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Remember when the Thunder and Heat clashed in the somewhat anticlimactic 2012 NBA Finals, with Miami pulling off the gentleman's sweep after OKC took Game 1?
Now that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have two more years of experience under their belts, Miami should not expect a repeat of that scenario during this year's finals.
Once more, the Thunder will enter the finals with home-court advantage over the Heat. This time, however, it will likely be Kevin Durant, not LeBron James, who comes into the matchup touting a brand-new Most Valuable Player award.
That's not the only difference this time around. Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks discovered the secret to thrashing Miami's small-ball scheme earlier this season: parking Kendrick Perkins on the bench and throwing out KD at the 4 full-time.
After Miami got off to a 15-2 start at home against OKC on Jan. 29, Brooks pulled Perkins from the game and never reinserted him. The Thunder finished the game on a 110-80 run, with sophomore Perry Jones starting the second half in Perk's place.
This season, in the 6.1 minutes per game that Perkins played against Miami, the Heat were a plus-12.5. In the other 41.9 minutes per game sans Perk, the Heat were a minus-10.0. A similar trend unfolded back in 2012-13 and 2011-12.
"Remember, this isn't just a blip," ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh wrote after the Thunder's 112-97 win on Jan. 29. "The Thunder have found success against the Heat when they go away from Perkins, who should only be a spot starter at this point. If the two juggernaut teams meet again in the Finals, maybe it’ll be (Erik) Spoelstra who will have to find a counter."
With Durant now capable of dueling James to a standstill, the Thunder's defense showing occasional signs of being more stifling than ever and the pull-Perkins move in Brooks' back pocket, Miami's three-peat aspirations will be in grave danger against OKC. The Thunder's improved adaptability will help them counteract the Heat's various looks, which could force Miami into a fatal number of turnovers.
This series is all but certain to go seven games, as both teams possess too many weapons to go down with a whimper and not a bang. If Brooks can commit to being flexible with Perkins' minutes, the regular-season MVP won't be the only trophy Durant needs to add to his mantelpiece this summer.
Prediction: 4-3 Oklahoma City Thunder
Unless otherwise noted, all player and team statistics via NBA.com or Basketball-Reference and are current through games played on Wednesday, April 16.