Thunder takes early Finals lead with small lineup
The NBA's advertising campaign this season was built around one word: BIG. Oversized heads on the league's star players filled some of the commercials. Other promotional ads had giant words superimposed on highlights of game action.
But this year's NBA Finals could be decided by who's better at playing small.
The Oklahoma City Thunder countered the Miami Heat's undersized lineup by benching their starting frontcourt players, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, for the final 14 minutes and were able to rally and win Game 1 105-94.
Now, the tinkering begins as the teams prepare for Game 2 on Thursday night.
The smaller quintet is nothing new for Oklahoma City, particularly since the signing of Derek Fisher in March, but it has paid dividends in the Western Conference finals and then in Game 1.
''We've played that way a lot this year,'' said Nick Collison, the only true power forward or center to play down the stretch for the Thunder. ''We're very fortunate to have a 7-footer like Kevin (Durant) who can do it. That's an advantage we have.''
Durant came into the league as a supersized shooting guard, moving over to small forward after Scott Brooks was promoted to head coach around Thanksgiving in 2008. Since then, he has played more frequently as a perimeter-oriented power forward.
That creates room for All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook and NBA Sixth Man of the Year James Harden to team with another guard - most often Fisher, defensive ace Thabo Sefolosha or 3-point specialist Daequan Cook - in the backcourt.
''When we go small, Kevin's 6-10 so he's a big small. But we have another shooter on the floor, we have another playmaker on the floor, we have an ability to create baskets with movement and we have an extra ball-handler on the floor,'' Brooks said.
''We feel confident going both ways. With our big lineup, we've won a lot of games. With our small lineup, we've won a lot of games. But I think the best way we win games is using a combination of them both.''
In the fourth quarter of Game 1, Brooks went with Westbrook, Fisher and Sefolosha after Harden had picked up his fourth foul. Sefolosha was deployed to defend LeBron James, limiting the MVP to seven points on 2-for-6 shooting in the period while Durant scored 17.
The Heat say it wasn't about who was on the court but how they were playing that was the problem. Mainly, there needs to be more aggression on offense and better defense to eliminate Oklahoma City's 24-4 edge in fast-break scoring and 56-40 advantage in points in the paint.
''We play small too, so that really doesn't bother us,'' center Udonis Haslem said. ''We can go small with Chris (Bosh) and myself at the five, LeBron at the four, Shane (Battier) at the three or whatever.
''We can match a smaller lineup. We've done it before.''
What the Thunder give up by taking Perkins and Ibaka off the court shows up primarily on defense. Perkins' teammates tout him as the best low post defender in the game, and Ibaka was the runner-up for NBA Defensive Player of the Year while leading the league in blocks.
But to take advantage of that, Miami will have to attack where the Thunder's rim protectors usually are.
Bosh said he thought the Heat got too comfortable settling for jump shots they're confident they can make - and he vowed to personally be more aggressive.
''I think I can be more effective putting pressure on the rim. The mid-range and corner 3s are going to be there, so I can take them when they're open,'' Bosh said.
''For the most part, what this team needs right now is free throw attempts and layup attempts, putting pressure on that rim so we can get our 3-point shooters going. So, that's the adjustment that we're all going to make.''
At first, it was Brooks who had to make a mid-game adjustment. He came in thinking that Ibaka would be well-equipped to defend either Bosh or the smaller Battier as Heat coach Erik Spoelstra kept under wraps who would start until just before game time.
But after Brooks complimented Ibaka for improving his defense against perimeter-oriented power forwards this season, Battier quickly hit a series of 3-pointer and scored 13 points in the first half.
That wasn't the only issue, as Miami scored 54 points on 51 percent shooting in the first half.
''When we watched the tapes, we had a lot of mistakes early and it was disappointing. We had a lot of really bad defensive plays that we haven't been having in a long time,'' Collison said.
''The key is to play better, but I do think having more of a guy who's used to closing out to the perimeter definitely helps.''
One change on the Heat side could be the return of James Jones. Spoelstra revealed Wednesday that Jones was held out of Game 1 with a migraine but may be able to play in Game 2.
''Now's not the time to reinvent who we are,'' Battier said. ''We've had a lot of success and we're in the NBA Finals for a reason.''