Here’s a look at some of the major questions going into Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night (9 p.m. ET, ABC):
• What is Miami’s defensive game plan?
This applies to both individual matchups and the Heat’s general philosophy. Coach Erik Spoelstra deployed LeBron James as an all-purpose play destroyer in Game 1, having him guard every position on the floor in an effort to limit Kevin Durant without actually forcing James to exhaust himself defending the three-time scoring champion one-on-one full time. (That job went largely to Shane Battier.) James started on center Kendrick Perkins and spent chunks of the game defending the Thunder big men who would be the most likely screeners for Durant, a strategy that allowed him to switch onto Durant once those picks came.
The Thunder gradually adapted by changing the identity of the screeners to push James out of the play entirely and running all sorts of counters designed to produce mismatches. They also ran a ton of high pick-and-rolls for point guard Russell Westbrook early. After Westbrook and power forward Serge Ibaka combined to burn the Heat’s trapping defense, Miami began switching those plays in the second half, too.
Nothing really worked. And no defense has worked against the Thunder all season, especially in the playoffs. Miami might be outsmarting itself with all this trickery, but it’s also possible that sticking James on Durant — and Battier on either a Thunder big man or a limited offensive player such as shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha — just isn’t an option given the possible fatigue factor for LeBron. Is there a middle ground somewhere? It will be interesting to see what Spoelstra has up his sleeve.
• Who wins the battle of confusion points?
One potential benefit of Miami’s switching and embrace of unconventional matchups is the confusion it can generate as Oklahoma City transitions from offense to defense. Chances are very high that at the end of any Thunder possession, at least one or two Oklahoma City players will not be attached to the Miami player they have been assigned to defend. Oklahoma City must then scramble to find the right matchups as Miami brings up the ball. The Heat could find some open looks early in the shot clock during that chaos.
Take this crunch-time sequence, which begins with an Oklahoma City possession during which three Heat players — James, power forward Chris Bosh and finally Battier — defend Westbrook at different times. None of those players is the one Westbrook is supposed to be guarding on the other end (Dwyane Wade), which is why Westbrook lets Battier go unguarded in delayed transition:
The flip side, of course, is that Miami must do similar scrambling as it gets back on defense. The switching can also result in missed assignments after Thunder offensive rebounds, as happened on this game-changing play when no Miami player picked up the league’s leading scorer after a crucial Nick Collison tip-out:
The initial possession finishes with Bosh on Westbrook, obviously not the matchup Miami wants at the start of a Thunder possession. So when Collison deflects the ball toward Westbrook, Batter, the closest Heat perimeter player, takes the Westbrook assignment. Problem: Battier was guarding Durant on the first segment of this trip, and nobody replaces him, despite Bosh’s frantic pointing.
If the Heat are going to continue to defend this way, the chaos point margin may end up looking a lot like the final scoring margin.
• Paging Wade’s post game …
Even as the Heat melted down against Dallas in last year’s Finals, Wade’s post game remained one of Miami’s only reliable weapons. Jason Kidd was too slow to deal with it, Jason Terry too small. Wade attempted only two shots out of the post in Game 1 against the Thunder, according to Synergy Sports, but that stat does not include a near assist to Mario Chalmers out of a double team that Wade drew on the block, or this fading jumper over James Harden out of Miami’s pet cross-screen action:
Wade should be able to abuse Harden on the block, and if Harden is going to take wide routes like this around those cross screens, Wade can get some easy buckets off cuts. And if Thunder coach Scott Brooks begins the second quarter again with the three-guard combination of Harden, Derek Fisher and Daequan Cook, Wade and James should both attack like mad men. (Note: Brooks should probably avoid that, even though it was part of his rotation all season and for portions of these playoffs. The Heat outscored a Thunder lineup with these three by four points in a tiny stretch early in the second quarter of Game 1.)
Wade would do well to avoid so many mid-range jumpers and pull-up threes because he’s shooting miserably on both in the playoffs. He is hitting only 30 percent on about six mid-range shots per game in the postseason, per NBA.com’s stats tool. That’s about 10 percentage points below the generally accepted mark a player has to hit in order to attempt this many.
• Speaking of bad shots: Can the Heat summon the proper oomph in the half-court?
This is always the question for Miami. In Game 1, its commitment to the fast-paced pursuit of second, third and fourth options within its half-court offense fell short. Much of the credit goes to the Thunder, who played two of their best defensive players, Sefolosha and Collison, for extended minutes in the second half and had all five players moving on a string in a way that would’ve made Tom Thibodeau smile. (Thibodeau was probably watching film from a Bulls game in January or scouting somewhere instead of watching the Finals.)
The Thunder also played the Heat with great physicality, often forcing Miami to test out its first option with only 10 or 12 seconds left on the shot clock. They bodied up Wade and James aggressively when the Heat stars would cut across the paint for a post-up chance, forcing Miami to burn valuable time just entering the ball. And when the shot clock is lower than Miami typically expects as it goes through its sets, the Heat can become vulnerable to “hero ball” shots. That’s one reason Miami took a much larger percentage of its shots from the perimeter than normal in Game 1, as John Schuhmann noted at NBA.com.
If the Thunder limit Miami’s transition opportunities again, the Heat will have to be better in the half-court. Wade did some damage on the pick-and-roll, using that patented Euro-step, and Miami had some success with what I call the “rugby scrum” play, where two players set a monster double screen for a ball-handler. That play is especially effective when James is one of the screeners.
The officiating may also come into play here. The game will change a bit if Thursday’s crew does not allow Fisher and others to be so touchy on the block.
• Rotation choices: Big or small?
This question is more pressing for Miami, given the possibility of Bosh’s starting. Miami was minus-12 in about 9:30 of game time when it played two big men — usually Bosh and Udonis Haslem — against smaller Thunder lineups featuring only one true big man and Durant at power forward. In two regular-season matchups, Miami was plus-19 against the Thunder in about 17 minutes with James at power forward.
The sample size is so small as to be meaningless, but this looks like a matchup in which Miami might be better off leaning even more on small-ball — provided someone among the James Jones/Mike Miller/Norris Cole crew is healthy and prepared to play solid minutes. The Thunder will help liberally off any Miami big man other than Bosh, and the impact of that help on Miami’s spacing could be fatal if the Heat cannot get out in transition. Miami got so many good perimeter looks early in Game 1 in part because its small lineup spreads the floor much better, and because Oklahoma City’s big men aren’t accustomed to chasing Battier around 25 feet from the hoop.
Both teams will have to find the right balance. If the Thunder play small as often as they did in Game 1, it’s a safe bet that Brooks will need Sefolosha and Harden to share more than the three minutes they played together on Tuesday.
• Can Wade guard Westbrook? If not, is Chalmers ready?
Boy, did Wade look slow against Westbrook in Game 1. For all the talk of Miami’s scheming and switching, there were lots of possessions where Westbrook just put his head down and blew by Wade on the way to the hoop. The problems persisted off the ball, too. Wade cannot afford to drift far from Westbrook, especially when Harden is handling the ball and making very quick reads like this one:
These are two easy points that simply should not exist for the Thunder. It may be that Chalmers, at this point, is the better option on Westbrook, provided there is another decent place to stash Wade. Westbrook showed in Game 1 that he will look to post up Chalmers if that matchup materializes, but the Thunder point guard isn’t as dangerous a post player as he might appear; he shot just 36 percent of out of the post this season, according to Synergy, a mediocre number.
The Thunder can force the issue by playing Westbrook, Durant and Harden together with two big men, forcing both Wade and Chalmers to defend a star perimeter player. The Heat preferred Chalmers on Harden in Game 1, and Chalmers, who gambles sometimes on defense, has to be careful not to jump himself out of position as Harden does his pick-and-roll/dribble hand-off dance with Collison. Chalmers lost Harden out of this action on an easy three-pointer in Game 1.
Game 1 raised more questions than it answered. That will start to change on Thursday.