By Andy Roth, Contributing Editor - Archive - Email
The Pulse of the NBA
New York, NY (Sports Network) - The NBA Finals will be a battle of the "Big Threes" as the Miami Heat's LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh square off against the Oklahoma City Thunder's Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

James, the league's MVP, and Durant, the runner-up, will be matched up against each other as will Wade and Harden. If these four play up to their normal level, the Heat will have the edge.

Bosh, meanwhile, will mostly be lined up against Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, while Westbrook will be guarded by Mario Chalmers. It's in these matchups that I think the Thunder can tip the scales back their way quite a bit.

Ibaka led the league in blocked shots per game (3.27) and was named to the NBA's All-Defensive first team, and certainly provides a high quality defender against Bosh, whose big Game 7 off the bench against the Boston Celtics helped propel the Heat into their second straight NBA Finals.

As for Westbrook, I think he has the chance to be the difference-maker in this series in his matchup against Chalmers. More than any other player among the "Big Three" on either side, this is the matchup that has the greatest disparity.

Westbrook, however, struggled in the two regular-season meetings which the teams split.

In the first game in Oklahoma City which the Thunder won 103-87, he was just 4 of 16 from the field, scored 13 points and had six assists and four turnovers.

In the second meeting in Miami in which the Heat came out on top, 98-93, Westbrook had 28 points on 9 of 26 shooting and just two assists and four turnovers.

As much focus as there will be on the star players, the supporting casts could very well determine the outcome of the series, and I have to give the Thunder the edge here.

Ibaka is clearly the best player in this series outside the "Big Three" on each team and is capable of having the kind of performance that can be the difference in a game as he did in the Western Conference finals when he hit all 11 of his shots and scored 26 points in nearly a must-win situation in Game 3 against the San Antonio Spurs.

And I also like the defense Thabo Sefolosha can provide against Wade and, if necessary, is another defender to throw at James.

I think the Thunder are the more well-rounded team and with home court advantage I look for them to win their first NBA championship in six games.

As for the team that fell one game short of the NBA Finals on Saturday, the Celtics should really feel good about what they accomplished with all the hurdles they had to climb this season.

Boston lost a key rotation player in Jeff Green even before the season began with a heart ailment. Starting center Jermaine O'Neal, although not a significant contributor, was lost to season-ending wrist surgery in March.

But the biggest blow was the loss of Avery Bradley, who finally succumbed to a dislocated shoulder injury and underwent surgery while the Celtics were still playing the Philadelphia Sixers in the second round.

Bradley's defensive presence would have been a big plus against Wade and maybe just as important, if Bradley had been healthy, the Celtics would have had some firepower coming off the bench in Ray Allen.

The Heat obviously missed Bosh, and without his 19 points in Game 7, Miami may not have advanced out of the East. But don't underestimate Bradley's loss and how it may have affected the outcome of the series.

Now on to one of the more prominent teams already on vacation ...

The second the Los Angeles Lakers were eliminated by the Thunder in the second round, the speculation began on what changes the team would make to return to being a legitimate title contender next season.

Most of the focus has been on whether or not to deal Andrew Bynum and/or Pau Gasol. I don't think the Lakers have to trade either player to become a championship-caliber team again.

Even with their "Big Three" of Kobe Bryant, Bynum and Gasol, the Lakers weren't going to win a championship this season because they had the lowest-scoring bench in the league. I think that's too much to ask of any team.

During the regular season, the reserves averaged 21.3 points per game and shot 42 percent from the floor. But the production was even worse in the playoffs.

The bench scored 16.6 points per game and hit only 39 percent of its shots.

When the Lakers blew a seven-point lead in the final 2:08 of Game 2 of their series with the Thunder, the bench scored 11 points.

In Game 4, when the Lakers let a 13-point fourth-quarter lead slip away, their bench scored just 10 points.

I think if the Lakers even had a mediocre bench, the leads in those games would have been much larger and the Thunder wouldn't have been able to overcome them.

Don't forget, when the Lakers won back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010, they not only had Lamar Odom coming off their bench, but also Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujecic.

Steve Blake hit a few big shots in the playoffs, but the reality is he's not a good player. He averaged just 5.2 ppg in just over 23 minutes and shot 37.7 percent from the field and 33.5 percent from 3-point range.

They don't have to necessarily trade Bynum or Gasol to get back into championship contention. I think some good offensive players off the bench could elevate them to that level again.

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