NBA Finals 2012: 5 Keys to Oklahoma City Getting Win in Miami
Two games are in the books: the Oklahoma City Thunder rolled in Game 1, and the Miami Heat burned Oklahoma City early and stole Game 2.
In a series that features the best two players in the world, scoring champion Kevin Durant and league MVP LeBron James, the story lines are readily apparent. Both players have been exceptional in the first two games of the NBA Finals, scoring at least 30 points in each game.
Beyond the scoring output of the two premier players in the series, another consistent theme in Games 1 and 2 has been Miami torching the Thunder early in the first quarter. The Heat led 29-22 in the very first quarter of the series and then led 27-15 after the first 12 minutes in Game 2.
Although OKC has battled back in both games and proved to be a resilient team, it's difficult to beat the Heat in a 36-minute game after spotting them twelve points.
Home-court advantage is incredibly important in the NBA, and nowhere is the advantage greater than in Oklahoma City. However, Miami's victory in Game 2 changes the entire complexion of the series.
With the next three games taking place in Miami, the Thunder now need to win a game on the road to keep their Championship hopes alive.
Oklahoma City's coaching adjustments to both scheme and personnel, as well as the mental toughness of their key players, will be vital if this series is going to head back to OKC for a Game 6. The young Thunder have passed all tests when facing adversity so far, but one question still needs to be answered:
What must happen for the Thunder to beat the Heat in Miami?
1. OKC Can't Allow Miami to Build First Quarter Lead
Both games have started similarly.
Miami jumped out to a 13-point lead in the first quarter of Game 1 and then rushed out to an 18-2 lead in the first quarter of Game 2. Although Oklahoma City was able to weather the storm and win Game 1 on Tuesday, the Thunder cannot allow the Heat to continue their first-quarter dominance.
Being resilient is great, and having confidence is even better. However, when the Thunder fall behind 27-15 in the first quarter as they did in Game 2, they force themselves to outscore Miami by 13 points in a shortened, 36-minute game.
For OKC, it's quite simple: Start fast.
2. The Thunder's Offense Must Run Through Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant is in his fourth NBA season. In those four seasons, he's led the NBA in scoring three times.
If the ESPN program is accurate and "Numbers Never Lie," Oklahoma City should follow the lead of its best player and get him the ball early. However, another statistic would suggest that OKC is just fine when Durant isn't getting the majority of the shots.
The Thunder are 25-6 in their last 31 games in which Russell Westbrook takes more shots than Durant, though most wouldn't expect that to be the case. When Russell Westbrook reverts to old habits and acts as if he's paid by commission based on shot attempts, OKC struggles.
As the point guard, Westbrook has the ball in his hands constantly; therefore, he's able to control his opportunities to score.
At the same time, Durant is a natural scorer; he can do it from anywhere on the court, and he's at his best when his team needs him most. If OKC feeds their go-to guy early, Miami probably won't be able to jump out to an early lead and the Thunder will be in a better position moving forward.
3. Shane Battier Must Cool off
The Thunder have their hands full trying to defend Miami's trio of James, Wade and Bosh.
However, with the stellar shooting of veteran Shane Battier in the first two games, OKC's task of beating the Heat has become even more daunting. If Battier is able to turn back the clock to his days at Duke and continue his sharp-shooting ways, Miami may have too many scoring weapons for the Thunder to overcome.
James and Wade are always threats to penetrate into the lane and create for others. Perimeter shooters, such as Battier, are the direct beneficiaries of the penetration.
With more opportunities and open looks, Battier has scored 17 points in both games of the series. He made four of six shots from behind the arc in Game 1, and he trumped that total in Game 2 when he hit five of seven three-point attempts.
Battier's key three-pointer that kissed off the glass and fell as the shot clock expired surely will leave a sour taste in the mouths of Thunder fans. However, it's the result that counts, and right now, Shane Battier is making every minute of playing time count for his Miami Heat.
4. When He's in the Game, Thabo Sefolosha Must Guard LeBron
On offense, Kevin Durant and LeBron James are both incredibly talented players. However, on defense, Durant is no match for James.
The Thunder have used a variety of bodies to guard the MVP. When the long, slender Durant has been guarding LeBron, James has had his way with him. He's been able to use his superior strength and physicality to get into the lane and score.
When the stronger and more versatile defender Thabo Sefolosha has matched up on James, it's been a very different outcome. Entering the second quarter of Game 2, LeBron was shooting 10-16 (62.5%) when Durant was on him, while he was just 3-11 (27.2%) when guarded by Sefolosha.
In the first two games of the series, Sefolosha has shown casual NBA fans something they may not have known previously: He's one of the best defenders in the league. After slowing down a red-hot Tony Parker and allowing OKC to advance past San Antonio, Sefolosha has been equally impressive when guarding two of the league's best offensive players in James and Dwyane Wade.
5. Russell Westbrook Must Be a True Point Guard
Although he's officially listed as OKC's starting point guard, Russell Westbrook is often anything but a traditional point guard.
After playing shooting guard at UCLA, the Thunder drafted Westbrook in hopes that he could be molded into a facilitating point guard despite being a natural, ultra-athletic scorer.
Oklahoma City gets the peaks and the valleys with Westbrook. He's good, then he's bad. He's up, then he's down.
Whenever the Thunder are in a one-possession game, it seems Westbrook feels like he should be the one to take the big shot. It's as if he imagines the crowd chanting his name as he walks off the court holding up his index finger.
I tweeted during the game that Russell Westbrook's nickname should be "The Scarecrow." After all, the Wizard of Oz character famously sang, "If I only had a brain..."
Nonetheless, Westbrook's questionable decision making has been an issue in both games. He shot poorly and often in Game 1 as well as Game 2 before finding a rhythm. If Westbrook becomes a true "point guard" and defers to the league's scoring leader, Kevin Durant, the Thunder won't have to make up for a first-quarter deficit.