Big game tonight. And no matter what Kevin Durant and every other Thunder person says, this game isn’t just one of 82. A good example of why: I’m writing this.
Ten thoughts, fears and questions leading into the showdown:
1. Is the MVP up for grabs tonight? For LeBron, no. For Durant, maybe. Durant is the clear front-runner, even maybe going so far as to lay a hand on the trophy already. With the buzz he’s created the last month, and the way the Thunder have played, Durant’s put together the two most important elements of an MVP campaign: stats and story. Durant’s stats are NSFW and his team is 15-6 without Russell Westbrook. Done and done.
However, with LeBron being the only viable candidate challenging Durant right now, the one thing that could tilt the axis of the argument back in his favor is a win tonight, and then another in OKC on Feb. 20. If Miami were to go 2-0 against the Thunder, and LeBron dominated again, making it eight straight for the Heat over the Thunder, now it becomes a debate of “Yeah Durant’s got the numbers, but LeBron’s got the wins.”
Yes, it’s still January. Too early to call an MVP race over. But with the narrative Durant has already built — his 30-point streak isn’t the only thing he’s got going, he’s led SportsCenter for like two straight weeks — to reverse that momentum would take some behemoth play from LeBron over the last 30 games. Like as in, the Heat go 26-4 and LeBron averages filthy numbers. But the best way for LeBron to build his case is to just beat KD twice. Outside of that, if Durant notches a win in either, I think it might be in the bag for him, because that storyline then dies. Especially if he does it tonight without Westbrook.
2. Why am I so nervous? What if KD doesn’t get to 30? What if the Heat win again? What if Kendrick Perkins plays all 48 minutes? What if Scott Brooks puts Derek Fisher on LeBron?
I kind of wish, and this is stupid, I realize, that Durant’s 30-point streak would’ve ended against the Hawks. Because I’m picturing it now: The Heat win a close game and Durant has an ordinary game (by his standards) of like 27 points on 9-20 shooting. Now it’s a story about how LeBron shut down KD and he’s the guy that ended the unstoppable scoring.
Here’s the thing that everyone needs to understand here: The Thunder are going on the road to take on the two-time defending champions, and they’re doing it short-handed. The Thunder are severe underdogs here. It’s going to take an incredible effort to pull out a win. So when the writers start writing tomorrow and the talking heads start talking about whatever storyline they are, just remember that. The Thunder aren’t supposed to win this game.
3. Worries of a mental block? The Heat have beat the Thunder six straight times going back to the 2012 Finals. Did you know that? Six straight times the Heat have won. Have you heard anyone mention that yet? That it’s six straight wins for the Miami Heat over the Oklahoma City Thunder? Well it is. The Heat have beat the Thunder, in consecutive fashion, six times.
Already, I kind of worry about there being a bit of a mental block, a feeling of “We can’t beat these guys.” The Thunder used to have it against the Spurs before they obliterated them in Game 3 of the 2012 Western Finals and completely turned that matchup between the two teams around. Now the Thunder own the Spurs. Maybe it’s time for a similar switch tonight.
4. Smallballin’. In the 2012 Finals, in which the Heat won 4-1, the series was painfully close, decided by a handful of plays that seemed to fall Miami’s way rather than OKC’s (other than Game 5, which was a slaughter). But one of the more disturbing trends to emerge in the series was Scott Brooks’ and the Thunder’s steadfast refusal to play Miami small. Erik Spoelstra was in a mode of starting Chris Bosh at center and LeBron at power forward, but Brooks stuck with his regimented starting five, trotting Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka out together for extended minutes.
It wasn’t that Perk couldn’t match up. It’s that the Thunder couldn’t score. In the five games, the Thunder scored only 99.5 points per 100 possessions with Perkins on the floor, versus 111.0 with him off. In the two games last season against the Heat, more of the same. Just 96.1 points per 100 with Perk on, 108.8 with him off. And last season, Perk defense didn’t matter as Miami piled up 115.2 points per 100 with him on the floor.
However, the Heat have sort of changed course in how they play. No longer is Bosh the lone starting big, as they consistently play two together, and LeBron has spent the bulk of his season at small forward. Does Spoelstra flip back to the smallball tactics that frustrated OKC so much? Or do the Heat play big, and maybe into OKC’s favor some considering Brooks’ stubbornness, and rely on Greg Oden and Chris Anderson more?
But if not, will Brooks and the Thunder finally adjust to this? The answer is going to be no, which only means there will be plenty of questions to ask after the game if the Heat make it a seventh straight win.
5. Fouls. The Heat can’t stop Kevin Durant. But when it comes to playing them, fouls have at least slowed him down. Durant routinely got into foul trouble during the Finals, and again last season. Most of them were of the silly, ticky-tack variety where he got caught reaching in or trying to take a dumb charge. And no, they weren’t as a result of him guarding LeBron.
But Durant is definitely the Thunder’s best option on No. 6. But if he’s got three fouls in the first half, and picks up a fourth early in the third, it’s going to mess things up.
6. Serge Ibaka. The key to this game, if you ask me, which you kind of are, because you’re reading this, is Serge Ibaka. In the Finals, Ibaka was mostly neutralized, both by his lack of time on the floor (inexplicably only 26.3 minutes a game) and his own doing. He only attempted 6.6 shots a game over the five games, and averaged 7.0 points and 5.2 rebounds. He wasn’t a factor inside, and he didn’t protect the rim.
Now, he’s a lot better. And he’s become a major part to what the Thunder do. He has to be the Thunder’s secondary option to Durant, or at least bring high energy on the offensive glass. The Thunder are best suited to play Miami small, but that’s contingent on Ibaka handling himself at center.
7. What do you do with LeBron? Nobody can guard him. So what do you do?
The Heat are in the unique position of having two players to throw at KD, even three, with LeBron, Shane Battier and Michael Beasley. The Thunder really only have Durant, and sometimes Thabo, but as we’ve seen that hasn’t gone all that well.
So here’s my thought: Be prepared to try Serge Ibaka on him. Yes, that sounds ridiculous, but in the Finals against the Spurs, San Antonio experienced a lot of success with Boris Diaw checking LeBron. He dared LeBron to shoot, sagging off him and using his width to keep him in front. This season against the Clippers, Blake Griffin was pretty effective on LeBron.
LeBron obviously can take Ibaka off the dribble, but with Ibaka’s recovery ability at the rim, maybe there’s a hope he could erase a few of those layups. If I remember right, Ibaka played a handful of possessions against him last season and I think it was to moderate success. So maybe try it.
8. The Others. As fun as the Durant-LeBron matchup is, what really decides the Finals was Mario Chalmers, Battier, Mike Miller and the rest of Miami’s role players.
The Thunder on the other hand, didn’t get anything from theirs. Same went for the two games last season. Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson, Thabo, Nick Collison and the rest of OKC’s role players have to play well.
9. Remember: Russell Westbrook isn’t playing. And you know what? Russell Westbrook absolutely kills the Heat. His competitive spirit has always made an incredible impact in these games and even with the Thunder rolling without him, when you’re playing one of the few teams in the league that can match your talent, not having your full complement of players makes it tough.
10. This is going to be fun. Try and enjoy it a little.