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Heat “Super Stars” — Against the Thunder “Young Guns” — Tonight!

By Bobby Toulaine — The Oklahoma City Thunder strategy against the Miami Heat tonight has to be similar to they way the Thunder beat San Antonio four games in a row.  Defense.

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After the Spurs beat the Thunder the first two games in the Western Conference finals, I thought that the Thunder had to change the way they played in order to have a chance to win.  The Spurs had locked down Durant and Westbrook (slowed them down) and make the rest of the OKC team beat them.  In the first two games, they did not.  In the next two, they did.  In the final two, it was just the young guns going all out for 48 minutes two games in a row.

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The change for the Thunder was that — in games three and four — Durant and Westbrook used themselves as decoys to draw in the heart of the Spurs defense — then kicked to the wing — or passed to the baseline for dunks from the bigs. As soon as the Spurs adjusted to the threat of easy dunks coming in from the baseline — the Thunder had them on the run — because then they took advantage of the occasional indecisiveness, confusion — or a half-second late adjustment.  Popovich summed it up when he said, the Thunder “are the hardest team to guard that he had ever seen.”   What he meat was when the Thunder are hitting on all cylinders — there are no good options for defending them.  It’s virtually impossible — you just pick your poison.  By choosing to defend them a certain way — you are just empowering yourself to dictate to the Thunder the way they have to play to beat you.  Until this postseason, I had never seen the Thunder adjust mid-game or mid-series to the particular style of offensive or defensive play by the other team — it was almost breath-taking at times to see them do it — because once they master the art of adjusting to the game their opponents leave open for them mid-game — they will be very hard to beat for a very long time.

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The Spurs were perceived to be almost impossible to beat in a series — until the Thunder adopted the most potent part of the Spurs offense for their own  — the extra pass — for the layup or dunk — rather than the runner in traffic or contested pull-up jumper — then the advantage shifted to the Thunder and was never reclaimed by the Spurs.  It looked like the Spurs had reclaimed their game in game six when they were 18 points up — but they were also shooting lights out — at a field goal percentage that would have been very hard to maintain for an entire game.  The Thunder knew that — and just kept coming — and as the game progressed from that point — the Spurs lost their legs, then lost their confidence, got rattled, rushed shots a little, got out of sync —  and then the Thunder exploded and the Spurs never found their rhythm again.  The Thunder’s defense generates their transition game — and they appear to be able to go from a tough, competent defense — to lock-down defense that explodes transition points in torrents — on cue.  They just switch in on when they decide to — or are ready.

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The Thunder are a great offensive team.  But I think what they will be remembered for is their defense.  It was the Thunder defense in the final 5 minutes of each game that put both the Mavericks and the Lakers away — both teams that were know for their uncanny ability to finish close games and win them.

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Now all that having been said, there probably hasn’t been such an assemblage of talent in the NBA since the Larry Bird and Magic Johnson days.  When Le Bron James and Dwayne turn it on — with James playing above the rim like the monster he is — Wade finessing impossible shots through apparently impenetrable defenses — then anything can happen.  That is why I think this series has the potential to be one for the ages.  If the Thunder have truly arrived — they will sweep the Heat — because the team that won four in a row from the Spurs — almost a virtually impossible feat — could fairly easily run the table and sweep the Heat.  But the Thunder were clearly in the “Zone”  those final four games against the Spurs.  If they were not in the “zone”, and this is just who the Thunder are now — teams going forward will have a very hard time winning against them at all –  much less in a series.

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If, however, if it was just a case of “necessity is the mother of invention”, and the Thunder just did what they did in desperation after finding themselves down 2 – 0 — surprisingly — and now that the mission was accomplished — they just go back to the Kevin and Russell show — then anything can happen.  Remember — their will be four of the top six leading scorers on the floor at tip-off tonight — so expect an offensive barrage — and a game’s worth of high-light videos.  As usual though — if it’s close at the end — the team that plays the best defense when it’s all on the line will win.  That’s why — as they say — they play the game.

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The Spurs had won twenty something straight — and had not been defeated for weeks when they game into the Western Conference Finals.  But when the  Thunder played “Spurs basketball” — and put it right in their faces — it flustered and confused a really good team, and got them out of rhythm. Too strange — playing against themselves like that.  The Thunder are very young and very talented — and they are still learning — but their biggest talent — and scariest talent of all, for teams that play against them in the days to come  — may be — that like the great Celtic teams of your — and Bill Russell — they take what you do best — and beat you with it —  like a drum.

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But then again — there is no array of talent on the planet like the Heat.  It should be a great series. I can’t wait!