Last night's victory against the Heat in Miami was an impressive affair because it demonstrated the evolution of the idea team defense. The Thunder did not simply win the game by having one of those "burn up the net" type of outings. Rather, they played a completely different type of game, and it is of the type that is necessary to win a playoff series. The defense was great, but more importantly, the defense was consistent. Each possession was treated seriously and players took it personally if there was a defensive breakdown. I still think they're a year away from a big playoff push because there is no substitute for playing multiple seven game series, but I think the playoffs just got a lot more interesting.
In no particular order, here are three lingering random thoughts I am pondering the day after.
1. The best player on the court was wearing blue.
Up to this point in the season, Kevin Durant has not had exceptional games against the elite teams in the league. He has struggled mightily against the Lakers, Spurs, Mavericks, Celtics, and Bulls. It is not that he needs a breakout game per se, but Durant does need to come up bigger when the competition rises. In Miami, KD was facing down two gentlemen who have received a myriad of accolades, Finals appearances, and a championship ring (Dwyane Wade).
The Thunder made it their mission to make Wade and LeBron James' life terrible for 48 minutes, and to a large degree succeeded. On the opposite end of the court, James had the responsibility of trying to stick with Durant, and for the first time in his career, Durant dominated the head-to-head match-up. Durant utilized every tool in his toolbox last night, whether it was posting up, going back-door, dribble-drive, fast break, step-back, or 3-pointer. It isn't like James was checked out defensively; he was working hard to stay with Durant. The shots Durant were hitting though were not simply garden variety; some of them had an extremely high degree of difficulty. They were of the kind that you witness and say to yourself, "I cannot do that, and I will never be able to do that. But at least I get to watch HIM do that." Unlike most games this season, Durant didn't even have a chance to pad his stats at the free throw line; he only got there once as a result of being fouled (the other two were technical free throws).
Aside from the scoring, it was Durant's all-around game that made him stand head and shoulders over LeBron, at least for one game. Despite the presence of Kendrick Perkins, Nazr Mohammed, Serge Ibaka, and Nick Collison fighting it out in the paint, Durant still grabbed seven rebounds. Also, with Westbrook struggling offensively and dealing with foul trouble, Durant turned himself into the offensive catalyst, collecting six assists as well. To top it all off, Durant only had a single turnover, and that came late in the game. Gone seem to be the days where KD gives the ball away 4-5 times per game. He is playing with better patience, conscience, and confidence now and is facilitating the entire Thunder offense as a result.
2. The Thunder took away the two things that transform the Heat from "really good" to "unbeatable."
a) Defensive rebounding. The Heat are big and athletic with Chris Bosh, Wade, and LeBron. When those guys get into the defensive rebounding mix, it speeds up their already potent fast break game. Both Wade and James are nearly unstoppable in the open court when they get a full head of steam because both can finish strong and absorb contact. All it takes is a few fast breaks with "and-1's" and a close game can turn into a rout, and it is fueled by their ability to grab defensive rebounds and create mismatches in the open court.
In last night's game, the Thunder collected eight more offensive boards than the Heat, which slowed the game down and neutralized the Heat fast break. The control on the boards led the Thunder to getting 10 more shots than the Heat, and this proved to be the difference in a game that was under 10 points most of the time.
b) Points in the paint.
When the Heat cannot fast break, they can still control the game by getting James and Wade into the lane to break down defenses. Both players can drive and post up, and both have the skill to pass out of the lane to spot-up shooters. The game went bad for the Heat when the Thunder took away the former by barring their pathway to the rim. Said coach Erik Spoelstra:
"We have some of the best attackers in the game. They usually go over the top...They were being met at the rim. They forced us into some tough opportunities. Regardless of whether we feel there was contact or not, you have to give them credit with their defense."
While Wade and James were able to get to the rim a little bit in the 2nd quarter, the Thunder were quick to take away these opportunities heading into the 4th. By preventing the Heat from rolling up lots of points quickly in the paint, the Thunder were able to control the game at their preferred pace. The Heat had no offensive alternative.
3. My two favorite moments did not involve "game action."
a) As the game clock wound down and the Thunder were holding the ball as the final seconds ticked away:
The Thunder were set to let the shot clock expire without shooting leaving four seconds on the game clock. KD passed the ball to Westbrook with about nine seconds remaining, but just before the violation Westbrook passed it back so that KD would [be] credited for the turnover. You could see Russ laughing and Kevin just shaking his head.
I loved that moment. It was one of those glimpses into how Russell Westbrook and Durant see each other. Westbrook saw it as an opportunity to play a little harmless prank on his buddy. He knew that Durant had carried the team, so he wanted to muss up KD's stat line a little bit with an extra turnover. KD knew he had been busted by his running mate. (in a way, adding to the quaintness is the fact that shot clock violation turnovers don't get attributed to an individual)
b) I wish I could find some video footage of this - as soon as the game was over and the sideline reporter pulled Kevin Durant into a quick interview, we got to see a little glimpse on what makes Kevin Durant such a special individual.
The first question was to the effect of, "How did it feel for you to have finally beaten LeBron James?"
I tell you, for a brief half-second it was as if we were watching the Grinch's face as his heart grows three sizes. For that smallest of moments, KD the competitor turned into KD the young man who had finally conquered one of his personal mountains in toppling Mt. LeBron. His face was that of a mixture of exhaling relief and of joy, in a way similar to the huge smile he flashed after he hit the game winner against the Knicks.
And then like Keyser Soze, it was gone. Durant the competitor and teammate returned to the forefront, and he earnestly said, "It was a great win for the Oklahoma City Thunder."
Just like that, we had a thin sliced glimpse of the boy-man who was joyous at his personal feat, and the man-boy who had been raised by loving parents to never elevate himself above his teammates. Special.