MIAMI — They were right there, three wins from a title, before one man's fury made them a footnote. The Oklahoma City Thunder had come so far, so fast, only to fall short four straight times, including a 15-point defeat in the fifth and final game of the 2012 NBA Finals.
The past 19 months have produced a bit more pain—the trade of third pillar James Harden, the 2013 postseason injury to Russell Westbrook that led to a second round exit, and the setback Westbrook suffered earlier this season. Sandwiched in there were two more losses to the Miami Heat, stretching the Heat's streak against them to six, making one wonder if Scott Brooks would ever cave and make the move that would enable the Thunder to have a reasonable chance of changing their fortune.
And, then, with 4:36 left in Wednesday's first quarter, Kendrick Perkins checked out.
He never checked back in.
Some will tell you to check yourself if you suggest that it was more than just coincidence that the Thunder—which trailed 15-2 when Perkins departed—rolled to a 112-95 victory with their starting center parked on the sideline. If so, you should tell them to check the recent trends. No, not everything that occurred Wednesday was attributable to his absence, as Oklahoma City committed five fewer turnovers and made 13 more three-pointers, including two that fossil Derek Fisher banked in.
But, consider that in the Thunder's past seven games against Miami before Wednesday's matchup, including the win in Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Finals, they had outscored the Heat by nine points in the 169 minutes that Perkins didn't play, and the Heat had outscored them by 45 points in the 167 minutes that he did.
Now, after Wednesday, they've been outscored by 58 in the 172 minutes that he's played during that span, and they've outscored the Heat by 39 in the 212 that he hasn't.
With Perkins out, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Perry Jones III took turns on the interior, with Kevin Durant sliding to the four spot, and Jeremy Lamb getting 35 minutes on the wing. Brooks chose length over width, and that long, active lineup made Miami pay for poor passes and careless dribbles. At times, it even made the older, yet rested, Heat look heavy-legged.
The result was a fresh start on what, at one point, seemed to be a budding rivalry.
The outcome also had to be some relief for Thunder fans wondering when Brooks would bend.
"I figured they would," James said of Oklahoma City using the 'smaller' lineup. "They have some guys that can play multiple positions as well, like we have."
They do, and maybe never as many as they have now, after GM Sam Presti restocked the roster with recent collegians. For all the talk of Miami's need to match Indiana's size to make another title run, the most formidable foe for the Heat may be the team that can match, or even top, Miami's quickness. It's just that Brooks, by stubbornly sticking with Perkins, seemed so slow to see this.
Even after changing course Wednesday, he was careful not to make much of it.
"Well, I thought to win this game that we had to make a decision to go with a smaller lineup," Brooks said. "It’s just this game. It’s not something that we have to do all of the time. Perk brings so much to us. And I’m not going to make it a small lineup, big lineup matchup. We won the game. And guys understand that we won the game. It’s not about what I did. It’s about how we played as a collective group, and it’s always been about that."
That group's leader, Durant, did acknowledge that "it's a better matchup, I guess. Perry came in and did a great job, just giving us that length on defense. There’s going to be games where guys are going to play more minutes, and games where guys are going to sacrifice a little bit."
Later, Durant added: "Coaches make adjustments. That was a big adjustment for us. That’s probably the second time we ever did that. But you try to do what’s best for the team."
It may not be best against every team Oklahoma City faces—Indiana, Memphis, Houston—but it's undoubtedly best suited to counter Miami, especially Miami without Dwyane Wade at his most dynamic, which is still the case as he tries to find some rhythm. With Jones in for Perkins, Oklahoma City blitzed the Heat with a barrage to start the second half, pushing a five-point lead to 12 without Durant taking a shot; the Thunder got threes from Reggie Jackson, Thabo Sefolosha and Jones, before Jackson made two free throws. It was only later that Durant took over, going one-on-one, and back-and-forth with James, sometimes even putting him on skates.
What was Durant thinking?
"Rucker Park," he said. "That's what was going through my head. It was fun, it was fun. My teammates, they just gave me the ball, and told me to go and make a play. He got hot for a quick second, and I had to come and make an answer. It was fun. I’m sure the fans got what they wanted to see with that one. But we’d rather play a team game on our side."
James would have rather been playing with the lead.
"He was matching shots by keeping them up big, and I was just trying to get us back in the game," James said. "It's fun competition. It's been a while since I've been able to do something like that, where we go at each other. I haven't had many days like that in a long time, so it was fun."
Durant finished with 33, James with 34.
But the Heat were pretty much finished by the time Fisher took Jones' touch pass and banked in another three, just before the third-quarter buzzer. Jones, picked 28th in 2012 after the Heat passed at No. 27, made a critical contribution, even while totaling just three points, two rebounds and two assists in 30 minutes. The Thunder outscored the Heat by 13 with him on the floor, and by 21 before—with 8:23 left—the Heat trimmed the deficit in garbage time.
By then, the game was long gone.
"That’s what I love about our guys, we have the flexibility to play a few different styles, a few different players," Brooks said.
He finally found the right style to fit this particular matchup.
He went long.
It was a long, long time coming.