Last night's unsung heroes.
This is just way too cool. When Kendrick Perkins starts off the game with a football-like hike through his legs to Russell Westbrook, you KNOW the Thunder are ready to play. But if you were caught up in the craziness of the arena, I highly encourage you to watch it all over again. The game was an absolute masterpiece from beginning to end. To me, it was proof that a game doesn't have to be close in order to be exciting.
However, if you don't have unlimited time on your hands, then you should know this when going to the watercooler today. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant might have been offensive beasts in the fourth quarter, scoring 19 straight points. But in terms of defense and hustle, Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha are the reasons we won.
Seeing Collison turn into a hustle guy was really strange. He's usually known as a guy who plays smart, takes shots, never shoots the ball, and has good positioning on his defender. But tonight, he looked more like Ronny Turiaf then he looked like himself. He was getting key steals, tipping out offensive rebounds, going aggressively into the paint; heck, he even committed a few stupid turnovers. Honestly, his play during the first half left a lot to be desired, but his play in the fourth more than made up for it.
Thabo Sefolosha was similarly awesome last night. He was constantly guarding tough assignments in Wade and James, forcing some key misses outside of the paint from them, getting out on the break, and killing it in the paint. Sure, he missed a few threes, but without his defense, the Heat could very well have been neck-and-neck late in the game.
Speaking of LeBron James, his shot was really off tonight. He was very rarely guarded by James Harden, usually having to go up against Durant or Sefolosha instead. As a result, he had to angle his shots really awkwardly, and they usually missed. As far as I know, he only hit two shots outside the paint tonight. One of them was when Durant didn't get out to the three point line in time, and the other came with Durant caught on a pick. Otherwise, the defense on him was fantastic.
Wade was even more limited. He rarely drove into the paint, preferring to settle for mid to short range turnaround jumpers or get out in transition. Sefolosha gave him hell and kept him out in that area, so I give props to him.
Below: Why the Heat Went Up Early, Some Great Lineup Changes by Brooks, Two Unforgettable Plays, Awards!
But, the Heat did have a few coups last night. They were up big in the first half, after all. Shane Battier's threes were killer, putting the Thunder in a early hole that was difficult to climb out of. Having him start at power forward was a genius move, because Ibaka was never really willing to come out and guard him. Instead, he hung around in the paint waiting for some easy blocks. Still, Ibaka did get some measure of revenge, scoring 6 straight points in the second quarter, running right past Bosh's soft defense.
Also, Westbrook was pretty out of control early on. He was constantly trying to score in the face of the bigger and quicker Dwayne Wade after the offense had already gotten set, and he wasn't really getting much accomplished. But shortly after that, he completely redeemed himself and then some, going back to analyzing the floor and getting assists. He really took advantage of the fast break later in the game, and his shot was near unstoppable. When he knocked the ball out of Battier's hand during the late second quarter, you knew it was going to be a great game for him. He did have a few defensive lapses, like not seeing Chalmers float out to the perimeter for an open shot, or overanticipating a pass to Battier, letting him get into the lane with ease. But I've almost come to accept that as just another part of Westbrook's game.
It's worth noting that the Thunder never really did much with their bigs. Collison had a few key baskets and Ibaka was on in the late first half, but Brooks never really bothered using their size to dominate Battier and Haslem in the paint. They got the ball a few times with their back to the basket, but they were too far away to be really effective. In my opinion, this offensive deficiency really helped the Heat keep their lead in the first half.
Chalmers was a factor in the deficit as well. Aside from a spinning layup in the third, he never really did anything spectacular, but he filled the role of a fourth or fifth scorer really well. He knocked down threes when called upon, and would take advantage of some overly jumpy Thunder defense for some easy layups. Plus, he wasn't too much of a liability against Westbrook on defense.
Regardless, the Thunder's success later on can't be entirely attributed to individual play. A huge amount of the credit has to go to Scott Brooks. After 8:16 in the third quarter, the Thunder never went big, always playing Durant or Sefolosha at Power Forward. Collison or Ibaka was at center, and Perkins never even saw the floor. This allowed the Thunder to play the transition game more quickly, and guard matchups effectively without losing an offensive punch.
Some might question the inclusion of Derek Fisher in such a fast lineup, but the truth is, he fit in perfectly, despite not much to show for it late in the game. Throughout the contest, you could see Fisher getting more aggressive than we've ever seen him before, taking shots that aren't totally open and willing to play around with his defender before he shoots it. He's done a few moves before, but usually nothing beyond a simple dribble into the lane or a simple fake.
Before I close the recap, I'd like to highlight a couple of crucial plays that really changed the flow of the game. They might not have been game-winning shots, but they both came during critical times, and both of them were totally unexpected.
Around three minutes to go in the first. The Thunder are down by 11, and Collison just lost the ball in the paint. The Heat quickly fling the ball up to Wade, who is prepared to sail to the lane with almost no problems. But as he prepares himself for an easy layup, a trailing Kevin Durant comes behind him and gets a clean block. Collison rebounds the ball and gives it out to Harden, who reads the Heat defense perfectly and throws an easy bounce pass back to Durant for an even easier layup. The Thunder are right back in the game.
Seven and a half minutes to go in the second. The Thunder are down 13. Battier badly clanks an open three after a hot first quarter, and Derek Fisher hustles for the rebound. He runs past two Heat defenders, and it appears that he might actually be going coast-to-coast. The only thing between him and a score is the taller and longer Dwayne Wade. Wade keeps up with him going into the paint, but Fisher quickly fakes him out, uses his body to create space, and scores. To be honest, I couldn't believe my eyes. Fisher had just challenged and beaten Dwayne Wade in the paint. Was it the shoes?!