No one knows who’s going to be playing in the Finals this year. You just don’t. Some guy somewhere probably thinks he has something resembling an educated opinion, but trust me, he don’t. Of the four teams remaining, any two of them could be playing in the Finals. (Well, probably not both the teams from either the East or West, but you get the idea.) However, there’s one thing that we do know for sure about the two teams that will be squaring off for the Larry O’Brien trophy in a couple of weeks: Neither of them are going to be the Boston Celtics or the Los Angeles Lakers.
Yes, that’s right, after three years of the Boston vs. LA matchup being the dominant storyline in the NBA playoffs — Will it happen? Will it happen again? Why isn’t it going to happen? Who’s going to win if it does happen? Will my dog die of sadness if it doesn’t happen? — the two heavy-hitters have rolled over, bowing out in the second round and ensuring a Finals with two brand new teams. To many of us this is exciting, but to others, this is petrifying, for one primary reason — what about the subplots? Boston vs. LA had them. They had history, a shared heritage, players who went way back. What about these new guys? Will they be able to pack the same sort of underlying history and drama into four to seven games as a rivalry that went back five decades?
Well, I’m here to tell you not to worry. There are plenty of subplots to go around for any of the possible Finals matchups remaining, little back stories to provide intrigue and context to an otherwise meaningless contest between two groups of five men very insistent on performing the normally frustrating act of trying to deposit an orange sphere into a hard-to-reach bottomless cylinder. Some of them may not seem quite as sexy as 50 years of epic NBA bloodshed, but trust me, there’s sizzle to be found. So for your elucidation: The five best subplots for each of the potential Finals pairs remaining.
Miami Heat vs. Dallas Mavericks:
- 2006 Finals. Duh. The NBA might not want you to remember this, but the Heat and Mavs have in fact met in a Finals series before, a tightly contested and hotly debated six-game series that saw the Mavericks take the first two games at home, only to lose the next four. Known as the Second-Greatest Shame of Dirk Nowitzki’s Career and the Reason Why Dwyane Wade Will Always Have One More Title (And Therefore a Better Career, Natch) Than LeBron James, the series is likely best-remembered for a bunch of controversial calls that many claim allowed the Heat to win the title. Hope for these people is that given another chance, Dirk, Jet, Cuban and company will be able to erase those bad memories with new ones of J.J. Barea standing over the bloodied corpse of Joel Anthony.
- Shared Players. The links between these two teams in terms of personnel are many. Mavs starting small forward Shawn Marion foolishly forced his way to the Heat from Phoenix back in 2008, just in time to help them wrap up their 15-win season. Injured swingman Caron Butler got his start in Miami back in 2002 before being traded to the Lakers for Shaquille O’Neal. On the other side, the Heat’s Juwan Howard spent a year-and-a-half with the Dirk-and-Nash Mavs in the early ’00s before being traded to Denver, and the inactive Erick Dampier was the starting center on the Mavs for far longer than anyone in Dallas would care to admit in the second half of the decade.
- LeBron vs. DeShawn Stevenson. DeShawn Stevenson turned himself into one of the main instigators of the fun, but largely one-sided and almost entirely forgotten rivalry between the Cavaliers and Wizards back in the mid-late ’00s when he called LeBron “overrated” during their ’08 first-rounder. LeBron refused to fire back (and thus fired back) by saying that doing so would be “like Jay-Z responding to Soulja Boy.” Before the skirmish was over, both rappers had gotten involved (“Blow the Whistle“!!) and the Cavs had put the Wiz down in six games, the third straight year they eliminated Washington before round two. The teams are different now, with DeShawn on the Mavs and LeBron obviously on the Heat, but here’s hoping that the two seeing each other will get that old feeling back. (Gotta time-adjust for those rappers, though — “like Lil Wayne responding to Waka Flocka Flame,” perhaps.)
- Leon Lett, Pt. 2: The Dallas-Miami rivalry extends to the sport of football as well, most memorably in the unforgettable Thanksgiving Weekend contest in 1993 that can somehow only go down as the second-most shame-inducing game in the illustrious NFL career of Cowboys defensive tackle Leon Lett. With the Cowboys up 14-13 and the clock running out, the Dolphins muffed a field goal that should have ended the game, had Lett not needlessly tried to recover the ball on the one-yard line and lost possession in the process, which allowed Miami to score an easy game-winning touchdown. Get those tapes ready, NFL Films, it’s time for Leon to get some time in the spotlight again. (Lucky for him that Buffalo hasn’t had a pro team since the ’70s.)
- The “Red Eye” Bowl. Since the release of the Cillian Murphy/Rachel McAdams airplane hostage thriller “Red Eye” in 2005, fans in both Dallas and Miami have tried to claim the movie as their own, as it starts off in the former but ends up in the latter, after a super-tense plane ride that culminates in McAdams stabbing Murphy in the neck with a pen. Finally, the long-standing debate can be decided (first time didn’t count, obvs) as the two meet in the Finals to play for “Red Eye” bragging rights. Warning: In the movie, McAdams wins (though Murphy recovers from his pen-neck-stabbing surprisingly quickly), so that probably bodes well for Miami, her film hometown.
Miami Heat vs. Oklahoma City Thunder:
- Good vs. Evil. Simple enough. Ever since the Heat have been deemed the Unholy Alliance of the NBA, the public has demanded an opposing team of opposing virtues to prevent their hostile takeover of ’10s NBA basketball, and the most likely candidate for that has always been the Thunder. Whereas the Heat acquired most of their firepower through well-over-publicized free agency (which only bad people do), the Thunder acquired theirs through the draft and through smart, small-scale pickups (which only good people do). Plus, LeBron has one of those faces that you just kind of want to punch, whereas the Thunder’s Kevin Durant has a very calming visage. It’s an easy moral dichotomy.
- “Fake Tough Guys.” Headlines-a-plenty were produced back in January when a much-hyped Sunday afternoon game between these two teams (the Heat won) resulted in some minor jawing between Durant and Heat forward Chris Bosh. After the game, Durant was still somewhat incensed, and had some not-so-nice comments about the Boshstrich. “He’s on a good team now, so he thinks he can talk a little bit,” quoth Durant. “There’s a lot of fake tough guys in this league and he’s one of them.” Undoubtedly, this bad blood would manifest itself in the Finals in the form of Bosh clotheslining Durant on his first layup drive, then standing over his fallen body with his genitals hanging directly over KD’s head. This would be entertaining for any number of reasons.
- Daequan Cook. It was with the Heat that sharpshooter Daequan Cook first rose to prominence, earning the prestigious honors of being one of only three players in Miami Heat history to win the Three-Point Shootout at All-Star Weekend (four now with this year’s win by James Jones). However, Cook was one of many loose bodies cast aside in the deck-clearing leading up to the Big Three haul, shipped off to Oklahoma City on draft night along with the 18th pick in the purest of salary dumps. Now an emergency-valve bench player for OKC, if you don’t think Daequan Cook is priming himself for hitting a couple of big threes in front of the Miami bench where he used to reside, then you, my friend, do not know Daequan Cook.
- The Glove. Gary Payton, the likely Hall-of-Fame point guard, is best remembered for his playing days with the Seattle Supersonics (the team that the Thunder used to be before ownership decided that the weather sucks in Seattle), where he made nine All-Star Teams and once led the team all the way to the Finals (more on that later). But where did GP get his one and only NBA championship ring? Payton hit two huge shots late in Heat wins during the 2006 finals, forever cementing his place in Miami Heat fan lore, assuming that such a thing actually exists. Which of the two teams will The Glove support when push comes to shove? Or is he too busy seething that Chris Webber is still on TNT and NBA TV playoff coverage, while he is forced to make cameos on “Onion SportsDome,” to care?
- The 1988 Orange Bowl. Don’t hate, this was a good game. Or at least it seems like it was from its Wikipedia entry and box score, anyway — I was two at the time, and far more concerned with catching the Fiesta Bowl between Florida State and Nebraska. Oklahoma and Miami faced off in this thriller, with Miami winning out 20-14. Fun fact about this game: The two head coaches in it were Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer, both of whom would later coach the Cowboys to Super Bowl wins in the 90s. Second fun fact: The game was later chosen by ESPN as one of the 30 greatest in Orange Bowl history. (I don’t know how they managed to narrow it down to 30, either. Just discipline I guess.)
Chicago Bulls vs. Oklahoma City Thunder:
- ’96 Finals. Hey, remember in that Gary Payton thing a little while up when I talked about him making the Finals said there’d be more on that later? WELL GUESS WHAT. The Glove led his Seattle buds (Shawn Kemp, Detlef Schrempf, I think Sam Perkins and Hersey Hawkins might’ve still been alive on that team somewhere) to the fourth round in 1996, where they ran into the 72-win Chicago Bulls and were summarily dismissed. Some say that the then-Sonics gave the Bulls the toughest fight they’d ever have in the Finals in the ’90s, but even better than making a team work for their victory is getting the victory yourself, as I’m sure that the now-Thunder would probably prefer to do this time around. Unless it ends up being, like, really hard, in which case maybe don’t bother.
- Rose vs. Durant, Rose vs. Westbrook. It’s borderline impossible to decide which of these two is more the marquee matchup. On the one hand, Bulls point guard Derrick Rose sizes up rather naturally alongside Thunder one-guard Russell Westbrook, both ranking among the fastest, headiest, most exciting point guards in the league (and both even taken with top-five picks in the same draft). On the other hand, Rose perhaps makes the better story squaring off against Durant for the officially unofficial ranking of The Next Guy, as the two are probably considered the league’s best under-25 duo, and are in tandem expected to more or less inherit the league someday. And on the third hand, there’s Rose vs. Nate Robinson, as both won events at the 2009 All-Star Weekend, Robinson the Dunk Contest and Rose the Skills Competition. But there’s a reason most people don’t have third hands.
- Thabo Sefolosha and Kurt Thomas. Thabo was once a proud Chicago Bull, contributing to the squad’s first-round upset of the defending champion Heat in 2007, a victory that had everyone predicting the rise of the Bulls four years too early. A bench player in Chicago, Thabo got to start once he was traded to Oklahoma City for a first-round pick (which became Taj Gibson, so I imagine everyone’s good on that one), and has become the team’s lockdown perimeter guy. On the other side, Bull reserve forward Kurt Thomas was once a Seattle Supersonic, just missing the team’s move to OKC a year later, but at least getting to say he played with Durant and ex-Broington Jeff Green in their rookie years in the Green-and-Gold. (Note: I really, really miss those Sonic unis.)
- Stacey King. The Bulls’ always-colorful announcer and one-time player Stacey King might have won three titles for Chicago in the early ’90s, but he might very well be an Oklahoma guy by nature, having been born and going to college in around the Oklahoma City area. Before you know it, in this series, his old allegiances are going to kick in, and he’ll be pleading with Eric Maynor to give him the hot sauce, and deeming Nazr Mohammed “BIG SEX-EH!” after he hits a jumper. It’s a situation that’s definitely worth monitoring, at the very least.
- Thunderbulls! Kinda sounds like “Thunderball,” you know. Like the movie. And the song. Break out the Tom Jones impressions!
Chicago Bulls vs. Dallas Mavericks:
- Tyson Chandler. Well before he was traded from Charlotte to the Mavericks for no particular reason, center and defensive anchor Tyson Chandler began his NBA career with the Chicago Bulls, where he played five seasons, mostly as a bench guy. Interestingly, Chandler also has a connection to Oklahoma City, where he was briefly traded in 2009 before the deal was rescinded due to a failed physical (don’t worry, OKC got another center at the deadline a couple years later), as well as to the Heat, who are reminded by Chandler’s existence that having a legitimate starting center in the lineup is likely a consideration worth pursuing at some point in the not-too-distant future.
- Harper vs. Harper. The two most famous NBA Harpers are represented in this series, with Ron Harper winning three titles with the Bulls in the late ’90s and Derek Harper serving as one of the key players a bunch of good ’80s Mavericks teams. (Or is it the other way around? I can never remember. Whatever, I just put in “Harper” when doing NBA Sporcle quizzes, that seems to do the trick.) This series could forever decide which of the two Harpers gets to play the older brother in the two’s unofficial sibling relationship, unless the two are saving that decision for when the Clippers and Knicks inevitably play in the Finals in a few years.
- Joakim Noah vs. Corey Brewer. JoNo can’t seam to go anywhere these years without running into a familiar face. Shortly after dispatching University of Florida teammate (and fellow two-time NCAA championship winner) Al Horford in the Bulls’ second-round series against the Hawks, Noah will get to face off against the Mavericks’ Corey Brewer — assuming Brew Crew plays at all, given that his playing time has been cut to ribbons by Coach Rick Carlisle since the Mavs picked him up on waivers a couple weeks after the trade deadline. Remember, Joey, show no mercy — he’d do you just the same, trust.
- Bush vs. Obama. Hey, our last two presidents! With Barack growing up in Chicago and good ol’ W currently living in Dallas, you can bet they’ll make a covert appearance somewhere in the series, and some smart guy is gonna come up with the idea of interviewing both. Until recent events, Barry would have probably been at risk of getting outshined by the ex-pres, but now the President should be able to keep the swag on his side. This could end up being the most partisan basketball series in recent years, and has way too many powerful names behind it to not involve cheating somehow.
- Brimstone Cup. Yes, this exists. For the yearly winner of the fateful rivalry between the Chicago Fire and Dallas FC — not any one game, but after a season’s worth of points — the Brimstone Cup is awarded. So if we get a large amount of US soccer hooligans at these ballgames –they exist, probably –we’ll know why.
Did I miss something? Did I stretch too far with something? I probably have answers to both, but feel free to answer my questions yourself in the comments below.