OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - JUNE 12: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder goes up for a layup over Chris Bosh #1 of the Miami Heat in Game One of the 2012 NBA Finals at Chesapeake Energy Arena on June 12, 2012 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Larry W. Smith/Pool/Getty Images)
We head into Game 2 tonight with the only thing that should matter at this point: OKC must protect home court. As great as it was to watch the Thunder chase down the Heat in the 2nd half of Game 1, see the Heat offense disappear, and the Thunder to win by double-digits, that performance means nothing if Miami can escape from OKC with the series tied at 1-1.
This kind of reality is what makes the playoffs so compelling. No matter how great a team looks after one game, each successive game increases the pressure just a little bit more for both sides, and a loss can completely alter the trajectory of a series. This is the truth - if OKC fails to work hard in playing aggressive defense while being patient on offense, they will be heading to Miami with a very real chance of never seeing their home court again.
One thought that encourages me though is that the Thunder seemed to have snapped out of their early season struggles where they would win a big game and then just coast on their lofty talents for a week. To be sure, most of the time their talent alone was enough to beat some of the lower NBA ranks, but eventually their inattention to detail cost them against teams that wanted a season-defining win. Instead, they now seem to have a much stronger focus from game to game, knowing how risky it can be to have any expectation for how a game might unfold. The only time it might have popped up was Game 2 against the Lakers, where OKC barely eeked out a win a game after blowing out LA. Since then, OKC's game-to-game focus has been remarkable.
Here are a few elements that I will be watching for tonight:
How is Dwyane Wade physically? How is Chris Bosh physically? Game 1 proved that if OKC just lets them roam around they can be effective on offense. However, when these guys were aggressively challenged their offense began to deteriorate. I don't know if it was a combination of Game 1 indecision, fatigue, or recovery from injury, but OKC must continue to put pressure on those two guys because they are the only other two Heat players who can produce enough offense to help out LeBron James.
Will Serge Ibaka be ready to attack? Early on in Game 1, I think Ibaka was a little surprised at how open he was in the post and rushed some very makeable shots. As a result, the Heat were able to build a double-digit lead while the Thunder offense tried to find itself. However, once Ibaka realized he could get to the rim (as well as Nick Collison), the Heat started to abandon their aggressive trapping because they were overly concerned that the Thunder's more athletic big men could receive the pass and finish at the rim. Trapping may still be Miami's best option though, so OKC's big men must be ready to catch the ball in traffic and finish strong.
Russell Westbrook will face increased defensive pressure. Just like in Dallas, Los Angeles, and San Antonio, Westbrook is going to face a defense that realizes that they must contain him on the perimeter. If Westbrook breaks through the perimeter defense, he will find a way to finish at the rim. He has to be ready for this increased pressure so that he can continue to make intelligent passes and not fall victim to Miami's trapping. Somebody will be open; he just has follow the flow of his own offense to find them.
James Harden will face the challenge. With Westbrook likely becoming a bigger defensive focus, Harden must be ready to have a much better game. Miami knows that Durant can beat them and Westbrook can beat them, so to eliminate those to threats, Harden will be the man who has to step up.
Keep LeBron on the perimeter. LeBron is going to get his points, whether he is being guarded by Durant or Sefolosha. However, he has not yet proven that he can have multiple 'Game 6 vs the Celtics' performances. You could see his shooting mechanics break down as Game 1 went on and he realized Durant was playing him for the drive. As I wrote before, LeBron shooting jumpers can hurt you, but LeBron driving to the rim can kill you.
If you haven't read Michael Rosenberg's piece on Durant today, do so before tonight's game. His final quote is as applicable to the entire Thunder team as it is to Durant, and it is the greatest hope we have that the Thunder may struggle at times tonight, but they will not stop working or attacking.
There is an old line that's been used countless times as a joke setup and an advertising pitch: What do you give the man who has everything? We may have our answer now. Here is what you can do for the man who has everything: Take away 10 percent of it, and tell him he has to fight to get it back.
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