Sunday afternoon suddenly feels like quite a while ago.
Oklahoma City looked disjointed and out of sync for long stretches and couldn’t make many plays down the stretch Wednesday in losing a second straight game for only the second time this season. After a stretch of some of the Thunder’s best basketball of the season, culminating Sunday afternoon with a throttling of the shorthanded Bulls, Oklahoma City let the Heat have their way in a 98-93 win in Miami.
Who knows if LeBron James was motivated in any way by some growing support for Kevin Durant in the MVP discussion since the Thunder’s dominating win in Oklahoma City two Sundays ago. But James victimized Durant repeatedly on his way to 34 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds on 50 percent shooting. And he was a factor defensively on Durant on the other end. KD picked up 30 points on 11-21 shooting, but LeBron had a huge role in hounding him to a career-worst nine turnovers. It has to be in the running for the ugliest 30-point night of KD’s career, if that makes any sense.
The Thunder also got killed by not closing out on Miami’s shooters. To that, I’m sure, the OKC players and coaching staff, and players and coaching staffs around the league, will say with a raised eyebrow, “Well, YOU figure out a way to cover LeBron, Wade and Bosh without leaving shooters open.” And that’s true. With Miami, you pick your poison, and it’s hard for defenders to stay home when one of Miami’s stars has the ball near the basket. But the Heat made the Thunder pay by hitting 10 of 24 3-pointers, and Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers combining to go 6-13.
OKC was looking good as the first half unfolded, but when the game got going (and started feeling like a playoff game) is when Miami began to take control. The Thunder had stormed out to a lead as wide as 11 points in the second quarter, but momentum shifted starting with a technical foul on Kendrick Perkins. Perk kind of clubbed Dwyane Wade as he followed through on a block attempt, and though the tech call could have gone either way, it’s hard to fault the ref for making it. Wade took exception to the foul, and the crowd started getting into it. And it picked up even more on the next Miami possession.
The Heat crowd was as awake as it has probably ever been in the first half of a regular season game when Russell Westbrook grabbed LeBron around the waist from behind on a Miami fast break. James fell sort of awkwardly, and with a full head of steam, and Westbrook was called for a flagrant. Miami hit both free throws, one of two on a foul from the following possession, and the crowd was a factor for the rest of the game. Westbrook was even treated to some very loud “Westbrook sucks!” chants as the game unfolded.
It was all downhill from there as the Heat chipped away at the Thunder’s lead, retook it for themselves and then stayed in front for most of the rest of the game. The Thunder continued to be out of sync for the rest of the night, despite some stretches of tough defense and some decisive playmaking at the beginning of the fourth quarter to make a game of it.
Thanks to the Spurs extending their winning streak to nine games, the loss could be a big one when it’s all said and done, at least timing wise. OKC is now tied with San Antonio in the loss column. Only a few days ago, it seemed like the top overall seed was right there for the Thunder to take. And it still is. But all of the sudden the Thunder are facing a tough battle just to make sure it holds on to the top spot in the West. A softer run in the schedule will be fine, but it shows how thin the margin for error is.
In a lot of ways, the loss can make Thunder fans nervous for the playoffs. But they all do. Flaws show in losses, and the Thunder’s showed on Wednesday night. But, if anything, it’s a reminder that the playoffs are going to be a roller coaster of momentum changes, big plays, big goofs and emotions. The Thunder are 0-2 or 6-2 depending on how you want to slice a recent part of the schedule. There will be ups and downs, and this was a down.
Friday’s game in Indiana will tell if another Thunder slump is upon us or if OKC is still riding high heading into the last few weeks.
- For those of you tired of it, go ahead and skip the next two sentences. We support the white jerseys and black shoes look. And we will keep saying it until we see it more often.
- One of the more fun sequences of the season started with Thabo Sefolosha faking out Wade something fierce before burying a long jumper. Russell Westbrook then took advantage of a dumb Chris Bosh inbounds pass for the steal and found KD for a mean tomahawk dunk on Udonis Haslem.
- The first quarter was pretty choppy. Both teams kept turning the ball over (with Miami stopping much of that shortly thereafter), both in the half court and in transition. But the Thunder’s interior defense did a lot to set an early low-scoring tone. Four blocks in the first quarter alone, three by Ibaka.
- Daequan Cook is back. Made a short appearance in the first half and hit his only 3-pointer. I would have liked to see him come out in the second half for another run, but Scott Brooks kept him om the bench.
- With Cook in, it was good to see a lineup of the Thunder’s primary second stringers on the court together at the same time, which hasn’t been able to happen yet in the Derek Fisher era. Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed aren’t too shabby on shooting open jumpers, so OKC can really spread the floor, especially if Fisher is shooting well. And the bigs on the outside allow Harden to use them for screens in that lineup pretty often, so when they hit those jumpers, it can be a really efficient lineup for the Thunder.
- Westbrook also didn’t have his finest night, with a lot of missed shots at the rim that he normally makes and some more out-of-rhythm shots than you want to see. His 1-8 start from the floor was a bad sign.
- The technical on Perk was his 12th, so he’ll be available for Indiana. One of the recent ones got rescinded. It seems like Perk has been one or two techs away from a suspension since Christmas, but, assuming this one doesn’t get rescinded (doubt it), he’ll have to take a seat the game after he gets his next one.
- It was fun to hear Mike Breen dog the Heat crowd a few times by saying they were unusually lively, including right before the half. It was not as fun when LeBron hit a buzzer beater going into the break.
- The Thunder endured more cold shooting and turnovers to start the second half but made up for it with mostly good defense. Still, they missed a chance to get back in the game earlier. OKC’s first points of the half came on a Westbrook jumper at about the 8:40 mark.
- Sefolosha provided a good example of one of those hidden plays that would have made a big difference in a closer game, and will make a difference in a playoff game or two. He forced Chalmers into a tough pass on a breakaway and was able to simultaneously foul LeBron on the floor, making the Heat earn their bucket in the half court. They didn’t score on the possession. I love thinking back on those plays at the end of a close win. But, alas, it was the Heat in a win that felt a little more comfortable than the final score.
- LeBron deserves a lot of credit for denying KD the ball. His defense once Durant had the ball was also really good and he forced him into some tough shots. But Durant was clearly getting frustrated during the game, and much of that seemed to come from not being able to get open against LeBron. James really put on a show and probably went a long way to securing some MVP votes. That will be the lasting head-to-head image for voters when it comes to KD and LeBron.
- Brooks didn’t sit KD or Westbrook to start the fourth quarter. They usually get a break, but Brooks knew OKC’s best chance to erase a seven-point lead in a big game for playoff seeding was to leave his best players in. And it almost worked, as OKC was aggressive and decisive on both ends of the floor and Miami opened 0-8 from the field.
- Fisher showed some of his value on a smart play in the fourth quarter. He had already, finally, hit a shot from outside in the game, but took a pass and shook his defender with a fake, then cut into the lane to find Collison. Collison drew contact and hit both free-throws. Those kinds of heady plays, and no turnovers, are what the Thunder signed up for.
- The Thunder managed a long-distance alley-oop from Westbrook to Durant with about two minutes left. That’ll do for an easy bucket in crunch time.
- But the rest of crunch time wasn’t kind to the Thunder. LeBron played some terrific defense on Durant to force a tough turnaround on the baseline that KD missed badly late in the game. Then Durant did only a mediocre job using a mediocre Ibaka screen on the Thunder’s last gasp, down 3 with 15 seconds left, and needlessly took a 3-pointer from five feet behind the line instead of taking the time to find a better shot. There will be better days and better plays in the clutch from here on out. Let’s hope there aren’t too many more of those plays, though.
Next up: At Indiana on Friday.