Game Notes: Heat at Thunder
Assessing a Sunday matinee in Oklahoma City.
by Todd Spehr
To get a little perspective on what the League and the networks are looking at here, ABC decided that for its maiden NBA broadcast for the 2011 season it would have a rematch of last season’s Finals (Boston-LA, which doubles as this sport’s greatest rivalry), preceded by the league’s reigning two-time MVP and his new team (LeBron James and the Heat) against a young star/team who are ready to challenge as contenders (Kevin Durant and the Thunder).
The fact that Oklahoma City are, it could very well be argued, one of the four marquee teams in the league from an interest and marketability standpoint is nothing short of amazing, just three years removed from relocation, and with an excitement generated mostly by things they are expected to do. Have we ever been so sure of something in this league?
Either way, the national TV folks are here, there is an anticipation reserved for only the best opponents, and great players on display. To the notes:
-LeBron James is booed when introduced before the game. Crazy, I know. Three different writers asked him about being the villain, too. It’s January, let’s just move on from this tiresome storyline please.
-Miami is making a pointed effort of posting Chris Bosh when defended by Jeff Green. One can’t help but feel bad for Green: Always destined to be the third wheel behind Durant and Westbrook; curiously overlooked for a mention in that weird when-Durant-was-a-kid NBA commercial; and recently questioned by the local scribes as to whether he was the long-term answer at the four after a string of low rebound efforts. He’s playing out of position because he’s being asked to, and because he happens to play alongside a most unusually built small forward. Whether or not he’s a band-aid at the four in the short-term is irrelevant, you can never fault his effort.
-Durant and Bosh draw technicals after an awkward stare down exchange that neither was comfortable doing. To paraphrase an ancient Jerry Stackhouse quote: It was an incident between a guy who didn’t know how to talk trash and, well, another guy who didn’t know how to talk trash.
-The game truly is at the mercy of the television gods. Timeouts go forever, players wander out to the scorers table, sidle at mid-court, chat, wait, stand, chat some more, then finally go out on to the floor at the end of the break.
-Durant is running James through an endless maze of screens. He has Reggie Miller’s endurance and Dirk Nowitzki’s reach, with a stroke enviable to both of them. Guard that.
-There’s an awesome sequence (in an extremely well-played first quarter) where Westbrook dunks on one end and is followed by a Dwyane Wade oop at the other. The crowd explains: (Westbrook dunk) “Arrrrgggggghhhhhhh…(Wade oop)…oooohhhhhh.”
-Watching Wade in the open floor is beautiful. No step is duplicated in length; each has a different beat, almost as if he’s skating.
-Watching Wade and James coexist is even more fascinating in person. Early, Wade is playing off the ball and James is basically the facilitator: Wade has 13 points, while James finishes the quarter with 8 assists
End of first: OKC 38 Miami 35. Durant has 14, Wade 13, Green 11, and James 8 assists.
-With Thabo Sefolosha inactive and James Harden forced to start, Daequan Cook is getting minutes. He hits a 3 over Wade and promptly smacks his ex-teammate on the rear as they run back.
-Wade, meanwhile, is downright reckless with his body. He gets hit hard on a drive, is shoved in the back going for a rebound, and then bounds into Nick Collison and draws a charge.
-Westbrook is having success getting into the paint but is not finishing. It’s as if the court is slanted downhill when he has the ball; you just can’t keep him out of the paint. From the media seating area, he appears eerily similar to Wade in both size and frame, and also has those same elusive qualities as a driver: As in, able to avoid contact while maintaining balance, to contort and finish in traffic, and also to slide by even a well-positioned defender.
-James looks to score in the second quarter, being more aggressive and getting to the line. It was likely prompted by Durant, who is exerting obvious energy in this matchup. Perhaps Durant recognizes the occasion: It’s the first time he’s met James on national television, he’s defending him really well, and is more ravenous than usual at taking the ball to the basket.
Half: Miami 64 OKC 61. Wade 19, Durant 17, Green 16, James with 12 and 9 assists.
-Sometimes LeBron plays offense as if lightning is about to strike. A routine three-point make in the flow of the offense is usually followed by a forced 3 disguised as a heat check, or an unnecessarily off-balanced 3. Sometimes it happens, other times it doesn’t.
-One other thing is obvious up close: James’ self-awareness is off the charts. Watching him strut around the floor is beyond interesting. He knows they’re all here for him, to see him, to marvel at his body and his athleticism: The people lining up early on a bitterly cold Oklahoma morning; the guys begging for tickets under the freeway by the arena; the kid this writer saw wearing a James jersey in a truck plaza up north earlier that morning. I mean this in the nicest possible way, but sometimes he acts as if even he is in awe of himself. There’s no real easy way to write that sentence.
-Watching Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Nenad Krstic match up is hardly interesting until it occurs that they are mirror images of each other in how they play. Think about it.
-Westbrook splits the high ball-screen and goes down the middle for a one-handed jam. He gets 10 points in the first five minutes of the third; the crowd does the obligatory go nuts thing.
-Durant forces LeBron into an incredibly difficult shot, which misses, and Cook hits a 3 on the other end. Thunder up two. To reiterate: Crowd now crazy. In here it feels a little like the Lakers series of last seasons, the crowd wants this game and the requisite respect a win will bring. And to re-emphasize an earlier point: Durant is treating this as something of a showcase game; the nation can see for themselves just how close he is to James.
End of third: OKC 85 Miami 85. Durant 24/9/4 steals, Wade 23, James 22/11 assists, Green 18, and Westbrook 17/9 assists.
-There’s a loose ball to be had, and Mike Miller gets what James Harden should have, leading to a Heat basket. Thunder coach Scott Brooks, himself a scrappy sort when he played, probably can’t relate to Harden’s lack of urgency and calls a timeout, rushing hurriedly on to the court mumbling something to himself.
-The Thunder are cold, falling behind by eight, with just two field goals in seven minutes. However, Green hits a layup, Wade gets whacked with a technical (OKC makes the free throw) and then Durant hits a huge 3—suddenly it’s 98-96 Heat with five minutes left.
-Durant’s working on a messy line, hitting only 7 for 20 from the field, but geez, he’s attacking the basket, getting hit, and walking to the line (he finished 16 for 19). This is something he’s got immensely better at as a professional.
-Miami is up five with 80 seconds left before the Thunder make one last run: Durant hits free throws, then Westbrook strips Wade before hitting two more foul shots. OKC somehow within one, despite their two stars going a combined 13 for 40 from the field.
-Bosh tries to out-Durant Durant, attempting the suddenly-resurrected rake-through move to draw the foul, but the whistle doesn’t come. James just stares at Bosh, putting his palms up. Thunder ball.
-Brooks is great at getting Durant clean looks out of the huddle, and this is no exception, as Durant catches at the foul line before squaring up and hitting. Delirium. Thunder up one, 103-102, with 34 seconds left.
-Wade is forced to take a tough shot, which he misses, but Miller dives in to secure the offensive board, kicking it out to James. LeBron’s mind is made up to pass, drawing a lunging Cook to him before hitting a previously irrelevant Eddie House in the corner for 3. It goes. House proceeds to invoke images of Sam Cassell as he lugs these imaginary testicles back down the floor for the crowd and world to see. Big shot. Heat up two with 22 seconds to play.
-Durant misses from seven feet and the Thunder are forced to foul.
Final: Miami 108 OKC 103. Wade scores a brilliant 32, lost amidst the James-Durant matchup. Durant has 33 but on 39 combined attempts (20 FG/19 FTA). James seems content to set up, as he records 13 assists and 23 points (on 14 shots).
-Erik Spoelstra’s back is pinned to the wall in the hallway outside the visiting team’s locker room. One half of the 25-strong media contingent is interested in today’s game, the other half is looking big picture, hoping Coach “Spo” will drop some sort of quotable nugget that best depicts a season under costant scrutiny. He uses the word “trust” six times in five minutes, tells the writers that LeBron loves being the villain, and uses the word “ignitable” when describing Eddie House. Spoelstra is detailed, thoughtful, and interesting to listen to.
-James is in the locker room with both feet in ice, and soon his box score ends up in there as well. The writers just crowd him. He answers the predictable line of questions with a tone that suggests distraction. Something has caught his attention. It’s the television on the other side of the locker room, one which faces him but is hidden behind the wall of media members assembled around him. James’ eyes dart between the writer asking a question and the television. He is looking at something resembling a goal, something to shoot for—two teams who already have what James wants. It’s the Celtics playing the Lakers.