NBA Finals: The Miami Heat’s Shot-Selection and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Continued Lineup Conundrum

Jun 17, 2012; Miam, FL, USA; Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) gets tangled with Oklahoma City Thunder power forward Serge Ibaka (9) during the third quarter in game three in the 2012 NBA Finals at the American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE

The Oklahoma City Thunder have much to fix and many adjustments to make after last night’s 91-85 loss to the Miami Heat in game 3 of the NBA Finals, falling behind 2-1 in this best of seven and facing consecutive road games in the next 96 hours the overarching problem.  While popular talking points like late-game struggles, questionable officiating, or simply the play of LeBron James have no doubt been major factors in the undoing of OKC’s success in games 2 and 3, a familiar development for Miami has been this series’ most influential aspect – the Heat’s assault on the paint offensively.

After attempting 22 shots at the rim in a 105-94 game 1 loss, Miami has gone back to what they do best over the last two games and the Thunder, like so many before them, have been helpless to stop it.  Erik Spoelstra no doubt put an emphasis on attacking the OKC defense since game 2 tipped off, presumably frustrated that the Heat’s big game 1 lead was squandered by his team’s continued reliance on the long jumpers that helped them build it.  James, Dwyane Wade and company responded authoritatively, taking 28 shots at the rim in a game 2 win before 35 last night, converting approximately 65% of them in each Miami win.  Miami’ superstar wing tandem, after combining for just 13 such attempts in game 1, have racked up 41 shots at the rim since then including a staggering 25 last night.  Wade matched game 1’s paltry team number all by himself in game 3 and James fell just one attempt short of doing the same.

Most frustrating for Oklahoma City, though, is that right now the Heat have no other way to score than to put their collective heads down off the dribble and go from there.  Miami made just 1-23 two-point shots outside of three feet last night, an unbelievable and surreal statistic that makes game 3 all the more confounding for the Thunder and confidence-building for their opposition.  And though Shane Battier continued his onslaught from deep (he went 2-2 in game 3 and is 11-15 for the series), it’s not like Miami was relying on layups and three-pointers to score; they went a below-average 4-13 from beyond the arc as a team.

So while much is made of Russell Westbrook’s relative labors and the new struggles of Kevin Durant and James Harden, there’s a clear and quick remedy to the Thunder’s woes – keep James and Wade from the lane.  The problem, of course, is that doing so is much easier planned and said than done.  Each has been considered the NBA’s best penetrator at times since coming into the league in 2003, and James is still certainly worthy of that distinction as he’s finally hit the prime of his career at 27 years-old.  While it’s true Wade isn’t the jitterbug he was in 2006, he, too, remains one of the world’s best here due to knack and skill that’s unlikely to fade with age and nagging injury like his once otherworldly athleticism.

Coming into the NBA Finals, the Thunder were supposed to curb the aggressiveness of James and Wade as drivers due to their length, mobility, and especially the shot-blocking prowess of Serge Ibaka.  But Ibaka, forced to guard Battier or another Miami perimeter threat when playing with another big because of the Heat’s preference for small-ball, has struggled to find a balance between roaming the paint as a rim-deterrent and making sound rotations to shooters.  His influence, then, hasn’t been as pronounced as the two or three monster blocks he gets every game suggests, and it’s declining even more now; he played just 22 minutes in game 3 and left for good late in the third quarter.

And this is where it all comes back to Brooks and OKC’s lineups and substitution patterns.  We made a big deal of it on Friday and in our pre-series player breakdowns, and its received even more attention after the Thunder’s slow starts to games 1 and 2 and James’ continued dominance – Oklahoma City needs to play small as much as possible.  That much is clear by now, but simply playing four smalls and a big isn’t enough; Brooks needs to find the right combination, and two huge factors need to be considered in going about it:

  • Ibaka’s value to both ends as a shot-blocker and floor-spacer, things that can’t be matched by Perkins or Nick Collison
  • Thabo Sefolosha’s success defending James in the post and on the perimeter/Durant’s recent foul trouble

Westbrook-Harden-Sefolosha-Durant-Ibaka.  The Thunder’s three best offensive players and their two best defensive players all on the floor at the same time, a simple and easy thought made even more so by the fact that Ibaka/Sefolosha is still better offensively than Perkins(Collison)/Derek Fisher.  Why Brooks won’t go this route is anyone’s guess, though the experience afforded the young Thunder by seasoned Finals performers like Perk and Fisher no doubt comforts him.  That’s obviously not reason enough to stick with a lineup that’s working sporadically when there’s a potentially dominant quintet he’s yet to try, but such thinking – “Experience matters! We’re young! Somebody needs to calm Russ down!” – is the only thing that makes sense here given the limitations of the group that’s played compared to the promise of the one that hasn’t.

Challenge Miami’s shots at the rim.  Limit James as much as possible.  Score the basketball.  If those are the Thunder’s main objectives going into game 4 (and they should be), Brooks has no choice but to play Ibaka and Sefolosha alongside his precocious perimeter trio as much as possible.  Considering that Oklahoma City is down 2-1, two games in Miami remain, and no team has ever won the NBA Finals after falling behind 3-1, Brooks needs to pull out all the stops, and the Thunder better hope the best lineup we’ve never seen is the last rabbit up his sleeve.