Thunder defense may lock down a title
OKLAHOMA CITY — Scott Brooks told his team that it needed to play harder in the second half.
His team listened.
Thabo Sefolosha told his coach he needed to guard LeBron James.
His coach listened.
And we saw what the combination did.
With dynamic scorer Kevin Durant and dynamic personality Russell Westbrook, it's easy to fall in love with the offensive highlights. But look at the box score from Tuesday night.
It's easy to see what won Game 1.
After Miami led by as many as 13 points, shot 51 percent and did pretty much whatever it wanted in the first half, the Thunder went back to the lab, figured out the formula that won them the game 105-94, and at the same time made it pretty simple to see what it takes to win a championship.
"They played harder," Miami power forward Udonis Haslem said. "Sometimes it's that black and white. They played a little harder in the second half."
Could it really be as basic as that? Could it be as easy as a coach telling his players to pick it up a bit? A kick in the pants is all it takes to win a title?
"The only adjustment we made was playing harder," Durant said. "I could tell you guys X's and O's and schemes, but it just comes down to playing harder. We just tried to step it up on the defensive end and push it over the top."
It's the Heat's turn to make a move now and expect them to play harder and more aggressively. After all, if the Thunder can do it, the more-experienced Heat should be able to manage it, too. The motivation would certainly seem to be there as the prospect of winning the series looks dim if they lose again, knowing they'll have to return to Oklahoma City even if they win all three games in Miami.
Miami could try to match Oklahoma City's strength — scoring — which we all know is going to be there for the Thunder. The stat sheet proves it. Durant is a three-time scoring champ who went off for 17 points alone in the fourth quarter. Durant finished with 36 and had just one shot in the second quarter and three shots in the third quarter. Meanwhile, Westbrook was 10-of-24 shooting, but still managed 27 points. The Thunder shot 51.9 percent and turned it over just 10 times. That's more than enough offense.
So, now the question is whether the defense can keep up, and despite a slow a start, Tuesday night proved something:
The Thunder may be considered an elite offensive team, but a lot of times their defense is overlooked.
Consider what happened Tuesday.
Yes, James went off for 30 points, but he missed more shots than he made, struggled again in the fourth quarter and didn't have any help.
Meanwhile, the Thunder stopped the Heat without fouling.
Serge Ibaka led the league in blocked shots during the season, but he didn't play in the fourth quarter. Kendrick Perkins is the defensive enforcer and an NBA champion. He didn't play in the fourth quarter, either.
Instead, Sefolosha, assigned to Kobe Bryant earlier this playoff season, went to Brooks and asked for the James assignment, and Nick Collison provided the extra energy, playing all but 29 seconds of the final quarter.
Expect some of that to change come Thursday night. Dwyane Wade said he wanted to score more. And just because Chris Bosh knocked down a 3-pointer in the clutch against Boston, don't expect him to keep firing in Game 2. But as long as the Heat keep taking jumpers, there's no need to get Ibaka and Perkins involved in the fourth quarter. The Thunder can stay small, use Collison as the energy guy and keep feeding Durant and Westbrook.
"We calmed down," Collison said of the second-half play. "We were more comfortable. We relaxed our play and we were more physical. More aggressive."
Collison had four points, four rebounds and a steal in the fourth quarter. Sefolosha played all 12 minutes and limited James to 2-of-6 shooting. Wade was 7 of 19 for the game and Bosh was just 4 of 11, settling for deep jumpers much of the second half, when he made just one field goal.
"Yesterday, I said (to Brooks) let me get a crack at LeBron and see how I match up with him," Sefolosha said Wednesday of his conversation with his coach.
And just when the Thunder started asserting their dominance offensively, scoring 30 second-half points in the paint, OKC asserted some defensive dominance, too.
Miami didn't get to the rim, didn't play aggressively and didn't get to the foul line. The Heat shot just 18 free throws Tuesday. Only twice in 19 playoff games have the Heat attempted fewer than 20 free throws. They have gone to the line more than 30 times in five games and have attempted 25 or more free throws in 11 games.
"The effort is the biggest thing," Heat center Joel Anthony said. "You could have the best game plan, but it's not going to work if you don't play hard."
The defensive game plan for the Thunder has been good all season when you figure they held teams to 42.7 percent shooting on average, third-best in the league behind defensive-minded teams Chicago and Boston.
Yet, it took a half for that trend to snap back into play.
"We could start off playing a lot harder defensively," Westbrook said. "If we do that you can see what we can bring to the table."
Hard to really believe all it takes is a mindset, but both the Thunder and the Heat pointed to the same thing: effort.
"They just played harder and we missed some shots," Miami's Mike Miller said of the definitive second half. "Defensively, a lot of it is how hard you play. You can put in any system you want, but if you don't play hard, you can't execute."
And now the plan seems to be simple to execute.