John E. Hoover: Thunder is big-time but still not ready to topple Heat
BY JOHN E. HOOVER World Sports Columnist
Wednesday, December 26, 2012
12/26/12 at 3:38 AM
Go to John E. Hoover's blogOriginal Print Headline: Thunder still is not ready to topple Heat
Christmas night in Miami looked an awful lot like last June in Miami.
The Oklahoma City Thunder is good - probably still the best team in the NBA's Western Conference.
But the Thunder doesn't have the manpower or the star power to overcome the Miami Heat.
In a rematch of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night at Miami's American Airlines Arena, OKC lost to the Heat 103-97.
Miami won the series 4-1 last season because LeBron James stepped up and because the Heat's roster is just better.
On Tuesday, just like during last season's playoff run, the Thunder showed it has indeed arrived and belongs on the game's biggest stage. In a merry morning-to-midnight Christmas Day full of hoops, the Thunder-Heat contest was the day's most compelling game. Oklahoma City stumbled early and trailed 15-3, but quickly caught up, stayed close then took its first lead late in the third quarter. From there, the titans traded blows, exchanging the lead six times in the final 25 minutes.
But at the end, Miami pulled away because five players - Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen and, of course, LeBron James - delivered points in the fourth quarter. Wade scored 11 of his 21 in the final period, Bosh had six, Chalmers five, Allen three and the virtually unstoppable James scored four with almost no effort.
For the Thunder, scoring still is done by just two players - Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Durant had 33 Tuesday night, and Westbrook had 21.
In the fourth quarter, it remains even more pronounced: Durant scored 14 of the Thunder's 25 fourth-quarter points, and Westbrook scored four. Kevin Martin and Nick Collison combined for the other seven. Of OKC's 17 fourth-quarter field goal attempts, 16 were attempted by Durant (5-of-8), Westbrook (0-for-4) and Martin (1-of-4).
And clutch scoring - those possessions inside the final minute or two when your team can't have an empty possession - is the domain of Durant and Durant only.
Maybe it's a good problem to have, a three-time scoring champ who's also a cold-blooded assassin when the game is on the line.
Or maybe it's not.
Durant was the Thunder's only offensive option on the team's last five possessions, including the final one in the closing seconds with OKC trailing 100-97.
Christmas Night. In Miami. Finals rematch. That's probably too much pressure even for a cold-blooded assassin.
As was evident in the playoffs last season, James scores when the Heat needs a basket. But when they don't, hey, anybody can score.
That's not the case with OKC.
The Thunder's role players are playing their role well enough. Who can complain about an NBA-best 21-6 record so far this season?
But just like in last season's finals, the Heat repeatedly punched holes in OKC's weaknesses.
When the Heat needed unexpected contributions, they got a season-high 20 from Chalmers, who made 4-of-8 from 3-point range.
- Westbrook made five field goals but missed 14 others, and the Heat gave up just two buckets and two free throws after Westbrook's misses. He also committed five turnovers.
- Kendrick Perkins was a liability on offense (1-of-5 shooting, four turnovers) and defense (down just 96-95, he drifted out of the low post to leave Bosh wide open, and James zipped a pass to Bosh for an uncontested dunk with 25.5 seconds left).
- Thabo Sefolosha was a non-factor offensively, going scoreless on one field-goal attempt as he tried to guard James (a game effort, but James had 29 points, eight rebounds and nine assists).
- Even Martin, the newcomer replacement for inconsistent James Harden as the sixth-man scorer, wasn't very good in the fourth quarter, shooting 1-of-4 with a turnover in the final 12 minutes.
When the Thunder needed the same thing, they got 15 points from Serge Ibaka.
Ibaka started strong, but he scored just two buckets in the second half and didn't take a shot in the final 16 1/2 minutes.
That's not a huge difference. But in such a game - or, in such a series - it's measurable enough.
When OKC's role players start contributing in big games during crunch time - something other than flipping the ball to Durant and getting out of his way - that's when the Thunder will be able to topple the Heat from the NBA pinnacle.
Until then, another runner-up trophy seems a likely consolation prize.
Oklahoma City Thunder's Kevin Durant (35) drives against Miami Heat's LeBron James during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Miami, Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012. J. PAT CARTER / AP Photo