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Heat and Thunder has all the makings of a classic

In LeBron James and Kevin Durant, you have the two best players in the league, both, assuming longevity, bound for the Hall of Fame and in their primes going against one another in their sport’s premier spectacle. These moments only come along rarely in any sport.

This LeBron/Durant matchup will go on perhaps head to head for several hours three times a week for maybe the next two weeks. When do you get the two best and most entertaining players in a sport going head to head for the championship of that sport over a potential seven-game series?
(Issac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images)

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

The NBA is getting a true gem this time, a gift for all its fans. The Finals starting Tuesday is setting up to be one of the greatest matchups in the history of the league.

We’ll know in a few weeks if it lives up to that promise. Though there isn’t that much tradition with Miami and Oklahoma City, the series features perhaps one of the top three best Finals matchups ever, MVP LeBron James against scoring champion Kevin Durant.

Yes, there have been bigger names in matchups, most notably the great Magic Johnson/Larry Bird series of the 1980’s. But Bird and Magic didn’t play one another. It was in a sense like Roger Staubach going against Terry Bradshaw in the Super Bowl. Each played against the other’s defense. This time they play one another, both small forwards likely to be matched up.

Michael Jordan never had a great shooting guard to go against in the Finals, the best probably Clyde Drexler, whom he made short work of 20 years ago this week. Jordan’s biggest matchups were against Magic, Charles Barkley and Karl Malone.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played against Dave Cowens and Wes Unseld in some of his bigger matchups. And while they became Hall of Famers, they didn’t quite carry the celebrity of LeBron/Durant.

Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce? Kobe and Allen Iverson? Sort of the same positions, assuming we know what position Iverson played. Elgin Baylor and John Havlicek? You’d maybe say Earl Monroe and Oscar Robertson, but Oscar was at the end of his career. There was Jerry West in his prime, though always losing to Bill Russell. Maybe West/Bob Cousy in that era, though Russell was the fulcrum for that team.

It was Russell and Wilt Chamberlain that probably was the premier matchup in Finals history. It only happened a couple of times, in 1964 and 1969, the latter when Russell was about to retire.

So this is a true potential classic.

You have the two best players in the league, both, assuming longevity, bound for the Hall of Fame and in their primes going against one another in their sport’s premier spectacle. These moments only come along rarely in any sport.

Again, it’s almost impossible in the NFL unless a great linebacker plays against a great runner. In baseball, there are moments, like when Sandy Koufax faced Mickey Mantle in the World Series. But those are brief at bats spread out over a long game. There was Bob Welch’s famous strikeout of Reggie Jackson in the 1978 World Series. But it was Bob Welsh. Pretty good for a short time. This is the three times-in-four-years MVP against the defending three-time scoring champion. Really, things like this rarely ever come along.

Something could be happening in hockey, though a fight probably would break out soon thereafter. Bobby Hull on a breakaway shooting on Gump Worsley was pretty cool, though.

But this LeBron/Durant matchup will go on perhaps head to head for several hours three times a week for maybe the next two weeks. When do you get the two best and most entertaining players in a sport going head to head for the championship of that sport over a potential seven-game series?

Not often in NBA history. Here’s my list of the best and most anticipated head to head matchups in the NBA Finals:

1964: Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell. Wilt was the game’s dominant figure while the Celtics were the game’s dominant team. Whatever the Celtics accomplished, it became popular because Wilt got everyone watching as the Babe Ruth of the NBA. Wilt’s Warriors had moved to San Francisco then, but the Celtics had a team filled with Hall of Famers and won 4-1. Wilt averaged 34.7 points and 25.2 rebounds while Russell averaged 13.1 points and 27.2 rebounds.

1970: Jerry West vs. Walt Frazier. It was the famous Willis Reed Game 7 series, which was won by Frazier after Reed scored four early points and left. West made a 70 footer to tie Game 3 in regulation and then lose in overtime. The Lakers then won Game 4 in overtime. Great stuff. With a three-point shot the Lakers would have won the series. West averaged 31.3 points and 7.7 assists to Frazier’s 17.6 points and 10.4 assists.

1988 & 1989: Magic Johnson vs. Isiah Thomas. It was the beginning of the end of the famous friendship as they battled in consecutive Finals, the Pistons finally winning in 1989 when Magic got injured. They began 1988 with a famous pregame kiss and a classic seven game series in 1988 the Lakers won. Magic averaged 21.1 points and 13 assists to 19.7 points and nine assists for Isiah.

1994: Hakeem Olajuwon vs. Patrick Ewing. It was a brutal series for Hakeem against Pat Riley’s ferocious Knicks. He came through, but the Knicks ended up going to John Starks and lost. Olajuwon averaged 26.9 points and 9.1 rebounds to 18.9 points and 12.4 rebounds for Ewing.

1962: Elgin Baylor vs. Tommy Heinsohn. That was the season Baylor and Jerry West both averaged more than 30 points and maybe the greatest ever Finals seventh game with the Celtics winning in overtime. Like the Celtics trying to contain Michael Jordan’s 63 points in 1986, no one could control Baylor, who set the Finals record with 61 points in Game 5. Baylor played just 48 games that season because he had to go into the Army reserves and played on weekends. His Finals games were amazing: 35, 36, 39, 38, 61, 34 and 41 and 22 rebounds in Game 7, a 110-107 overtime loss as Heinsohn and Satch Saunders were run out trying to contain Baylor. Heinsohn led the Celtics in the playoffs averaging 24.7 points and 8.9 rebounds. Sort of. Bill Russell averaged 20.3 points and 25.1 rebounds in those playoffs.

1967: Wilt Chamberlain vs. Nate Thurmond. The Warriors broke up the original dual centers after Chamberlain and Thurmond played together in that 1964 Finals against Boston. That ’67 Philadelphia team was a juggernaut as Wilt went on to average 21.7 points and 29.1 rebounds in the playoffs to Thurmond’s 15.9 points and 23.3 rebounds.

1983: Moses Malone vs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This was Moses famous Fo, Fo, Fo in the 76ers’ 12-1 run after years of falling short until they got Moses. He averaged 25.8 points and 18 rebounds to 23.5 points and 7.5 rebounds for Kareem in the 76ers’ sweep.

1992: Michael Jordan vs. Clyde Drexler. Jordan was burning going into the Finals over talk Drexler should have been the league MVP. Jordan then hit his famous six threes in the first half of Game 1 and then shrugged for Magic doing the TV commentary. Though the Trail Blazers were on the verge of producing a seventh game before their Game 6 collapse, it always felt like a Bulls series. Jordan averaged 35.8 points and 6.5 assists to Drexler’s 24.8 points and 5.3 assists.

1995: Hakeem Olajuwon vs. Shaquille O’Neal. Not as much resistance for Hakeem as the Rockets swept with Hakeem going for 32.8 points and 11.5 rebounds to 28 points and 12.5 rebounds for Shaq in his first Finals.

1971: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vs. Wes Unseld. Kareem was the unstoppable force as even as Wes was rookie of the year and MVP at one time, the Bullets were swept as Kareem averaged 27 points and 18.5 rebounds while Unseld averaged 15 points and 19.5 rebounds.

1952: George Mikan vs. Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton. Can’t say I actually saw this one. Mikan was the league’s first great star and that season because of his dominance the lane was widened from six to 12 feet. Like Wilt later in his career, Mikan after leading the league in scoring the last three seasons began to pass more but still was second to Paul Arizin. The Lakers won in a seventh game, the first six played on neutral courts with both home team’s arenas booked. Mikan was the leader in scoring and rebounding in the playoffs and fourth in assists while Chicago’s Clifton was first in fouls committed.

1982: Julius Erving vs. Jamaal Wilkes. Wilkes is one of the more overlooked Hall of Famers as he’ll be inducted this year. Doc had been the 76ers promise since the 1977 Finals loss and it would be in six again to the Lakers. Erving averaged 25 points and 8.2 rebounds to Wilkes’ 19.7 points and 5.8 rebounds.

1984: Larry Bird vs. James Worthy. It was the beginning of the great Celtics/Lakers Finals that saved the NBA Finals. Magic and Bird weren’t matched directly as it became their series. Bird that season in the Celtics seven-game win with two overtime games averaged 27.4 points and 14 rebounds to 22.1 points and 4.4 rebounds Worthy, who would be Finals MVP in the seven game win over the Pistons in 1988.

2001: Kobe Bryant vs. Allen Iverson. They weren’t exactly always matched as Iverson was sort of a point guard, though he didn’t pass. Shaq led all scorers and rolled over Dikembe Mutombo, but Iverson stole one game. He averaged 35.6 per game while only three 76ers averaged more than one assist per game. Kobe averaged 24.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists. Shaq averaged 33 points and 15.8 rebounds.

1977: Bill Walton vs. Darryl Dawkins. It became a huge mismatch as Walton dominated the series after the 76ers won the first two averaging 18.5 points and 19 rebounds. Game 2 featured one of the great brawls in NBA history with Maurice Lucas punching Dawkins after Dawkins slammed down Bobby Gross and then accidently punched teammate Doug Collins. The 76ers didn’t compete much after that.

But now we should see some great competition as it’s LeBron and Durant. We’ll see if it will be a classic. Here’s a look at all the matchups:

Point Guard: Russell Westbrook vs. Mario Chalmers. This is a huge advantage for the Thunder given Westbrook is one of the league’s stars and one of the best open court players in the game. Though Chalmers cannot control him, Westbrook tends to turn the ball over, which is the Heat’s strength. The Thunder in the playoffs has been able to overcome Westbrook’s questionable decision making, though it often means a cold stretch for them.

Edge: Thunder

Shooting Guard: Thabo Sefolosha vs. Dwyane Wade. Certainly on reputation and scoring ability this is to Miami. But Wade isn’t the same player he’s been either because of undisclosed injury or wearing down. This could be the key matchup of the series as Sefolosha is long armed and a tenacious individual defender. The Thunder should leave him on Wade as much as possible, thus limiting Wade and challenging James and a gimpy Chris Bosh to beat them. Coach Scott Brooks errs often late in games using Derek Fisher for Sefolosha.

Edge: Heat

Small Forward: Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James. The dream matchup, potentially as good as they come. The question is whether they guard one another even as they play the same positions. James is the better defender, but will their coaches worry about wearing them out by having them play defense on the opposing team’s best player and scorer? Coaches usually don’t. Sefolosha could take James, though for Miami it’s tough to see who’d play Durant with his size and outside shooting ability. Plus, they both know each is their team’s leader. They both should produce big.

Edge: Heat

Power Forward: Serge Ibaka vs. Chris Bosh. Or Udonis Haslem. Who knows what Miami coach Erik Spoelstra will do in the first Finals featuring singular grammatical names. Spoelstra changes lineups like underwear. At least we hope so on the latter. Maybe he goes back to Joel Anthony at center against the light scoring Kendrick Perkins. Maybe Shane Battier, who played there against the Celtics. Maybe Bosh comes off the bench, which was raised after he did so in his games back in the conference finals. While Bosh shot well, his movement seems to remain limited from his abdominal strain. That could have Miami limit him some still.

Edge: Thunder

Center: Kendrick Perkins vs. Somebody. Probably Bosh to close games and maybe Haslem. Or Anthony. Definitely not Dexter Pittman, though maybe they’ll need someone to snarl back at Perkins. This is the most physical center the Heat have seen, though Perkins doesn’t score much and is slow. The Heat likely will go to Bosh, forcing the Thunder to bring in Nick Collison.

Edge: Thunder

Bench: This is a walkover for the Thunder with James Harden, by far the league’s best sixth man and probably one of the top 15 players in the league. He’ll play late with Westbrook and Durant and that’s a tough offense to limit. The Thunder probably would be best served to push the game even with Miami’s runout dunks and challenge the Heat to get to 110, which they rarely, if ever, can do. Miami’s been playing Norris Cole a lot. Who knows what Mike Miller can give.

Edge: Thunder

Coaching: Scott Brooks vs. Erik Spoelstra. Both young coaches whose talent often runs away from their direction. But you get the sense Brooks has more control and influence. Spoelstra is a knowledgeable guy, but it’s difficult to believe James and Wade pay much attention.

Edge: Brooks.

Pick: Thunder in six. Though I’m hoping for a Game 7.

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