MIAMI – Those who came or tuned in seeking some odd, early resolution to the NBA’s Most Valuable Player race probably left or went to bed disappointed. Entertained, exhilarated even, but disappointed because the slim gap between Kevin Durant and LeBron James didn’t widen more, based on their individual performances Wednesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Based on the outcome – a 112-95 Oklahoma City victory, in which the Thunder bungeed from 18 points down early to 25 points up late – Durant probably did pull a few extra chips to his side of the table. But in practical terms, there wasn’t much to choose between: Durant’s 33 points on 12-of-23 shooting with seven rebounds, five assists and four turnovers vs. James’ 34 points on 12-of-20 shooting, with three boards, three assists and three turnovers.
So, set aside the MVP debate for a while, at least until these teams meet again Feb. 20 in Oklahoma City. Focus a little on the COY — Coach of the Year — because the Thunder’s Scott Brooks accounted for the biggest highlight move of the night.
Understand that Brooks hasn’t had his preferred starting lineup for a while, not with All-Star guard Russell Westbrook (right knee meniscus surgery) sidelined since Christmas. But the one he started Wednesday has been his next-best option, with a record now (15-5) that’s nearly as good as OKC’s ‘A’ team (17-2).
So, coming out of halftime, Brooks pulled a lineup from column C. He sat down center Kendrick Perkins and inserted backup forward Perry Jones. Jones is listed at 6-foot-11 but he’s a quarter-horse compared to Perkins’ Clydesdale and the switch effectively rendered the Thunder small. Serge Ibaka was the default center, Durant the ersatz power forward.
It worked wonders. OKC outscored the two-time defending champions 36-25 in the third quarter. A 91-75 lead ballooned to its max with 8:45 left when the Thunder opened the fourth on a 10-1 run. Miami fans might have learned their lesson in The Finals about leaving early when things look bleak but this time, there really was little reason to stay.
Now, we’re not suggesting that Brooks be handed the bronze trophy with the little Red Auerbach on it, not on the strength of one game or even half the season. He was named Coach of the Year in 2010 and, for some voters, having a legit MVP candidate at one’s disposal is an small argument against that coach taking home hardware.
It wasn’t as if Brooks necessarily had a “Eureka!” moment, either, given the way Miami jumped on his starters for a 22-4 lead in the game’s first 5:40. Perkins had subbed out when it was 15-2, after which Oklahoma City outscored its hosts 53-35 through the end of the second quarter.
So Perkins/bad, small ball/good was plain to see on this night. But Brooks dared to tinker with a mostly pat hand (Perkins has started all but two games), in a properly ballyhooed game, in front of an ESPN audience. He went with Jones and left him in for all 24 minutes of the second half. He made sure the Thunder used their mobility especially to get back on defense, choking off any Miami notions of transition buckets (OKC won that battle, getting 20 fast-break points to the Heat’s eight).
And he sold it on in real time, with nary a pout – who can tell with Stoneface Perk anyway? – nor a ripple.
“I thought to win this game, we had to make a decision,” Brooks said. “It’s just this game. It’s not something we have to do all the time. Perk brings so much to us. We’re not going to make it a small lineup/big lineup [issue]. ‘We’ won the game. It’s always been about ‘us.’ We have a bunch of guys who are always about ‘team’ and tonight was a prime example of that.”
Veteran guard Derek Fisher had found the bottom of the peach basket (hey, that’s how he learned it) for 15 points by the time OKC led 101-76, compared to a Miami bench that had scored just 11 by then. Jeremy Lamb scored 18, combining with Fisher to hit 9 of his 11 3-point shots. The Thunder were uncanny from out there, hitting 59.3 percent compared to 47.2 percent of their 2-pointers.
Miami was, well, the opposite, going 3-for-19 from the arc. Then there were those 21 turnovers worth 25 points. Just four steals to OKC’s 13. Seventy points allowed in the second and third quarters combined. Not much flow from the champs. And so on.
“There were a lot of different issues,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Our offense got us in trouble tonight – it was uncharacteristic. Even in our right plays, we were fumbling it. Our guys were zigging, they were zagging. … But again, you have to give them credit.”
OK, here’s some: Oklahoma has won nine consecutive games, edging closer to the franchise mark of 12 set early last season. And Durant ran his string of 30-point performances to 12, longest in the league since Tracy McGrady stacked up 14 late in 2003.
Durant is averaging 38 points during the streak, shouldering the load left by Westbrook’s absence. He’s shown no serious wear, and he had fun in his back-and-forth with James, both with the ball and in some “slick stuff” they chattered on the floor.
Still, he sounded as if he enjoyed more the work of his teammates, chipping in against about the toughest competition they could face. Most times Durant carries them, but to a considerable degree Wednesday, guys like Lamb, Jones and Fisher carried him and the Thunder. It’s the sort of flexibility that allows them to adapt to Westbrook going and, sometime after the All-Star break, coming back, a better “acquisition” than any other team will get at the trade deadline.
“There are going to be games where guys are going to play more minutes and games where guys are going to have to sacrifice a little bit. And that’s what we did,” the NBA’s leading scorer (31.3) said. “Them young guys are gamers, man. They want it. They want that opportunity. When you mix ‘em out there with Fish, who’s probably the biggest gamer of us all. He doesn’t care what the moment is, he’s going to come out and play the same way. And Nick [Collison] is the same way as well.
“I’m proud of them.”