Will Thunder’s Slow Starts Doom Title Hopes?
A disturbing pattern has emerged for the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals, and if it isn’t corrected soon, this team may be in trouble. In both games, the Thunder has started off playing painfully inept basketball – missing open shots and showing a lack of defensive intensity.
With 4:39 minutes left in the first quarter of Game 2, the Miami HEAT was already up 18-2 against the Thunder on OKC’s home floor. The Thunder missed 11 shots of 12 attempted and committed four turnovers.
“Oh, man, that was the game,” said Kevin Durant. “We can’t start off down 18 to 2. Thinking about it, though, I think we got some good looks. We missed a few chippies, lay-ins, but we can’t get down that much, especially at home. We’ve got to correct it. We’ve got to just stay positive. That’s the whole deal. We’ve got to come ready Game 3.”
When the halftime buzzer sounded, the Thunder had cut the deficit to 12; the score was 55-43. Durant had just six points through two quarters; similar to Game 1, things improved in the second half. The league’s three-time scoring leader ended the game with 32 points at 12-of-22 field goal shooting. He missed six of his ten attempted three-pointers and contributed just one assist and three rebounds.
“Well, definitely we want Kevin to have more than three rebounds and one assist,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said following the game. “We have to do better.”
Despite the Thunder outscoring Miami in the third and fourth quarters, including a very late-game rally, the HEAT evened the series with a win, 100-96. Miami had a 17-point lead on two occasions.
“I liked the way we came back and fought and made it a one possession game at the end,” said Brooks. “But when you get down 17, too many things have to happen well for you and perfect for you. But I give our guys credit that we did fight, come back, but that’s two games in a row, first six minutes down 10 or 12 points. We’ve got to come out better.”
Brooks talked with great frequency about being down 17 points and how it adversely affected his team’s chance of winning the ballgame.
“We came up short, but it wasn’t short because of the effort, it was just short because we got down 17. It’s tough to come back. They’re the best team in the East, we’re the best team in the West; it’s just tough to come back from 17.”
“We took some bad shots, but we also missed some shots,” noted Brooks. “It’s going to happen. You’re not going to make every shot, but we have to do a better job of coming out with a defensive toughness.”
So what’s the deal with the Thunder starting games so poorly…in the NBA Finals?
“Good question. I don’t know,” answered James Harden who had a much-improved showing over his five points in Game 1, scoring 21 points. “We’ve done a great job all postseason of having very good starts, especially at home. These last couple games have been slow, but we’ll pick it up in Game 3.”
“We had spurts where we played very good Thunder basketball, then we got off to a slow start. We can’t keep doing that,” he added.
“I just thought I was playing my game, got easy shots that I usually make, lay-ups, just playing my game,” said Russell Westbrook, who had another 27-point game, with seven assists and eight rebounds. “Just unfortunately the shots weren’t falling.”
“I felt like they (Miami) were more comfortable on the court,” shared Kendrick Perkins. “We didn’t play with no type of tenacity until the end of the night. So we just have to make sure we come out and play with some kind of toughness in this game instead of sitting back.”
Durant was asked if his slow start was attributable to some specific thing Miami was doing.
“It was just me,” he said. “I’ve got to make shots for my team. But I think on the defensive end, we all have to be better, and we can’t really worry about the offensive end. We missed shots, but we can’t let it dictate our defense. But I’ve got to stay positive.”
Brooks knows exactly why they lost the Game 2.
“Small ball, medium ball, big ball, that did not lose the game,” he said. “Toughness lost the game. We didn’t come out with the toughness that we need to come out with. We’re an aggressive team, we’re a physical team. (Our) defensive mindset was not where it needs to be, and hopefully we change that going into Game 3.”
“I think we have to start off by not turning over the ball,” added Perkins. “We let our offense dictate our defense, even if we’re not making shots, we still have to get back to the other side and play some kind of defense. Starting with me and all the way down, we have to do a better job.”
This team is not about to whine about Durant’s no-call with nine seconds remaining that could have sent this game into overtime. Durant would not enter into a detailed conversation despite repeated attempts to do so.
“I think I shot a good shot. That’s a shot I shoot all the time. I just missed.”
Again he was pressed for more. Didn’t he agree he was mugged by LeBron James?
“I was just worrying about the shot. I really couldn’t tell you. I’ve got to watch the film, I guess.”
“I missed the shot, man,” he finally insisted, ending the subject.
“That’s one play,” said Brooks on the no-call. “We have so many other plays that we could have done better to put us in a position to stay closer in the game. I’m not going to get into that. I haven’t in the past, I’m not going to start doing it now. It was a play, he didn’t get the call.
“The bottom line is we play aggressive basketball, we play tough basketball, and we didn’t do that to start the game. The last minute, I won’t even look at that.”
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra inserted a now-healthy Chris Bosh into the starting lineup and he made his presence known, posting 16 points and 15 rebounds.
“We needed every bit of his big tonight, and that’s what he brought,” said Spoelstra.
“All I could think about was how we could do better,” said Bosh. “Because we felt that we made a lot of mistakes in Game 1, and it shouldn’t have been like that. We should have played a lot better.
James set yet another career Finals high with 32 points. He was a master at the free throw line, making 12-of-12 shots. He added five assists and eight rebounds. You couldn’t really ask for more from this year’s Most Valuable Player.
While pleased they didn’t allow the Thunder to close out the game, Miami is not about to get over-confident now that the series is tied 1-1.
“We had played too well in the first 36 minutes to try to let this one slip away from us,” said James. “We knew we were going to keep coming. We knew they were going to keep fighting. They’ve been doing it the whole postseason against all the teams they’ve played against, especially on their home floor.
“We’re happy now that it’s a 1-1 series and we’re going back to Miami and will take control of the home court. It doesn’t mean that the series has changed. Both teams can win on each other’s floor, and both teams are confident.”
Dwyane Wade discussed how he elevated his game over the first match-up, scoring 24 points at .500 shooting.
“I felt I was too passive (in Game 1),” said Wade. “I thought the change was me trying to be a little more aggressive when I had my chances down the stretch.
“We just have to capitalize out of their misses and go down to the other end and score,” he added. “We’re not going to come in here and say we were the reason why they were missing shots. They’re a good jump shooting team. We just capitalized when they missed.”
“This is going to be probably like this every single game, and that’s the beauty of competition at this level and embracing that competition and seeing what it brings out of you collectively,” Spoelstra said. “We were able to play a little bit more to our disposition and to our identity more consistently tonight, and that was probably the biggest factor.”
Brooks was asked if a change to the starting lineup was being considered given the start of these first two games.
“No, not at all,” he responded. “We didn’t come out with the defensive toughness, the disposition that we need to play with. We have to do that first, and then if it doesn’t work, then we’ll think about doing other things. But right now we have to play better from the very start.
“I thought they established their game and they played attack basketball right from the very start,” continued Brooks. “They had us back on our heels, and then we took some bad shots and bad bounds coming back, and they were getting opportunities in the paint, wide open threes, and it’s tough to overcome when you have a bad start.”
Durant was typically candid in taking responsibility for the loss. He faced a challenge playing his game in the fourth quarter with five fouls.
“It’s tough to play with five, play with four in the third. It’s tough, but I’ve got to stay aggressive I tried to stay aggressive. I tried to keep my team in it. They believed in me, and we had a chance.
“We had a chance, man,” he repeated. “It’s tough. It’s tough to lose that one. But like I said, I’ve got to stay positive. We’ve got to stay positive and watch film and get better.”
Game 3 is Sunday at 8:00 pm EST in Miami televised by ABC.