I could come up with just one positive to take away from the Thunder’s 103-81 home loss to the Miami Heat Thursday night. I thought Perry Jones once again looked like a viable option for the Thunder when it comes to defending LeBron James. Russell Westbrook was explosive at times, which is of course good to see. Despite the Thunder playing one of their worst overall games of the season, they are so talented that there was still potential for a comeback until just a few minutes were left in the game.
Other than that, we saw what looked like the 2012 NBA Finals. LeBron, who has been playing at the highest level he has all season the three games leading up to Thursday night, was super confident, hitting his jump shot, anticipating every move by Kevin Durant and doing everything else that he does so well.
The Thunder offense became stagnant against Miami’s blitzing defense. The Thunder turned the ball over 20 times, many of which were live-ball turnovers leading to fast break points for Miami. The Thunder couldn’t bail themselves out like the first time when they played the Heat with hot shooting. They went just 2-for-20 from three. Durant was human, Serge Ibaka was off, Jeremy Lamb went 0-for-6 from three and Westbrook didn’t hit a jumper all night. Far too often OKC went to post up/isolate Durant on the baselines. Miami always knew it was coming, did a great job defending the entry passes and Durant rarely scored in those spots, nor was he able to find open shooters when doubles came.
There was a lot working against the Thunder tonight to be fair. This was their first game in exactly one week. That’s a long time off and Miami had just played two nights ago at Dallas, a win in which LeBron went for 42. Westbrook was back for the first time since Christmas. He was rusty with his handle, had a few bad turnovers and wasn’t shooting as well as he normally can. So it wasn’t a perfect situation for OKC but there are still legitimate reasons to worry after this loss. You can worry because Miami is one of two teams in the Eastern Conference that the Thunder would see in the NBA Finals. And the Thunder just do not play well in this matchup.
The Thunder run a lot of basic things on offense. There are some clever wrinkles to some of these sets and they do play to the strengths of their two stars, but what the Thunder do offensively is very predictable. When you’re predictable against a team like Miami, that is a bad combination. Miami and San Antonio are probably the two savviest and smartest teams in the league. So the Heat are essentially prepared for every move the Thunder makes in the halfcourt. The Thunder can overcome this by making tough shots (something they are capable of), getting offensive rebounds (they didn’t do that last night) and having Westbrook and Durant create offense out of nothing (not a lot of that last night either).
A big reason why the Thunder won the first time they played Miami was that they did not have to rely on their halfcourt offense too much. They made 16 three-pointers and got plenty of fast break chances from Miami’s 20-plus turnovers. Last night, the Thunder didn’t shoot well and turned the ball over more than Miami, so there was no advantage there either.
The Thunder can make up for their deficiencies in their halfcourt offense with great defense, too. OKC is third in the NBA in defensive efficiency this season, but you wouldn’t have guessed that if you only watched them last night. The breakdowns defensively stemmed from mental lapses to poor fundamentals. It was pretty embarrassing really. There were instances of not blocking out, biting on pump fakes (which is a result of being out of position and being lazy) and ball watching and losing one’s man. This was the most uncharacteristic aspect of the Thunder last night and an area that we can expect would be less of a problem on a night-to-night basis and especially in a playoff series.
In terms of the rotation, Kendrick Perkins does not belong on the floor against Miami. This is common knowledge and if you don’t see this, you need to be checked into a mental institute. He played the first five minutes of the game and OKC was outscored by 10 in that time. He was minus-13 in five minutes vs. Miami back on Jan. 29. If he hadn’t played in the 2012 Finals, you can easily make the case that the Thunder would have swept the Heat. This is a regular season game and I get Brooks not wanting to change up the starting lineup. I do think he would be willing to bench Perkins in a series so overall, this is not a big reason to be worried.
The Thunder were playing catch-up right from the tip so it’s hard to gauge a lot of what happened the rest of the game. Jones did a good job against LeBron again. Derek Fisher didn’t make any shots and therefore ended up being pretty useless. Reggie Jackson will start to get more comfortable again with the second unit and he will be a force to be reckoned with whenever he comes in the game. Nick Collison needs to play more in this matchup. He’s the smartest big OKC has defensively and the defense is so much more solid when he’s out there. Again, less Perkins can help achieve this.
You can’t expect the Thunder to overhaul what they’re doing just because of this one matchup. Against the rest of the league, OKC is absolutely fine with what they typically do. If they’re healthy, they really should finish with the best record in the league and get to the NBA Finals.
The emphasis to learn from this game will undoubtedly be on the defensive end for Brooks and his staff. That’s a good thing. The Thunder can overcome where they are lacking simply with a better defensive effort. That alone might put them in a position to win last night in a game where LeBron was unconscious for the most part.
There’s not a huge feeling of panic necessary for OKC right now. Westbrook’s return will only make this team better. They’ll finish out the season strong and be the top seed in the playoffs. You can’t ask for much more from a team.
Miami proves that the Thunder still have a lot to learn, which really is scary. The Thunder’s ceiling is still not being met. We know this team is full of some of the hardest working players in the league and the closer they get to that ceiling, the closer they’ll get to a championship, which very well may be coming their way this season.