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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Forecast: Rolling Thunder

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A funny thing happened last year on LeBron James' march to "not one, not two... not six, not seven" NBA championships with the Miami Heat. James and superstar sidekicks Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were stunned in the NBA Finals by the Dallas Mavericks, who had only one mega-name but tons more teamwork.

Now James & Co. have another chance, after a huge seven-game scare against Boston in the Eastern Conference. This time, though, Miami faces two superstars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and an Oklahoma City team with just as much teamwork as last year's Mavericks and more youthful energy.


Frank
: You said all along that OKC would reach the Finals. Now will they finish the job?

Artie
: Absolutely. The Thunder will prevail.

Frank
: Even against the Chosen One and his chosen posse?

Artie
: You betcha! OKC is playing so well as a team. They're well coached by Scott Brooks, and they're not just super-talented, they're young!

Frank
: They learned something about team play from losing to Dirk Nowitzki's Mavs in last year's Western finals. At the time there was talk that Westbrook was getting in Durant's way.

Artie
: I don't think there's ever been a "chemistry" problem between them. Sometimes Westbrook just takes too many shots, but it's not constant.

Frank
: I know the Thunder has a primo guy off the bench in James Harden, who's only 22 but looks 35 with that long beard.

Artie
: He's a sixth-man supreme! Whatever they need him to do, he'll do. But there are so many other pieces now. There's Serge Ibaka, a monster shot-blocker, and Thabo Sefolosha, another total energy guy.

Frank
: And a couple of savvy role players in Derek Fisher and Nick Collison.

Artie
: Fisher sure was savvy when the Lakers traded him to Houston in March. He worked a buyout with the Rockets and signed with OKC.

Frank
: As great as OKC is playing, beating the Heat won't be easy now that they showed some character in battling back from 3-2 down against Boston.

Artie
: Yeah, Miami is capable of great things, especially if they get some of the calls they got against the Celtics. I'll say it again: I hope to live to see some ref call LeBron for traveling!

Frank
: For many fans, James became Enemy No. 1 with all the overblown posturing in deserting Cleveland for Miami. But this year even D-Wade has been an unpleasant guy—grousing at refs, hammering Kobe Bryant in the All-Star Game and getting into several other hard-contact incidents.

Artie
: Really uncharacteristic for him. My theory is that it's misplaced aggression that's really aimed at LeBron. He can't bring himself to dress down The King so he's taking it out on others.

Frank
: Dress down LeBron about what?

Artie
: I think LeBron, for all his tremendous talent, is a basketball idiot. He really doesn't know how to play team ball, at least consistently. When he gets into a tight game, he seems not to know what to do.

Frank
: He apparently knew what to do in Game 6 in Boston—45 points and 15 rebounds. And in the deciding game he went for 31 and 12.

Artie
: It didn't hurt that he took 17 free throws in Game 7, two more than the whole Boston team. And it didn't hurt that Bosh, after missing the first four games with an abdominal injury, was back to being the unsung hero with 8-of-10 shooting and 19 points.

Frank
: Certainly there have been times when James has been ripped for passing up a last-second shot. But he's kind of damned either way if the Heat lose, right?

Artie
: It's not just the last-minute offense that stalls out, though.

Frank
: Steve Kerr agrees with that. I heard him say on ESPN that there are "too many pauses" with the Heat, too many times when everyone just watches either LeBron or Wade.

Artie
: I heard that 15 of LeBron's 19 field goals in Game 6 were unassisted. That's OK if the shots fall, but sometimes they don't.

Frank
: Kerr said Boston stayed in the series because their offense was constant "catch and decide"—quick decisions to shoot or pass.

Artie
: Even though they were aging and hurting—they played the series without a key sub in Avery Bradley—they gave Miami all it could handle. Plus they had Rajon Rondo. If Boston had a 3-30 record, I'd watch 'em just to see Rondo. You always see something you never saw before.

Frank
: I assume OKC is solid on defense, too. They must be, to have shut down San Antonio after falling behind 2-0.

Artie
: You can't coach young legs and energy, but you can coach defensive effort, and Brooks has done that.

Frank
: The Spurs may have run out of gas after a 20-game winning streak, but it was more than young vs. old. The Thunder hounded them into a lot of turnovers.

Artie
: The question is, if OKC hounds the Heat the same way, will the refs "let 'em play"? You never know with the calls.

Frank
: Basketball has to be the toughest game to officiate. They're climbing all over each other on every play.

Artie
: LeBron isn't alone in this, but on defense he'll kind of wrap his arm around his man's, then push off and fall backward.

Frank
: A flop, in other words.

Artie
: It's really turning into freakin' soccer that way.

Frank
: In Game 4, both Paul Pierce and James fouled out on offensive fouls that could have been called flops.

Artie
: Jason Whitlock had a good column about it on FoxSports.com. He wrote: "The Flop is absolutely ruining basketball and making the game far more difficult to officiate... Between the flops and the constant glares and whining of the players, the refs are constantly under high stress."

Frank
: Well said.

Artie
: But Whitlock also said the refs are getting too full of themselves, as though people are there to see them. He wrote, "This is going to sound crazy, but I'd make all refs—basketball and football—wear masks. Make 'em numbers instead of names."

Scratch One More Dream

Frank: Still no Triple Crown horse since 1978, and this time the hopeful, I'll Have Another, didn't even run in the Belmont Stakes because of a leg injury.

Artie
: What a shame. I was really looking forward to watching, and suddenly there was no reason to.

Frank
: The big shots at NBC probably felt like walking in front of a stampede. I'll have Another galloped Friday morning, but he came out of it with swelling in his left-front leg. Trainer Doug O'Neill's brother said, "He looks super, (but) you just can't take a chance. He's too valuable of a horse and we love him to death like all of them."

Artie
: Maybe what they love most is the horse's value at the stud farm, ain'a?

Frank
: Once they found the injury they couldn't possibly run him—not just for his sake, but for the sport's. They would never have been forgiven if he had broken down in the race.

Artie
: And O'Neill, as you've said, has had brushes with the racing authorities over how he's medicated his horses.

Frank
: We saw Barbaro break down in the 2006 Preakness and Eight Belles collapse and be euthanized after finishing second in the '08 Kentucky Derby. Racing could hardly afford another incident like that.

Artie
: So now it's back to 21st-century normal for the sport. Hardly anyone will care until next year's Derby.

Frank
: This shows how chancy the sport is—thousand-pound animals pounding those thin legs on risky surfaces. And a lot of experts believe it's gotten riskier in recent decades because thoroughbreds are being bred more for speed than stamina.

Artie
: With what this horse is worth in his next, um, career, retirement is a no-brainer.

Frank
: But racing, for the 12th time since Affirmed in '78, loses its Triple Crown bet.