The Hoops Manifesto has rounded up the Bloguin crew for a special NBA Finals edition of NBA Big Questions. Here's what to look for when the finals kick off tonight in Oklahoma City.
Contributors: Jeff Fox from The Hoops Manifesto, LIVES from Knicks Fanatics, Philip from Orlando Magic Daily, Ezra from The Purple and Gold Blog, and Don from With Malice.
1) Who’s going to win & how many games, and why?
"Thunder in 7. This appears to be an extremely close series going in, so OKC's homecourt advantage could be the deciding factor here. The Thunder are 8-0 in these playoffs playing on their raucous home court, so if it comes down to a Game 7, they have a decisive advantage." - Jeff Fox
"I am going to take the Thunder in 7. This series is going to be incredibly tight and both teams are going to get the high-speed pace they want. There were a lot of things Oklahoma City can learn from Boston, though. The Celtics slowed the Heat down thanks to a constant attack of the center-less Heat. Getting Chris Bosh back is absolutely important for this series. The Thunder though have advantages where the Heat are weak. Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka are able to protect the rim and Russell Westbrook could be in for a big series if the Heat leave their point guards on him." - Philip
"OKC in 6. There's just too many guys who come to play every day with the Thunder. From the beginning of the playoffs, I stated that the best two teams in the whole deal were playing out West (SA/OKC)... and when the dust settled, there were the Thunder, standing ready. I really don't know how the Heat can stop ALL of OKC's offense, whereas the Thunder are well-equipped to slow Miami. OKC can throw guys at both Wade and James, yet those two guys will have to play both ends of the floor if Miami's to have any shot at this at all. Two things in Miami's favor: 1) LeBron James. If he can play like Boston/Miami Game 6 LeBron, then Miami could well take the hardware. 2) the Finals 2-3-2 format. DEFINITELY helps the non-HCA team more than it should. One last thing, the difference in expectations for the two teams is huge. With Miami, the win was a sigh of relief, a collective "phew, we made it!"... whereas OKC's defeat of San Antonio was a WHOOP of joy. And the two teams play like that." - Don
"Thunder in 7. They just seem destined to take it all this year. Besides, they have the better team." - Ezra
"Expect the Heat to win in six games, two of which will be very uninspiring and less exciting than the Heat-Celtics matchup which just set new cable viewing records. Certainly, the hype is big for the matchups of Kevin Durant and LeBron James, but the real action will not be on the perimeter but in the paint where the Heat will eventually dominate both physically and mentally. The analyst are expecting a fast-paced game led by the young legs of Harden and Westbrook, but the most difficult part of the game resides in the head where motivation and attitude prevail over ability. LeBron learned the hard way that being young, talented and cocky is not enough to prepare an individual for his first trip to a finals series. Winning a finals series amidst all the hype, energy and expectations takes an unparalleled focus and resolve which LeBron, Wade, Bosh and the crew certainly have now. LeBron is a different player this year. Last year LeBron let outsiders who didn’t give a damn about him get inside his head. After suffering the failure of losing a Championship series with a brand new team in its first season together, he awoke from two weeks of post-series depressions and got his life, mind and game together. He finally realized that he had to realize more of his ability by developing a smarter game. In Cleveland, critics said Brown should have ran more for James, but what really needed to happen was for James to become stronger in the paint, not by bulldozing headfirst but by posting and backing weaker players down and demanding double teams to the benefit of shooters and drivers like Wade and Bosh. LeBron will not be physically intimidated by Perkins, as he was when Perk was a Celt, nor any of the other bigs who will experience foul trouble. LeBron’s focus and intensity and the team’s experience in the finals will carry a defense which will ultimately shut the Thunder down and turn them into a jump shooting team when it matters most. Wade and LeBron will magnificently drive to the basket and post up in the paint to set up foul situations where they control the end game while Thunder defenders populate the penalty box. Spoelstra will be just a little better than Scotty Brooks as he was given hard lessons from the best coach in the league – Doc Rivers. Spoelstra figured out how to make the adjustments and in retrospect it is difficult to argue with his usage of Bosh, which seemed unnecessarily cautious. Westbrook will be a disappointment only because the expectations are too high. He has to go through this experience once before truly understanding how to control his emotions in such an intense situation. Like Rondo, he has the capability of abusing Wade, who too often gets lax in his play, but when it counts most Wade wakes up and becomes a terror on both ends. Wade will inevitably frustrate Harden and Westbrook. The Thunder may stay in the series if they win the rebounding battle which I can’t see happening for more than two games. By the second game, the Heat will wake up and Spoelstra will stop playing so small and LeBron will pick up the slack on the boards that his teammates seem unable to do." - LIVES
2) Finals MVP?
"Russell Westbrook. While Westbrook will probably be the third-best player in this series at best, behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant, he's bound to put up a ton of shots and score his fair share of points. Voters on awards like points, not efficiency." - Jeff Fox
"It would be too easy to pick Kevin Durant, so I will take Russell Westbrook. The Heat are without a point guard and it seems difficult for them to guard a guy like Westbrook unless they throw Dwyane Wade on him. But with Wade struggling this postseason, is that something Miami can afford to do if the team needs his offense? Westbrook has to be smart with his attack, which he is not always, and keep others involved. But he could be in for a big series." - Philip
"Kevin Durant. Guy has been a rock for the Thunder, and it's time to step up even more... and I think he will." - Don
"Kevin Durant" - Ezra
"Easy. LeBron will play an all-round game most games. He is supremely focused and no one on the Thunder can stop him. Durant has yet been forced to play as intensely on both ends as he must against LeBron. Suggestion to Brooks: Have Durant guard someone else." - LIVES
3) X Factor in the series for either team (could be a player, a coach, homecourt advantage, matchup on the floor, rebounding, etc...)?
"Other than OKC's homecourt advantage that I already mentioned above, it has to be LeBron's supporting cast. And by LeBron's supporting cast, I mean the other 14 players on Miami's roster. James has been the Heat's only real consistently great player these playoffs - he needs someone to step up to help him win a ring." - Jeff Fox
"Chris Bosh is absolutely key to this series. Just like against Boston, the Heat have no center really to protect the rim. Bosh may not be able to do that all the time, but his ability to post up, rebound and spread the floor with his jumper opens up lanes for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. That is what Miami did not have against Boston and you could see how much they struggled. The Heat need to get to the basket and pull Serge Ibaka away from the paint." - Philip
"HCA (homecourt advantage). OKC's Chesapeake Energy Arena is one of the best home courts in the NBA. They have it 'right' there. Add to that, I think Ibaka is going to have a huge series." - Don
"Thunder: Offense. Miami: Defense." - Ezra
"Finals experience. There is nothing like it to teach a player or a team how to remain in control of their emotions and focused on the task at hand. Also consider that the collective mentality of the Thunder is that this is the beginning of a great dynasty. The Heat are older and playing to complete legacies with a sense of urgency as they know these opportunities are unlikely to come along enough time to win, not 5, not 6, not 7 Chips before Wade turns 38." - LIVES
4) Is this series a “must-win” for LeBron James in regards to his legacy (i.e. – one of the absolute greatest players of all-time)
"Yes, but that being said, there are levels of greatness. He can already be grouped in the Karl Malone-Charles Barkley-Elgin Baylor-Jerry West group - transcendent talent that is known more for losing. But if he wants access to the top floor of NBA greatness - (Michael Jordan-Magic Johnson-Kobe Bryant-Larry Bird, etc.), he needs to win "The Big One"." - Jeff Fox
"I don't think LeBron needs much to be one of the absolute greatest players of all-time. He is an unparalleled talent and does things nobody in the league has ever been able to do. The question is do we talk about James in the same conversation as Michael Jordan or as Elgin Baylor (great player who never won a title) or Julius Erving (great player who didn't win a title until late in his career... at least in the NBA). I don't think you can hate being in their company, but James is judged by the Jordan standard. Jordan went to six Finals and won all six. This is James's third chance. If he wants the criticism to stop (or at least lighten) he has to silence his critics and win this title." - Philip
"Absolutely. Until he gets a chip, each and every season he goes without one is going to be a blight on his ledger. Even when he gets one, there'll always be the Kobe/Jordan comparisons to multiple titles... and heaven help him should he get one and Wade win the Finals MVP. Guy's in a bit of a bind." - Don
"A must win for Lebron? Not really. The absence or limited play (if he returns) of Chris Bosh will be used as the reason why they couldn't win the title. But if they can't do it next season..." - Ezra
"This series is only a must-win to people who form opinions about stuff that can’t be measured across eras. LeBron will eventually win one chip so that he can stay on the lips of those who like to create best ever lists, but his legacy as one of the greatest individual players is set. He is already the next step in the evolution of the professional basketball player. A man of brute finesse, a true hybrid of strength, grace and brains. The question is will he be one of the greatest Champions." - LIVES