Monday, June 18, 2012

Four-Point Play: Thunder can't afford to play soft in paint

Four key points in the aftermath of the Miami Heat's 91-85 win Sunday in Game 3 of the NBA Finals vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder:

Kendrick Perkins is a basketball bully. He made his name in this league with hard screens and harder defense. The Thunder center has a rough beard at the end of his chin, and he rarely cracks a smile on the court.

Serge Ibaka is all arms, his 7-4 wingspan leaving his massive hands in reach of every shot. He averaged a block and a half more than any other player in the NBA this season. The Thunder forward gets in opponents' faces and doesn't leave.

But the Heat own the paint.

With 6-4 Dwyane Wade and 6-8 LeBron James pounding through Oklahoma City's defense time after time, Miami shot 23-for-35 at the rim in Game 3, according to Hoopdata. In Game 2, they shot 18-for-28 in close. That's 65.1% (41-for-63) in their two wins as they've taken the Finals by the neck. The Thunder shot 50% (28-for-56) in their losses.

The Thunder have played soft, that dreaded word that implies losing basketball. Even Russell Westbrook, often criticized for his fearlessness, lost his edge in Game 3, shooting 1-for-6 at the rim after a 6-for-13 performance in Game 2. Coach Scott Brooks will watch video Tuesday of his team playing scared.

The ball's in Brooks' court now. He's got a young team playing against one hardened by external criticism. He's got a young star, Kevin Durant, being mercilessly picked on by the NBA's best, James.

It's not that the Thunder aren't defending or that Brooks' strategy is failing. Miami was a startling 1-for-19 on mid-range jump shots in Game 3. The Thunder blocked eight shots. Heat starters Wade, Chris Bosh and Mario Chalmers combined to shoot 12-for-42 from the field.

But Miami controlled the paint all night, holding a 45-37 rebounding edge. The only period where things went right inside for the Thunder was the third, when Durant was in foul trouble and Brooks opted for bigger lineups. Oklahoma City had a 16-7 rebounding edge and only let up six points in the paint in the third quarter.

Durant's going to play, but that can't mean the Thunder play so poorly inside. The Thunder were plus 3 with Perkins and plus 8 with Ibaka on the court. They need the physicality and size to compete with Miami's relentless attack. The Thunder struggled in the Western Conference finals with Ibaka and Perkins playing together because of the San Antonio Spurs' spread offense. But packing the paint can work against the Heat, particularly when they're shooting so poorly.

This is where great coaches prove themselves. Brooks has drawn praise for building the Thunder into a power, but the team is young. They need to be reminded of the stakes. They need to be told to toughen up.

The other side of the coin: Miami can't hit a jump shot. That 1-for-19 stat should startle every person in the Heat locker room. They've got to look toward Shane Battier more often. He was 2-for-2 on three-pointers but didn't attempt another field goal in the win. He's 11-for-15 in the series, and his teammates are 7-for-21 from long range. Battier's open most often when James drives to the basket. James is one of the most gifted passers in the NBA, but he's kept his head down often during this series and made 13 assists in three games after averaging 6.2 a game in the regular season. Battier even got fouled on a three-point try, and he made all three free throws.

Everybody on the Heat is making free throws. Critics will look at the 35-24 edge Miami had in opportunities from the line as a sign of poor refereeing. And there were some questionable calls mixed in with the easy ones. But the Heat shot 88.6% (31-for-35) while the Thunder shot 62.5% (15-for-24). Those nine misses were crucial, enough to turn a loss into a win, and seven came in the second half. The Heat are making 85.9% (67-for-78) in the series after shooting 77.5% in the regular season. An issue has become a strength.

Both teams have struggled to set up their offenses in the half court. Thabo Sefolosha's steal on Dwyane Wade was the most glaring example, but Thunder guard James Harden committed two bad turnovers late as well. With Chalmers struggling, the Heat have relied on Wade late in games to initiate. And Harden often takes the reins from shot-happy Westbrook late for Oklahoma City. They're both fine passers, but their ball-handling doesn't match elite point guards.

© 2011 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.


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