Last night's Thunder loss was a frustrating experience for the OKC fanbase. It is one thing for a Thunder team to forget to show up against a Wizards team or get surprisingly outplayed by a great player like Kyrie Irving, but against the Heat, this was supposed to be both a rematch and a referendum on the closeness of last season's two Finalists.
It was not close.
Here are a few musings I have considered in the aftermath of the
Valentine's Day massacre NOPE, not calling it that.
1. "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth" - Mike Tyson
This famous quote from Iron Mike might seem like a cliche, but we see it again and again. A team thinks that it is ready, has a plan in place, is hyped through the roof, but when the game starts they don't see the left hook coming and before they know it they're wobbling on their knees. In fact, we just witnessed this event in the Superbowl, where the Ravens nearly ended the game in the 1st half before the 49ers knew what hit them.
So it has been with these Thunder in playing the Heat. The last time OKC really looked comfortable against Miami was almost a year ago. From that point on, the Heat have gone 7-1 and reeled off 6 straight wins, and in nearly every game, it has felt like the Thunder were trying to catch Miami. The Heat were moving too fast, too decisively, to aggressively and all the Thunder could do was react and recover.
It is not so simple as saying the Thunder need to get off to a better start. They got off to a great start in Game 4 of the Finals, but even with that great start, the Thunder could not maintain their focus and lost a huge lead in a matter of minutes. There is something present in OKC's collective psyche that is preventing them from playing the kind of ball that they play best. Call it nerves, call it anxiety, call it whatever you want. I contend that the Thunder are playing poorly not simply because of things like James, line-up issues, or Westbrook's temperament. I think it is because they have yet to learn to deal with Miami's first big left hook, and OKC isn't prepared to figure out how to stay on its feet and keep pace. OKC gets hit, and for the rest of the game they're guessing where the next punch is going to come from.
If you're guessing, you're losing.
2. Peaks and valleys and lack thereof
Against 28 other teams, the overwhelming one-on-one talent of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is enough to allow the Thunder to thrive. Sometimes, simpler is better, and few exhibit that better than the Thunder. You can run all the complicated plays in the world, and few are better than simply giving the ball to Durant in the mid-post and letting him go to work.
But when the Thunder play the Heat, their biggest strength becomes their biggest weakness. Given that the Thunder probably have to go through Miami to win the title, this is a problem.
I like to think of this dilemma in terms of an investment portfolio. One of the basic rules of investing long-term is to diversify your assets. All this really means is that you select a variety of investments that adhere to different business cycles; that way, if one investment tanks, you have others that are still doing well, so your overall value is not hurt as badly. Conversely, if you have a portfolio that consists of just a few stocks, when they are doing well, your value skyrockets. However, if one or both of them take a dive, you feel the pain even more.
To be sure, the Thunder have worked hard to build a more diversified offense. Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Martin, and Reggie Jackson are all emerging in their own ways to help this cause. However, when the offense breaks down, OKC still defaults to the either/or offense with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. If they're both playing well, OKC is unstoppable. If one is up and the other down, OKC can do well against most teams but it puts tremendous pressure on one individual to keep the team afloat. If both guys are down, we get moments like what happened to the Thunder in the 1st quarter. The peaks and valleys are more pronounced and can lead both to catch-up situations as well as losing big leads.
To contrast, the Heat of course do have LeBron James playing at a historically high level, but when he's not working on his own offense, he's running an extremely fast and fluid motion offense. Miami has a great mixture of older and younger players, and the collective experience fortifies a good understanding on how each player can maximize his role. We've become accustomed to watching the Heat set up players like Shane Battier, Norris Cole, Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller, and now Ray Allen in order to produce a diversified offense, so even if James is off or on the bench, it continues to roll. Meanwhile, in almost every Thunder loss in this 6 game losing streak, the offense has been top heavy with little support from other players. When Durant/Westbrook sit or don't play well, the team is sunk.
(As an even more perfect example, witness what the Spurs offense did to the defensively oriented Chicago Bulls the other night. Despite missing Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili, their well-diversified offense did not miss a beat and shredded Chicago's defense.)
3. A lesson from losing to San Antonio
Speaking of San Antonio, that's the team that I was recalling as I watched the Thunder look so discombobulated last night. Of course this Valentine's Day loss hearkened back to the Game 2 loss in the Finals due to the horrible starts in both, but strangely enough I felt like my memory was rewarded when Westbrook had this to say following the loss:
"Not disappointed. But mostly just surprised."
Durant agreed, and to me that's the first step in realizing that these games against the Heat are not about effort/heart/grit/etc. but tactics and a philosophy about how to deal with Miami's system.
Specifically, last night's game reminded me of two Spurs losses a year ago. The first one was a game where Tony Parker erupted for 42 points and made most of it look easy. He's not the same player as LeBron obviously, but the manner in which he carved up the Thunder defense felt similar in the way he imposed his will. It was in this game where we started to wonder whether OKC had any measure at all to slow down Parker and his offensive influence.
Fast forward to Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, and it seemed as if we had our answer, and that answer appeared to be: NO.
Here is what I wrote then:
For all of the strategy that we have discussed, different offensive methodology that might produce more points, and defensive rotations that would protect the rim, the most important thing in trying to deal with the Spurs' hydra-like attack is that a team has to control Tony Parker. A defense cannot let him get to the spots he wants, cannot let him shoot the shots he likes, or get to the rim without him hitting the deck. It is Parker, not Tim Duncan, not Manu Ginobili, and not any of their outstanding bench, that turn the Spurs from a very good team into an offensive wrecking ball - that is the new Spurs basketball. When Parker is given the room he wants to operate, new Spurs basketball cannot be matched. OKC tried to play Spurs basketball, and they found themselves down by 22 in the 3rd.
You could easily replace Parker with LeBron James. While LeBron clearly has physical advantages that Parker lacks, I think the analogy still works because in both cases, there appeared to be no answer readily available. OKC did not have anyone quick enough to stay in front of Parker, could not stay with him in the half court, and Parker was finding his open shooters as easily as if they were doing a pre-game walkthrough. The Spurs' offensive system, run by a great player in his prime, seemed unconquerable.
You know what happened next. The Thunder solved what seemed like an unsolvable problem.
While the Heat loss is disheartening, its reality is not without precedent. The Thunder have been down this road before. They have lost games like this to the best teams in the league.
The Heat problem for the Thunder is solvable. Will they?