The Miami Heat built their empire on small-ball, helping revolutionize the basic construct of NBA rosters. Erik Spoelstra's "positionless" strategy has become in-vogue across the league, as opposing coaches rush to create their own unique lineup combinations.
Scott Brooks is apparently starting to get the message.
The Thunder coach countered Miami's small-ball lineup with one of his own, helping Oklahoma City overcome a huge early run from the defending champs en route to a 112-95 victory on Wednesday (Jan. 29) night.
The overwhelming storyline coming into this first matchup between the 2012 NBA finalists was the battle between LeBron James and Kevin Durant. They didn't disappoint. James scored 34 points and Durant poured in 33 of his own, extending his streak of 30-point games to 12.
But it was Brooks' decision-making that wound up taking center stage.
In particular, his choice to eschew traditional lineups and sit center Kendrick Perkins might have been the biggest reason that the Thunder were able to avoid being on the wrong end of a blowout . With the slow-footed Perkins on the floor to open the game, Miami got out to a 15-2 lead as part of a 22-4 run that made it look like the defending champs were about to run a second straight Western Conference contender out of their building.
Then Brooks went to the bench. First, Jeremy Lamb. Next, Derek Fisher. In the second half, it was Perry Jones replacing Perkins as the second big in most lineups alongside Serge Ibaka. Perkins never saw the floor again—a change of pace for Brooks, whose inability or refusal to move on from Perkins has been his most criticized trait in an otherwise stellar coaching career.
At least for one night, Brooks listened to his critics and unlocked a monstrous performance on both ends of the floor.
Lamb got the good times rolling by helping spearhead Oklahoma City's comeback attempt. Stationed at the top of the break, the second-year guard scored 13 of his 18 points in the second quarter alone, knocking down consecutive three-pointers in the opening minute to thrash Miami's lead down to two possessions. His third three of the quarter tied the ballgame up for the first time since 10:48 minute in the first quarter.
By the end of the first half, Miami's 22-4 lead had been turned into a 55-50 deficit.
"They were ready for us to come in and play," Durant said, via the Associated Press (h/t ESPN). "They hit some tough shots early on, a few 3's, and we didn't panic. We just tried to stay together and that's what we did. Our bench was great in getting us back in that game."
As noted by Steve Kerr of TNT, Brooks' decision to move away from Perkins allowed Oklahoma City to match up far better defensively (while not hurting offensively, either):
Still, if the first half was highlighted by surprising coaching decisions, the second was enveloped by the matchup everyone came to see. With Oklahoma City starting the third quarter with a quick run to take a double-digit lead, LeBron decided to take over. Guarded by the willing but unable Jones, James barreled his body into the lane for layups near the rim and hit a series of impossible turnaround jumpers.
Eight of Miami's final 11 points in the quarter were attributable to James. He was the game's best player, taking over when his team needed him most.
The problem was Durant matched him every step of the way. When James went on a four-point individual run, Durant pulled up from 28 feet out and swished a three. After LeBron hit a jump shot, Durant forced a clear-out and went to work on his own. If Durant's goal coming into the contest was to prove he stands second to no one in the NBA, that third-quarter run will be the one they play on his MVP reel.
Back-to-back jumpers from Durant to start the fourth gave him his 12th straight 30-point game, with the last seven coming in contests where he has made at least half of his shots. Still, with James having a stellar game of his own, the battle between the two best individual players in basketball could be called a stalemate.
"Rucker Park, that's what was going through my head," Durant said. "It was fun...I'm sure the fans got what they wanted to see with that one."
Durant gets the narrative points because his teammates showed and James' disappeared.
Fisher knocked down all five of his three-pointers for a 15-point night. Ibaka quietly added 22 points of his own. Thabo Sefolosha accounted for six of the Thunder's 13 steals on a night when turnovers played a massive factor.
The Heat, whose championship run has been highlighted by helter-skelter defense that flummoxed teams into turnovers, got a taste of their own medicine Wednesday. Frustrated by the length and athleticism of the Thunder's small-ball lineup, Miami was as sloppy as they've been all season with the ball.
Mario Chalmers (four points, eight assists) coughed the ball up five times. Dwyane Wade, re-entering the starting lineup after serving as a sixth man Sunday against San Antonio, had four turnovers as part of a nondescript night. Miami's 20 turnovers led to 20 fast-break points for the Thunder and numerous other breakdowns in semi-transition.
It's also indicative of the continued struggles the Heat are having defensively. They came into the game allowing 106.5 points per 100 possessions in January, a rate that would rank fourth-worst in the league, per NBA.com.
Coach Spoelstra put it bluntly after the game via the Associated Press: "There's no running away from it. Other than the first eight minutes of the game they outclassed us tonight. They absolutely deserved this win."
For perhaps the first time in the Big Three era, there are real questions about whether Miami's aging roster can employ the strategy Spoelstra used to earn them two championships. On Wednesday night, the Thunder only heightened those fears by taking their young roster and doing it better.
Without Russell Westbrook.
|Oklahoma City Thunder|
|Serge Ibaka, PF||B+|
|Kevin Durant, SF||A|
|Kendrick Perkins, C||F|
|Reggie Jackson, PG||C|
|Thabo Sefolosha, SG||B-|
|Nick Collison, PF||C|
|Perry Jones, SF||C|
|Derek Fisher, PG||B|
|Jeremy Lamb, SG||B+|
|Steven Adams, C||C|
|Shane Battier, SF||D|
|LeBron James, SF||A|
|Chris Bosh, C||B|
|Mario Chalmers, PG||C-|
|Dwyane Wade, SG||C|
|Chris Andersen, PF||C+|
|Michael Beasley, SF||C|
|Norris Cole, PG||D|
|Ray Allen, SG||C-|
|Toney Douglas, PG||C|
|Rashard Lewis, PF||C|
Players of the Game: Kevin Durant (SF, Oklahoma City Thunder), LeBron James (SF, Miami Heat)
Was there really any doubt that these two would come through?
From the opening tip, you could tell that James and Durant were viewing this game the same as many at home: a litmus test for the two best basketball players on the planet.
There was no waiting until the fourth quarter to guard one another. Durant frustrated LeBron with his length and forced him to get teammates, specifically Chris Bosh, in the mix early. James bodied Durant whenever the situation saw fit, doing a stellar job on the player he said can't be stopped one-on-one.
Individual wins were nearly impossible to come by on both ends. Which should make it all the more unsurprising that both players thrived when their team needed them most.
Durant, as he's wont to do, hit a series of difficult jumpers in transition. He found success off the bounce and showed off his progress as a primary ball-handler, whirring a few nice passes against Miami traps or hard hedges.
LeBron is just...LeBron. If Scott Brooks wouldn't have structured his rotations to avoid the matchup, he may have demoralized poor Thabo Sefolosha forever. Any time James saw Sefolosha guarding him, he sprinted to the low block, requested the rock and overpowered his way into an easy layup. When he saw Perry Jones, it was dribble-drive time.
Oklahoma City's win will force folks to pontificate, to give their #hottakes about what this win means for the NBA's individual hierarchy. Maybe Durant and James believe in that narrative a bit too. That said, maybe we should use this stage to appreciate what these two men can do on the floor rather than looking for any excuse to make silly comparisons.
Oklahoma City's three-game East Coast swing continues on Friday when it travels to the Barclays Center to face a red-hot Nets team. Miami will also get the fortuitous scheduling bounce of being near Super Bowl festivities over the weekend when it hits Madison Square Garden for a Saturday showdown with the Knicks.
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