Ian Thomsen: The main thing is that both teams have matured based on their experiences over the last postseason. They can both thank Dallas for that. Miami is a much tougher, more galvanized team because LeBron is playing closer to the basket and posting up to draw fouls when his team needs points. Oklahoma City has had a full season to work in Kendrick Perkins, but the main improvement in the Thunder is that Durant is doing -- in his own way -- what Dirk Nowitzki did for the Mavericks last year, which is to make certain his team wins. Both teams are extremely confident because of the faith the players have in their leaders.
Zach Lowe: Both have shown growth. Miami is a more resilient, flexible bunch than lots of experts suggested. But it's also a team that became prone to strange defensive breakdowns against the Celtics that it cannot afford in this series. In the face of a massive injury to Bosh, coach Erik Spoelstra embraced small-ball, changed his playbook and tweaked his rotations. It didn't always work -- remember Dexter Pittman starting and the team's nightly regression into stagnancy in the half-court? -- but the Heat are here. And James, under enormous pressure, responded with perhaps the best, meanest ball of his life. The Thunder have also proved to be an adaptable lot, with coach Scott Brooks making series-changing adjustments after two losses to the Spurs and the team in general sharing the ball much more than usual in that series. Westbrook has grown as a playmaker, Durant can run a nasty high pick-and-roll and the Thunder are (mostly) running honest-to-god plays in crunch time -- some even featuring Harden, once forgotten, as the orchestrator. Their defense hasn't been great by the numbers, but it has been good enough.
Lee Jenkins: Oklahoma City has grown up and Miami has toughened up. The Thunder have been the most talented team in the NBA for almost two years, but in these playoffs, they have trusted each other and shared the ball in a way they didn't all regular season. Their best scorers, Durant and Westbrook, have evolved into adept playmakers, allowing the Thunder to demonstrate their superior depth. The Heat, on the other hand, responded to series deficits against Boston and Indiana with a completely different mentality than they showed a year ago against Dallas in the Finals. If Game 7 against the Celtics was any indication, the Heat's three stars are no longer taking turns late in the fourth quarter. They are attacking in concert, a sign they might have finally figured out how to play together.
Chris Mannix: Oklahoma City is a juggernaut, one very capable of kick-starting a multiple-title run right here, right now. The Thunder are more poised than anyone gave them credit for, and they are so explosive that no lead is safe. The Heat are similar in that they can erase any deficit if James is feeling it. As much grief as we give LeBron, he is playing perhaps the finest basketball of his career and, with a little help, is capable of carrying Miami to four wins.
Sam Amick: One of them will remain title-less by the time this is over, but both have championship mettle. The Thunder were rolling before they went down 2-0 to San Antonio in the Western Conference finals, and nothing can spark panic quite like needing to take four of five against a team that had won 20 in a row at that point. So what did they do? Rattled off four straight. The Heat, meanwhile, pushed back against the playoff pressure on two occasions: their 2-1 deficit against Indiana in the second round and Boston's 3-2 edge in the Eastern Conference finals. That LeBron played like an absolute force on most nights certainly helped; he is averaging an NBA-high 30.8 points on 50.8 percent shooting in this season's playoffs compared to 23.7 points on 46.6 percent shooting last year. There's plenty of fight in both teams here, meaning we've got quite a series on our hands.
Thomsen: I want to see whether the hard times James has gone through will make the difference. He has had to fight his way back over the last two years and now he looks as if he's ready to deal with just about anything that may happen in this Finals. By comparison, Durant has had a smooth ride to the top, and if things start turning against him will he have it in him to force the games to be played his way? I know LeBron can do that because he has been building up to this point for two years, but can Durant do it? I'm asking the question because I don't know the answer, but in two weeks we'll all know for sure.
Lowe: How efficiently the Thunder scoring machine can produce against Miami's top-level defense. Oklahoma City had the second-best offense in the regular season, and, remarkably, it's gotten even better in the playoffs. The Thunder shredded Dallas, the Lakers and San Antonio, putting up historic scoring numbers through three rounds. Their assist rate jumped dramatically against a San Antonio team that forced them to drive and move the ball, just as the Heat will. With just a few exceptions -- down the stretch in Game 5 against the Spurs, for instance -- they've run solid late-game sets incorporating all three of their stairs, rather than the predictable isolations that doomed them last season.
Jenkins: Westbrook is a tough matchup for everyone, but especially Miami. We saw how Rajon Rondo was able to get inside the Heat's defense, even with Miami playing off him, and Westbrook is more explosive than Rondo. If the Heat sag on Westbrook the way they did on Rondo, he could bury them with mid-range jumpers, and if they do any more jogging back on defense, he will beat them down the court. Then again, when Westbrook makes himself the focal point of the offense, the Thunder lose the ball movement that has been so effective in the playoffs. Westbrook must exploit the opportunities presented to him while maintaining his poise and remembering his teammates.
Mannix: That Perkins-Joel Anthony matchup is ... oh, come on. It's Durant vs. James, the three-time scoring champ vs. the three-time MVP,the (Twitter-announced) decision vs. The Decision, the humble star vs. the attention-grabber. This should be an epic battle, and given the age of Durant and James, we could quite possibly see it many times in the years to come.
Amick: I'll take "the-best-two-players-in-basketball-playing-for-it-all" please, Alex. It's NBA theater at its finest, and I'll elaborate on the head-to-head matchup a bit later here. But the most compelling part of that battle is the question of whether James can exorcise those demons from last year's Finals. Forget about the context of The Decision or the "Not one, not two, not three ..." proclamations that have been his PR burden for two years now. I'm talking solely about Miami-Dallas 2011, and the unmistakable fact that James disappeared too often and looked far too rattled in the six-game loss to the Mavericks. Rest assured, James isn't out of the woods just yet in terms of his legacy.
Thomsen: Apart from the question of which star will seize command, I think it's also going to come down to whether Oklahoma City can play enough possessions in the open floor. Miami's half-court offense has become more effective, and when the pace slows, the Heat's ability to earn free throws via James and Wade figures to be a go-to strength. Can Miami prevent the Thunder from playing in the flow of transition and early offense -- and if so, will the Thunder be able to generate points against Miami's set defense?
Lowe: There are so many possibilities when two top-heavy teams face each other. Fatigue could affect James, who has carried the largest burden of any player in the postseason. There is Wade's on-again, off-again shakiness, and the continued rumblings he may be nursing an injury; he'll spend considerable time guarding both Westbrook and Harden in this series. Turnovers and transition defense could make or break either team, considering the fast-break excellence of each. There is small-ball versus big-ball, and a dozen important rotation decisions for each coach. But if forced to pick one, I'm going with the offensive contributions of the Thunder role players, and the connected issue of whether Durant and Westbrook can continue to make the proper "pass or shoot?" decisions. Miami played Durant to pass and drive in the regular season, pressuring him well beyond the three-point arc and trapping him when he popped off screens. Durant dribbled into a season-high nine turnovers in one game and dished a season-high-tying eight assists in the other. The Heat threw softer traps at Westbrook on the pick-and-roll, containing his drive at the foul line and forcing him into tricky choices. We saw the Thunder passing game evolve against the Spurs. Will that continue against (by far) the best defense Oklahoma City has faced in the playoffs?
Jenkins: Because the Thunder are so much deeper than the Heat, and so much more balanced, James and Wade have to outplay Durant and Westbrook. Wade cannot afford to take off any more first halves. James cannot afford to shrink into the facilitator role. They have to log heavy minutes, and despite difficult defensive matchups, remain as aggressive as they were in closing out the Celtics. The Heat don't have a sixth man like Harden, a rim protector like Serge Ibaka or a bouncer like Perkins. They can win, but James and Wade will have to play their best series yet, and be better than Durant and Westbrook.
Mannix: I've been very high on Westbrook the last few years because inside that erratic, turnover-prone bottle rocket is a superstar waiting to bust out. Westbrook should dominate his matchup with Mario Chalmers. If he plays smart, low-error ball, Oklahoma City can win this series in a rout. If not, he could turn out to be Miami's secret weapon.
Amick: It's not the sexy answer, but it will be the complementary players -- or "others," as TNT's Shaquille O'Neal so respectfully called the Thunder's. For Oklahoma City, it's players such as Ibaka, Perkins and Sefolosha. Their re-emergence in Game 3 against the Spurs started the turnaround, and was aided by Durant's willingness and ability to be more of a playmaker than ever before. The focus this time around will be on their collective ability to contain James, Wade and Bosh to whatever degree that's possible. For Miami, it's players like Battier, Chalmers and Udonis Haslem who need to muck it up defensively while providing some semblance of scoring. I fully expect the stars on both sides to shine, but Westbrook and Bosh are the wild cards of that bunch. Can Westbrook consistently bring that mixture of aggressive scoring and composed floor leading? Will Bosh be an X-factor in this series like he was in Game 7 against Boston, especially if he's able to pull the shot-blocking Ibaka and Perkins outside and open up the lanes for James and Wade? We shall see.
Thomsen: Durant is going to show that he's a good defender, with the understanding that he has big guys behind him to protect the rim. His length and quickness are going to make it interesting for James. I hope the games are tight because obviously the fourth quarters are going to say everything. There has been a debate for the last couple of years over which of them is the better player, and right now LeBron has more experience and more tools, based on his ability to play on the block or facing up from the perimeter. The great thing about this Finals is that it's going to decide the league's best team as well as its best player. By the end of this series we're all going to know whether James or Durant is the better player, and it's going to be obvious.
Lowe: My groundbreaking take: Both are going to play very well, and they will be the two best players in the series. They will defend each other quite a bit, and that will be fascinating to watch. Does James have the energy -- and the discipline -- to chase Durant around the floor without losing him? Will James pressure Durant far from the hoop, daring him to drive into help defense? Can Durant use his length to take away James' driving lanes without fouling? Is he ready to deal with James' post game? And will James force the issue on the block or float to the perimeter in big moments? Shane Battier and Thabo Sefolosha will provide each superstar breaks from guarding the other, and how those two manage in that role will be a big factor in itself. Neither James nor Durant is going to stop the other one, and they'll need help just to force a small decline in performance. But if either team can engineer such a decline, it could swing the series.
Jenkins: They will defend each other a lot of the time, but not all the time. The Heat may need James on Westbrook and they could then try Battier on Durant. The Thunder could use Ibaka on James to spare Durant, and see if the length bothers him. The way both players are rolling, though, I don't know how much it's going to matter. The Heat must hope that Durant has a couple of poor shooting nights and the Thunder must pack the paint with Ibaka and Perkins, giving James fewer driving lanes than the Celtics did. I'm curious how pace will affect the matchup. The Celtics and Pacers tried to box the Heat into a half-court game and at times were successful. The Thunder tried to slow the Spurs, but in general, they are comfortable at a higher tempo. If they play faster against Miami, Westbrook should get some easy baskets, but they run the risk of James in the open court.
Mannix: James is an elite defender, but he will be tested here. The Thunder have a thick playbook filled with ways to get Durant open and two big bodies in Perkins and Ibaka to screen for him. Expect Oklahoma City to make James work on the defensive end with the hopes of limiting his effectiveness on the offensive end. There, Durant's biggest challenge will be staying out of foul trouble. James is going to get his buckets, but better that they are contested jump shots than foul-filled drives. It's critical that Durant stay in these games, and he will have to be careful not to get too aggressive too early.
Amick: It's the sort of head-to-head battle you won't be deleting from your DVR anytime soon. This has all the potential to evolve into this generation's version of Magic and Bird circa 1984, but the victor of the duel won't necessarily be the one going home happy at the end. Spectacular though this matchup might be, the Thunder's supporting cast will ultimately tip the scales. In terms of the mano-a-mano moments, though, James remains the superior player when it comes to playing on both ends. But he will endure the torture of outplaying Durant while being ousted in the Finals for the second straight year. And what to do with his storyline, then?
Thomsen: Chalmers is going to be crucial for Miami, and he has it in him to make threes or slash to the basket. But mainly he has to be effective defensively against Westbrook in order to prevent Wade from having to guard Westbrook for most of the game.
Lowe: There are so many candidates, especially if you consider Ibaka a "role player" who might end up the big man-anchor of Thunder small-ball units against Miami lineups with the rangy Bosh as the only big man on the floor. But Ibaka is something greater than a role player, so I'll choose Battier from a among a half-dozen other candidates. Battier is always going get to his fair share of open threes as defenses overload on James and Wade. On defense, he has the potential to defend both Harden and Durant in stretches, sparing James and Wade some exertion. (Battier defended both quite a bit in the two regular-season matchups between the teams.) And if the Heat keep their starting lineup small, an open question with Bosh's strong play off the bench in Game 7 against Boston, Battier may have to defend a Thunder big man during the early stages of each game. Whether he can do credible work in each assignment -- or just one or two of them -- will go a long way to deciding Spoelstra's rotations.
Jenkins: Sefolosha is one of several players emblematic of Oklahoma City's peerless depth. He can take a tough defensive assignment and also make those crucial corner threes when the Heat are over-committing to Thunder stars. Against Boston, the Heat were often a step slow to loose balls, and Sefolosha reaches those with his long arms and quick instincts. He was invaluable against the Spurs, particularly at home, and should help the Thunder keep James and Wade on the perimeter while preserving Durant and Westbrook for the other end.
Mannix: Ibaka's role is pivotal, on both ends. When he's making that 15-foot jumper, he opens up the lanes for Durant and Westbrook. Defensively he will be charged with neutralizing Bosh, who averaged a pedestrian 15.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in two regular-season games against the Thunder. This is also a series where Nick Collison could be a factor because Miami doesn't have any intimidating physical players to outmuscle him.
Amick: Mr. I-block-A, as some call him -- or Ibaka, technically. His ability to cover so much ground on defense and help guard both Bosh and James will be huge. And while no one should expect anything close to the 11-of-11 shooting, 26-point outing he had in Game 4 against San Antonio, Ibaka will need to convert the easy looks he gets to take some pressure off the Thunder's Big Three.
Thomsen:Heat in six. As the series goes along the Heat are going to be better suited to the physical style of play, and they'll be more effective in the half-court. Coaches always talk about wanting their players to be the instigators, and the Heat are more likely to feel comfortable establishing the physical style of play and then executing within it. They weren't up to that kind of challenge last year, but now it defines them as a team.
Lowe:Thunder in seven. The numbers shout for an easier Thunder win, especially given the sloppiness Miami showed against a Boston team that really shouldn't have been able to take the Heat the distance. Concerns about James' fatigue are also legitimate; the Mavericks wore him down last season in the Finals, and the journey here has been tougher on him this time around. But the Heat have the league's greatest player on a roll, an All-Star power forward looking primed for more minutes and a defense that can do things Oklahoma City hasn't seen yet. The Thunder defense, for all of the ferocity it showed at times against the Spurs, hasn't exactly looked like the 2008 Celtics in the postseason and has been breakable in the past. Still, that defense did enough to win against the San Antonio scoring powerhouse, and we haven't seen any defense come close to even frustrating Oklahoma City's offense. Given that reality, plus home-court advantage and the lower minutes load the Thunder stars have carried, I'll take Oklahoma City in an epic seven-gamer.
Jenkins:Heat in six. Before the playoffs, I picked the Thunder to win it all. A few days ago, I would have picked them without thinking twice. Every ounce of rationale favors them. They have more scorers, a better bench, a stronger front line, a louder home court, and they've been tested by tougher opponents throughout the playoffs. But when James is right, he can wipe out a lot of mismatches, and he has been right all season. Durant is making his first trip to the Finals and he will win soon enough. James is making his third and he has waited long enough. A year ago, I didn't think Dallas could win the championship, but it was Dirk Nowitzki's time and he made the unlikely possible. It's LeBron's time.
Mannix: Thunder in six. The Thunder are too young, too big, too skilled and too athletic. Miami's Big Three won't go down easy, and I see a 40-point, 15- assist, 10-rebound game in LeBron's near future. But the Thunder are really good. What's more, they know it. This team believes it belongs on this stage and will be well-rested when a battle-scarred Miami team comes to town on Tuesday night.
Amick: Thunder in seven. Had these Thunder been here before, they could take it in six games with that mixture of talent and experience. As it is, they'll need all seven games before capitalizing on home court at the end.