Oklahoma City Thunder 105, Miami Heat 94 (Thunder lead the Finals, 1-0)
The 2012 NBA Finals, by all indications, are going to be a long series. A close series, where a litany of maneuvers and adjustments could make the difference from game to game, as the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat battle it out for six or seven contests. And boy howdy, does Heat coach Erik Spoelstra seem aware of that.
In his team's first game, he had LeBron James guarding Kendrick Perkins to start, Russell Westbrook to finish, and not Kevin Durant. He had multiple scoring opportunities (this was no accident) in place for Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier in the first half. He looked to see what Dwyane Wade, after two days "off" between the conference finals and NBA Finals, could give him in the second half. He used Game 1, that clichéd "game for the road team to steal," as an excuse to gather more game tape for the six contests he probably thinks his team is going to play from here on out. And his team (particularly James), following the eventual loss, didn't seem to agree with the tactic.
[Adrian Wojnarowski: Kevin Durant upstages LeBron James in Game 1 of NBA Finals]
This isn't why the Thunder won, of course. Oklahoma City is better. The team is deeper, and it showed remarkable poise even in its first Finals game and (most notable to me) playing real live NBA basketball for the first time in nearly a week in Game 1. Kevin Durant's 36 points on 20 shots were key, but just as important was the work of Russell Westbrook. Not just because he filled the stat sheet, dishing 11 assists and pulling in eight rebounds. It was because his ability to rise up for a jumper he consistently showed confidence in late in possessions, something even the scoring-mad Rajon Rondo didn't do all time in Boston's seven game series with Miami, turned every broken Thunder play into a dangerous proposition as he squared his defender up.
And the Heat's helpers, those make or break your season helpers, went away. Chalmers and Battier combined to miss three of four shots in the second half after scoring 21 points on 9-12 shooting in the first half. In the fourth quarter Chris Bosh attempted to bail Miami out with two three-pointers, as he was successful at against Boston on Saturday night, and clanged both. Played the entire fourth but managed just three points and two rebounds. Mike Miller killed the team on both sides of the ball, and Udonis Haslem's defense just hasn't looked the same since he broke his foot early in the 2010-11 season.
Dwyane Wade and LeBron James played their games, and did well, but lived up to their All-Star level averages. On a lacking team like this, both players are forced into going beyond that. It's not fair, but this is what they sign up for when they literally sign up, with Bosh, to take up the overwhelming bulk of Miami's salary cap space with their near-maximum contracts.
[Johnny Ludden: Heat need Dwyane Wade at his best after Game 1 loss to Thunder]
Credit Scott Brooks, as well. Kendrick Perkins recovered from a step-slow start to contribute well and not act as a millstone, but Brooks decided to let Nick Collison play the final 14 and a half minutes of the game. Thankfully.
Collison had a great game overall (+13 in the contest in just 21 minutes, eight points and 10 rebounds), he clearly screens well enough for Durant (who tossed in 17 points in the fourth quarter), and he's better suited to chase around Bosh, Udonis Haslem, and even Battier as they attempt to spread the floor for James and Wade to drive and dish. Brooks won't exactly be starting Collison ahead of Perkins, as the series moves on, but he apparently is realizing that having a low post stud to bang the opponent's big threat is a luxury, and not exactly something he needs to turn to in every matchup. If Brooks realizes this, good for him.
Erik Spoelstra, meanwhile, experimented with the shortened rotation. Eight players saw action, and one of them (Joel Anthony) worked just two minutes in the opening contest. We get it — his bench is awful — but it's clear that Spoelstra is going to have to find some way around this, even if these minutes in June are absolutely critical.
At the very least, he has to figure out what, exactly, Mike Miller is giving him at this point. Miller cannot react on defense, he's not able to draw defenders and dish as he once could, and he's no threat offensively. Perhaps most telling, as Miller works through back, groin, ankle and wrist injuries, is the fact that Miller didn't pull in a rebound in 10 minutes of play. He might not look like Jayson Williams to you, but for years Miller was one of the top (if not the top) rebounders at the off guard or small forward position. To be unable to pull in a carom shows that his athleticism and ability to move has dwindled to nil, and Spoelstra has to adjust. As unsavory as heavy minutes for James Jones sounds.
Spo isn't alone in this. Kevin Durant played nearly 46 minutes in the win, and though he had nearly a week between contests before Game 1, Game 2 is on Thursday. Game 3 is on Sunday, and though Kevin is young, he loves those long jumpers. And though Kevin can get to the line, he needs a spring in his step (and for his opponent, perhaps LeBron James from here on out?) to respect his long jumper enough to be shook by the drive. This was Brooks' freebie, a reward for his team's quick'ish elimination of the Lakers in the second round and Boston's insistence on both making the Heat wait for the conference finals to start up, and taking the series to seven games following. From here, Brooks will have to adjust.
Like, perhaps, finding room for James Harden to score. James was not a factor in Game 1, fouling four times and needing six shots to score five points. He played just a shot-less cameo late in the fourth quarter, just four minutes in the third, and fewer minutes than Derek Fisher overall. Miami, be it instinctually or as instructed, will be locking in on Russell Westbrook as he turns the corner late in the shot clock. Harden, from here on out, has to make the Heat pay.
Because, looking ahead, these games are always a few clangs away from the Thunder losing their first home playoff game of the postseason, and the Heat grabbing home court advantage. This isn't to say the Thunder couldn't grab it right back, especially considering the fact that few home teams sweep the three games at home in the 2-3-2 format, but this isn't a point the Thunder should have to consider should they improve even on this very, very good game.
The Heat will get better. LeBron James will act quickly, as this offer will only last for so long, understanding that as great as seven points and two boards in the final quarter of a Finals game is (seriously, that's 28 points and eight rebounds in a full game, because we're good at math) somehow not enough considering the failures of his supporting cast. The failures, if we're to be cruel, of even the two other members of his Big Three, who managed just 29 points on 30 shots in this massive game. The Thunder earned this win, and forced Miami into all sorts of things offensively that didn't work, but that doesn't mean the Heat won't improve. Significantly, even. The Thunder have to prepare for that.
We also have to prepare, as the indications were in December, and when these teams met in spring, and on Sunday when it became a relationship steeped in reality, that we're going to be seeing a whole lot of these teams over the next two weeks.
And that this start, fun though it may have been, is probably just a prelude to something even bigger and better.
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