After falling behind early, one could be forgiven for thinking that this game would be very similar to the previous six encounters between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat. Scott Brooks again started Kendrick Perkins as he has done whenever possible, and once again it showed against the smaller and quicker Miami Heat starting unit. Chris Bosh ran amok scoring 11 quick points and the Thunder found themselves on the canvas very early. It looked like it was going to be another long night for the Thunder against an opponent who has caused them a number of headaches.
Then the Thunder did what they have been doing all season long. They started to play with more energy and hustle, move the ball and the substitution of Kendrick Perkins for Jeremy Lamb looked like a master stoke from Brooks – albeit about 10 minutes too late. They forced turnovers and got out in transition, they fed Kevin Durant who played another stellar game and they had options all over the floor. Serge Ibaka played the role the Thunder have envisaged for him all along, rebounding the basketball, trapping the ball handler and scoring 20 points on that lovely mid range jump shot. Jeremy Lamb came off the bench and provided some terrific outside shooting and ball movement and the often maligned veteran Derek Fisher decided to pack his jump shot.
Once the Thunder got rolling, they were very hard to stick with and the Heat eventually succumbed to their pressure and admitted defeat.
The match up of the games two best players did not fail to disappoint with both Durant and James scoring over 30, playing solid defense and asking a great deal of themselves and the team. It was a joy to watch. This is just one game though, a regular season game at that, where both sides aren’t at full strength but it was probably the win that the Oklahoma City Thunder needed the most. They have knocked off Western Conference foes the San Antonio Spurs in all three attempts this season, they have won a couple now over the surprising Portland Trailblazers and they beat up the league leading Indiana Pacers. A victory over the two time defending champs though has alluded the Thunder since Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Finals – until now.
Heading into this game without Russell Westbrook, away from their fortress at Chesapeake Arena and running straight into a Miami Heat team with something to prove at home, it was going to be very tough to get a win. Tough doesn’t phase OKC these days though and they fought tooth and nail to get this W. It goes down in the win-loss column as just a win, but it was so much more than that. This game gave us an insight into two of the best teams and best players. It gave us a preview of a potential NBA Finals matchup and it allowed us to measure the progress and development of the Thunder and Kevin Durant. It was the Thunder’s biggest test of the season – of which they passed, with an A+ grade.
Having covered the Thunder for a few years and being a huge fan, I have had the pleasure of watching the core develop. I have watched as the team had lost and lost game after game, but I have also witnessed their rise. The 2012 NBA Finals appearance was terrific but the resounding loss still showed a glaring weakness in the Thunder game – poise. As is expected with younger teams, there is a vast difference between the best and the worst performance. There are also a number of instances where the Thunder have played “immature” basketball, trying to do too much and going away from structures etc. It was clear in that finals series, and was clearly absent in this win. Even when the Thunder were down early, they never looked shocked or rattled. They didn’t race down the court and force the action, rather opting to stick to the game plan and the course and grind out the game until they were back on level pegging at the half.
Oklahoma City Thunder can go missing for long periods of time and let games get away from them in a hurry – well they used to. This team know, led by Kevin Durant and a cast of established role players (even if most of them are still less than 4 years into their pro careers) now think and play their way through adversity. Thabo locks in on defense and gets a couple of key stops. Lamb gets a couple of nice looks within the offence and Ibaka snags some offensive boards. Durant keeps up his efficiency and Derek Fisher not only hits shots, but hits the floor to set the tone. It is a totally different look to the awe-struck but talented team that went to the NBA Finals.
If the Thunder’s model of sustainable success was going to work, it required drafting the right player, developing them and having a balance of youth, talent and experience. After watching the Thunder defeat the Miami Heat for the first time in six games today, it is safe to say the plan is working. Even without Westbrook, the Thunder look dangerous and when Russ comes back and Reggie is taking on the opposition’s second string point guard, things could get ugly. This might be the season where the Thunder show just how much they have learned from their finals appearance. Tonight was a huge step in that direction.