Thunder favored over Heat in NBA Finals

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Miami Heat: NBA Finals preview

For a league that markets superstars above everything else this is a dream matchup as the two best players in the game go head to head in the NBA Finals.

It’s the three-time MVP vs. the three-time scoring champion as LeBron James and the Miami Heat square off with Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder for the game’s ultimate prize.

“It’s only right,” James said of The Finals matchup. “It’s only right.”

This series will mark the fifth time since 1967 that the NBA’s scoring champ and MVP will meet with the Lawrence O’Brien Trophy on the line and the first time since Michael Jordan’s Bulls knocked off Karl Malone’s Jazz in 1997. Overall the scoring champion has won three out of four past matchups.

James, coming off an iconic performance in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against Boston, was aided by Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on Saturday as the Heat turned it on late to defeat the Celtics, 101-88, in Game 7 and earn a trip to The Finals for the second straight season.

The game was tied entering the fourth quarter, where James, Wade and Bosh combined to score all 28 of Miami’s points.

James finished with a game-high 31 for the Heat, who lost to the Mavericks in last year’s finals and are looking to secure their first NBA title since 2005-06.

They will visit the Thunder for Game 1 on Tuesday, looking again to silence their critics and prove they are capable of the big things expected of them when the James-Wade-Bosh threesome was put together.

Oklahoma City’s route to The Finals may have been even more improbable than Miami’s comeback against the C’s. After all the Thunder beat a team that hadn’t lost in 50 days four times in one week.

Durant scored 34 points and grabbed 14 rebounds and Russell Westbrook added 25 points in Game 6 last Wednesday, as OKC rallied from an 18-point deficit to win the Western Conference title with a 107-99 victory over San Antonio.

San Antonio hadn’t lost a game since April 11 before dropping Game 3 in the West finals against the Thunder. That loss not only halted a 20-game winning streak, but started a tidal wave the Spurs couldn’t stop.

In fact, OKC sprinted through the West by sweeping last year’s champ Dallas, taking the L.A. Lakers in five games and finishing off the Spurs in six, three teams that are responsible for 10 of the last 13 NBA titles.

“As sad and as disappointed as we are,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after losing to the Thunder, “it’s like a Hollywood script for Oklahoma City.”

This marks the Thunder’s first NBA Finals berth since they were based in Seattle as the then-SuperSonics in 1996.

Miami and OKC split a pair of regular season meetings with Oklahoma City forcing 21 turnovers and rolling to a 103-87 victory at home on March 25 before the Heat rallied for a 98-93 win in Miami on April 4.

Durant averaged 29 points in those games but committed a career-high nine turnovers while scoring 30 in the second game. James, meanwhile, had 34 points in South Florida, doubling his total from OKC.

These two franchises have never met in the postseason before and each have one NBA championship on their resume. The Heat topped the Mavs in six games back in 2006 while the Thunder won a title in 1979 as the Sonics, besting the Washington Bullets in five.

MATCHUPS:

POINT GUARD: Westbrook is one of the game’s rising young stars. A blur with the ball, the UCLA product can drive at will and kick to the game’s best pure scorer in Durant at any time. A plus shooter with good size for the position, Westbrook is not a natural point guard. He still takes some questionable shots at times and be a little reckless with the basketball but that’s something you have to put up with when a guy is this talented. Thunder coach Scott Brooks has mitigated Westbrook’s carelessness late in games by allowing James Harden to control the ball in the waning moments

Mario Chalmers is quick and athletic enough to keep up with Westbrook at times but remains a very streaky player thanks to a shaky jumper. He’s also prone to turning the ball over and will take a bad shot now and again. Chalmers is at his best when driving to the basket but with Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka inside that isn’t going to be easy for the Kansas product in this series. His inconsistent play also highlights both James’ and Wade’s lack of leadership skills at times, since both will often stare daggers at Chalmers when he makes a key mistake on the floor.

EDGE: THUNDER

SHOOTING GUARD: The Thunder’s Thabo Sefolosha is a very good perimeter defender that will typically check the oppositions’s top wing player while on the floor. A rangy player, Sefolosha is also an excellent rebounder from the backcourt and when he gives the Thunder 10 or more points, you can basically guarantee an OKC win that night. He should receive plenty of opportunities against both James and Wade in The Finals.

The numbers, 22.9 points on 47 percent shooting, have been solid this postseason but Wade has taken a step back as a player this postseason likely due to a nagging knee injury. A healthy Wade remains an athletic marvel and one of the league’s best finishers at the rim. He’s at his best when he plays recklessly and he can handle the playmaking role on the pick-and-roll like few others. Too often the jump shot is finding the front of the rim, however, indicating his typical lift is simply not there.

EDGE: HEAT

CENTER: Perkins brings a toughness to OKC and a presence inside that frees up Ibaka, who can freelance and use his dominating shot-blocking skills as a weakside defender. Perkins plays with a mean streak and can box out and set screens with the best of them. He’s been called the best interior defender in the game by Kobe Bryant and he is one of the NBA”s top intimidators and he will make sure penetrators hit the deck. Offensively, however, Perkins is a non-factor except for the easy finish now and again at the rim.

Erik Spoelstra has been piecemealing it in the middle since Bosh went down in Game 1 against Indiana in the East semifinals with Joel Anthony, Ronny Turiaf and Udonis Haslem all getting opportunities in the pivot. With Bosh looking like his old self in Game 7 against Boston, you have to figure he will be back in the starting lineup since his ability to knock down the jumper consistently will draw Perkins or Ibaka away from the bucket.

“When we saw him walk off the floor against Indiana, we all shuddered at the thought [of playing without Bosh],” Spoelstra said. “For two years, he’s been our most important player. He makes it all work.”

It’s conceivable, though, that Spoelstra likes the boost Bosh gives off his weak bench and Haslem, who sports a solid mid-range jumper and is a plus- rebounder could get the call at the start of games. Haslem, doesn’t have the athleticism or pure strength to stand out but he’s Miami’s glue-guy and important to Spoelstra’s schemes at both ends.

EDGE: HEAT

SMALL FORWARD: This is why basketball is so compelling. In baseball you might have two aces dueling but they aren’t going head-to-head. In football you can say the same about two All-Pro quarterbacks squaring off. In hoops, Durant and James will be going at it mano-a-mano at both ends of the floor.

The lengthy Durant is a nightmare for any defender. Perhaps the most talented and skilled 6-foot-10 player ever, Durant can beat you off the dribble or over the top with a silky smooth jumper that has a Kevin Garnett or Dirk Nowitzki- type release point. The former Texas star and No. 2 pick in the draft won his third straight scoring title this season. Defenses must protect the perimeter but if they crowd the lengthy forward, he can turn the corner and finish. Durant also led the Thunder with eight rebounds per game and is an underrated defender, so he’s a major contributor in all aspects.

“Durant will be and is on the verge to be the best basketball player in the world,” TNT analyst Kenny Smith recently said. “All he has to do now is change his game defensively and get to the rim just a little bit more offensively.”

James, on the other hand, is really incomparable at this stage. He’s the regular season MVP and, if anything, has upped his game in the postseason. An unbelievable athlete with freakish strength, size and skill that can play and defend four different positions and still be the best player on the floor at any one of them. When the jumper is falling, James is unstoppable at the offensive end and can take any wing player, point or power forward and lock them down as a defender. The only hope for the opposition is to harass James into some bad shooting nights and pray his teammates come up small. Like most teams, OKC will try to turn James into a jump shooter.

“LeBron James is unbelievable,” NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said. “People give him a hard time. He has to play so hard. He makes everyone around him better. He has to carry so much weight on this team.”

EDGE: EVEN

POWER FORWARD: Ibaka is an extraordinary athlete whose strength lays in his athleticism and natural shot blocking ability. The lengthy big man is Oklahoma City’s best defender and an athletic marvel with the wingspan of a Learjet. In fact, Ibaka finished second behind Tyson Chandler in the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year voting. In the playoffs he has turned into more than just a one-way player, shooting 11-for-11 in the Thunder’s Game 4 victory over San Antonio and his 55.6 overall shooting percentage is tops in the playoffs among players who advanced past the first round.

Spoelstra will have to decide whether to return Bosh to the starting lineup and move Haslem to power forward or stick with the undersized Shane Battier, a dogged defender, that can knock down the standstill three.

EDGE: THUNDER

BENCH: Harden was the runaway winner for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award and is an excellent two-way player. OKC usually closes with “The Beard” handling the ball on the pick-and-roll with Durant, and he is as crafty and as clutch as they come. Harden is averaging 17.6 points per game through the playoffs and shooting 44 percent from three in the post season.

“His pick and roll game is unreal,” Durant said of Harden. “It’s fun to watch, fun to be a part of. The best part about our team is that we have a lot of guys who can play off each other, and we complement each other well.”

Nick Collison is Scott Brooks’ top option up front while veteran Derek Fisher will get minutes in the backcourt. Collison will bang down low and give you big-time energy minutes while Fisher turns from major liability into cold- blooded killer the minute the clock starts to wind down in an important game.

Brooks can also go deeper than Spoelstra with veteran big man Nazr Mohammed, another defensive stalwart, who can mix it up with opposing bigs and 3-point specialist Daequan Cook.

“[Nick] Collison gives you the energy,” former NBA coach Mike Fratello said. “Good enough to hit the 17-foot jump shot, he will take a charge, anytime a guy drives the line he’s a shot blocker, he’s an offensive rebounder — all the small things that you require from certain guys on your team.”

The Heat bench has been maligned throughout the season but Spoelstra has a couple solid role players he has counted on, three-point specialist Mike Miller and defensive specialist Joel Anthony.

No matter how bad Miller looks physically or how poorly he is performing, you have to account for him because the Florida product can heat up from long range at a moment’s notice. Meanwhile, the Heat are at their best defensively when Anthony is on the floor controlling the weakside with his natural shot- blocking ability.

“When this Miami Heat team is clicking, it’s when their bench comes in and produces offensively for them,” TNT analyst Reggie Miller said.

EDGE: THUNDER

COACHING: Brooks and Spoelstra have both been criticized heavily, even in these playoffs, but they both weathered the storm against true heavyweights in their respective conference finals, Brooks against San Antonio’s Popovich and Spoelstra vs. Boston’s Doc Rivers.

The 2009-10 NBA Coach of the Year, Brooks is one of the game’s top young mentors and has melded defensive-minded players like Perkins, Ibaka and Sefolosha in with Durant, Westbrook and Harden to turn Oklahoma City into a title contender. Prone, if anything, to “overcoaching,” Brooks must reel it in at times and rely on his best players.

“I don’t focus on what people say,” Brooks tole The Oklahoman. “I know what I have to do. My job is to coach our guys. My job is not to coach our guys through the media. Everybody has an opinion but my job is to coach the team and lead our guys to the best of my abilities. I’m not concerned whether they say I’m a good coach or a bad coach. I know I have a job to do and our players seem to respond and seem to get better.”

Spoelstra, meanwhile, has never been regarded as an NBA heavyweight but really showed something after falling behind against both Indiana and Boston. He made adjustments and was able to get both James and Wade isolations with spacing against teams with solid defensive principles. That only gets tougher here, however, with a host of lengthy defenders ready to curtail Miami’s penetration game.

“It is championship or bust here,” Miller said. “Ever since the decision, that’s all they’ve been talking about and obviously it’s going to fall on the shoulders of Erik Spoelstra.”

EDGE: THUNDER

PREDICTION: Oklahoma City is known as an offensive team but when it ratchets things up, the club is also a bear defensively with a number of long players, making the half-court set a nightmare especially for a team like the Heat, who tend to play one-on-one basketball when things bog down.

The Thunder are quite simply the most talented team in basketball. That said, it’s been all about winning 16 postseason games for the Heat, so much so that James, who is still searching for his first NBA championship, has taken to wearing a mouthpiece with the Roman Numeral XVI or 16 on it.

James, of course, took a ton of “heat” last season in the NBA Finals when he and his teammates were outplayed by Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks as Dallas defeated Miami for the NBA championship. LeBron’s “inability” to close out games on the big stage was the main focus.

“The King” is on a mission this time around and win or lose, he has been the best basketball player on the floor in every postseason game for the Heat. A more consistent Wade and a healthy Bosh would help him immensely against OKC but in the end, LeBron won’t be denied — not this time.

Phoenix makes hockey cool in desert

Phoenix Cototes vs Los Angeles Kings series preview

PHOENIX COYOTES (3rd seed, West)

REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 42-27-13

2012 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Chicago 4-2 in conference quarterfinals; defeated Nashville 4-1 in conference semifinals

REVIEW: For the first time in franchise history, the Phoenix Coyotes will get a chance to play for a spot in the Stanley Cup Finals.

After disposing of Nashville in five games of a Western Conference semifinal series, the Coyotes, a team that began NHL play as the Winnipeg Jets during the 1979-80 season and moved to Phoenix following the 1995-96 campaign, is in the third round of the playoffs for the first time ever.

While the Coyotes have played strong defensive hockey since head coach Dave Tippett took over the team prior to the 2009-10 seasons, Phoenix has taken its game to another level thanks in large part to the goaltending of Mike Smith.

The Coyotes opted to let previous starting goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov leave the desert last summer, as he signed a nine-year, $51 million contract with Philadelphia. Smith, meanwhile, came at a bargain price when free agency began on July 1, agreeing to a two-year, $2 million deal to join Phoenix.

Smith exceeded all expectations in the 2011-12 regular season, going 38-18-10 with a 2.21 goals-against average, .930 save percentage and eight shutouts. The 30-year-old has performed even better in this postseason, posting a 1,77 GAA and a .948 save percentage through 11 games. All told, Smith has stopped 379-of-400 shots sent his way in the 2012 playoffs and has also recorded a pair of shutouts.

While Smith has clearly been the MVP of Phoenix’s run so far, the Coyotes have used a balanced approach to scoring. The Coyotes have 13 different goal- scorers and nine of those players have recorded two or more markers.

Surprisingly, the player leading the way on offense for the Coyotes this spring has been veteran centerman Antoine Vermette, who was acquired from Columbus with little fanfare at the trade deadline. Vermette entered this postseason with only four goals and four assists in 42 career playoff games, but has exploded for five goals and four helpers in 11 games this postseason.

Mikkel Boedker, Shane Doan, Martin Hanzal Taylor Pyatt each have three goals this postseason and Boedker is second to Vermette on the team with seven points. Coyotes defensemen Keith Yandle and Rostislav Klesla also have seven points apiece in this postseason.

Doan, the only holdover left from Phoenix’s days as the Winnipeg Jets, is the heart and soul of this Phoenix club. The team’s longtime captain had never won a playoff series until this season, and at 35 years of age, Doan is still a superb two-way player.

In addition to Doan, Ray Whitney also provides some offensive punch and a veteran presence up front. Whitney recently turned 40 years of age, but he seems to have plenty left in the tank, having led Phoenix with 77 points and a plus-26 rating during the 2011-12 regular season. He has recorded two goals and four assists this postseason, giving him 52 points (21 goals, 31 assists) over 98 career playoff games.

Daymond Langkow is another steady veteran for the Coyotes. The 35-year-old centerman has yet to score a goal in this postseason, but is tied with Klesla for second on the team with five assists.

Of course, Phoenix will be without its most physical forward for the rest of the playoffs, as Raffi Torres is still serving a 25-game suspension for delivering a vicious check on Chicago’s Marian Hossa in Round 1.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson has been the workhorse for Tippett on the defensive side of things, leading all Phoenix players with an average of 26 minutes, 4 seconds this postseason. The 20-year-old also has one goal and three assists during his first NHL postseason.

Ekman-Larsson is normally paired with Michal Rozsival, who hasn’t recorded a point in these playoffs, but is second only to his defensive partner in ice time. Yandle and Derek Morris form another strong pairing for the Coyotes. Morris has one goal and two assists in 11 games this spring.

Klesla and Adrian Aucoin are a pair of veterans that give Phoenix solid depth at the blue line. Klesla was suspended for Game 5 of the Nashville series, but will be available for the start of the conference finals.

As expected, Phoenix has been excellent on the penalty kill in the playoffs, while struggling a bit to score on the power play. The Coyotes have five goals on 31 attempts with the man advantage for a 16.1-percent success rate, but have only allowed the opposition to score four goals on 38 power-play attempts (89.5 percent).

LOS ANGELES KINGS (8th seed, West)

REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 40-27-15

2012 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Vancouver 4-1 in conference quarterfinals; defeated St. Louis 4-0 in conference semifinals

REVIEW: Although the Kings are the eighth and final playoff seed in the West they only finished two points behind Phoenix for the Pacific Division title this season.

Los Angeles certainly has shown its not your average No. 8 team in this postseason, as the Kings have needed just nine games to eliminate the West’s top-two seeds. L.A. ousted the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks — last year’s conference champions — in five games and then posted its first-ever four-game sweep in the second round against second-seeded St. Louis.

Like the Coyotes, the Darryl Sutter’s Kings also are built around their goaltender, but Los Angeles does boast a more dynamic offense than Phoenix.

After garnering a Vezina Trophy finalist spot for his spectacular regular season, Jonathan Quick has continued to play brilliantly between the pipes in the playoffs. Quick is 8-1 with a 1.55 GAA and .949 save percentage, but he has not been as busy as Smith, stopping 260-of-274 shots along the way.

The Kings have relied on 15 different goal-scorers in these playoffs to get to the conference final round for the first time since Wayne Gretzky led the franchise to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1993.

Captain Dustin Brown not only has been the emotional leader for the Kings, but he’s been the club’s best offensive weapon this postseason as well. Brown is leading the team in goals (6), points (11) and plus-minus (plus-9). He’s also first on the team with two short-handed goals and is tied with Jarret Stoll with two game-winning tallies.

Anze Kopitar is perhaps the best all-around forward and is second to Brown this postseason with 10 points on three goals and seven assists. The Slovenian has also developed into an excellent defensive player and is leading all L.A. forwards in average ice time (21:20) in these playoffs.

Another two-way threat for the Kings is Mike Richards, who was acquired in a blockbuster trade with Philadelphia last summer. The former Flyers captain is one of the NHL’s premier penalty killers and has posted three goals and five assists in his first nine playoff games as a King. Richards has 58 points (19G, 39A) in 72 career postseason games.

Jeff Carter, a longtime teammate of Richards in Philadelphia, has the skills to be a top-notch sniper, but the former 40-goal scorer has posted one goal and three assists in this playoff run. Meanwhile, Dustin Penner has exceeded expectations this spring with seven points on two goals and five assists.

Drew Doughty is the leader of the L.A. defense and is averaging a team-high 25:45 of ice time a game in the playoffs. He is also leading the Kings’ blue line with six points on one goal and five assists and is a plus-seven for the postseason.

Doughty is often paired with steady defenseman Rob Scuderi, who often hangs back to allow his partner to push the puck up ice.

Willie Mitchell and Slava Voynov form a strong second pairing for the Kings, but the duo has combined for only three points in nine playoff contests this season. Mitchell has a goal and an assist and is second to Doughty with a plus-six rating.

With four points on one goal and three assists, Matt Greene follows Doughty in playoff scoring among L.A. defensemen. Alec Martinez has recorded one assist while providing depth along with Greene.

The one and only major weakness L.A. has shown in the playoffs is its inability to produce goals on the power play. The Kings were ranked 16th in PP efficiency during the 2011-12 campaign, but they’ve scored just four times on 47 opportunities (8.5 percent) this postseason.

One reason L.A.’s lack of success on the power play hasn’t hurt the Kings is that they’re an excellent penalty-killing team that has offset its lack of production on the man advantage with four short-handed goals this spring. Los Angeles has also killed off 35-of-38 penalties (92.1 percent) in the 2012 postseason.

MATCHUP

This is the first time the Kings and Coyotes will meet in the postseason, but the Pacific rivals did face each other six times during the 2011-12 campaign.

The Kings and Coyotes split the season series and three of the meetings went past regulation. All told, L.A. outscored Phoenix by a 13-12 margin, but nine of the 25 goals scored over the six battles came when the Coyotes posted a 5-4 shootout victory in the final regular-season clash between the clubs on Feb. 21.

A key player for Phoenix in this series is forward Radim Vrbata, who led the Coyotes with 35 goals during the regular season, but has posted only two goals and two assists in 11 games this postseason. Vrbata was the best player for the Coyotes against L.A. this season, recording five goals and seven points over the six encounters.

Brown and Kopitar each posted five points in the season series against the Coyotes, while Carter has yet to face Phoenix as a member of the Kings.

Smith and Quick compiled nearly identical numbers against each other’s teams this season. The Coyotes netminder was 3-1-1 with a 1.75 GAA in the series, while Quick was 3-1-2 with a 1.78 GAA.

In a series where the goaltenders are expected to be the best players for both teams, goals will be precious in this year’s Western Conference finals.

Both teams have played their best hockey over the last few months, but L.A. has a clear advantage in terms of offensive firepower and that should be the difference in the series.

A’s, M’s open 2012 MLB season in Japan

The Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics lift the lid on the 2012 Major League Baseball season with the start of a brief two-game set in Japan at the Tokyo Dome.

Most sports books monitored by the SportsOptions odds product have opened the Mariners as $1.30 favorites, with the total set at eight runs.

These same two teams had been scheduled to play here in March 2003, but the series was canceled at the last minute due to the threat of war in Iraq. Coincidentally, A’s manager Bob Melvin was the manager of the Mariners back in 2003.

“We’re excited about it,” Melvin said. “And the fact that you’re playing against a team that’s going through the exact same thing, there are no excuses for anybody. I honestly am looking forward to the trip.”

Oakland opened the 2008 season in Japan against the Boston Red Sox, splitting a pair of games.

“We’re thrilled to be back in Japan,” Oakland general manager Billy Beane said. “When they asked who wanted to go, we were the first to put up our hands.”

Perhaps it’s not the best American baseball has to offer with Seattle and Oakland expected to be two of the worst teams in the majors this season.

Seattle is a club that last year lost 95 games, endured a 17-game losing streak and for the third straight season crossed the plate less times than any other team in the American League. Oakland, meanwhile, only avoided the cellar in the AL West because of Seattle, but this offseason traded its two best starting pitchers in Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez, in addition to closer Andrew Bailey.

So, yeah, this isn’t exactly Yankees-Red Sox we are talking about.

But, you’d be hard pressed to not find more excitement for this series than any other. Why? Well how about the return of Ichiro Suzuki, perhaps the most iconic sports figure to ever come out of Japan.

“We’ve never had this opportunity before, so it’s new for me and new for the team,” he said through interpreter Antony Suzuki. “This is something we’ll probably do once in a lifetime, so I look forward to that and would like to take advantage of it.”

Suzuki, of course, left Japan for the United States back in 2001 and instantly became a hit, winning the league’s MVP and Rookie of the Year in his first season, then producing 10 straight years of hitting .300 or better with 200 hits and 25 stolen bases. Last year, though, the 38-year-old superstar showed signs of slowing down, as he batted just .272 and failed to reach 200 hits for the first time in his 11-year career.

This year, the great Suzuki is embarking on a new challenge, as manager Eric Wedge has moved him from his customary leadoff spot down to No. 3 in the order. Suzuki has adjusted nicely this spring, and is hitting .400 with eight RBI through 30 spring at-bats.

Suzuki, though, isn’t the only Japanese star returning to his native land. Utility infielder Munenori Kawasaki and pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma also are returning to Japan.

“I think it’s going to be crazy,” said Mariners ace Felix Hernandez. “We’ve got a lot of Japanese guys here. We’ve got Ichi, who is a big star there. It’s going to be a good experience and it’s going to be fun.”

Hernandez will be on the hill Wednesday following another terrific season. The 2010 AL Cy Young Award winner was his usual amazing self in 2011, going 14-14 with a 3.47 ERA and 222 strikeouts in 233 2/3 innings.

“I want to have a better season,” Hernandez said when pushed. “Last year was not consistent. I’m trying to have a great season and help this team win.”

Hernandez will join Randy Johnson (six: 1992-96, ’98) as the only pitcher in franchise history to make five or more Opening Day starts. However, his three Opening Day wins are the most in Mariners history.

Run support continued to be an issue, as the Mariners scored a major league worst 556 times, while hitting just .233 as a team, also the worst mark of all 30 teams.

The hope is that the addition of Jesus Montero will add some much needed pop to that lineup. Montero was acquired from the New York Yankees in exchange for All-Star right-hander Michael Pineda.

Billy Beane, who reaped worldwide recognition this past year with the box office success of the movie “Moneyball,” wasn’t just jettisoning players this winter and surprisingly won the sweepstakes for highly-coveted Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, landing him with a four-year, $36 million deal.

The A’s will hand the ball in the opener to righty Brandon McCarthy. After missing all of 2010 he started a career-best 25 games last season, going 9-9 with a 3.32 ERA and set a franchise record for strikeout-to-walk ratio at 4.92-to-1 — 123 strikeouts and 25 walks in 170 2/3 innings.

“To stop and think about it is cool, but I really don’t do that,” McCarthy said of his Opening Day assignment. “My parents are proud, and there are people that are happy for me, and it’s a cool thing personally, but really I’ll be more excited if I pitch up to that level and do everything I’m capable of doing, not just on that day but the entire season.”

Seattle, which has won its last five openers, is 5-3 all time on Opening Day against the A’s, having won the last three.

This series marks the fourth season opener in Japan and the first since the Red Sox and A’s played in 2008 at Tokyo Dome. Since 1999, 10 clubs (Colorado Rockies, San Diego Padres, New York Mets, Chicago Cubs, Texas Rangers, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays, Red Sox and A’s) have participated in international openers.

Oakland has been designated as the home team and will bat last in both games of this opening series.