James, Heat complete season sweep of Thunder
Hoping to reverse a string of five straight losses to Miami that dated back to Game 2 of last season's Finals, Oklahoma City received a cruel reminder of how much separates it from the championship trophy the Heat possess in dropping a 110-100 decision at home to LeBron James and his Heat. Though the final score was reasonable, the game largely was not as Miami extended a 63-46 halftime lead to a 23-point advantage late in the third quarter. A 22-point explosion from Kevin Durant in the fourth quarter added some mild drama, but James and Miami still coasted to a season sweep of last year's Western Conference finalists and entered the All-Star break with a firm grip on the Eastern Conference's top playoff seed. Here's what we learned Thursday night ...
Technically, James' six-game streak of scoring at least 30 points while also shooting 60 percent came to an end, but it's hard to quibble with 39 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists, four three-pointers and 58 percent shooting. Slacker! Part of James' performance over the past seven games is a matter of talent. Not many players can size up a defender, take a step back and hit a 25-footer. But a bigger part is his approach, letting his otherworldly basketball gifts complement his knowledge of where he is most efficient on the floor. This was apparent early Thursday night, when James got the ball in the mid-range area as Kevin Durant bodied up on him. In years past, James would have taken a dribble or two and a fadeaway from a player he outweighs by 15 pounds. But Thursday, James dribbled once, twice, three times and more while maneuvering Durant and himself in toward the basket, where he drew a double team and a shooting foul. James further showed his command of space in bypassing shots in heavy traffic or on the move to find teammates with space to operate or shoot. With James playing at this level, it'd hard to see anyone taking his MVP trophy or beating Miami four times in seven games come spring.
On nights like Thursday, it is glaringly apparent just how much Oklahoma City needs a more traditional point guard than Russell Westbrook. As valuable, and necessary, as Westbrook's scoring is, his blinders-on approach to running an offense doesn't fit a team as rangy defensively as the Heat. Westbrook didn't so much as distribute the ball as he did give it up as Plan B. Plan A on Thursday was a series of drives to the basket where he was met more than a few times by the long arms of Chris Bosh. Against teams less attuned to defensive integrity as a unit, those afterthought passes can work. Against Miami, those passes usually found a teammate draped by a Heat defender or the likes of Kendrick Perkins at the elbow, which isn't necessarily a recipe for offensive flow. In seasons past, James Harden often filled the role of facilitator, making sure Kevin Durant found his rhythm before getting into one of his own. Westbrook hasn't taken that to be his role in the past and he didn't Thursday night, either.
The script for Miami against the Thunder looked familiar. Work the paint with drives and post-ups, support that attack with an efficient effort from three (11-for-29) and take away what OKC likes -- shooting from three (3-for-13). Like the Finals, when Miami limited Oklahoma City to 30.5 percent from three, the Heat's attention to the arc forced the Thunder inside. That's not a bad plan if you move the ball and look for open seams, but when the offense is limited to an endless array of one-on-one drills, scoring can be difficult. Of bigger concern is Oklahoma City's indifferent defense. James and Dwyane Wade were difficult covers, but how often were Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers open at the three-point line? How easy was it for Chris Bosh to knife through one of the league's most athletic teams for dunks and lay-ups? (And this is to say nothing of new addition Ray Allen.) Last spring in the Finals, Miami shot 46.4 percent as a team. Thursday night the Heat shot 46.6 percent. That's no way for the Thunder to climb that final step for a title.
Quietly, Bosh has put together a wildly effective season, and all of his talents were on display Thursday. Need a big to position himself at the free-throw line for an open jumper? Done. A post-up target on an end-of-half inbounds play? Check. An unconventional lead man on a fast break with enough handle to keep the ball and agility to cut to the hoop for a score? All set. Bosh did all that while protecting the paint against the Thunder. Oklahoma City may have size, but it isn't the most offensively effective size, which allows Bosh to cheat a bit and hang near the hoop on defense. Ridiculed as he has been as the "other" member of the Big Three, Bosh makes everything tick in unison when he is on.
As much as Scott Brooks has accomplished with the Thunder, there are still times he leaves one wondering if he couldn't use a few pointers from a Gregg Popovich. No one needed a rest in the first half more than Durant, who started 0-for-7 from the field, suffered a devastating fall and walked into halftime having hit only 2-of-10 tries from the floor. Yet he played all 24 minutes while adding an air of uneasiness as to where Oklahoma City should go for scoring. Clearly, that wasn't Durant, but like a river that needs to find an alternative outlet if the primary path is blocked, the Thunder needed to generate new paths to getting points. A few minutes on the bench might have bought Durant a little time to catch his breath and find his aim before the scoreboard spun out of control.