Many of Oklahoma City’s playoff games go as follows: Start slow, begin to get lit up by the opponent’s shooters, then play well enough to make the game close by halftime. At halftime, they make defensive adjustments, and in the 2nd half they turn it into a back-and-forth game. Late in the 3rd quarter, Coach Brooks says like 10 words to Kevin Durant. This motivates Durant, who scores a bunch of points in the 4th quarter, and the Thunder use the last 5 or 6 minutes to close the game.
Tuesday night versus the Heat, it was the same old story. In the end, they played strong and finished on the good side of the scoreboard. It didn’t matter that it was their first Finals game, and it didn’t matter that they’re all so young. They had the energy and support of their home crowd. It seemed like they’d been there before- it looked like just another playoff game to them.
The first quarter began with the 1 on 1 matchup we were all looking forward to, as Durant began the game guarding James. Durant used his length to prevent good jumpshot looks from James, so it forced LeBron to go under Durant’s arms and look to score inside. Soon enough, there was great help defense once James got within 12 feet. Here, LeBron James had 2 options: shoot overly-contested shots like teammate Dwyane Wade did throughout the game (more on that later), or pass out to an open man.
James chose the latter, and it worked. Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers combined for 5 threes in the first 12 minutes. Miami led 29-22.
Oklahoma City, led by Kevin Durant’s good start, was only avoiding a blowout until midway through the 2nd quarter. Like usual, the Thunder offense started to catch fire around the 6:00 mark. Ibaka and Westbrook each scored 6 points in a 5 minute span, and the deficit returned to 7 by halftime.
Both teams took interesting approaches on defense in the first half. Miami looked like they have for the entire postseason, as each player held his matchup with confidence and aggressiveness. At the same time it was neat to see Miami’s approach on guarding Durant. Battier was on him for a good amount of the time, while Wade started fouling Durant whenever Battier wasn’t there. LeBron James played much like Magic Johnson in the 80’s, by guarding the opponent’s power forward while being the point man on offense. Oklahoma City started the game looking a little confused on defense, but once they figured out all the switching Miami was trying to do, they did just enough to keep the game close. One thing the Thunder did very well defensively was forcing the Heat to shoot many uncomfortable 20 footers.
Then, unfortunately for the Heat, the second half was underway. Miami started throwing terrible passes and missing shots. Oklahoma City began to do the opposite. The momentum shifted further and further in Oklahoma City’s direction with each Heat turnover and each easy Thunder layup. After a timeout with 2:34 left in the 3rd quarter, Scott Brooks basically told Kevin Durant to get open and score. Then they high fived and Durant got back to work. Seems like they’ve got a pre-4th quarter habit, doesn’t it?
Habit or not, it works for Oklahoma City. The Thunder went with their usual mid-2nd half small lineup, which catalyzed the pace enough to really get them going. This lineup put each player in his pre-NBA position, with Durant, Sefolosha, and Westbrook playing the 4, 3, and 2 respectively. If nothing else, it would negate any athletic advantage the Heat had on defense. It did more than that, however, as the pace grew fast enough to make the Heat uncomfortable. And what about Durant? He scored 17 points in the final quarter. His deep 3 pointer with 6 minutes left in the game began a 9-2 run that allowed the Thunder to close the game with relative ease. They’re getting good at this whole “closing” thing. They do it quite often, after all.
So this game was a familiar story for the Thunder, and now they have a 1-0 lead in the series. If every game of the series is as exciting as this one, NBA fans are in for a treat.
Now for some notes that the above words didn’t cover:
-The big storyline for this series is “MVP vs. Scoring Champ”. Neither James nor Durant disappointed fans in this one. James did his usual thing: scored 30 points and gave solid contribution in just about every other way possible. Durant scored the most points in the game. He shot well in the beginning and shot well in the end, finishing with 36 points on 12-20 shooting. Sounds like a good game to me.
-Russell Westbrook played one of his best games of the season, with a near triple-double in addition to great defense on Miami’s guards. In this series, The Thunder will go as he goes. And as long as he’s playing like the point guard Maurice Cheeks has trained him to be, the Thunder will be just fine.
-Nobody else put up huge offensive numbers for Oklahoma City, but it seemed like Ibaka, Harden, Collison, and Sefolosha were always there at the right time to get the needed bucket. The least we can say is that Oklahoma City played excellent team basketball.
-Miami has to figure out what they’re doing on offense. Somebody other than LeBron James needs to score inside here and there. Battier was a huge help with his outside shooting and Chalmers gave another good game tonight, Miami needs to find ways to get better shots for Wade and Bosh. The two all-stars combined for 11-30 shooting in this game, and both of them got dunked on.
-As promised, I’ve got some things on Dwyane Wade. He’s one of the best shooting guards of all time for a reason. He’s made a Hall of Fame career out of aggressive defense and an insane ability to score through contact and heavy defense. In this game, Wade took his usual high-difficulty shots, but missed most of them. When he missed a jumper to move his shooting stats to 4-15, that was around the same time Oklahoma City began to take over. He was more efficient in the 4th quarter, but he’s got to play well for more than 12 minutes in order for the Heat to win.
-Oklahoma City is partying like Seattle in ‘96, except the Supersonics lost Game 1 of the 1996 Finals by 17.
-Word on the street is that Skip Bayless will try to convince Stephen A. Smith that he’d rather build a team around Nick Collison than LeBron James, during Wednesday’s showing of ESPN First Take.
-Apparently Jeff Van Gundy named his cat after Maurice Cheeks. Cheeks the cat died 18 years later. Rest in peace, Cheeks