Mar 26, 2012, 1:36 AM EDT
The Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Miami Heat 103-87 Sunday night behind Kevin Durant‘s 29 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists. It was an MVP performance by Durant and a statement game for the Thunder. For the Heat, it was yet another in a long series of headache-inducing performances in which the Heat faced the biggest game of their season, a potential Finals preview, and played listless, without energy, and basically uninspired basketball.
The Heat are polarizing, and a huge story, but I don’t want to short OKC, so we’re going to split this. Let’s start with the Thunder.
We told you in the pre-game things to watch which of the two teams got scoring inside and which of the two teams had turnoverissues. OKC has the worst turnover rate in the league, and tonight was +5 in that category, turning over Miami 21 (!) times. That meant run-outs for James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant. If you give the best offensive team in the league an open court and man advantage, that’s going to work out badly for you. The way they created them was interesting, though. They didn’t overplay the passing lanes. Instead, they waited for entry passes inside, then swarmed whoever the post or pinch man was, attacking their handle and aiming for a jump ball, forcing a desperation kickout and then attacked the passing lane. In doing so they managed to create havoc without gambling out of position on the perimeter.
But the real story of the game was hidden behind Durant’s brilliance. A huge part of stopping OKC is making them a three-headed monster. You can survive Harden, Westbrook, and Durant, and in reality, Durant had a great game, Harden an OK game (19 points but 7 turnovers and some truly terrible defense at times) and Westbrook a poorer than normal game (13 points on 16 shots and 4 turnovers). But Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins combined for 35 points and 16 rebounds and if that happens, you are done, my friend. You can pack it in.
They got those points off of smart passing. Off of mid-range jumpers. Of of supreme effort. At one point, Serge Ibaka dove out of bounds to save the ball, then recovered, grabbed the pass and nailed a 16-footer. That’s an exceptionally difficult play and the kind of focus that OKC had all night. They had the Heat’s number at both ends. They played superb defense, attacking and frustrating the Heat with help defense. It was the kind of performance that OKC needed to provide with the defensive question marks they have as a team and it provided the statement they needed.
Harden in reality didn’t have an “OK” game, he had a simultaneously great and relatively questionable game. Overall you have to give him a solid B for the performance, but the matchup, should the two teams meet in the Finals, would be one to watch. But when you let OKC turn you over, when you let them get that kind of production from their bigs, when you let them beat you to every loose ball and make every hustle play, you’re going to be in trouble.
And that’s what Miami found. Trouble all over.
It was yet another big game in which Miami looked shellshocked. They started out well enough but once OKC started landing haymakers, they faded into the background. Miami had one of those games that reminds you of the Finals, a reminder that there are nights when they simply evaporate from the court and are overrun. There are games when teams don’t have it, that happens in the league all the time. But the fact that it always seems to happen against contenders is a serious problem. Miami no has lackluster efforts against the Lakers, Bulls (without Derrick Rose) and Thunder. The Heat can claim that these losses don’t matter, but that kind of confidence requires championship pedigree. Otherwise how can we be sure they won’t have the same kind of meltdown they had in the Finals? I’m no advocate for the “Count the Rings!” approach, but it’s not totally fine for Miami to keep no-showing opportunities for them to make a statement.
Getting murdered inside is especially worrisome. The common refrain has been that the Heat don’t need improvements in their roster at center, because Joel Anthony is surprisingly good and their athleticism covers the rest. But giving up 35 points to two players who, despite what their coach will tell you, are not legitimate offensive weapons when adequately defended, is not going to get it cut. They wound up against one team with a great center last year in the playoffs.
They lost to that team.
Sunday night can be passed off as just another game all they want. But it wasn’t to OKC and they played like it. Durant played like an MVP, the Thunder role players stepped up, and the Heat literally threw away their chances at the game.
Championship teams get to play the “we’ll be fine, we’ve been fine before.” As usual, Miami’s playing that card without having it.
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