It wasn’t too long ago that we were all watching LeBron James against the Indiana Pacers and dropping our heads in shameful disdain. James was allowing a team with lesser experience and lesser talent boot him and the almighty Eastern Conference powerhouse, the Miami Heat, out of the playoffs in a more embarrassing fashion than in the 2011 NBA Finals.
The backlash of hysterics would have been of epic proportions and James would have been on the media trade-block before anyone could blink.
LeBron James woke up and willed his team to victory with 40 PTS, 11 REBS and 9 AST.
Kevin Durant sits in almost the exact position, down 2-1 after coming into the series as the favorite to win it all. There seems to be only one prediction that holds water against the Heat and their ambitions.
Durant will come up big and prove that his heart and aggression are not fleeting. He will show up for four quarters instead of showing up for one to dig his team out of a hole he assisted in creating.
Kevin Durant will turn King and force at least a Game 6 against the Miami Heat.
Yet, there are still a few key differences that must be explored and examined before assuming that all the chips are stacked in Durant’s favor. At first glance, the general proposed belief is that if LeBron could do it, then Durant can.
He is a more fluid jumpshooter, his length allows him to be a pesky defender, occasionally, and he has not one, but two incredibly athletic men to assist him in the backcourt.
Still, the Miami Heat are not the Indiana Pacers, Kevin Durant is no LeBron and Russell Westbrook is no Dwyane Wade. You can count out the value of experience all you like, but one thing that experience brings a team like Miami is identity.
Throughout the playoffs, fans have seen the Oklahoma City Thunder seemingly find themselves. The franchise has figured a way to become more a defensive force than a liability and have even grown so confident in Durant’s defensive prowess that he is guarding James.
Russell Westbrook has shown his growth as a point guard, as opposed to the shoot-first guard the position has morphed into. Thabo Sefolosha’s defense is no longer underrated as his length on players like Kobe Bryant and Tony Parker took away a lot of their opponents’ offensive strengths.
Do the Thunder have the consistent direction and personality to sustain for four quarters as the Miami Heat have done in Games 2 and 3?
The answer to that question lies in the hands of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. The order is not at all a reflection of their importance to the franchise. Durant is obviously the team’s driving force. If 18 PTS in the fourth quarter to win a playoff game does not prove that, nothing else will.
However, Westbrook’s habitual assailment on the court is what makes Durant so lethal. When Westbrook is hitting his shots and more cardinally finishing around the rim, the defense of any franchise begins to loosen their stranglehold on Durant to focus more on the athleticism that he portrays.
He is Oklahoma City’s diversion while Durant is their sharpshooter.
The Thunder’s game plan has been as follows:
Step 1: Decoy
Step 2: Ball Movement
Step 3: Aim, Shoot, Kill
With Durant guarding LeBron, Westbrook is forced to either create offense for himself or release the cushion offense of Durant and create easy buckets for the Thunder’s role players.
The winning formula begins and ends with Durant and Westbrook, with players like Sefolosha, Nick Collison, Serge Ibaka and James Harden to fill in those gaps.
The Miami Heat were able to conquer the Indiana Pacers by playing complete basketball. They began dominating offensively, while exposing the Pacers’ lack of discipline defensively.
How? LeBron and Wade stayed in attack mode, finishing around the rim and getting to the foul line. The Oklahoma City Thunder could follow the blueprint if they were battling a team that lacked that same couth and grace on the defensive end.
Trouble is, Miami is one of the best defensive teams in the league. They have been locking Harden down, keeping Durant on his toes and forcing Oklahoma City to win through grit and endurance instead of winning comfortably from beyond the arc as they have so many times before.
Against the Heat, the Pacers were only going to beat Miami by forcing their most talented paint performers into jump shots. It was successful until the Heat began forcing their way in instead of settling for those low-percentage shots.
They have been carrying that mentality through the playoffs ever since and the Thunder have had no answer for it, especially not now that Chris Bosh has joined in the melee of attacking as well.
The Oklahoma City Thunder could definitely win like Miami did against the Indiana Pacers. It will take a huge change in approach to get it done, though.
The Thunder live and die by the jumper.
Right now, they are dying by it.
When those shots are not falling, the Thunder become far less potent offensively than they have been. It’s what makes them so great and taking away that avenue of their game makes them far too vulnerable against the Miami Heat.
The Heat won in the Pacers series by getting to the rim for those high-percentage buckets and getting to the foul line, subsequently tossing some key components of the Pacers’ game plan onto the sidelines.
The Thunder do not play a game that would make it dangerous to defend them, therefore it becomes far harder to push the Heat to the brink. By not challenging them with bigger bodies, the Thunder shut down one of their best attributes.
Oklahoma City could win like Miami did.
Still, only if they exploit their strengths - something that they have not learned to do.
Follow Joye Pruitt on Twitter @JoyetheWar