The NBA's two biggest stars will battle on the game's biggest stage.
LeBron James leads the Miami Heat against Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 NBA Finals. The series gets underway Tuesday night in Oklahoma City.
The Heat are in an unfamiliar position as they enter the championship round. For one of the few times since the formation of the Big 3, Miami is the underdog. James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and company have struggled at times in the postseason, causing many to question if they have enough to win an NBA title.
The Thunder enter the final round of the playoffs as the favorites after beating some of the best teams in the league. OKC defeated the Mavericks, Lakers and Spurs en route to the NBA Finals. From 1999-2011, Dallas, San Antonio and L.A. were the only teams to advance from the Western Conference.
The series features two very similar teams.
Both Miami and OKC are built around a core of three very good players. The Heat's Big 3 of James, Wade and Bosh was built, largely, through free agency, while the Thunder's was formed through the draft.
While Miami relies mainly on its top players, Oklahoma City is a much deeper team.
The biggest question surrounding the Heat has been whether or not Miami's stars can overcome their lack of a supporting cast.
James has often been criticized for playing poorly in the postseason, with much of the blame falling on him for Miami's loss in the finals last year. This season, however, he has been terrific in the playoffs.
He's averaging 30.8 points, 9.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists in 18 postseason games. Those numbers are arguably better than the ones he put up to win him the MVP.
Wade's overall playoff numbers are comparable to his regular season stats, but he's very bad at times. He's started every game since the postseason began, but there's a feeling that he's nowhere close to being 100 percent healthy.
Players like Shane Battier and Mike Miller, who Miami thought would give them decent production, haven't been big contributors in the playoffs. They've combined for 10.6 points per game on just 4 percent shooting.
Mario Chalmers has probably played the best of anyone outside of the Big 3. He's averaging 11.6 points and 3.9 assists per game in the postseason.
With Bosh missing half of the Heat's playoff games due to injury, Miami struggled to win games with just James and Wade as the team's main options. After 31 minutes of action and an 8-10 shooting performance in Game 7, the Heat look to have their Big 3 firmly intact against the Thunder.
Miami's lack of depth has been enough to get them through the Eastern Conference, but will it be enough for the Heat to beat the Thunder?
Other than their first two games against San Antonio, OKC has been dominant in the playoffs. They swept the defending-champion Mavericks in four games, handled the Lakers easily in five, and rolled through the Spurs after two quick losses.
Durant has been the number one reason why the Thunder are playing for a championship. He's led Oklahoma City with 27.8 points and 7.9 rebounds per game in the playoffs. He's also made a number of shots at the end of games to seal victories for his team.
James is widely regarded as the best player in the NBA, but Durant is challenging him for his title. Durant is younger, but has yet to have playoff games in which he's shied away from big moments like his counterpart.
OKC's best three players may not have the hype that Miami's do, but they've been just as effective this year. Alongside Durant, Russell Westbrook has emerged as one of the best players in the league. He's averaging 21.7 points and 5.6 assists in the playoffs, and is making the case to be known as the best point guard in the NBA.
James Harden has emerged as a star this season, turning into the best sixth-man in all of basketball.
If both team's stars match their opponents' play, look for the Thunder to have the advantage.
Serge Ibaka was second in voting for the defensive player of the year award. Kendrick Perkins is also a good defender, and has championship experience with the Celtics. Thabo Sefolosha is only averaging 5.5 points per playoff game, but was a key in the Thunder defeating the Spurs.
Oklahoma City is favored, but don't expect a one-sided series. It's one of the most anticipated finals in recent memory, and has a good chance of going the distance.
Betting Odds: OKC -165, Miami +145
Prediction: These two teams are very evenly matched. OKC won one more game in the 66-game schedule, and they split the season series. Miami will have a difficult time stopping Westbrook, and Oklahoma City will have trouble slowing down James. Durant has been spectacular in the playoffs, but James is still the best player in the NBA. He hasn't shown any fear this postseason, and should finally get his ring.
Miami Heat OVER Oklahoma City Thunder in seven games