Lebron has made fools of the skeptics, but finding a way to beat the Thunder would be his neatest trick of all

Yeah, you read that right.

For those of you who have become all too familiar with my disdain for LeBron James and his traveling hyperbole cicrus, you might be knocked back on your heels a bit by the title of this post.

Make no mistake about this much: As much as any one man can in the NBA, LeBron is pretty much doing this all by himself. Yeah, he got a little help in game 7 against Boston, but this team is dead in the water without him playing at this kind of herculean level in the games that have mattered most in this run, particularly the last two in the Indiana series and essentially the entire Eaern Conference Finals. Yes,James might be capable of beating almost any NBA team more or less by his lonesome. Problem is, the Thunder are not one of them.

Now back in the finals for the second time in as many years, (giving this team something in common with the notorious Fab Five, who went 0-2 in the title game) the Heat (and James) find themselves in an altogether unfamiliar position, one that seemed all but unfathomable at various points in the season.

Underdogs.

By my math, this Oklahoma City Thunder team is simply too young, too good, and too hungry to be beat. So says Vegas and pretty much anyone else qualified to speak on it. In Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, they don’t just have three coldblooded offensive talents, they have three young killers. Three beasts of offensive burden. And most importantly, three players with unshakable confidence in their abilities. Defensively, this team isn’t exactly the Phil Jackson Bulls, but they are as good as they need to be, especially at protecting the rim. After shaking off the Spurs best punch and walking thru them in four straight games, this feels like little more than a ritual sacrifice to the the newly crowned gods of basketball than an actual competitive series. The first but almost assuredly not the last of championships for Thunder.

By any measure I can think of, they look like winners here. Talented, confident and peaking at the same time? I’d take my chances with that combination.

"Two men enter, one man leaves! Two men enter, one man leaves!"

Of course, it’s a good thing they still actually have to win the games instead of being winners be decree. Funny thing is, I still can’t help but have an uneasy feeling in my belly about all this, as if two weeks from now I just might be writing about the team everyone wrote off, the team that shook off a lethargic two rounds to slay the mighty Thunder on the backs of the games’ greatest talent.

Really, I do have a sneaking suspicion about this, and not without my reasons.

For starters, the pressure if off the Heat, at least in some sense. In a series in which nobody considers them the favorites, they certainly won’t be burned at the stake for falling short against OKC unless it’s in some especially calamitous way. In that sense, you could say Miami is playing with house money. As glaring as some of their tactical disadvantages in the series may be, they still have the guy who was proved capable of moving mountains (or Green-clad basketball teams) out of his way when the mood strikes him.

Again, this is what scares me most about this matchup.

By some strange shuffle of the deck, LeBron James finds himself in this most fortuitous of positions. Win this series and all of the “this guy can’t win the big one” babble gives way to outright adulation and hymn-singing. Lose, and chances are his public perception ends up not only none the worse for wear, but maybe even buoyed in the “valiant in defeat” sense. Even today, there seems to be a marked improvement in his approval rating among those who have long derided him as “Small Game James” and the like. The way he’s responded to challenges in recent weeks has him feeling satisfaction from the street crowd reaction. If he were to find a way across the finish line first in these Finals, the whole world will melt at his feet.

How’s that for drama?

Really, this series may not feel like the most even matchup I’ve ever seen, but for spectacle, intrigue and plotlines, it’s right up there. It’s the anointed team versus the young guns, the two greatest players in the world going head to head, and the two best teams playing for the keys to the league and perhaps the first of many championships to come. If there are no more than seven games left in this basketball season, I feel blessed they’ll be played between these two teams. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

In the end, either Kevin Durant or LeBron James will be left standing at the top of the mountain. Me, I’m betting on Durant but as the saying goes, I’ll abide by the ruling of the court.

In this case, literally.

-John Hathwell

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