The Thunder lost a thriller in Miami 98-93. Here are 16 thoughts I had from it:
1. The MVP isn’t decided yet. It’s 1-1. KD badly outplayed LeBron in the first meeting, LeBron edged Durant by virtue of turnovers and the scoreboard in this one. KD was in the position of needing to win to make another statement because of LeBron’s superior statistical season, but MVPs are often awarded based on story, not stats. And KD’s got quite the narrative.
The attention span in sports is pathetically short. It’s game-by-game and that’s the point. After this game goes in the rearview, one clunker from LeBron and a couple Miami losses along with a few big shots from KD and a strong finish by KD will sway everything again. Why? Because LeBron didn’t whip KD the way KD whipped LeBron in the first meeting. LeBron’s night of outplaying Durant wasn’t some obvious deer-in-the-headlights type of beatdown like was the case in OKC.
LeBron’s got the lead again and it’s his award to lose. Or KD’s to win. There’s still time either way.
2. Four plays decided the game. Two of them were 3-pointers from Shane Battier. One was a jumper from Chris Bosh. And the fourth was actually two plays — Udonis Haslem blocked Russell Westbrook and James Harden and then LeBron turned around and finished a layup on the other end. That’s how you win games like this. You make those two or three or four big plays. In the postseason, games come down to those type of moments. If Ibaka closes better on Bosh, if Harden doesn’t fall asleep sagging off Battier, if Westbrook is able to finish, we’re probably talking about a different outcome.
3. The Thunder evidently have to kick Dwyane Wade in the face every time they play. Not a bad tradition to have.
4. James Harden is probably the X-factor. Harden had his moments, but just never completely put his stamp on the game the way we’re used to. Twelve points on 11 shots is unlike him. A lot of that is because he couldn’t find a way to the free throw line (just one attempt) and a lot of that was due to the fact Miami defended the pick-and-roll really well.
If Harden is scoring, the Thunder are exponentially more dynamic offensively than the Heat. Chris Bosh, their third wheel, needs to be set up by LeBron and Wade to get his. Harden can create it all on his own. He can handle, pass, score, create and shoot without needing Durant or Westbrook to hold his hand. He makes OKC more versatile and much more dangerous.
5. Neither team has an obvious edge anywhere. There’s really no place that you can say, “Yep, the Heat/Thunder are just better there.” They match each other in almost every area. Which means a series between the two would just come down to stars making plays.
6. Going small doesn’t work against the Heat. Scott Brooks favorite little toy in his pocket is his small lineup, but the Heat can match it with no problem. LeBron can play the 4 seamlessly, Bosh or Joel Anthony the 5 and with Wade, Battier and Chalmers as the guards. OKC’s best lineup is staying big with Perk and Collison/Ibaka to seal the paint.
Like I said, there’s no real matchup edge anywhere because both teams are incredibly versatile. Throw out a unique lineup and the other side will equal it. Which is why you have to play to your advantages. Ibaka only getting 24 minutes wasn’t smart. He was blocking shots and rebounding well, and with him always being a threat to hit a pick-and-pop jumper, he gives you an extra option offensively. Plus, he can steal you two points on the offensive glass.
7. If OKC and Miami meet in The Finals, Russell Westbrook will be Enemy No. 1. He’s already a pretty polarizing NBA player, but his flagrant foul on LeBron set the arena on fire against him. It was a dumb, dangerous foul, but no way was it intentional. Westbrook was trying to take the foul by wrapping up LeBron, but he was just way too late doing it.
Westbrook wears a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder so I’m sure the “Westbrook sucks!” chants didn’t hurt his feelings, but he’s an extremely emotional player and you know he heard it. And all it made him want to do was kill whatever stood in front of him. That’s what I love and hate about Russ. He’s so insanely competitive that he almost relishes the type of situation he was in, but at the same time, when he gets that way it can bring the worst out in him. I thought he kept his head pretty well considering the circumstances. He wasn’t overly loose with the ball, wasn’t reckless and though he took 26 shots, his offense was badly needed.
8. Ball movement against the Heat is a good thing. I don’t think there’s any good reason Westbrook didn’t pick up his first assist until the fourth quarter. It was a fantastic look to Collison, but really, he’s got to do a bit better are involving others before then. Assists are a bit arbitrary because it takes two players to successfully register one in the box score, but the Heat were clearly attempting to bracket and control Westbrook from taking over. He needed to flip that hybrid switch over to “create” and look to set up a few shots for Ibaka or Thabo.
The only problem is, the more you pass, the more opportunity you give the Heat to jump a passing lane or disrupt something. It has to be purposeful, and never lazy. Otherwise, the Heat will pounce and it’ll be two points faster than you can say, “WHAT THE CRAP WAS THAT RUSSELL?!”
9. The 3 KD took with 19 seconds left was a good shot. As soon as Durant hoisted it, everyone immediately went on a “Scott Brooks crunch time play hahahaha!” thing. But I didn’t hate it. Three point game with 19 seconds left, it’s no guarantee you’re going to get an easy 2. That’s fun to say — just get an easy two here — but it’s not always that practical. Plus, it’s not like that’s an impossible shot for KD. It was a pretty clean look and a very make-able shot for him.
I might be wrong, but I think that was the same play the Thunder used to tie the game against Denver in the epic overtime time game where Durant turned down the 3 to drive to the hoop instead. The difference in that game was the margin was two, not three. If OKC goes for a quick 2 and gets it, the game is extended and Miami has to make free throws. The Thunder had two timeouts, so assuming OKC scored quickly, they’d likely have the ball again with 10 seconds left and potentially in the same situation — make a 3 to send the game to overtime.
If you could guarantee a quick 2, I’d say that’s the right play. But a pretty good look for KD who can absolutely make that shot to tie the game? I’m fine with that too. Since it didn’t go in, it’s a bad shot. But if Durant nails it, nobody is saying anything but good things.
10. There’s some bad blood brewing. After the game, Wade told reporters, “We’re not fake tough guys.” That was either in reference to what Brendan Haywood said recently or almost assuredly in response to what KD said about Chris Bosh next season. That, plus the hard fouls from OKC and the never-ending trash talk that went on sets up this thing as quite the heated (sorry) rivalry, if the two teams ever get far enough to meet.
11. Keep in mind, this was a road game. And road games are hard to win. Which is why the next three weeks are pretty darn important. The Heat have won 17 straight at home, so they’re clearly not a team you want to have to beat in their building. The Thunder are one of the league’s best road teams but it’s clear it’s not easy to win away from home. OKC’s tied with the Spurs in the loss column now so the top seed is up for grabs. Securing home court isn’t only big just because OKC’s better there, but also for the psyche of the team. You don’t want to go into the playoffs knowing you gave something away.
12. Miami’s black uniforms remind of one of my mom’s nightgowns. So silky.
13. The Heat can’t rely on the 3. Miami hit 10-of-24 from deep in the game from 3, and just 21-of-59 from 2. On the season, the Heat are 20th in the league in made 3s per game at 5.6. They shoot 37.1 percent which if fifth, but only attempt 15 a game, which is 23rd. The Thunder did an outstanding job of forcing Miami outside. Problem was, they hit their 3s. Mario Chalmers 3-6 from 3, Battier 3-7, LeBron 3-7 and even Terrel Harris hit one from deep. I don’t think that’s something they can count on happening with any regularity.
14. It’s unknown at this point if Derek Fisher will ever make another 3-pointer. Just when it looked like he finally hit one, he inexplicably took a dribble up to put a toe on the 3-point line to make it a super deep 2.
15. I’ll ride with KD over LeBron any day. The box score looks all good until you get to that ugly nine. Nine turnovers for KD, a career-high. And while LeBron definitely outplayed Durant in this game, in terms of who I truly believe is the guy built and willing to get things done in the big moments, I want Durant.
Even though KD missed the game-tying 3, there was no question as to what was going to happen there. And Durant lives and dies with the miss. He’s got no problem taking the shot. I don’t think there’s that kind of certainty with LeBron. KD doesn’t have a back down bone in his body. He’s ready for any challenge, ready for any moment, ready for any matchup. He’s one tough dude for being that skinny.
If this is your Finals matchup and it’s a tie game with three minutes left, who would you trust more: Durant or LeBron? I’d take Durant. Not because he’s better, but because he seems almost genetically engineered for it.
16. I’d pick the Thunder in a seven-game series. Before the season, I didn’t feel that way. Heck, I still didn’t really feel that way even after the Thunder smoked Miami in OKC two weeks ago.
But I feel that way now.
The Thunder are tough. A lot didn’t go their way. A few calls, an uncharacteristically charged Miami crowd chanting at them, easy shots that didn’t fall. And yet they were right there. I don’t think either team necessarily walked away able to say they played a great game, but the Thunder scratched and clawed their way to the finish line despite Miami having a +23 edge from 3 and the free throw line.
I think you can sometimes learn a lot more about yourself through adversity than you can in an easy win. The Thunder were up against a lot in this game. The Heat were desperate and OKC was walking into a hornets’ nest. But they never backed down, stayed tough through rough moments and gave themselves a chance. The reason I thought the Heat would win a series is because I had a hard time picturing the Thunder piecing together four perfect games to beat Miami. But Wednesday proved they wouldn’t have to. The Thunder can beat the Heat without being perfect. They’re tough enough to win ugly against the league’s best.
It’s weird to think the Thunder made a big statement in a loss, but that’s what I took from Wednesday’s loss. This team has been impressive a lot of nights this season, but there are gut check moments and I think it’s pretty clear the Thunder are ready to answer the call any time.