OKLAHOMA CITY — There was lots of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, as usual, and the quick-strike transition baskets that we’ve all come to associate with the Thunder as their trademark. But more than anything else in Game 1, we also learned OKC can play some OKD.
And that defense started and ended with Thabo Sefolosha, who had the wonderful task of checking Dwyane Wade for much of three quarters, then LeBron James in the fourth. Imagine, a guy who isn’t even the best defender on his team, being asked to slow two players who represent roughly 80 percent of the Miami offense. And he took down both. Chop, chop.
“I told myself I can do this,” Sefolosha said.
This was a powerful opening statement by the Thunder, out-defending a better defensive team, essentially beating the Heat at their own game. Miami had 40 points in the second half, where they lost the lead, their grip and the game, 105-94. OKC protected the rim, which forced Miami to take jumpers that fell in the first half but whiffed in the second. When that happened, it was a wrap — both defensively and in terms of the final outcome. The loss will certainly send the Heat scrambling to find a way to adjust by Thursday.
“Our players demand (defense) out of each other and out timeouts are always about defense,” said coach Scott Brooks.
Defense. That’s what Sefolosha’s about, too. He’s quickly earning a rep for accepting any assignment, no matter the player. Last series, he silenced Tony Parker in the second half of Game 6 to clinch the West title. Then came Wade, who shot only four-for-14 in the first three quarters, and finally James, who missed four of his six shots in the fourth and never took over the game as promised. To summarize, Sefolosha went from dee-ing up a quick point guard to a slashing two-guard to the league MVP.
He never gave Wade or James much to work with and kept each player from getting into a groove. Most of their damage was done when Sefolosha was guarding the other. Sefolosha was supposed to stick with Wade in the fourth, but when Wade went to the bench early, Sefolosha switched to James and stayed. That allowed Durant, who was guarding James, to use more energy on offense, paving the way to 17 points in the fourth. It also kept James Harden, who usually replaces Sefolosha in the fourth quarter, on the bench.
“We love what Thabo does,” said Brooks. “He’s a tough-minded defender. He understands that he has to be able to guard every possession like it’s his last, and he does that.”
Not taking anything from his work on Wade, who in some instances was his own worst enemy, but Sefolosha was most impressive in the fourth on James. Remember, this is the James who vowed to go nuts in the fourth to make up from vaporizing last June. And the setting was perfect for James to do so: The score was tight, Wade was clearly struggling and meanwhile Durant and Westbrook were threatening to break the game open.
And yet, James managed seven points and a pair of buckets. Therefore, two reputations remained intact: James in the fourth quarter, and Sefolosha as a defender.
“We knew he and Dwyane would try to take over,” said Sefolosha. “We were thinking of ways to slow them down. I was pretty fired up to make a statement. It was a challenge and I like that kind of challenge. I take it as an opportunity to show the world what I can do.”
Of course, it only gets harder from here. At least it should, anyway. James will look to even up the series and try to outplay Durant if nothing else, while Wade, after a mild 19-point effort where he rarely attacked the rim — knee issues, maybe? — will look to turn up his intensity for Game 2.
They’ll be ready, but after Tuesday, maybe Sefolosha will be, too.
“I’ve been doing this the whole year, and this is how I can help the team win,” he said. “This is what I’m here for.”