What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
Wow, what a beginning to this 2012 Finals series.
As we predicted here (though it wasn't some Nostradamus-level prediction), the Thunder got off to a very slow start in the game. They fell behind early amidst some disorganized offense countered by great 3-point shooting by the Heat players. The Heat jumped out to the early lead and looked to make inroads in the Thunder's home court advantage.
The Thunder started to show signs of life in the 2nd quarter, but even then the Heat did a great job at controling the tempo of the game with their suffocating perimeter defense. As a result the Thunder offense only managed 47 points at the half. Although they had seemed to wake up late in the 2nd, trimming what was a 13 point lead down to 7 at the half, it still appeared that the Thunder were having difficulty solving the Heat defense. These struggles early on though set the stage for the 2nd half.
What was, overall, the main reason the Thunder won?
The Thunder once again solved their opponents' offensive and defensive battle plans in the 3rd quarter.
The Heat perimeter defense, as great as it can be, a) is not at full force since Miami is dealing with some key player injuries; and b) there still are soft pockets where the defense can be exploited. The Thunder had two primary ways to attack this defense. The first was through Russell Westbrook's dribble-drive penetration, and the second was the usage of the standard high pick and roll slip screens. The team went to both of these options early and often in the 3rd quarter and were able to dig themselves out of the half-time hole.
The reason why the Thunder struggled to get on top in this game, even as they were solving the Heat defense, is that they were just missing shots. Westbrook was getting into the lane at will, but up until the 3rd quarter he just had a hard time finishing the plays. Likewise, in the 1st half Serge Ibaka was running some beautifully fast slip screens only to miss the little 6 footer at the end. In the 3rd though these shots started to fall, and once they did, the rest of the offense began to open up.
On the other end of the court, the Thunder cranked up their own defense to challenge the Heat perimeter. Much has been made of the Heat's defense this season and rightly so, but what many may have not realized is that OKC can push their defense to the same level of intensity (though they struggle to maintain it at times). In the 2nd half, the open shots on which Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers had feasted were nowhere to be found. The duo had combined for 23 points in the 1st half, including 5 3-pointers, but were held to only 6 combined points in the 2nd. Without the perimeter release valves, the Heat offense ground to a halt, and only managed 19 points in the pivotal 3rd and 21 in the deciding 4th.
What is a key statistic to understanding tonight's game?
The Thunder duo of Durant and Westbrook outplayed the Heat duo of LeBron and Wade.
In the first half, both Durant and Westbrook struggled in getting open looks. As a result Westbrook shot poorly (he was only 10-24 for the game) and Durant didn't get nearly enough open looks. That all changed in the 2nd half when the pair kept attacking in waves.
Westbrook led the charge in the 3rd, finally getting his drives to the rim to drop. It is perhaps Westbrook's strongest virtue at this point in his young career; no matter how poorly things are going, he has curtailed the pouting that derails his performance and keeps coming and coming, like Sir Lancelot the Brave. He new he had found a weak point right in the middle of the Heat's defense, and he exploited it until the very end. When Westbrook finished at the rim and drew the foul with only 16 seconds to go in the 3rd, it was Westbrook's and-1 free throw that gave OKC a lead they would never lose.
Which of course it meant Durant-time in the 4th. In total, Durant scored 17 points in the 4th on an array of drives, dunks, and jump shots, keeping the Heat at arm's length the rest of the way.
In total, Durant & Westbrook combined for 41 points in the 2nd half. The entire Heat team only managed 40.
What does this game mean for the Thunder today and moving forward?
OKC goes up 1-0, giving them the early edge in the series and for the first time in these playoffs the Heat dropped Game 1.
We will now see a series of adjustments between both teams to even out all the rough spots in performance. A few things that could spin positive for the Thunder:
- Dwyane Wade managed to score 19 points, but seemed really limited in his ability to get lift under his jump shot. OKC needs to play him for the drive and not the perimeter shot to test him.
- Chris Bosh hit some perimeter shots, but outside of these open looks he was not a big factor. I'm not sure if he simply wasn't used effectively or if his stomach muscle injury is still limiting him, but if OKC can just get a hand in his face, I don't think he can make them pay with the drive.
- Westbrook missed a lot of makable shots in the 1st half, and I believe that now that he's settled down those shots will fall.
- James Harden was practically a no-show, but this weak performance continued a string of slow starts in playoff series. Look for him to have a big bounce-back Game 2, which will be critical as the Heat try to slow down the Thunder offense.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, 36 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 block
Thunder Down Under: Russell Westbrook, 27 points, 8 rebounds, 11 assists, 1 steal
Thunder Blunder: James Harden, only 5 points in 22 minutes of play
Thunder Plunderer: LeBron James, 30 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals
Next Game: Game 2, Thursday 8:00 PM Central Standard Time