Heat break Thunder hearts again, 110-100

BOX SCORE

OK, so don’t panic.

Actually maybe panic a little. Heck, I don’t care how much you panic, because at this point, any amount of it is kind of justified.

Panic about this season, or this Thunder team? Nah, they’re good. 39-14 at the break and on a crash course to contend for the Western crown. Panic about having the chops to beat the Heat? Yeah, that might be alright.

The Thunder’s fourth quarter comeback was valiant and inspiring, but it was mostly empty. They cut a 23-point lead to eight, but the outcome was never genuinely in doubt. I was certainly proud of the way the Thunder never packed it in, the way they clawed to the finish, the way they fed off a starved, emotional crowd to at least give a little hope. It reminded me a bit of Game 2 against the Spurs where OKC fought back to make it close, building a little positive momentum and belief out of it. Maybe that happened tonight.

But the events of the first half were downright shocking. Russell Westbrook was asked postgame what the mood was, if losing a sixth straight game to Miami — the second consecutive at home — was disappointing. He wouldn’t go there. He used a different word.

“Surprised,” he said.

I think that’s really the perfect way to describe it. Obviously watching Miami lead end-to-end in the Thunder’s building was frustrating. Watching them build a 23-point lead, watching LeBron basically punk OKC to end the first half, watching the Thunder struggle in pure futility, was upsetting.

“Same, same,” Durant said when asked if he felt the same as Westbrook. “We got the break I guess to think about it and get ready for our next game.”

But it’s still February and there’s still more than a quarter of a season to go. A lot can change between now and the postseason. The Thunder are 0-2 this season against Miami, and were completely outclassed the Heat for 48 minutes. Considering the excitement and desire the Thunder had coming in to tonight, I definitely didn’t expect this kind of outcome. It wouldn’t have shocked me if the Thunder lose. But to get mostly whipped? Yeah, surprised.

I think part of the problem was it was pretty clear in the first half the Thunder might’ve been overhyped. They were cranked up from tip-off, but to a level where they lost control. They needed to calm themselves down, get into a rhythm and start playing ball.

“Maybe it was nerves, we was too excited, I don’t know man,” said Kevin Durant said of their slow start. “That was the game though, that first quarter. We just kept fighting, kept fighting, but we were battling uphill and that’s tough to do against a championship caliber team.”

What I fear most, is that the Heat have mentally ninja’d the Thunder with this run. It’s one thing for them to win four straight in Miami. It’s another to keep that streak alive by doing it in OKC. The Heat obviously don’t fear playing the Thunder in their building. They weren’t intimidated or scared. They were the ones that kept their heads throughout, that bottled their emotions and redirected them in a positive way. I think that comes with having that championship in their pocket, by having that pedigree. They have a self belief the Thunder are trying to manufacture. The Heat earned it. They proved to themselves that they can do it. That’s what people mean by that “heart of a champion” bullcrap. There’s a mental edge you have where nothing can stop you while the other side feels a certain pressure to TAKE it. That’s tough.

Again, the finish was encouraging and while the Thunder are way past moral victories, it was pretty inspiring to see the way KD specifically battled and fought. He took that horrific, nightmarish fall in the second quarter, but remained in the game. He got off to an 0-of-7 start and was 4-14 after three quarters, but hit 8-of-10 in the fourth and finished with a game-high 40 points. When he fouled out with 28.4 seconds left, he walked to the bench getting a well-deserved standing ovation. He played his heart out tonight and absolutely showed some growth.

“The thing about me is I keep coming at it, keep going back, believing in myself, trusting in my work and I was able to make a few in the second half,” KD said. “I know it’s just a matter of time. That’s how I can tell I’ve matured a lot. A year ago, two years ago, I would’ve let it affect me. I probably would’ve only finished with two field goals. I think I just trusting in myself and being confident in myself and I hit some.”

Enough of the existential crap though. Here’s the question: Was the Thunder’s comeback spurred by them simply playing better, by Durant snapping out of his awful funk, or was it more about the lineups and substitutions Scott Brooks used? Things really turned for OKC when Brooks went small with Nick Collison at center and Durant at the 4, with two point guards. The Thunder didn’t necessarily dig much into Miami’s lead, but there certainly was a better offensive flow and rhythm established. Then to start the fourth, it carried over with Brooks staying small the entire final 12 minutes.

“We are a two-way team, we defend and we score. We have two-way players, that individually we defend and we score. That’s how we have to play,” Brooks said. “It’s been a pretty good formula for success and we’re not going to change that. We’re not going to change what we do for one game. We play big, we play small, we do that not only in this game, but we have a lot of different combinations. We do that all the time.”

It’s not about changing the starting five, it’s not about Perk, it’s not really about specific matchups. It’s about what makes sense, what opens the game up the most. It’s about personnel and using your assets. Obviously the Thunder have been very successful with Perk playing big minutes. They went to the NBA Finals last season and have one of the best records in basketball again this year. But against the Heat, Collison is very clearly a better answer for both ends of the floor. I don’t think it was a coincidence that things turned with him on the floor. He defends the paint and pick-and-roll while also providing an offensive dimension. Against a team like Miami that swarms and doubles, having that added weaponry on the floor seems vital to freeing Westbrook and Durant.

That part, I don’t think is coincidental. Brooks isn’t going to change drastically, but if the Thunder have the good fortune of meeting the Heat again this season, he’s got to flex in some ways. Because while the roster and coaches believe they’re better, the results say otherwise.

NOTES:

  • KD basically played the full 48 minutes tonight, and that came even with the fall in the second quarter. How he stayed in the game after that, I do not know.
  • KD on the fall: “It was just an unfortunate play. I fell really, really hard. I couldn’t catch my footing. But last thing I was thinking about was coming out of the game. I just wanted to keep fighting and I’d deal with it later … I told coach don’t take me out, especially the way I was shooting the ball, I just wanted to try to get a rhythm. It just shows how much coach believes in me.”
  • LeBron. Wow. What a performance. I’m not sure he settled the MVP debate tonight, but that surely gave him a nice leg up.
  • This game nearly got completely out of hand at multiple points. The officials were hot on the technical foul whistle, hitting KD with one, then Reggie Jackson, then LeBron, then Nick Collison. OKC’s crowd was absolutely furious, raining boos down like I’ve never heard.
  • Dwyane Wade on if the Heat have OKC’s number: “We’ve only won two in a row. Last year doesn’t matter. I thought we came out this game, a very tough game to play going into the break, and I thought we imposed our will by playing our style of basketball. Do we have their number? No. We’re not feeling that way. We’ve just won two games against them and that’s it.”
  • The Thunder survived only at the free throw line. OKC went 33-34 from the stripe. The officiating was totally whack, but it leaned far heavier on OKC’s side. Miami was whistled for six more fouls, and the Thunder took 12 more free throws.
  • Miami’s supposed to be a bad rebounding team and they beat the Thunder 46-35 on the glass. And had 13 offensive rebounds. That’s bad.
  • After Wade fouled out, he stormed into the tunnel to apparently cool off. So, when’s the national media firestorm over that taking place?
  • One player that deserves to be called out: Serge Ibaka. Another very weak performance, which is especially disappointing because he potentially is built to have the biggest impact against Miami. He finished without a block, only had six rebounds and six points. And was consistently out of position on the boards.
  • Russell Westbrook played a very solid game, keeping the Thunder afloat for a lot of it. He had 26, 20 of them coming in the first half. He’s built for frantic, wild games like these.
  • Also, I want to commend Russ on his postgame availability. He was especially cordial and very politely answered every question, even making his responses a bit more personable.
  • Westbrook defended LeBron for the fourth quarter because of foul trouble for KD and actually did a decent job. He crowded him and basically just dared him to shoot over the top. Said Westbrook on if he thought he did a good job against him: “Obviously not good enough.”
  • At one point after LeBron hit another jumper over Thabo, he was talking to Eric Maynor out of a timeout and said, “What do you do to stop it?” I really like that he said “it” there. Because that’s what LeBron is. He’s not human.
  • Hey, LeBron didn’t shoot 60 percent! The Thunder are awesome! What’s that? He went for 39 on 58.3 percent shooting and didn’t hit 60 only because he inexplicably hoisted a 30-footer late in the fourth? Oh.
  • Norris Cole, politely declining the full-court heave at the end of the third.
  • Collison’s technical was so ridiculous. He took a charge and after he did, Wade threw the ball at him. So Collison fired it back and was hit with a tech. Weak city.
  • I was completely taken out of this game in the first quarter by Danny Crawford. After calling a double foul, he came storming over to the scoretable and absolutely LIT UP a Thunder statkeeper. Like right in his face SCREAMING at him. Evidently Crawford thought the statkeeper was reacting to his calls, with this being something that’s happened in the past. Crawford yelled, “I told you for the last time, stop refereeing over here!” It was surreal. Never seen anything like that.
  • KD’s tech was his 11th of the season. Five more and he’s suspended.

Next up: The All-Star break.

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