Miami Heat v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Two

2012 NBA Finals Game 3: 20 observations as the series shifts to South Beach

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Here are twenty observations about the 2012 NBA Finals through two games as the series shifts to Miami for a three-game set.

1. First, and really, this can’t be stressed enough, the 2-3-2 format is horrible. I get why. I do. You don’t want the Finals dragging in for an entire month. But here’s the thing. And you don’t want to put teams on a two-day travel schedule during the Finals, even though you just got done putting them through the same for the Conference Finals, but whatever. Here’s my issue. If you went to the same schedule as a normal playoff series, only with adding an extra day in for travel, the series, if carried out to seven games, which is rare, would end on the 28th. Yes, that’s the same day the draft is scheduled. But that’s in an outlier lockout year. This same schedule for the Finals applies every year.

Having homecourt advantantage in a series is just that, you’re supposed to have a slight edge by having one more home game. But the 2-3-2 effectively rewards the higher seed by giving them an extra home game and punishes the other team by saddling them with a three-game set at home. Winning those three in a row is nearly impossible. The NBA would do well to fix this thing. It’s just not worth the impact on the series.

2.  This, considering context, is one of the most amazing blocks I’ve ever seen.

Which almost makes the twelve pumfakes Ibaka fell for and the half dozen rotations he missed totally fine.

3. The Thunder have an interior rotation problem, and it’s not just Kendrick Perkins, though he’s been especially bad. The gap between Perkins on and off court for OKC is wideer, but the Thunder are still better with Ibaka off than on as well, a +6.9 mark to +5.4 with him on. Even Nick Collison struggled in Game 2 with his usual brand of low-stats, high-impact performance.

A lot of it, honestly, is Chris Bosh. Bosh, for all the grief he’s taken, is still a pretty good player, and when he’s giving the kind of effort he has in these playoffs, both before and after his abdominal injury, he’s a tough cover. Perkins gets blown by by Bosh, Ibaka loses him on the pump fake or can’t maintain his spacing to contest the mid-range jumper, and Collison winds up fouling him. Ultimately, this may just have to be something the Thunder live with. We thought interior play was going to be a big advantage for OKC. Not so much.

4. It says a lot about the state of the positional revolution sourced by Free Darko that this series exists. You have two teams throwing small-ball lineups at one another for long stretches. One thing that does bug me is this description of Shane Battier as playing power forward. To say that Battier is playing the 4 because he winds up guarding a big is lost, because there are so many switches and cross-matches in this series that everyone winds up guarding someone they have no business guarding. In reality, Battier is playing combo forward alongside James, he’s just handling different responsibilities thereof.

5. He’s also shooting the freaking lights out, something no one expects to hold over the course of this series. It’s an interesting phenomenon. Thing is, guys will often have series where they simply cannot miss. You want an example? Against the Blazers in the playoffs last year, DeShawn Stevenson shot 40 percent from 3-point-range in 12 minutes per game. Against the Lakers, 35.7 percent in 13 minutes per game. Thunder? 23.8 percent in 20 minutes. Against the Heat, one of the best defenses in the league last year? 56.5 percent in 20 minutes. These things happen. You have to live with them, sometimes. Battier will probably plummet back to Earth. But don’t think for a second that this is some crazy outlier. Happens every playoffs.

6. When LeBron James asserts himself inside, the Thunder have absolutely no one who can adequately defend him without bringing at least two help defenders. Seeing James work in the post against Durant is like watching a sapling try to guard the Monstars. Dude bounced off him like a pinball. In Game 2, James took just four shots outside of the paint. So expect in Game 3 for him to shoot more than half outside, because he never sticks with what works.

7. Durant’s fourth-quarter shooting exploits have been the stuff you always read about and watch on retrospective videos. It’s like watching a legend happen before your eyes. This team is simply never out of a contest because of Durant’s range and scoring ability.

8. And what should be even more amazing here is that Battier has played tremendous defense on him. Outside of a few blown rotations and over-helps, Battier has stuck him all series, and stuck that hand in his face like Durant hates on every jumper. It just doesn’t matter. If the Thunder wind up winning this series on the strength of what we’ve seen from Durant the first two games, Battier and Craig Ehlo should go hang out.

9. You know what I’m not excited about as we go to South Beach? The crowd. And jokes about the crowd. And vitriolic responses from Heat fans about jokes about the crowd. And “They have fans?” jokes about the fans who are vitriolic about the jokes about the crowd. Just show up so we can let this go, Miami. You were there and loud for Boston Game 7. Treat every game like that.

10. Traffic is far and away he worst excuse by teams with weak showings from fans. Everywhere has traffic. There are degrees, but everybody has to leave work early. Come on, now.

11. LeBron James has talked a lot about getting back to having fun playing basketball this year. But since Game 6 of the Boston series, there has been no fun. No fun at all. The man is 100 percent business, and it’s kind of cool to see. No excessive dancing, no silliness. He’ll likely ruin this at any moment, but it’s been cool to see a player’s public persona evolve. He continues the be the most fascinating and divisive story in sports.

12. If you really think that the problem in Game 2 for the Thunder, a game in which they scored 105 point per 100 possessions and 115.9 in the second half, was Russell Westbrook’s offense, I’m betting you caught maybe three Thunder games before the playoffs. It takes a complete misunderstanding of the Thunder offense to put this on Westbrook, and it’s a shame that he’s getting scapegoated (LeBron’d, if you will) like this. His defense in Game 2 was one of the things that kept the Thunder in it.

13. This series is about the Thunder defense and anyone who thinks differently is caught up in the trees trying to find the forest.

14. The blue-then-white cross-sections for OKC in Game 2 were genius and it created a really cool effect. White-outs are the worst, but blue-and-white-outs are pretty cool, it turns out. Created kind of a haze.

15. Battier may revert to form, but Chalmers is likely to step up and hit some big shots. Don’t sleep on Little Brother, he’s got some tricks in him.

16. I still find it incredible that Miami didn’t play Joel Anthony or Ronny Turiaf at all in Game 2 and still won the rebounding battle.

17. As much as I warned people off overreacting to Game 1, the same has to occur with Game 2. The Thunder can and will win at least one on the Heat’s home floor. This series is just getting started.

18. That said, the pressure dynamic has completely switched. If the Heat take the next two, they go into Games 5 and 6 in the “must win all the time no mistakes ever” mode which is really hard to maintain for two games, let alone three. If the Heat drop Game 4, but take Game 5, they’ve reacquired momentum headed into OKC where they know they can win. Losing Game 3, though, sets a whole different dynamic. If Miami comes out of South Beach with only one win, OKC will have broken their confidence. The series will end in 6 if that happens.

19. Well, the lockout and the legal battles and planking and greed and misery were nice, but I guess a highly entertaining series where the fourth quarter is always close and superstars are putting in superstar performances is OK, too.

20. Seriously, how much fun is this?

Five things Thunder did to go from good to brink of reaching NBA Finals

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 16:  Billy Donovan of the Oklahoma City Thunder high fives Serge Ibaka #9 and Kevin Durant #35 during game one of the NBA Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on May 16, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Oklahoma City was a 55-win team — most season’s that win total would have them entering the playoffs considered a contender. They have Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, two top five players in the league. But with the 73-win Warriors and 67-win Spurs ahead of them, the Thunder felt more like a good but flawed team doomed to an early exit and a summer of speculation.

Now the Thunder are one win away from knocking off the Spurs and Warriors back-to-back.

What changed? Here are five things the Thunder are doing better now than they did all season, the things propelling them to new heights.

1) Defense. The Thunder were an okay defensive team this season, allowing 103 points per 100 possessions they ranked 12th in the league. That got worse after the All-Star break when the Thunder allowed 105.7 points per 100 possessions, 16th in the league. Over the final month, they would show flashes of how they could play lock down defense, but they could not sustain it.

Now, this is a team that has held the feared Warriors offense to 88.9 points per 100 possessions Tuesday, 98.1 in Game 3. What changed was they have become fluid at switching on picks — both on and off the ball — and they are communicating. More importantly, they are smart in doing it, knowing when to go under or when to ignore the pick whatsoever. Their athleticism lets them make up ground, and their length allows them to get into passing lanes and create turnovers. Mostly the Thunder are playing with a sustained focus and energy on that end of the floor we haven’t seen ever. It has flummoxed the Warriors, who are rushing shots or trying to do things in isolation more than moving the ball.

“I think you have to build up stamina for that,” Warriors coach Billy Donovan said of the improved defensive energy and attention. “I think you have to have stamina to concentrate and focus and do what these guys do.”

2) Dion Waiters. Dion Waiters, in his entire career, has played as well as he has the past couple weeks. He’s like a new player. This is a guy who had a PER of 9.4 this season, the kind of number associated with being sent to the D-League. Credit to Billy Donovan and the Thunder coaching staff, Waiters gets it. Too often before he wanted to shoot like he was Russell Westbrook, now he has accepted the third (or fourth) man role. His shot selection has improved, and with that he is knocking down his jumpers. Like the entire team from item No. 1, his usually unfocused defense has suddenly become good almost every time down. He has become the third perimeter player the Thunder have needed for years.  With Waiters making plays, and more importantly accepting his role, the Thunder become that much harder to stop. The Warriors have not been able to.

3) Solving the Andre Roberson problem. The Golden State Warriors decided to treat Andre Roberson like they did Tony Allen from Memphis last season — put a big on him (Andrew Bogut or Draymond Green), then have said big ignore him to stay near the basket to protect the rim. If Roberson wanted to shoot from the outside, the Warriors would let the notoriously poor shooter (31.1 percent from three this past season) have all the wide open shots he wanted.

Billy Donovan made a great adjustment — he turned Roberson into a power forward/center, then surrounded him with shooters. This allows the active Roberson to set the pick for Westbrook (or whomever), then roll right down the lane to the basket for a dunk.  That and some backdoor cuts had Roberson scoring a career-high 17 points and giving the Thunder the support they need around their big stars.

“It’s funny because after Game 2 people were saying to me ‘is this guy even going to play anymore?’” Donovan said. “Andre’s a good basketball player, and I think one of the things that go missing with him is he makes winning plays and he’s a winning player. There are a lot of things he can do, offensive rebounds and slashing to the basket, I have confidence in him shooting the basketball.”

4) They are one team that could play small and run with Golden State. The Warriors small-ball lineup was so feared around the league it earned the nickname The Death Lineup. It killed teams. Nobody could keep up the scoring machine that was the Warriors going small.

Until the Thunder went small in Game 3 and ran right past the death lineup (which was -22 for the game). The Thunder are the one team with the depth of athleticism to go small with the Warriors and hang, but this lineup had been destroyed by the Spurs so it was a risk to roll it out again. It worked this time around becuase the Thunder become so much faster. The Thunder defense didn’t suffer —  Serge Ibaka (or Steven Adams), plus guys like Kevin Durant have done a fantastic job protecting the rim.

“It’s not about what is or is not going to work, sometimes you just got to put stuff out there based on teams. You’ve got to be willing to take some risks and do that…” Donovans siad postgame

“Sometimes you’ve got to evaluate things within the series you’re playing against. So, why were the numbers bad? And was there any way with adjustments could we make those numbers better.”

5) Billy Donovan has been fantastic. Donovan went toe-to-toe with Gregg Popovich, and now Steve Kerr, and it is the NBA rookie who is making the right adjustments. Like the small ball lineup, or using Roberson like a center.

But more than that, he has gotten buy-in from the team. The Thunder were never this focused, Durant and Westbrook both fought staggering their minutes in the past, and waiters did whatever it is Waiters wanted to do. Donovan has solved all those problems, but none of it works if the players don’t buy in. After a season where Donovan had to learn on the job the hard way — because Monte Williams (the tragic death of this wife) and Maurice Cheeks (injury) — Donovan has figured it out. He’s getting the kind of buy in Scott Brooks never seemed to have.

And with that, Donovan and the Thunder are within a game of the NBA Finals.

Watch Russell Westbrook drop 36 on Golden State in Oklahoma City win

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Once again, Russell Westbrook was the force of nature the Warriors could not solve.

The athletic point guard forced turnovers, threw it down in transition, and drove right past Stephen Curry or  was guarding him. The result was 36 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists — Westbrook’s first triple double of these playoffs.

“He’s got such great force and great will,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said after the Thunder’s Game 4 win. “And he’s really a high IQ basketball player, he sees a lot of things going on out there… As a coach, you have great respect and admiration for a guy who plays the game that hard and gives to our team what he gives.”

He helped give them a win that has the Thunder on the verge of a return to the NBA Finals.

Russell Westbrook, Thunder defense again overwhelm Warriors 118-94, take commanding 3-1 lead

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 24:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts in the first half against the Golden State Warriors in game four of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 24, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
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One year ago, it was the Warriors’ adjustments, the Warriors’ defense that was propelling the franchise to its first title in 40 years.

This season, the Thunder turned the tables on the champs.

The length and switching of the Thunder defense resulted in 16 steals Tuesday night — and that means easy transition buckets for OKC. That swarming defense had an off Stephen Curry open the game 1-of-10 shooting, turning the ball over six times on the night, and finishing 6-of-20 shooting, 2-of-10 from three. The Thunder defense has made the Warriors shooters tentative; they are hesitating before making a play rather than just shooting in the flow, something that has seemed impossible to do to Golden State for a couple of seasons now. As a team, the Warriors shot just 30 percent from three and 41.3 percent overall, with Klay Thompson in the second half being the only guy who could knock down shots.

Curry was also asked to guard Russell Westbrook for long stretches of the game and that didn’t go well. Westbrook was the Thunder engine again and finished with a triple-double of 36 points, 11 assists, and 11 rebounds.

Once again the Thunder played fast, aggressive and beat the Warriors at their own game — a 118-94 Thunder win. Oklahoma City now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out Thursday night in Golden State. If not, it feels like Saturday night will be the end of the Warriors 73-win season.

And maybe just the beginning for a talented Thunder team that is just now coming together.

Right now, everything the Thunder try works.

For example, on offense, Billy Donovan made another smart adjustment — if the Warriors were going to ignore Andre Roberson (allowing bigs like Draymond Green or Andrew Bogut to patrol around the rim), the Thunder would start using Roberson like a power forward who set picks, rolled to the rim, and surrounded by shooters he and his teammates could make plays. Roberson finished with career high 17 points on 12 shots.

“He’s a pretty active player so he got some offensive boards and he snuck behind our defense a couple times and we did not guard him correctly,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.

It all worked in the first half again, when the Thunder were attacking the rim — leading to 28 first half free throws from the Thunder — and after a tight first quarter OKC stretched the lead out to 20 points behind a 16-point quarter from Westbrook. This is when the Thunder took charge of the game.

“He’s got such great force and great will,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of Westbrook. “And he’s really a high IQ basketball player, he sees a lot of things going on out there… As a coach, you have great respect and admiration for a guy who plays the game that hard and gives to our team what he gives.”

Golden State made a comeback in the third that was all Klay Thompson — he had 19 consecutive points for the Warriors, and the lead got cut down to 6 at one point. Thompson finished the night with 26 points on 17 shots and was clear and away the best Warrior (with Harrison Barnes second).

But then Westbrook led a push back that again stretched the lead out, and he got help from Dion Waiters with a three (Waiters played well again and had 10 points on the night). The Thunder never looked back.

Kevin Durant added 26 points (but on 8-of-24 shooting, not his best night), while Serge Ibaka added 17. The Thunder may be the only team in the NBA with the depth of athletes to run with Golden State, and they are doing it and making it work.

The Warriors defense has no answer for the Thunder attack, and Golden State is getting away from some of their identity. They have always switched nearly every pick with their small lineup, but because of rebounding concerns this series they have gotten away from that. The Thunder have figured out how to exploit that.

The Warriors have just not adjusted to the length of the Thunder defense — Golden State turned the ball over 21 times, 19.9 percent of their possessions. If you give it away one every five times down the court to a good team, you lose.

“I thought we competed again tonight, I just thought we didn’t play very intelligently,” Kerr said postgame. “Too many turnovers, careless passes. This is probably the longest team in the league we are facing and we continue to try and throw passes over the top of their outstretched arms. Probably not a great idea.”

In addition to Curry, Draymond Green had his second poor game in a row — 1-of-7 shooting with six turnovers, and again he was out of position on defense too often. He has played like a guy flustered by the opponent.

A lot of the Warriors have, while the Thunder just gain confidence. The kind of confidence that will carry them back to the NBA Finals.

 

Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant put on first-half show at Warriors’ expense

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I’d say Warriors fans are stunned, but more than that Warriors players look stunned — they are getting steamrolled by Oklahoma City again, giving up 72 first half points and being down by 19.

I guess we tell Warriors’ fans what we have told the fans of teams they have steamrolled the past couple years — enjoy the show, you don’t get to see many like this.

Above was a Kevin Durant to Russell Westbrook fastbreak assist and bucket. Now check out the fantastic Steven Adams pass, and a highlight package of Westbrook dropping 16 in the second quarter on the Warriors (21 in the first half).