Oklahoma City grabbed the first game of the NBA Finals with a riveting second half, as they caught the Miami Heat from behind and pulled away down the stretch to a 105-94 win and hold serve on their home floor.
To look at the box score of this game you don’t see a lot of differences, save for OkC shooting 51 percent from the floor to Miami’s 46 percent and in either case that’s a good offensive showing for each team. What it doesn’t factor in just how much the Thunder defense controlled the second half. The Heat hit early three-point shots, with Shane Battier knocking down 4-for-6 and Mario Challmes hitting 2-for-4. As TheSportsNotebook opined in yesterday’s series preview, that’s too many treys for Battier to be taking and the early makes proved to be fool’s gold, as he took an ill-advised one at a key point in the fourth quarter and the Heat in general defaulted to the three-ball at too many key moments when they had a chance to keep the Thunder from pulling away. This team has got to find a way to ride the hot hand outside from these role players early while not letting it distract them from their focus at bigger points later in the game.
On an individual level, the big difference you see is that Russell Westbrook is much better than Dwayne Wade at this point in their careers, and allowing that Wade’s probably not 100 percent. To watch it in person made it look like a huge mismatch. To double-check the box score shows it’s probably not quite as bad—Westbrook dazzled with 27 points/8 rebounds/11 assists, while Wade was merely good, with a 19/4/8 line. But of the three best players on the floor, it’s the Thunder, not the Heat, who have two of them and that’s a circumstance Miami is accustomed to.
Ultimately, to bring back a point alluded to in yesterday’s preview, Miami simply looked like a team that spent two weeks hitting against the knuckleball (the Boston Celtics) and is now seeing a pitcher with serious gas. On the positive side, perhaps they’ll have mentally caught back up to the new speed that the Finals have to be played at for Game 2. But on the negative side, they got nice games from the role players, Oklahoma City was sloppy and presumably nervous in the first half and everything was set up for the Heat to get a road win, but they didn’t do it. OkC turned up the pressure, got a big defensive performance from Thab Sefolosha and some key rebounds from Nick Collison, erased a seven-point deficit and finally took over in the fourth quarter. If the Thunder don’t waste in future games with nerve issues, what does that say for the future of this series?
I haven’t mentioned the stars, LeBron and Kevin Durant, because they were both great, and when both stars are great, they aren’t the decisive factors. LeBron dropped a 30/9/4 line, while Durant was even better at 36/8/4. If I’m a Heat fan, I can allow James being outscored by Durant. But LeBron is normally a better rebounder and passer, yet the rebounds/assists line was virtually even and it seems like Durant’s biggest passes came on the biggest possessions. The positive side is that only rarely did King James settle for airing up three-point shots and the aggressiveness at the hoop he showed in the Boston series carried over to this one. It’s just now the caliber of the opponent has exponentially increased.
Is Game 2 on Thursday a must-win either way? You can make the case for both teams. If Miami loses, they’re obviously in a 0-2 hole and would have to come back to the raucous arena in Oklahoma City no matter what. On the flip side if the Thunder lose, they give up homecourt advantage. Because I think getting a road win is normally necessary for any team, even one with homecourt advantage. I’m still inclined to think Miami needs a split here in these first two games—I know they won the 2006 NBA title after losing two on the road, but a three-game sweep in your own arena is tough to do against the league’s best and the road wins are easier to get earlier in the series than they are at the back end.