Heading into the NBA Finals, the highly anticipated matchup between LeBron James and Kevin Durant for the right to the title of “best in the world” looked like it would be decided on the court in an epic clash of the titans. After scoring 17 of his game-high 36 points in the fourth quarter and leading the Thunder to a 105-94 victory in Game 1, Durant won the first round.
In their first game of a championship series, there were concerns about how this young and “inexperienced” Thunder team would cope with all the pressure against a Miami team led by the league MVP who’s still stinging from last year’s Finals defeat. But Durant and Russell Westbrook were absolutely unstoppable in the second half, combining for 41 of OKC’s 58 points, compared to the entire Heat’s second half total of 40. Durant and Westbrook also combined for 23 of their team’s 31 fourth quarter points, outscoring the entire Heat’s 21. After falling behind by as many as 13 in the first half, the Thunder once again showed the world how dangerous they can be in the second half, especially in front of a delirious home crowd. Apparent nerves and sloppy play marred the game’s opening minutes as the Heat jumped out to a quick lead thanks to incredible shooting from Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers. Battier knocked down four 3-pointers and finished with 17 while Chalmers added 12, but even these welcome contributions weren’t enough to keep Miami on top, despite the fact that no one but Durant seemed ready to play when the ball went up. Miami went 6-of-10 from beyond the arc in the first half to amass a sizable lead, but the Thunder stormed back before the half and cut the lead to seven heading into the locker room. From there, it was the Kevin Durant show.
LeBron James led the Heat with 30 points, nine rebounds and four steals while Dwyane Wade struggled, finishing with 19 points and eight assists on 7-of-19 shooting. Chris Bosh also had a rough going in Oklahoma City, scoring 10 points off the bench 4-of-11 shooting. Udonis Haslem only scored four points but also had nine rebounds. For awhile, it looked like LeBron was the best player on the court and that the Heat had a good chance of stealing Game 1 on the road in a building where no one but the Thunder has been able to win during the postseason: Battier and Chalmers were knocking down threes, no one on the Thunder looked ready for the moment other than Kevin Durant, and LeBron was getting to the rim on Durant. But once Westbrook and OKC’s supporting cast woke up and the outside shots stopped falling for Miami’s perimeter shooters (Battier and Chalmers combined for 23 in the first half and only six in the second), it’s no surprise the Thunder went on such a massive run at home. The Heat’s experience on this stage shone through early, but once the Thunder got settled in the nerves subsided and Durant showed why he deserves consideration for the MVP of the playoffs so far.
For the Thunder, Kevin Durant was obviously Mr. Clutch once again, singlehandedly supplanting the Heat by knocking down jumpers and taking the ball to the rim with authority, but there’s no question that Westbrook played a huge part in this victory. Westbrook only had nine points at the half on 3-of-10 shooting before helping turn things around in a critical third quarter run that gave the Thunder a one-point lead heading into the fourth. Westbrook finished with 27 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds while committing only two turnovers. He still shot the ball a little too much (24 shots compared to Durant’s 20), but in Game 1, Westbrook was very close to the ideal point guard and made OKC’s advantage at that position very clear. I said in the NBA Finals preview that Westbrook would need to turn things around and outplay Wade for OKC to better their chances, and that’s exactly what he did. Another important factor was Oklahoma City’s bench and role players. Although James Harden had a very disappointing night with just five points, the Thunder didn’t miss much with everyone making a collective effort to step up, meaning Scott Brooks was able to stick with a defensive lineup in the fourth and didn’t insert Harden into the lineup until there were three minutes left in the game. Serge Ibaka had 10 points and six rebounds. Thabo Sefolosha had nine points and played superb defense on LeBron James in the fourth. Nick Collison rebounded with authority, grabbing 10 boards in addition to eight points. Derek Fisher added six. Kendrick Perkins chipped in four. Everyone on the floor gave the Thunder something and made Kevin Durant’s unstoppable fourth quarter run possible, which is the most important section of the game to take a look at. LeBron was leading all scorers with 23 heading into the fourth, but Durant completely eclipsed him as the Thunder extended their one-point lead and would not let it go the rest of the way. Durant had 17 fourth quarter points, compared to LeBron’s seven. That can’t be the case if the Heat want to contend with this dangerous and young OKC squad. Because as much as everyone keeps saying their inexperience will catch up with them, the Thunder keep finding ways to win with the game on the line. And like it or not, the Heat are actually going to have to outplay this team down the stretch to win a title. Which means LeBron will have to be clutch and take over a game in the fourth like we haven’t seen yet.
For the Heat to win, a lot of improvements need to be made. First, Dwyane Wade has to be more assertive on the offensive end. Scoring 19 points and dropping eight dimes is nothing to sneer at, but the Heat need more out of him, especially if LeBron stalls in the fourth again. Chris Bosh also needs to have more of an offensive presence in Game 2. With Harden only scoring five points, Game 1 was a prime opportunity for the Heat’s big three to outplay OKC’s big three. But only LeBron and surprisingly, Shane Battier showed up ready to knock down shots. The Heat need more than four out of Haslem and they need more than two points out of Mike Miller. Erik Spoelstra said one adjustment he plans on making for Game 2 is going deeper into his bench, but with reserves like the Heat have that seems like it would hurt more than anything. Miami was also out-rebounded 43-35 in Game 1, a trend that needs to change if the Heat want to make this series more competitive. Those rebounds translated into fast break points for the Thunder, who outscored Miami in that category 24-4. Finally, the Heat need to find a way to slow down Durant and Westbrook. The fact that they were able to dominate in the second half was bad enough, but even when Miami’s help defense cut them off, there were wide open bigs waiting under the basket for easy dunks. The Thunder had 56 points in the paint and shot 51 percent from the floor. Miami’s previously stifling defense will have to make a return if the Heat want to avoid coming up short for the second year in a row.
For the Thunder, Game 1 was a big win because they defended home court (once again) and were able to do so while dealing with first-game jitters. Westbrook looked more like himself again after a mediocre series against the Spurs, OKC’s role players stepped up even without Harden leading the charge, and Durant had no problems being clutch on basketball’s biggest stage. All they have to do is continue playing great defense (Thabo Sefolosha in particular), take care of the boards and make sure they limit at least one member of Miami’s big three. Durant and Westbrook will continue to put points on the board, so as long as the defense remains in tact and the role players pitch in where they can, you can count on the Thunder going on big runs in the fourth quarter of close games. As I predicted in the NBA Finals preview, the Thunder took over in the fourth quarter, which is an area that LeBron James or Dwyane Wade need to dominate, even under all the pressure they now face with a 1-0 deficit. Oklahoma City still needs to take care of business at home in Game 2 to ensure they have the upper hand in the series, but unless some drastic changes are made on Miami’s part, the Thunder will continue to overwhelm with more depth, greater focus down the stretch and Kevin Durant’s unstoppable resolve.