HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — For all the flashy, highlight-reel dunks and plays made by the Miami Heat this season, the backbone of their title quest is the fact that they are one of the league’s most relentless defensive teams when they are at their very best.
Seeing the Oklahoma City Thunder stifle the Heat with their defense last night at American Airlines Arena confirmed what we already knew: this Thunder team has truly graduated to the next level.
The addition of Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed to the Thunder’s interior defensive rotation, alongside Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and even rookie big Cole Aldrich, completely changes the way this team can attack teams on defense. It also gives the Thunder a fighting chance against any of the elite teams in the league (Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, Bulls, etc.) if things shift to the inside on a given night.
“We’ve got four bigs that do a good job of rotating and helping each other,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks told reporters after the game. “They’ve got a lot of experience, I’m confident in any of the guys out there. They can all mix and match. They all play hard. They all set good screens. They all make extra passes.”
The Heat shot just 38.5 percent from the floor and LeBron James and Dwyane Wade struggled to match their usual production, combing for 40 points on 15-for-42 shooting from the floor (they were 21-59 with the third member of the crew, Chris Bosh, included).
Against the Heat, Brooks told the Oklahoman, those bigs and the Thunder defense was as good as it gets:
“Our defense was as good as it could possibly play,” Brooks. “We haven’t been the 48-minute defending team that I would like (and) that we need to be. But tonight, we defended right from the start…Tonight, it was for four quarters. That’s the way it should be played.”
Judging by the postgame response from both James and Wade, they understood they’d just been defeated by a superior defensive team (at least on this night).
Considering the Thunder didn’t play particularly well offensively, outside of Kevin Durant’s game-high 29 points on 12-for-21 shooting display, winning this game made even more of a statement about what this team can accomplish in the future. When they are dialed in defensively, inside and out, they can impose their will on anyone.
More from our main man Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman:
The Thunder clogged the paint despite having to dodge center Kendrick Perkins’ foul trouble. Perimeter players contested shots, forcing the Heat off their hot spots and funneling their ball-handlers into help defenders.
“We kept making them score over a hand,” said forward Nick Collison. “When they attacked the basket, for the most part, we had guys helping that they had to try to score over. We just try to make teams shoot a lot of difficult shots.”
The Thunder wasn’t just dialed in defensively. It was also stubborn.
When Wade brought the crowd to its feet with a driving, spinning, two-handed dunk over Perkins, it sparked a 13-2 run that pulled Miami within a tie at 43-all with 1:07 left in the first half. For a moment, the Thunder looked shell shocked, going 0-for-3 with three turnovers immediately following the surge.
But Eric Maynor hit a 3-pointer before Wade capped the half with a driving layup to make it 46-45 at the break.
The Thunder never trailed in the second half. The Heat shot just 10 of 34 (29.4 percent) in the final two quarters. Wade and James went 4-for-18 over that span, with seven of their combined 16 second-half points coming at the foul line.
“We were really locked in for the majority of the game, and that’s what we’re getting now that we didn’t get earlier in the year,” Collison said. “But the last few weeks have been a lot better with everybody being locked in and quick to help. We’re so much better when we play that way.”
There’s no doubt about it!