LeBron James is four wins away from his first National Basketball Association championship after getting Miami back to the NBA Finals, though oddsmakers peg the Heat as underdogs against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The betting lines in Las Vegas suggest the Thunder, led by Russell Westbrook and NBA scoring leader Kevin Durant -- both 23 -- have a 61 percent chance of winning the best-of-seven championship series, according to Las Vegas-based handicapping information website Pregame.com.
James, 27, and fellow Heat All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have a 39 percent chance of capturing the title that eluded them last year when they lost in six games to the Dallas Mavericks, according to the betting lines. A winning $100 bet on the Heat would return $145 plus the initial stake, while a bettor has to wager $165 to win $100 on the Thunder.
“It’s been a long 12 months,” Wade said after the Heat eliminated the Boston Celtics in a decisive seventh game in the Eastern Conference finals. “When you lose in the Finals, it hurts. You play and you try to get back to this moment again, so you can in a sense redeem yourself.”
While Wade helped the Heat to an NBA title in 2006, James is still pursuing the first of his nine-year career.
The NBA’s three-time Most Valuable Player has lost both of his appearances in the NBA Finals, in 2007 with the Cleveland Cavaliers and last year in his first season teaming with Wade and Bosh in Miami.
“We’re happy we’ve been able to put ourselves in this position,” said James, who has averaged 30.8 points, 9.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists in 18 games this postseason. “We look forward to the challenge.”
While Miami entered the past two regular seasons and postseasons as the championship favorites, the youthful Thunder have emerged as the oddsmakers’ choice after a challenging run to the Western Conference title.
Oklahoma City defeated the defending-champion Mavericks in the opening round, then beat Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, who won NBA titles in 2009-10. The Thunder got into the Finals by ousting the San Antonio Spurs, who won championships in 2005 and 2007, tied for the league’s best regular-season record at 50-16 and won their first 10 playoff games.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks said the Heat will be his team’s most challenging opponent yet.
“They have some of the best players at their positions in the league,” Brooks said. “James, Wade, Bosh, they are amazing players, they can score without screens, they can score with screens, they can help their teammates score. It’s going to be two competitive teams going at each other.”
The Thunder are a 4 1/2-point favorite for Game 1 of the series, which starts tomorrow with the first of two straight games in Oklahoma City. The third, fourth and fifth games of the Finals are scheduled to be played in Miami, with the sixth and seventh games, if necessary, in Oklahoma City.
James said it’s fitting he’s going up against Durant, who averaged 28 points a game this season to win a third straight scoring title. The two worked out together during the lockout in James’s hometown of Akron, Ohio, during the NBA lockout, with a four-day series of workouts they dubbed “Hell Week.”
“We pushed each other each and every day,” James said. “I envisioned us getting to this point. I’m looking forward to going against him.”