Think of tonight’s NBA Finals tipoff as an atmospheric game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Does Heat smother Thunder, or does Thunder storm past Heat?
For the basketball-averse who don’t tune in until they hear the word “championship,” this is the first game of a best-of-seven series that pits the Miami Heat — the NBA’s Eastern Conference champions — against the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder from out West. Starting at 9 p.m. Eastern time on ABC, it will be the first-ever Finals game in Oklahoma.
And beyond their geographically appropriate nicknames, these teams bring a tsunami of stellar storylines. Here are five faves, with a look at the truth (or not) behind them:
1) White Hat vs. Black Hat — That would be the battle of the superstars: The Thunder’s golden boy, Kevin Durant, wearing the ivory Stetson and the Heat’s LeBron James decked out in ebony. These two are basically the world’s best two players — James has won three of the last four most valuable player trophies, Durant has led the league in scoring for three straight seasons, and both will be on the U.S. Olympic team a few weeks from now. But as The Washington Post’s Mike Wise points out, this good guy/bad guy thing has gotten a little out of hand. Nobody disputes that Durant’s a sterling character. Yet ever since James issued his ESPN-broadcast “Decision” to take the money and run from Cleveland to Miami two years ago, he’s been cast as the Snidely Whiplash of the NBA, despite his record as a solid citizen.
2) The Best Team Money Can Buy vs. the Home-Grown Heroes — When James and fellow star Chris Bosh decided to join the Heat’s Dwyane Wade, the Heat immediately earned the NBA’s “next dynasty” label. In the trio’s first Finals trip together, though, they lost to the Dallas Mavericks last season. Meanwhile, the Thunder built the old-fashioned way, through the draft: That’s how the team’s four best players arrived — Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden. And only one of the Thunder regulars, Derek Fisher, is a NBA journeyman. But the Heat like home cooking, too. Three of the five starters came to Miami through the draft — Wade, Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem.
3) South Beach vs. FarmVille — There’s no arguing the glamour gap between South Florida and central Oklahoma. But OKC’s trying: The town’s dumped a ton of money into its downtown, with a new minor-league ballpark, a glitzy arena and a nightlife neighborhood known as Bricktown.
4) Jayhawks vs. Jayhawks and Longhorns vs. Longhorns — The universities of Kansas and Texas will be extremely well-represented this series. Oklahoma City has two former KU players — big guys Nick Collison and Cole Aldrich — while Miami point guard Mario Chalmers still warms Jayhawk hearts because of his heart-stopping shot in the 2008 NCAA championship game. Three others — the Heat’s Dexter Pittman and the Thunder’s Durant and Royal Ivey — spent their formative years in Austin, Texas.
5) Young Guns vs. Old Guard — Hoopism.com reported in January that the Thunder were the seventh-youngest team in the league, with an average age of 25.8. The graybeard Heat were the sixth-oldest at 28.6. But don’t feel sorry for the aging dudes: Last year’s champs from Dallas started that season with an average that almost qualified them for Social Security (at least in NBA terms): 31.3.