The Thunder came crashing down to a Bobcats-like level of productivity in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, ending a remarkable streak of scoring efficiency that amounted to one of the great runs of offense in postseason history. Before Sunday’s 91-85 loss in Miami, Oklahoma City had scored at a points-per-possession rate that would have ranked in the top five during the regular season in nine of its last 10 games, according to NBA.com. In six of those games, its scoring rate would have led the league.
Stretches like that just don’t happen in the playoffs, when the competition is tougher, the pace slower, the defense more attuned. We knew going into this series that Miami’s frantic athleticism would represent by far the toughest challenge for the Thunder offense in the postseason. But it took three games for the Heat’s defense to register a clear win — even if the signs of a slowdown began to emerge in Miami’s Game 2 victory. That leaves us with two questions:
• What are the Heat doing well?
• How can the Thunder adjust (if they even need to)?
The answer to the first question is pretty easy: The Heat are just better, faster and smarter defensively than Oklahoma City’s other playoff opponents. That begins with LeBron James’ defense on Kevin Durant, especially on plays in which the scoring champion comes off picks for catch-and-shoot chances. After Game 1, when James largely guarded other players, Henry Abbott of ESPN.com wrote of how little time Durant requires in order to score. That isn’t the case anymore. The Heat are making Durant hesitate, hold the ball and go to work against a defense loaded up against him. The stagnancy of those plays has infected the rest of Oklahoma City’s offense, which also is struggling to rediscover the pick-and-roll attack on which it thrived in the regular season.
This first-quarter possession results in an Oklahoma City basket (Durant’s contested mid-range jumper), but it represents a lot of what the Heat are doing well against one of the Thunder’s pet plays.
Durant appears to burn James by faking a backdoor cut and then popping around James Harden’s pick. But the Heat are taking away that backdoor cut aggressively by design, and they are able to recover here behind James’ incredible speed and deft positioning from both LeBron and point guard Mario Chalmers. As you can see from the still below, Chalmers (No. 15, on the right wing) leaves Harden to flash briefly into the passing lane to Durant, which should theoretically leave Harden open for a cut to the basket. But look at how James positions himself in the potential passing lane to Harden before he and Chalmers make a simultaneous decision to rush back to their original assignments:
James is so fast that he’s in Durant’s face before the Thunder forward can launch an open jumper, and things bog down into an isolation from there. This kind of hesitancy crept into Oklahoma City’s offense all night, to the point that it was jarring when Durant actually fired (and made) a clean catch-and-shoot jumper with 3:40 left in the fourth quarter, one of his two field goals in the final period. Otherwise, we saw hesitant and confused offense like this, with Chalmers and James cooperating well in their positioning again:
We also saw a lot of Durant’s driving into a mass of help defenders and being pressed into tricky mid-range shots (two of which he missed badly in crunch time), turnovers (five total) and unattractive “pass or shoot?” decisions in which the first pass would often have to go to a nonthreatening offensive player such as guard Thabo Sefolosha:
Heat big man Chris Bosh’s help defense was especially important, as shown here on his block of Durant (who was 2-of-6 in the fourth quarter and 11-of-19 for the game):
There are passing lanes available when you slow down clips like this. But the Heat are the best at closing those lanes, making sure only the most difficult ones are truly open and recovering to open shooters if necessary. They just make your life very difficult. The Heat played a very clean defensive game on Sunday, limiting the small but fatal breakdowns — botched rotations, miscommunications, lazy offense-to-defense transitions — that plagued them in the final five games of the Eastern Conference finals against Boston and the first two games of the NBA Finals.
What should the Thunder do? The obvious answer, other than to somehow manufacture more fast-break chances, would be to inject more variety, especially via the pick-and-roll. The Thunder have shifted away from the pick-and-roll in this series, and you have to wonder if Miami’s trapping defense has encouraged that shift. In the regular season, about 17.5 percent of Oklahoma City’s possessions ended with the ball-handler in a pick-and-roll shooting, drawing a foul or turning the ball over, easily the highest mark among the 16 playoff teams. Thunder players made 43.2 percent of such shots via the pick-and-roll, and Oklahoma City was the league’s most efficient team on possessions the pick-and-roll handler finished, per the stat-tracking service Synergy Sports.
Only 10 percent of the Thunder’s possessions have finished this way in the Finals; Oklahoma City ball-handlers are just 10-of-25 (40 percent) when shooting directly out of the pick-and-roll, and they have not generated their usual high number of free throws. The Durant pick-and-roll in particular — or the aggressive version of it, anyway — has vanished in this series. He has taken just six shots out of the pick-and-roll in three games, including five three-pointers. He attempted about three shots per game via the pick-and-roll in the regular season, and about 80 percent were two-pointers. Durant became a polished pick-and-roll attacker this season; we haven’t seen that against James and the Heat.
The Russell Westbrook pick-and-roll has emerged as a weapon only in fits, and it too mostly faded away after coach Scott Brooks’ decision to bench the point guard for the last five minutes of the third quarter. (That was a puzzling move given Durant was already on the bench in foul trouble.) The Thunder fell apart on both ends during that stage, surrendering 13 points in about 3:30, fouling every three-point shooter in sight, missing five free throws and otherwise taking bad shots that led to run-outs for Miami. Still, despite Westbrook’s irresponsible play in the stretch that led to his benching — during which he twice ignored Durant with Wade on him — Westbrook pick-and-rolls have been effective for parts of this series.
Ditto for Harden pick-and-rolls, which also disappeared late. The Thunder had some success in the second quarter of Game 3 running Harden (2-of-10 shooting, nine points, six assists) in pick-and-rolls with Durant lurking in the near corner as a spot-up threat, and Westbrook has gotten better at cutting or driving behind a Harden pick-and-roll when his defender moves to help stop Harden’s initial drive.
This is all in the Thunder’s arsenal. They also showed against San Antonio that they can move the ball around to secondary players if a defense really overloads against their stars. The Heat are doing that, and they are doing it better and faster than Oklahoma City has seen from anyone in these playoffs — and it isn’t even close. It’s on the Thunder now to raise their level.