By Ben Golliver
The Heat defeated the Thunder 103-97 in Miami on Christmas to take the first meeting between the teams since the 2012 NBA Finals.
• Kendrick Perkins is one of the NBA's largest players and he just might be the surliest. When the Thunder play the Heat, though, the first emotion he evokes is pity.
The reigning champions, in their 2012-13 small-ball incarnation, present their opponents with a nightly riddle: Play big and try to keep up with the versatility and quickness, or play small and try to stay competitive from a talent perspective. By surrounding LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade with shooters and dirty-work rebounders, the Heat offer a pick-your-poison situation with no easy answer. The Thunder responded on Tuesday in much the same way they did during last season's Finals: They mostly opted to stay big, especially down the stretch, playing Perkins, a traditional center, alongside forward Serge Ibaka against a smaller Heat quintet that featured the Big Three plus two additional guards, Ray Allen and Mario Chalmers.
In sum, Oklahoma City's defense down the stretch produced decent results. From the time Perkins re-entered the game just inside the five-minute mark of the fourth quarter until the final 15 seconds of the game, when Oklahoma City was forced to foul, the Heat scored just six points and had seven empty possessions (missed shots or turnovers). Four of Miami's six points came from a James long two-pointer and two James free throws on a questionable foul call after he got a bump from Ibaka on a drive. All things considered, Thunder coach Scott Brooks should be delighted with those results.
Unfortunately, the final two points of the stretch represented the game's tipping-point play, an easy dunk for Bosh that gave Miami a 98-95 lead with 25 seconds left. The deciding action unfolded straight out of a timeout, a time that when you would expect Oklahoma City to have its desired defensive setup in place. Seeing that Oklahoma City was switching screens on the perimeter, Miami positioned James on the left wing with Westbrook guarding him after a switch. All four Heat players then cleared out on the weakside, forcing Westbrook to guard the much larger James by himself or receive help from his teammates.
While Kevin Martin and Durant were guarding Allen and Wade, respectively, Ibaka was switched on to Chalmers, stuck above the foul line on the weak side and unable to provide any help on the play. Sensing James' advantage on the smaller Russell Westbrook and Ibaka's inability to influence the play, Perkins elected to leave Bosh on the weakside baseline to double-team LeBron. In so doing, he pointed to Martin to rotate onto Bosh. Martin, in turn, expected Durant, who was closer to the play, to rotate onto Bosh, who smartly cut open into the paint, filling the void left behind Perkins. Neither Martin nor Durant wound up rotating as both had shooters to respect. Ibaka was still pulled from the play, respecting Chalmers at the top of the key. James, seeing everything unfold in front of him (and above Westbrook), found Bosh for an elementary pass and finish. The play was over before the plodding Perkins came close to actually applying his desired double team. All five Thunder players reacted in frustration, pointing their fingers at each other and sagging their shoulders.
Here's the play.
Perkins is likely to receive a lion's share of the blame on this breakdown: His man scored because he was caught in no-man's land on his attempted double team, and the paint is generally regarded as his responsibility. But the frustration and confusion from all five Thunder players is telling and illustrative of larger problems for Oklahoma City, most of which point back to the matchup riddle posed by Miami's small look. If you stay big against the Heat, your defense is left wide open to mismatches on the perimeter any time you switch a screen. Many of those mismatches are created with James as the ball-handler, and few players are more skilled in reading defenses and exploiting open seams than the three-time MVP. On this sequence, he played Perkins and Ibaka like a fiddle, rendering both useless simply by getting switched onto the smaller Westbrook and then making a chess move one step ahead of them.
James, ultimately, is what makes this work, but the presence of all the shooters is what makes it lethal. Let's say, hypothetically, that either Martin or Durant rotates properly, allowing Perkins enough time to apply his double team. From there, James can take the easy pass to Chalmers at the top of the key to rotate the ball around to the weak side to either Allen, a shooter, or Wade, who can attack the back side of the Thunder's defense down the baseline. Alternatively, James could cut to the chase with a skip pass to either Allen or Wade for a more immediate threat to Martin and Durant, who would be forced to recover to them while hoping that Perkins is also able to get back into the paint and handle Bosh. You can visualize potential breakdowns at virtually every step of that process and most of them point back to Perkins' inability to cover ground quickly and the problems posed by a scrambled defense with big men stuck on the perimeter after switching screens.
Here, the Heat solved the Thunder very simply. On similar plays in the future, as long as Perkins is being asked to cover ground to help on mismatches and is matched up against a much quicker and more versatile Bosh, Oklahoma City's defense is going to be put in some awfully difficult spots. The Thunder will also be asking players who expend an enormous amount of energy on offense -- Durant, Westbrook and Martin -- to make instant reads possession after possession on defense. That's not an impossibility, but a betting man would prefer the Heat to the Thunder if given those options.
It's certainly possible that Brooks re-watches the final five minutes as a whole and concludes that he can live with the results. After all, the Heat didn't consistently generate good looks, they bogged down a bit at times and they settled for jumpers. Still, it's hard to ignore the fact that, when the game was truly on the line, James carved up the Thunder. James finished with 29 points (on 12-of-20 shooting), nine assists and eight rebounds in 42 minutes.
• Oklahoma City has at least three alternate late-game lineup possibilities: 1) use Thabo Sefolosha in place of Martin, sacrificing offense for defense; 2) use Nick Collison in place of Perkins, adding more agility while still staying fairly big; 3) ditch a center altogether, keeping Martin on the court and dropping Perkins for Sefolosha.
Sefolosha didn't have much impact on Tuesday, attempting just one shot in 28 minutes. Martin finished with 15 points and got to the foul line six times, so his presence over Sefolosha's was justifiable and totally understandable given their respective performances. Martin has done well in his stand-in role for James Harden and Oklahoma City's offense is most potent with three shot-takers in the lineup. Keeping Martin on the court just makes sense.
The question, then, becomes whether Perkins should be in the final five. Looking to his box-score line for reasons why he should be included is a fruitless task: Perkins had four points, five rebounds (all defensive) and four turnovers while shooting 1-of-5. Of note, the Heat regularly left him to jump Thunder ball-handlers when he set high screens, and he has no ability to make them pay because of his lack of shooting and mobility going to the hoop. If he's not rebounding in volume (he wasn't) or effectively captaining a team defense (he wasn't, at least not when it mattered most), it's difficult to comprehend Brooks' thought process in riding him. Even on some of the Thunder's successful late defensive possessions, Perkins found himself switched onto James on the perimeter. Surely, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will see that on tape and find opportunities for exploitation.
The bridge solution is to try Collison instead of Perkins. That allows Brooks to keep his traditional lineup and its advantages -- size, rebounding -- while getting a little more mobility on defense and, theoretically, some garbage buckets on offense, too. Protecting Durant by playing two bigs alongside of him is a worthy idea, as he takes shot after shot and commands all sorts of extra attention in the fourth quarter. Durant finished with a game-high 33 points and seven rebounds in 39 minutes on Tuesday, and scored 14 points in the fourth quarter (including Oklahoma City's last five).
The more radical solution, using both Martin and Sefolosha with Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka, probably succumbs to matchup issues. One problem: Durant would need to guard one of the Big Three with Ibaka and Sefolosha taking the other two, allowing Martin and Westbrook to defend shooters. If Ibaka takes Bosh, that leaves either James or Wade for Durant. Neither is ideal given the possibility of foul trouble and the late-game energy that Durant expends on the offensive end. This combination also asks the Ibaka/Durant combination to do some heavy lifting on the boards against Bosh/James.
Ultimately, these are choices that Brooks doesn't need to consider against a vast majority of teams. Nine times out of 10, teams adjust to the Thunder, not the other way around. But a different approach is likely required to beat the Heat, one that involves a little more lineup creativity and, most likely, a little less Perkins.
• Westbrook was furious at a no-call on the Thunder's final possession. After Durant missed a contested three-pointer, Westbrook wound up with the ball on the right wing. With time and a fairly clean look, Westbrook launched a potential game-tying three, only to have Wade close out hard and apparently make contact with him during his release. Westbrook fell to the ground and immediately protested the no-call, as did Perkins, and the only replay aired on the broadcast was inconclusive. Take a look.
Westbrook pounded a sideline table in frustration and received a meaningless technical foul with the game's outcome all but decided. One of the key questions entering the game, laid out in The Point Forward's preview, was which Westbrook would show up: the 2011-12 model who looked often for his own offense or the 2012-13 version who has been a bit more of a distributor? Westbrook closed with 21 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and five turnovers, and he made 5-for-19 shots in 43 minutes. Both the assist-to-turnover ratio and the field-goal percentage will rightfully raise the blood pressure levels in Oklahoma.