Tony Parker and the San Antonio Spurs were running away with the NBA championship, and they were not yet even out of the conference finals. Then, with one small adjustment by the Oklahoma City Thunder, everything changed.
Kevin Durant made all the right decisions, James Harden hit big shots and Kendrick Perkins helped shut down Tim Duncan, but it was Thabo Sefolosha's defense on Parker that was the difference in Oklahoma City's six-game victory over the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. After Thunder coach Scott Brooks assigned Sefolosha to guard Parker in Game 3, the Thunder never lost again. They carry their four-game win streak into Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat on Tuesday.
LeBron James and Durant will be the focal points of the series, with Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade drawing notice as well, particularly if either plays poorly. Chris Bosh and Harden are crucial to everything their teams do, but their impact is often so subtle that most casual fans — who tune in to the finals at a greater rate than they do during the rest of the playoffs — will barely ever notice.
Outside of either team's "big three," Sefolosha and Heat guard Mario Chalmers could end up playing pivotal roles in the series. In both cases, it will be up to each player providing standout defense with just enough offense to justify him being on the court.
Sefolosha's already solid reputation as a defender got a bump with his work on Parker, who until the defensive switch arguably was the top player in the playoffs. Parker was able to handle the ball and pass out of the pick and roll at will in the first two games of the series, but with the 6-foot-5 Sefolosha guarding him, Parker's options suddenly were limited. Sefolosha's defensive responsibility in this series will be even more demanding, assuming he draws the assignment on Wade to begin Game 1.
The Heat do not have the depth in the post to compete with Thunder big men Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison, so it stands to reason the Heat will try to go with a small lineup similar to those they utilized against the Celtics. If the Heat can have success with Bosh at center and Shane Battier at power forward, it could force the Thunder to go small as well and mitigate Oklahoma City's size advantage.
If Sefolosha continues to play like he did in Games 3 through 6 of the last series, though, that strategy could backfire on Miami. Westbrook, Harden, Sefolosha, Durant and one of their three bigs could be a deadly unit, and Sefolosha's defense on Wade would free up Harden to guard the relatively immobile Mike Miller or Battier. If the Thunder's top facilitator can rest of defense, he will become even more dangerous on offense. Plus, Sefolosha is a reliable corner 3-point shooter at 47 percent, so he is far from a liability offensively.
Whereas Sefolosha's importance is built on a body of evidence, Chalmers' impact relies more on "ifs." If Chalmers plays with the same vigor he did against the Celtics in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and not with the inconsistency he displayed in the other six games, the Thunder will have to be concerned.
Players who possess attack mentalities like Westbrook typically do not like to be attacked themselves, and nothing would be worse for the Thunder than for Westbrook to get into a shot-for-shot battle with Chalmers. While that one-on-one matchup favors Westbrook, Chalmers would be more likely to know when to break out of the pissing match and defer to James and Wade. Westbrook's conscience is seldom that reliable. If Westbrook imagines that he is in a fight to prove his manhood and lights into one of his moods where he fires up a contested 17-footer on every possession, the Thunder are most likely doomed.
Even if that is not the case, Chalmers must hold his own for the Heat to win the series. Wade has been an overall reliable defender in the playoffs, but he can only guard one other player at a time. Ideally, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra probably wants to have Wade on Harden as much as possible, making it vital that Chalmers can rein in Westbrook to some degree. Again, Westbrook is easiest to rein in when he stops attacking the hoop and settles for his midrange jumper.
Durant and James will receive the most attention and shoulder the most blame, as all stars do, but the NBA Finals may come down to two often overlooked role players.