Thunder come up short again in Miami, 103-97

BOX SCORE

Deep breath. That wasn’t Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

It certainly had the feel though with the intensity, the hard fouls, the emotion and the effort. Both from the players and fans alike. It obviously meant a little bit more, what with the recent history between the teams and the national spotlight on Christmas. But it didn’t technically mean anything more, because it’s just December in the regular season.

There’s going to be focus on the shot by Russell Westbrook to tie the game with six seconds left, but there really shouldn’t be. The Thunder had key chances to avoid the situation. One specific one being the horrific defensive breakdown with 30 seconds left that allowed Chris Bosh an uncontested dunk to put Miami up three.

What happened on it? Judging by the conversation that occurred after it, it seemed like Kevin Martin was at fault. At least in Perk’s mind. It appeared that Perk tried to tell Martin to get Bosh while he helped Westbrook on LeBron, but Martin either didn’t get that or tried to pass Bosh off to Durant. Either way, it was a total bust.

But I had two questions about the situation in general: Why not go offense/defense there and put Thabo in for either Martin if you want to stay big, or go with Sefolosha in place of Kendrick Perkins to match up with Miami’s perimeter heavy group (Bosh was the only big in the game)?

Oh, that’s right. Perk’s “toughness” which is supposed to magically get defensive stops despite bad matchups. Some things never change, even after it seems that lesson was hammered home in June.

Why Perk was in the game late is one of those unknown mysteries like why people watch TLC anymore, but we shouldn’t be surprised. I’m mostly a Perk defender, but I’m not blind enough to realize that some matchups he doesn’t work. Perk doesn’t really have a good place on the floor against the Heat and in some ways, it seems like the Thunder are trying to win in spite of him. He doesn’t have a natural matchup and isn’t impacting any other area like the offensive glass or something. He’s just sort of there.

But there was so much more to this game than just that play, or Perk. And really, the Thunder engineered a mini-comeback with Perk out there anyway, and like I said, OKC had a chance. In some ways, Scott Brooks might feel a little validation because if you check the play-by-play, OKC actually allowed only one Miami field goal (other than the Bosh dunk) the last five minutes of the game, also known as the time Perk checked back in. The Thunder got stops, and outside of a breakdown, was presented an opportunity to win.

Kevin Durant got it back to one with a pure jumper over LeBron, the Thunder fouled, Ray Allen dropped two free throws and with 15 seconds left, OKC needed a 3 to tie. Durant forced one with 10 seconds left over LeBron, Perk tipped it out to Westbrook who had a decent look. In hindsight, he should’ve pumped or swung the ball to a higher percentage shooter, but you can’t fault a scorer for throwing up a shot in that circumstance. Was he fouled? Who knows. The lone replay was extremely inconclusive and while it sort of had the look of a foul, appearances can be deceiving. Plus, Westbrook flailing in that situation is very Westbrook-y.

The Thunder were lucky to have that shot in some ways though. The Heat had multiple opportunities to put the Thunder away in the fourth quarter but never took advantage. The Thunder hung tough and clung to the thought that KD could save them late. And he almost did.

What remains unchanged from the Finals are two things:

1) The Thunder have a much slimmer margin for error than the Heat do. OKC needs to knock down open looks, take advantage of transition opportunities, make free throws and control tempo. The Thunder have to play their game and not conform to the Heat’s bruising style.

2) The Heat make the Thunder play differently. The Thunder don’t look like themselves when they play Miami. In the Finals, that was mostly about James Harden’s no-show, but tonight, it was the stagnant isolation, horrible spacing and lack of movement. The Thunder had only 14 assists with Westbrook doing little creating (three assists). There wasn’t that natural, easy flow to OKC’s offense. Everything was a struggle, and that’s obviously a credit to Miami.

Oh and a third thing: Scott Brooks still likes to play Kendrick Perkins.

But the Thunder were right there. Like the Finals, KD was back in foul trouble early, playing limited minutes in the first half. And yet the Thunder stayed in the game and never let the Heat stretch out to a lead. It felt like OKC didn’t play very well and yet had a chance to win. Again, that’s the Miami effect, but I don’t think there’s a big reason to feel discouraged or all that frustrated about this loss. It’s back-to-back failures and revenge against the Heat would’ve been nice, but it there’s not some grand flaw that was exposed that’s going to prevent the Thunder from achieving their ultimate goal.

Just like what happened in June, the game came down to a series of small plays, most of which went the Heat’s way. The gap between these two teams is razor thin, but there definitely is one. And the Thunder have to figure out a way to close it.

NOTES:

  • That old starting lineup problem. The Thunder were worked over the first few minutes of the game with the Heat jumping out to a 7-0 lead, then a 15-3 lead. What’s frustrating about it is the Heat actually had a more traditional lineup that should’ve helped OKC. Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh started, not Shane Battier. But the Thunder just lacked early focus and the Heat jumped them.
  • Mario Chalmers, the J.J. Barea of the East. His season-high was 12 before tonight. He scored 20, hitting six 3s. Naturally.
  • Pretty big development: It appears the backup point guard spot is officially up for grabs. Reggie Jackson got Eric Maynor’s minutes and performed well. He was part of a second quarter spark and in 13 minutes finished a +1. My thought was maybe Brooks favored Jackson over Maynor because Miami doesn’t really feature a natural point guard and preferred Jackson’s defensive versatility, but I think he might be tinkering a bit.
  • LeBron does such an incredible job of defending without his hands. He’s the best in the league at checking a guy with his chest. It’s why he rarely fouls.
  • Despite losing, KD was brilliant. He scored 25 in the second half, kept OKC close and filled the statsheet. LeBron is maybe the best pure defender in the league, but he can’t check KD. Durant can get what he wants on LeBron, when he wants.
  • The Heat do an outstanding job of limiting the Thunder’s complementary pieces. Ibaka and Martin both had 15, but Thabo never really got any looks. OKC’s production was mostly coming via Durant and Westbrook.
  • The Thunder had only one block. That’s weird, right?
  • Russell Westbrook really hurt the Thunder in a few situations. He got a bit reckless, a bit wild and a bit forceful. In other words, he was Russell Westbrook.
  • This sounds crazy since the Thunder are so good in transition, but late in the fourth the Thunder kept leaking out after long rebounds and looking to run. On a couple possessions they ended up forcing a pass, a drive or a shot. I actually thought it might’ve been better for the Thunder to forgo the fast break opportunity and set up in the halfcourt. Hindsight, of course.
  • “Poetic shot,” said Mike Tirico about a runner from KD. I feel like “poetic” could describe every Durant shot. So pretty.
  • Westbrook ended up with a double-double, 21 points, 11 rebounds. Never quits.
  • Thunder fans are inclined to complain about the officiating and while there are some legit gripes to be had (KD’s second foul, the phantom charge on Westbrook come to mind), it’s hard to really state your case when you own a 38-19 edge at the line. Then again, it should be noted the foul count was actually 26-25, Miami.
  • Nick Collison playing only 19 minutes against the Heat is criminal.
  • I had some people ask me why no Hasheem Thabeet. It was obvious, wasn’t it? The Heat don’t really play a true big man. What good would a 7-3 center do against the small, quick Heat? If Perk is bad against Miami, Thabeet would only be worse.
  • One of those games it’s natural to wonder if James Harden would’ve helped. He would’ve, potentially. The Thunder could’ve used him more in the pick-and-roll, could’ve tried him as a creator and hoped for a little halfcourt versatility. But Martin was very productive for OKC, scoring 15 and providing a solid spark off the bench.
  • The next evolution of KD’s rip move: The post rip move. That’s really called The Tim Duncan, but it’s a clever, smart way to create contact and get to the line.
  • The Christmas unis were bleck. The orange should’ve been white. It was impossible to see numbers or names. Kevin Martin and Thabo Sefolosha genuinely were twins for a day.

Next up: Home against the Mavs Thursday.

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