The Heatles.”
But recall that the OKC franchise was ripped from its longtime home in Seattle when residents refused to pay for a new $300 million arena for Sonics owner and Starbucks multi-millionaire founder Howard Schultz. City leaders wouldn’t capitulate despite threats that the team would depart. (Sound familiar? Or should we say unfamiliar?)
Oklahoma businessmen Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon, with encouragement from NBA Commissioner David Stern, bought the team. McClendon bragged that “to the great amazement and surprise of everyone in Seattle, some rednecks from Oklahoma, which we’ve been called, made off with the team.” Seattle fans remain bitter. They are raising their soy lattes for Miami to win the best-of-seven series.
Somehow Oklahoma City is thought of as earnest underdog while Miami is the all-style, no-substance team of rootless mercenaries, yet OKC is favored to prevail in six.
Don’t fall for the simplistic matchup of sympathetic vs. unsympathetic. The Thunder and Heat, and their cities, have very much in common. They have the only thing that matters in common: They want to win.