Serge Ibaka hit a jumper, and one possession in, the Thunder led the Heat 2-0. It was a good, clean high pick-and-roll set with an on-time delivery from Reggie Jackson, executed to perfection.
Hard to draw any kind of conclusion from one possession, from one jumper, but considering how the Thunder have performed against the Heat dating back to the 2012 Finals, specifically early in games, I took it as a great sign.
But then came the Miami onslaught. Fifteen straight from the Heat before Scott Brooks finally decided he’d seen enough of his two-big lineup, and with 7:24 left in the first quarter, he subbed Kendrick Perkins. The Thunder were now in a 15-2 hole, with it eventually growing to an 18-2 one. You could hear the sighs and groans and grumbles emanating from Oklahoma City all way on South Beach. It was just more of the same. More of the same stubbornness that had them in consistent holes in the Finals, more of the same infuriating resistance to an obvious change that has given the Thunder constant problems against the Heat.
The Thunder fought back.
Led by an impressive burst from the second unit, the Thunder won the second quarter and actually held a 55-50 lead heading into the break. The comeback was impressive, but it felt empty. Why? Because we all know Scott Brooks and how rigid and committed he is to his consistency. So for at least five or six minutes to start the third, we all knew the Thunder were going to have to weather another mismatched storm.
But something weird happened. Like Game 6 against the Rockets last postseason, Brooks flexed. He adjusted. You know he didn’t want to, you know that he only did it because he was finally backed into a corner. The Thunder never want to show a weakness, or let anyone think what they’re doing isn’t good enough. They firmly believe if they just play to their capability, they can beat anyone, no matter the personnel. Sometimes though, that square won’t fit into that damn circle.
Perry Jones started the second half in place of Perk, and the Thunder picked right up where they left off. A barrage of early 3s to start the quarter created some distance, and as Miami hung around and began to make a mini push, cutting the lead to 10 on back-to-back LeBron buckets, the Reaper arrived.
A filthy 28-foot 3 to shut up a raucous American Airlines Arena. A response from LeBron, then two free throws from Serge Ibaka. A Ray Allen jump pulled it back to 11, but Durant broke out his one-footer running jumper, then answered a deep LeBron 2 with another bomb from deep. The Thunder absorbed the Heat punch, and threw one right back. And the icing on it: Straight out of the Valparaiso playbook, Derek Fisher banked in a 3 at the buzzer to put OKC up 16 heading to the fourth.
The final 12 minutes were stressful until Erik Spoelstra finally decided to pack it in and pen his concession speech, sitting LeBron and Wade with 1:46 left. The Thunder had gone from an 18-2 hole, to routing the Heat 110-77 from that point on. After Brooks subbed Perk, OKC outscored Miami 110-80. That’s a 40-point swing. That’s wow.
The Thunder got the Miami monkey off their back. They ended the six-game skid, and not just that, revealed a precise, pinpoint gameplan to beating them. It wasn’t just Brooks’ adjustment to sit Perk, but the way OKC attacked the Heat’s trademark trapping pick-and-roll coverage was simple, and incredibly effective. The Thunder absorbed and used Miami’s aggressiveness against them, drawing the second defender to the ball, releasing the pressure to the roll man, then bringing a big to the free throw line. Pass, pass, pass and the Thunder were finding open, easy shots.
Without Russell Westbrook, a top five player that’s currently still on the roster and set to return in a few weeks, the Thunder walked into Miami, into the house of the two-time defending champions and just took it to them. It’s the most satisfying regular season win I can remember for the Thunder. And with Durant’s takeover and the way he snuffed the life out of any Miami comeback, it’s going to take some supernatural happenings for the MVP to land anywhere but OKC by the end of the season.
- Two big numbers in this game: 16 made 3-pointers from OKC, and 21 Miami turnovers. The 16 made 3s are the most in the OKC era, and came on 27 shots. The script finally flipped. Durant was outstanding, but instead of Mike Miller, Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole or whoever drilling 3s all over against the Thunder, it was Jeremy Lamb, Derek Fisher and Thabo Sefolosha knocking a few down.
- The Thunder’s bench won this game, really. Fisher was seriously outstanding, hitting 5-5 from 3 and playing a huge part in settling the team down with a couple shots in the first quarter. Lamb went for 18 on 7-10 shooting (4-6 from 3) plus four assists. A total of 33 points from them on 12-17 shooting and 9-11 from 3.
- Again, Lamb was wonderful. He hit back-to-back 3s in the first half that pulled OKC close, and was just steady and in rhythm offensively all night. Provided Durant a perfect perimeter option in a bunch of spots.
- (Should I make a Harden-in-the-Finals joke here? Or are we all well past that?)
- Scott Brooks on the lineup change: “I thought it was, to win this game, we had to make a decision to go with a smaller lineup. It’s just this game. It’s not something we have to do all the time. Perk brings so much to us. I’m not going to make it a small lineup, big lineup thing. We won the game. Understand that we won the game. It’s not what I did, it’s how we played as a collective group. It’s always been about us. We’ve got a bunch of guys that are all about team, and tonight was a clear, prime example of that.”
- Durant on the smaller lineup: “It’s a better matchup for us, I guess.”
- Durant also told reporters, “I don’t have a supporting cast. We’re all the same.”
- The lineup that started the game: -13. The lineup that started the third quarter: +9.
- Not only did Brooks start Jones in the second half, he made the wise choice of starting him on LeBron. Obviously a baptism for Jones, but a necessary one with KD sitting on two fouls. Plus, it was a time for Durant to go for a stretch without worrying about defending LeBron. Jones did well, forcing a few tough shots.
- Remember when the Thunder drafted Jones two years ago? A lot of folks felt like he might be an X-factor against the Heat. Well, well, well.
- So, the big questions: What took Brooks so long to make the change, and why now? I think he’s known all along it was necessary. I have two theories as why he waited: 1) Brooks was saving his grand adjustment for the Finals, if the Thunder play the Heat. Like he didn’t want to reveal his big adjustment in a January game. Or 2) he genuinely wanted to give his guys the chance to solve it themselves. This is probably the reality. Like I said, the Thunder have a very specific mindset, almost arrogant, and to adjust was to admit a weakness. Brooks is a player’s coach and you know he didn’t want to do it. I don’t think the thought of going small finally just popped into his head at the half. He wanted to give the regular rotation a shot. But once it wasn’t working, his hand was forced and to his credit, he made the move.
- Thing is a good thing for Perk, too. Instead of everyone yelling at him and blaming him for everything for not being able to do he’s not physically capable of, he gets to step aside. I’ve always said this about the Perk-Miami thing: It’s not his fault. It’s on the coach to put his players in the best possible position to succeed, and Brooks wasn’t doing that with Perk against the Heat. We all know the story with Perk. He’s played admirably well this month, and has had some really solid defensive performances. Against a few teams, he’s a hero. But that’s what he is. A specialist. I just can’t comprehend not accepting that and making the proper adjustment within that mindset.
- The perfect illustration that Brooks understood the issue, but just refused to adjust to it, at least until halftime: Steven Adams was headed for a DNP-CD until garbage time. Because Brooks recognized there was never a matchup where he made any sense. So really, as we all know, the only reason he was playing Perk is to just maintain the consistency of the starting five. Why though? Is he afraid of hurt feelings?
- If Brooks had started Perk in the second half, I had this good analogy lined up comparing it to when I play Call of Duty online and there’s a sniper camping in a spot, and he kills me twice, and then I get all determined to go get him. Like I think, “I’m good enough. I can do this. I’ll just edge out a little bit and— dammit.” And then I go back again, because I just refuse to accept that I can’t get him. I kind of think that’s what it was with Perk.
- KD made it 12 straight with at least 30. And the Thunder won. What was I so worried about?
- KD, with LeBron guarding him 90 percent of the game: 33 points on 12-23 shooting, 4-9 from 3, seven rebounds, five assists and two steals.
- LeBron, with KD guarding him probably 50 percent of the game: 34 points on 12-20 shooting, three rebounds and three assists.
- I already saw a few try and excuse LeBron and the Heat that they didn’t care as much as the Thunder tonight. Rewatch that first quarter. The Heat cared deeply. You can tell just by LeBron’s defensive stance. Dude looked like he was about to form tackle Marshawn Lynch.
- Serge Ibaka played a big time game tonight and like I said earlier today, the Thunder needed him. He was cold early, starting just 4-12, but he hit six of his last eight finishing 10-20 for 22 points plus eight rebounds. With the way Miami defends the pick-and-roll, he had good looks all night. Again, great gameplan from the Thunder.
- 20 shots is a season-high for Ibaka.
- Reggie Jackson was solid. That’s really it. Just played a decent game and picked his spots well.
- Thabo really played a good one. Stepped up on LeBron well after KD’s second foul, wreaked a little havoc in passing lanes, and played with a bunch of force and aggressiveness. Six steals and four assists for him, with nine points. That’s the Thabo we know.
- Derek Fisher is making so many of these shots that I’m going to quit groaning when he puts them up. And that’s bad for everyone.
- Two of Fisher’s 3s were banked in. I can’t even.
- Scott Brooks and LeBron yapping at each other. That was great.
- I thought KD’s first couple shots were really forced, like he was a bit caught up in the game. Then he scored a couple in transition and loosened up. Then it was on.
- Be honest: When the Heat were down 20 with four minutes left, you still didn’t think it was over did you? I know I didn’t.
- And let me go ahead and do this for you, Heat fans. LeBron has two rings, KD has none. We know. Everyone knows. Remember how annoyed you used to get when Kobe fans dropped that stuff on you? And now look at you.
Next up: At the Nets on Friday