The Heat can adjust in a lot of ways after losing to Oklahoma City 105-94 in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday. They can change their basic defensive assignments, including having LeBron James guard Kevin Durant more often, and cut down on the whirlwind of switches that made tracking matchups a nearly impossible task in real time during Game 1. They can start Chris Bosh, extend the rotation, approach their offense with better commitment to getting good shots and lean more heavily on bigger or smaller lineups.
But the bottom line of these playoffs is this: Nobody can stop the Thunder scoring machine, and until someone can begin to even limit it just a little for 48 minutes, there is really nothing else to discuss. The Thunder are blitzing everyone, adapting to every defensive strategy and putting themselves in the running for the unofficial title of greatest postseason offense in NBA history.
Three games from the title — three long, arduous games — the Thunder are averaging 113 points per 100 possessions, a whopping 9.7 points better than the league average during these playoffs, according to Basketball-Reference. Since the league adopted the three-point shot in the 1979-80 season, only one team has scored in the playoffs at a rate that far above the league average: the 2004-05 Phoenix Suns, who put up an astonishing 118.2 points per 100 possessions over three playoff rounds, nearly 10.5 points better than the league’s postseason average that year.
It would seem unlikely that Oklahoma City, which is facing an elite defense for the first time in these playoffs, will score enough to catch that Phoenix mark. But it doesn’t matter. In an era of faster, more sophisticated defenses, the Thunder are threatening to pull off an even stronger version of what Dallas accomplished last year: proving that an all-world offense and a “pretty good” defense is a perfectly fine way to win a title in the modern NBA.The Heat came out with a clear defensive game plan on Tuesday, and it appeared to unnerve Oklahoma City for much of the first half. They had James guard Durant by not guarding Durant, using him instead on Kendrick Perkins — the giant center whose screens so often free Durant on curl plays. With James on Perkins, he and Shane Battier, Durant’s primary defender, could simply switch on those screens, negating the Thunder’s first option. That would be the pattern all night — Miami coach Erik Spoelstra having James work as an all-purpose play-buster rather than one-on-one counter to Durant, guarding whichever player the Heat considered the most threatening screener for Durant or ball-handler while Durant sat.
So the Thunder switched gears early, turning to Russell Westbrook/Serge Ibaka pick-and-rolls — and right into the torture chamber the Heat had set up for them. Miami, as expected, trapped Westbrook (and James Harden, too) aggressively, letting Ibaka roll free into the lane and daring Westbrook to make that pass — daring him to make Ibaka into a playmaker. Miami’s wing defenders were waiting to pounce on Ibaka or fake a movement toward him, even off Durant, in an effort to unnerve the Thunder big man.
It looked like it was working! Ibaka missed some shots, and the Thunder committed eight first-half turnovers. But then you looked at the numbers at NBA.com’s stats site, and you saw that the Thunder had scored 103.3 points per 100 possessions in the first half — equivalent to about the sixth- or seventh-best mark during the regular season. Apparently, even when you stop them, you don’t stop them.
That was in part due to Ibaka’s flashing some pick-and-roll skills we haven’t seen much of in his career. He digested what the Heat were doing, and he made himself into an effective passer and scorer. And Westbrook, to his credit, also sniffed out the scheme and found ways to drag help defenders off Durant, the most dangerous player in the game.
On the first-quarter possession below, for instance, Westbrook reads that Miami is going to send help into the lane to contain Ibaka from the weak-side corner. Westbrook initially dribbles to the right around an Ibaka pick, sees the scheme developing and then turns around and dribbles left. That move transforms Durant into the weak-side player and opens up a dangerous Ibaka-to-Durant pass:
Durant missed, but the Thunder stored that play in their memory bank and opened the second half with essentially the same action:
In between, late in the first half, Westbrook probed the defense until he found a passing lane to Ibaka for a dunk. And then he and Ibaka combined for one of the finest baskets of the power forward’s career:
Note the really subtle work here from Westbrook. He sees Mario Chalmers sliding away from Thabo Sefolosha on the wing and into Ibaka’s path:
Westbrook notes this help, and takes an extra slow-paced dribble into the paint that forces Chalmers to reconsider and drags Ibaka’s man, Bosh, one more step down into the paint. This makes it harder for Bosh to keep his balance as he rushes out to Ibaka on the pass.
Miami adjusted in the second half — panicked, maybe — by installing even more switches and crazy assignments, and the Thunder figured out counters to all of them. When bigger defenders, including James and Bosh, switched onto Westbrook, he often blew by them, drawing fouls and getting into the lane for scores or easy dump-off passes. When the Heat put James back on Perkins to snuff out those curl plays, Durant would simply continue on his path, set a quick screen for Westbrook and force another switch — leaving Dwyane Wade to helplessly contest Durant’s jumper or floater.
The Thunder ran screen-the-screener plays, where the big man setting a pick for Westbrook would first get a pick of his own in the paint, putting the Miami big man assigned to switch onto Westbrook on his heels — and giving Westbrook seams to the lane. They ran staggered pick plays, where Westbrook would get two screens, one from Durant then one from Nick Collison, plays that confused the Heat defense, created more lanes for Westbrook and opened up the counter of Collison’s setting a sudden back-pick for Durant.
Over and over down the stretch, Oklahoma City scanned the defense, found James and ran plays designed to force the action away from him — and to get Durant good looks against favorable matchups. The Thunder ran a half-dozen versions of their pet late-game pin-down play for Durant, with several different players screening for him, depending on where James was on the floor.
It didn’t always work. Having James guard Westbrook down the stretch did disrupt some Durant/Westbrook pick-and-rolls, because James could just switch onto Durant and front him in the post. Westbrook took a few shaky long jumpers over switched-out big men in between blow-by drives against an overmatched Wade.
But overall, the result was the same as it has been for much of these playoffs: a monstrous single-game mark of 118.1 points per 100 possessions, a number nearly 10 full points above San Antonio’s league-leading regular-season mark. The Thunder again assisted on a higher percentage of their baskets than they did in the regular season, continuing a trend that began against the Spurs in the Western Conference finals. They earned their usual heap of free throws and cut down on their turnovers in the second half.
The Heat will make adjustments, and they are the best defensive team Oklahoma City has faced in the playoffs. And despite Wade’s poor shooting, Bosh’s limited role and the occasional stagnancy of their offense, the Heat scored the equivalent of 104.5 points per 100 possessions, a top-five mark. The Thunder did some very nice things on defense in the second half; Collison moved his feet beautifully against the pick-and-roll, and the rest of the defense moved on a string behind him. Oklahoma City blew up those cross-screen plays Miami loves to run under the hoop by being physical all over the floor and sagging down to deny entry passes into the post.
But it’s all noise until someone can at least limit the Thunder. Forget stopping them. No one has done that. But Miami has to start with perhaps holding Oklahoma City to league-average production. Heck, top-10-level would do. No one has come close to doing that yet in the playoffs, and until someone does, the title is Oklahoma City’s to take. Maybe offense wins championships, too?