Thunder vs Heat: OKC Must Rebound (2012 NBA Finals Game 3 Preview)

Do you think Durant has been practicing his baseline jumper? Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

Game Thread at 7PM CST

The Miami Heat vs The Oklahoma City Thunder

Time: 7:00 PM Central Standard Time

Place: The AmericanAirlines Arena, Miami Florida

TV: ABC

Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1), 790 AM The Ticket

Enemy Blog(s): Peninsula is Mightier, Hot Hot Hoops

Series Results: Game 1, Game 2 (Series tied 1-1)

2012 NBA Finals Series Preview

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Peninsula is Mightier Game 3 Preview

The Thunder head into Game 3 tonight facing a situation that seems like it is far more serious than it actually is. A series ago, the Thunder found themselves down 0-2 against a Spurs team that looked head and shoulders better than OKC. The Thunder responded by heading home, regrouping, and building a better game plan. The net result was one of the most remarkable 0-2 recoveries that we've ever seen, as the Thunder ripped off 4 games in a row to stun the Spurs.

This time around, the obvious difference is that Game 3 is in Miami rather than OKC, but the message should be the same. The Thunder has played maybe 3 quarters of solid Thunder basketball where they were focused both offensively and defensively. The Thunder have proven that they can make radical wholesale shifts in their approach, and more of that flexibility will be needed tonight.

Mostly though, the Thunder just have to play better. They have the talent and depth to stay with LeBron, Wade, and the gang, but they cannot continue to submit 'C' and 'D' level quarters that give the Heat too many advantages heading into the 4th quarter. The fact that the Heat have 3 games in a row at home is really incidental to the situation; this moment now is about whether OKC can actually play up to their ability and maximize their talents in a patient and deliberate manner, similar to Game 3 vs the Spurs.

Here are my points of focus for tonight:

  • Look for Kevin Durant to attack early. To be sure, Durant attacked like a madman in the 4th quarter of Game 2, but I rated him overall quite low for his performance because he wasn't as aggressive as he needed to be through 3 quarters (granted, foul trouble had a lot to do with that). I know that KD likes to let the game come to him and set up his teammates early, but as players like Jordan and Kobe will tell you, sometimes the best option is to call your own number when the team is struggling. If OKC starts out shooting poorly again, Durant needs to be ready to demand the ball, take his action down into the paint, and manufacture points in order to give his team time to get their legs underneath them. Oh, and cut the 3-point attempts in half, please.
  • Look for more small ball line-ups. Much has been made these past 3 days about Scott Brooks' use of two big men at the same time, and how it is really hindering OKC's ability to close out on the Heat shooters (specifically Shane Battier). Battier is in a tremendous shooting rhythm right now (witness his game-altering 3-point bank shot at the end of Game 2) and that rhythm will likely continue unless the Thunder start guarding him tightly. They have to run those Heat shooters off the 3-point line, and the only way they're going to be able to do it is with a smaller line-up. Perhaps this means Brooks will go to James Harden earlier to replace Kendrick Perkins, or Serge Ibaka will move to the 5, Durant will play the 4, and their defense will get much quicker, but this is the biggest wholesale change the Thunder must do right now. They made the switch in the Spurs series and it is now time to do it in the Finals.
  • Look for Russell Westbrook to self-correct. Westbrook played a very uneven Game 2, but he was still a difference-maker as the game rose in intensity. He has proven that he can consistently adjust his game to meet the defensive expectations once he has a better understanding of where the pressure comes from. I would expect that Brooks will recognize that Westbrook right now would do better to play off the ball more and let the offense come to him rather than start with him. Look for Durant and Harden to play more of an offensive engager role tonight to allow Westbrook some freedom to attack. He is still the player for whom the Heat have no easy answers, but the Thunder must make the Heat work and adjust to Westbrook, rather than the other way around.
  • Can OKC win the rebounding war? Simply put, Serge Ibaka must be a rebounding force tonight. OKC cannot allow Chris Bosh to grab another 15 boards (7 offensive) and waste valuable defensive efforts in the game. The responsibility falls squarely on Ibaka, who must revert to his early season rebounding effort in order to better protect the rim.
I trust that the Thunder can make the appropriate in-game adjustments to better combat what the Heat are trying to do, but the jury is still out on whether they can actually play better offensive basketball. They are still rushing their offense too much, and until we see them slow things down and focus more on the little things like good screens and tight cuts, I think the Heat should be favored tonight.

***
Prediction: Heat 105, Thunder 102
If Durant gets another shot at taking down LeBron, he should take heed to one Omar Little's advice.


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