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NBA Finals a Contrast of Brash, Humble Teams as Heat, Thunder Collide

June 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The NBA Finals kick off Tuesday night between two of the league's most exciting teams -- the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder -- featuring perhaps two of the greatest players today, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Jeffrey Brown previews the David-and-Goliath showdown with sports writer Kevin Craft.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: a heavily anticipated David-and-Goliath showdown for the NBA championship.

JEFFREY BROWN has a preview.

JEFFREY BROWN: They’re two of the NBA’s most exciting teams with perhaps the two greatest players today, Miami Heat with LeBron James and the Oklahoma City Thunder with Kevin Durant.

And they’re a study in contrasts, veterans vs. youth, established superstars vs. rising stars. For the Heat, it’s all about the big three. James, the league’s most valuable player, and forward Chris Bosh arrived in 2010 as high-priced free agents, joining veteran guard Dwyane Wade.

Oklahoma City counters with a core of talented young players, including scoring champ Durant and point guard Russell Westbrook assembled through the NBA draft.

And for the league itself, a lot is riding on a high-profile final after a season shortened and then almost canceled following a long labor dispute between owners and players.

KEVIN CRAFT covers the NBA and other sports as a writer for “The Atlantic” and Bleacher Report, among others. And he joins me now.

Kevin, we’re probably both sports fans here, but beyond the realm of sports, it’s always interesting in the culture how some people rouse everybody, right, love and hate. LeBron James is one of them.

KEVIN CRAFT, Sportswriter: That’s true. I think since his decision to move from Cleveland to Miami two years ago and the way in which he did it by announcing his decision to sign with the Heat on national television, on ESPN, as part of the decision, that really sort of put him in the public’s conscious in a way that he had never been before.

And whether fairly or unfairly, he’s been sort of perceived as a villain for deserting his hometown team, in the Cleveland Cavaliers, and going to join the Miami Heat.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have people rooting against him, certainly last year.

KEVIN CRAFT: Absolutely. He will have a lot of people rooting against him, and it’s not just the fans from Cleveland. I think there’s a lot of casual sports fans who think this is someone who is a little — has too much ego. He thinks too much of himself. He think it’s his championship for the taking and even though he hasn’t earned it yet.

So they will be rooting for him as well — rooting against him.

JEFFREY BROWN: These finals are partly about him. But now as we said in our setup, you have got this fascinating matchup of teams of contrast, right, a young Oklahoma team.

KEVIN CRAFT: Absolutely. Oklahoma City, they moved from Seattle. They were previously the Seattle Supersonics. Now they’re in Oklahoma City. They have a rabid fan base. They just love the Thunder in Oklahoma City. They have got three young stars in Durant, Westbrook, and Harden that are exciting.

They play an up-tempo style of basketball with a lot of offense. And they’re sort of giving NBA fans sort of an underdog team to cheer for, because coming into the season a lot of people assumed the Miami Heat would be the favorite. And now it’s sort of an up-for-grabs final. No one would be really surprised if the Thunder ended up winning.

JEFFREY BROWN: Basketball is a team sport, but famously when they have these one-on-one rivalries, it can sort of supersede everything, most famously perhaps Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, credited with kind of, you know, giving the boost to the league. Do you see the potential here in LeBron James and Kevin Durant?

KEVIN CRAFT: I do because they’re both unique talents. They bring a lot of special skills to the game. They play like guards even though they’re very tall.

And I think that will really entice casual sports fans, as well as non-sports fan, to at least tune in and stay abreast of what’s going on in this series. They’re both sort of larger-than-life figures. And I think it should make for compelling drama both on the sports aspect and just sort of the human aspect as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: And is there a — you have Oklahoma City and Miami. When LeBron said “I’m taking my talents to South Beach,” right, the kind of glamour, and then you have Oklahoma City, which, as you said, just got behind this one team.

KEVIN CRAFT: Absolutely.

I think Miami is perceived as a very brash team, a very confident team. And that’s why a lot of fans like to root against them. Oklahoma City, it’s the complete opposite. They’re perceived as a very humble team, as a group of individuals who are really striving for excellence at a young age, and as somewhat of an underdog coming into the series, although they did have a better record in the regular season.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me just ask you briefly about the — we mentioned the labor strike that started this season. How has the league been impacted? And how much rides on a finals like this sort of creating the, bringing the old excitement back?

KEVIN CRAFT: I think it was impacted from a standpoint that since the season had to be fit in a compressed time slot, there were a lot of back-to-back games. Players were very tired. The quality of play during the regular season went down a little bit, as you saw players just not having enough time to recover game to game.

But I haven’t gotten the impression that it’s really affected fans’ perception of the game. There’s so many good, young talented players in the league right now that fans are very excited to watch this, very excited to sort of forget about the labor strike and just sort of see what the outcome of the finals is going to be.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, KEVIN CRAFT, thanks a lot.

KEVIN CRAFT: Thank you for having me.