For the second straight season, Nellieball will rule the NBA finals. This season, it ruled even in the conference championships. Those series were played almost entirely without centers. Joel Anthony, Greg Stiemsma, Tiago Splitter, Dejuan Blair — and even Kendrick Perkins at times — were all sent to the bench, revealed as regular season cannon fodder. The power forwards — Serge Ibaka, Chris Bosh, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett – were shifted to the middle, and the small forwards – Durant, James and Battier, Pierce, Leonard and Jackson – became Nellieball power forwards.
The Nellieball four is now supreme in the NBA. Is it a coincidence that the last two NBA finals have featured the three greatest Nellieball fours to ever play the game? Dirk Nowitzki, Lebron James, Kevin Durant.
At a time when Joe Lacob is trying to turn back the clock, and turn the Warriors into a 1980′s style halfcourt team, the NBA is moving in a completely different direction. At a time when Joe Lacob is insisting on “changing the culture” of the Warriors back to the Ewing Knicks and Smits Pacers of coach Mark Jackson, the culture of the NBA is moving in the opposite direction, towards the vision of a crazy man with a penchant for Dewars and fish ties.
A rather sublime irony, don’t you think?
In the fourth quarter of the Heat’s game 7 win against the Celtics, Jeff van Gundy noted that by stationing Chris Bosh in the right corner, the Heat had completely eradicated the Celtics’ shot-blocking, by drawing Kevin Garnett away from the paint to guard him. This completely opened up the lane for the drives of Lebron James, Dwayne Wade… and Mario Chalmers.
This unconventional concept invented by Don Nelson — the three-point shooting big man — once universally derided in the NBA (and still derided in Joe Lacob’s front office, and in the pages of the San Jose Mercury News) — is now conventional wisdom in the NBA. Three-point shooting big men drag opposing shot blockers out of the lane, and spread the floor, giving teams with better athleticism, quickness, ball-handling, and shooting the edge.
Chris Bosh is the sole Nellieball five in this series — the Thunder have no one comparable who can spread the floor out to the three point line. And I think the success or failure of the Heat may very well hinge on Bosh’s ability to hold down the middle against Perkins and Ibaka. Will his injured abdomen and weakened conditioning allow it?
If so, and if Bosh can continue to knock down threes like he did in game 7 against the Celtics (he was merely 10-35 on the season, 29% career), then the Thunder will have an extraordinarily difficult time guarding both him and the drives of Lebron and Wade. Can they send Perkins out to the three point line? I don’t think so. And Ibaka won’t be all that useful out there either.
Other than that thought, I don’t think I can contribute much to the analysis of this series. Here’s a few bullet points:
- The Thunder have home court advantage, and are -170 favorites. You can take the Heat at +155.
- The two teams split the regular season contests.
- Russell Westbrook shot 13-42 (31%) in those two games. And I expect him to continue to struggle against the pressure defense of Chalmers and Coles. Whether or not that will actually hurt the Thunder is anybody’s guess, because
- Kevin Durant shot 22-41 (54%). And Westbrook’s decision making improved considerably in the Spurs series.
In the eyes of the world, this series will come down to the matchup of Lebron James and Kevin Durant. And for once, the world will be pretty much right. Both of these players will be forced to put their teams on their shoulders. And both of these players want badly to prove themselves the top dog in the NBA.
Will they guard each other? I’m not sure. It makes sense for the Heat to guard Durant with Shane Battier, shifting the bigger Lebron onto Ibaka. On the other hand, the Thunder have literally no one to guard Lebron but Durant. He’ll prove impossible for Ibaka, just as he did for Brandon Bass. There could be some cross-matching here. And Spoelstra has a history of squandering Lebron’s supreme defensive talents on the wrong player — as he did in last year’s finals.
But I have little doubt that Lebron will want to take the challenge on Durant in crunch time. I sure hope so, at any rate.
Has there ever been a more fascinating head to head matchup in NBA history? Hard to think of one. Bird, Magic and Jordan all played different positions, and had no peers at their own positions. I guess Russell – Chamberlain qualifies. Perhaps Jerry West – Walt Frazier (Clyde destroyed West). I personally relished Hakeem Olajowon against Shaq and David Robinson. And Dennis Rodman vs. Shawn Kemp and Karl Malone (but that was a sideshow for most).
That’s a pathetically short list — I have a feeling I’m about to get my ear chewed off in the comments section — but it’s all I can think up at this moment when sunny skies and 90 degree weather beckon me through the window.
This is one for the ages. I’m ready for one of the most exciting NBA finals in history.
Thank you, Lebron James. Thank you, Kevin Durant.
And thank you to the man from whose inspired mind sprang this great era of NBA basketball:
Thank you, Don Nelson.