Eleven days after they last clashed, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat battled through the most intense game of the year. Miami emerged victorious – “survived” might be a more appropriate term. In doing so, they inspired the visiting Thunder to some of their greatest heights, and exposed their few remaining holes.
Height – Maturity: After pressing too hard in the teams’ last meeting, Russell Westbrook looked ready to unravel again today. His second-quarter takedown of LeBron James resulted in a flagrant-1 foul and a scathing amount of ire from the usually sedate Miami crowd.
Westbrook handled the boos calmly, though, refusing to go one-on-one and instead moving the ball to James Harden, who eventually found Kevin Durant an open jump shot.
Then, with Miami ahead by nine and threatening to pull away at the end of the third quarter, Durant and Westbrook took over – not by playing hero ball, but by creating good shots.
Durant’s line-drive runner at the shot-clock buzzer was fortunate, but he created it by going hard at the basket; same for Westbrook’s two free throws that cut the deficit to five a minute later, which came as the result of a strong attack on the hoop. Durant further quelled the panic by recognizing an advantage and posting up Shane Battier for a turnaround jumper.
There is a difference between “taking over the game” by forcing difficult shots, and truly imposing one’s will on the proceedings. Tonight’s third quarter showed Durant and Westbrook embodying the latter definition.
Hole – (Perception of) Bench: Derek Fisher is finished as a basketball player. He took forced, painful shots tonight and looked like a shell of the five-time champion Laker. This has been the case for several seasons now, but it stands out more prominently now that he’s wearing an unfamiliar uniform.
Those who don’t watch the Thunder regularly might think this is a problem, because they think Derek Fisher is Oklahoma City’s backup point guard. He is not. James Harden is the best creator on the team, and Scott Brooks always makes sure that Harden is in the game when Westbrook sits. Fisher has no traditional point guard responsibilities. Unfortunately, his shot is missing in action, which means he has no value left on the court.
Height – Hustle: The Thunder saved at least five would-be layups by chasing down Heat fast breaks or contesting seemingly open shots at the rim. Chris Bosh seemed especially frustrated by Serge Ibaka’s relentless defense, and even James and Dwyane Wade took enough lumps to eventually settle for too many jump shots.
Oklahoma City ultimately missed too many open shots to secure the win, but they might be the only team that could hold the Heat to 40% shooting in the paint. Should the teams meet in the NBA Finals, as many are predicting, the Thunder defense will have plenty of confidence.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.