To cap off an eventful trade deadline day, two of the most talented teams in the league squared off for the front leg of TNT's Thursday night double-header: the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder. Whether seen as a Finals preview, an MVP showcase, a chance for the Heat to even the season series, or the long-awaited return of Russell Westbrook, there was plenty of reason for intrigue.
As it turned out, the game was all about Miami's two-way control. An opening salvo from the Heat led to a double-digit lead, which was protected and maintained the rest of the way in an eventual 103-81 victory.
• Miami's full complement of stars won the day. What was billed as a collision course between LeBron James and Kevin Durant turned out to be anything but. James (33 points on 15-of-22 shooting, seven rebounds, three assists) was brilliant and Durant (28 points on 10-of-22 shooting, eight rebounds, three assists) only slightly less so, though any individual standout performance was overshadowed by Miami's complete domination.
James set the tone early in the most emphatic fashion possible. Every possession worked directly through him against Durant, as LeBron showcased the many ways he can dominate their one-on-one matchup. He hit tough jumpers. He soared out in transition. He backed Durant down on the lock, squared him neatly away with a seal, and finished with ease. By first quarter's end, James had 16 points (on 8-of-9 shooting) to the Thunder's 17, with his Heat at a 17-point advantage. Among his opening surge was this rewind-worthy slam:
As it turned out, that would only be James' second-most impressive finish for the evening.
Oklahoma City made its runs, as teams of a contending caliber are ought to do. But each was staved off by the next star in line for Miami: First with Dwyane Wade (24 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds) reeling off a few baskets in a row, then by Chris Bosh (24 points, eight rebounds) making a timely pick-and-roll finish, then again with James picking up where he left off after halftime. The cycle continued until each of the Heat stars had their fill, in total putting up 81 points on 47 shots. That's not the kind of efficiency from which any opponent could soon recover, particularly when Miami was able to quickly reverse its briefly stagnant stretches by drawing on the next star in sequence. The entire game was a build. James may have provided the foundation, but Wade and Bosh each contributed their own constructive materials to pull together a brilliant design. It was a beautifully codependent performance.
• The defending champs turned a healthy lead into a blowout margin with asphyxiating defense. This hasn't been a particularly inspiring defensive season for the Heat, who currently rank right around league average in points allowed per possession. Their effort in transition is lacking most nights, their attention to detail in the half-court wavers, and they ultimately choose to play as a team that doesn't have to give its fullest commitment in coverage on a game-by-game basis.
Unsavory as that combination is, they're right. In spite of its flaws, Miami is in a dead heat for the best record in the East while posting a better record to date than all Western Conference teams save these Thunder. They don't have to play elite defense in order to thrive in the regular season, capable though they may be on that end of things.
All of which only makes it more refreshing when the Heat choose to lock in and pressure opponents like crazy. It's an approach as unique as it is brutally effective. Precious few teams could execute a defensive scheme as wild as Miami's, with most instead opting for a more conservative model similar to that run by Indiana. That's a sound choice, as the Pacers have managed the best defense in the league to date by being patient and restrictive. Their fundamental principles take away an opponent's options, one by one, until a shot is forced over the outstretched arms of a squared-up defender.
Miami's approach couldn't be more different, as it actively seeks to strangle life out of its opponents by blitzing the ball handler at every opportunity. It's a constant string of pressure and recovery, which forces opponents to make risky plays and then leverages those risks by forcing turnovers. When Miami is off-kilter even slightly, those once-risky plays become easy passes and scores for the opponent. When the Heat are as focused and active as they were on Thursday, they force one of the best offenses in the league into 20 turnovers while allowing just 37.8 percent shooting from the field.
So few Thunder shots were attempted cleanly, as the Heat guards scrambled to cover every gap. Wade, in particular, had one of his better defensive performances of the season, and Bosh was outstanding in covering a ton of ground between his various assignments. But essential, too, were the efforts of Shane Battier (who drew the primary assignment of bothering Durant), Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole, each of whom played full possessions of defense all the way out to the three-point line.
• On the bright side for the Thunder: Russell Westbrook is back. Oklahoma City may be very much in need of a silver lining after Thursday's loss, and should find it in the return of the team's All-NBA point guard. Westbrook (16 points on 4-of-12 shooting, five rebounds, four turnovers) logged his first playing time since Christmas day, and while he wasn't able to register the kind of far-reaching impact the Thunder needed, he did look plenty explosive when given room to ramp up:
Executing in a half-court setting was an entirely different story, though that awkwardness likely had more to do with Westbrook's timing and conditioning than anything else. Even still, Westbrook scored 10 straight points to close out the first half, putting up points on an array of finishes and drawn fouls. He'll need time to find his way back into the flow of Oklahoma City's offense, but there's opportunity still for Westbrook to contribute by storming through the paint and challenging defenders to keep up. There was understandable concern about whether Westbrook would maintain his full physical capabilities after undergoing a third knee surgery in eight months, but these initial returns offer a rosy projection. It's but a single game with many left to go, though it can only be a good thing that Westbrook was able to tap into his athletic pop so soon after returning from surgery.