There are a whole lot of reasons the Thunder lost four straight to the Heat in the NBA Finals. The most obvious one is LeBron James.
But with that, a lot of the discussion has centered around the Thunder’s ability to match up with Miami, specifically its smallball approach. With Scott Brooks’ insistence to stick with his starting five for long stretches that features two traditional bigs, the Thunder found themselves in big holes to start games and couldn’t cover perimeter shooters like Mike Miller and Shane Battier.
The debate was kicked up all over again on Christmas Day when Miami topped the Thunder as Brooks went big with Kendrick Perkins on the floor for the final five minutes of the game. It led to a lot of talk about how Brooks has to change his approach and lineup choices if he ever wants to beat the Heat.
But on the recent B.S. Report, there were some really interesting comments by both Bill Simmons and Steve Kerr about Miami smallball, to which I immediately applied to their matchup with the Thunder.
“If I was a Miami fan, what would scare me is I feel like the team is playing pretty hard. And they have real holes. Like they can’t rebound,” Simmons said. “It doesn’t matter how hard they play. They have their best player playing his pants off every single night and he’s the best player in the league, and they have these games where Orlando, with Vucevic had 29 rebounds against them. Last night Utah just overpowered them. You saw Memphis overpower them. You’ve seen the Bulls overpower them. After a while it’s not an accident, they’re just too small.”
Said Kerr: “I watched the Utah game last night and they got completely destroyed for three quarters. Jefferson and Millsap demolished them.”
It’s true — the Heat are routinely getting crushed on the glass. They’re last in the league in overall rebounding and they give up almost 12 offensive boards a game. The Heat have lost four of six and in the four losses, they’re -56 in rebounding. The Jazz outrebounded them by 17. The Bulls by 20. The Pacers by 19. It’s a real problem.
Obviously Miami’s smallball design was a big part of them winning an NBA title last season, but it hasn’t played out to the same success this season. Chris Bosh isn’t a strong enough rebounder to clean the boards by himself and for Miami to run their vaunted transition offense, they have to get a rebound first. And mostly, they’re just getting beat up and falling into the “Please please LeBron bail us out and save us” approach.” Which works a lot of the time, actually.
But I think you can see Brooks’ mindset here and why he stubbornly has insisted on going big against Miami. Common sense says to matchup, but Brooks’ typically likes to use his smallball lineup with Durant at power forward to dictate matchups. To force the other side to adjust and take a player off the floor.
Because for better or worse, internally, the Thunder believe they are better than the Heat. That’s no big surprise, but even after the Finals loss, according to multiple sources close to the team, the locker room never wavered that it was more about what they didn’t do, and less about what the Heat did to beat them. The Thunder’s mindset with the Heat is, if we do what we do and do it well, then it doesn’t matter what they do.
I can see why they feel that way. Take the Christmas Day game. I don’t really know where the Heat can play better. For the most part, they did what they do. But you can pick out a number of areas the Thunder didn’t play to their capability, specifically in that Westbrook didn’t play well at all and the ball movement was bad.
So it actually might be less of a matchup question and more of a personnel question. The Thunder aren’t an especially strong rebounding team in their own right and rank extremely low in offensive rebound rate. Basically OKC has one offensive rebounder in Serge Ibaka, with the occasional Russell Westbrook flyover.
Consider this: In the five Finals matchups, the Thunder only outrebounded the Heat in one of them — Game 1. Which of course is the only game the Thunder won. Maybe that’s coincidental. What we have to remember about all these games against the Heat, other than Game 5, is that they all came down to probably two or three plays. They were really close.
Now, the Thunder’s best lineup all season has been with Ibaka at center and Durant at power forward. It’s OKC’s best defensive and offensive lineup. So even despite this little theory about trying to outmuscle the Heat, I think you go with your best five on the floor.
But, the point is, while we were all scratching our heads wondering why Scott Brooks wouldn’t go small against the Heat, maybe it wasn’t because he was missing something. Maybe we are. Maybe not, but it’s at least something to think about, and possibly a window into Brooks’ thinking.