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June 15, 2012
Playoff Prospectus
The Beginning is the End

by Kevin Pelton

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Miami 100, at Oklahoma City 96 (Series tied 1-1)
Pace: 87.1
Offensive Ratings: Miami 115.7, Oklahoma City 109.4

As I drove from Thursday's arena rally to watch Game 2 of the NBA Finals with M. Haubs of The Painted Area, Haubs posed an intriguing question in the wake of Oklahoma City Thunder comebacks in the second half of their last two home games: Just how much would the Thunder have to be down by at halftime for the lead to feel safe? As it turned out, about 12 points. The Miami Heat's advantage seemed precarious, and ultimately Oklahoma City did make the finish (extremely) dramatic. Yet the Thunder was never able to entirely dig out of an early deficit and take the lead. As a result, the start and not the finish of Game 2 is the story worth discussing.

Miami opened up the game on an 18-2 run and led by 14 points when Scott Brooks finally matched up small with the Heat. That stretch alone was enough to swing the game. Miami also had a slight advantage (+3) after halftime with both starting units were on the floor, slowing a possible comeback. Over the other 36 minutes, the Thunder outscored the Heat by 13 points. As in Game 1 Miami was unable to match up with two bigs against a smaller Oklahoma City lineup--a scenario Erik Spoelstra did a better job of avoiding in Game 2--the Thunder couldn't keep up with the smaller Heat, while the floor wasn't spaced well enough on defense.

The Internet's vengeful wrath has largely loosed itself on Oklahoma City center Kendrick Perkins, who has been defended by a much smaller player (mostly Shane Battier) when the starters are on the floor. Perkins grabbed three offensive rebounds thanks to the mismatch, but did nothing with them, missing both of his shot attempts and turning the ball over twice. Perkins ended up a -16 for the game, making him an easy target. I think the issue is more about playing Perkins and Ibaka than Perkins himself, however. In the brief stretches where Perkins played as the Thunder's lone big, the team was +1, including a positive stretch later in the third quarter. Oklahoma City did get a decent stretch of 2:26 out of an Ibaka-Nick Collison pairing to start the second quarter, but otherwise its best basketball was entirely played with small lineups on the floor.

Understandably, Brooks was asked after the game whether he plans to change his starting lineup, and expressed reluctance to consider the topic. This fivesome started 41 games together during the regular season, and all 17 in the playoffs, so I understand why Brooks wouldn't want to make a change at this late stage. I do think he needs to have a quicker hook on the starting lineup. If bringing in James Harden earlier would mess up the Thunder rotation, then go with Derek Fisher (again positive in terms of plus-minutes despite missing all four of his three-point attempts) or even Daequan Cook.

Besides for lineups, Miami simply played better in Game 2 than Game 1. The Heat cleaned up the fundamental defensive mistakes that plagued them after halftime in the opener, and did a much better job of keeping Oklahoma City out of the paint. Early foul trouble helped keep Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook from finding their rhythm during a miserable first half in which they combined for 15 points on 22 shooting possessions. Only a brilliant effort by James Harden, who scored 17 points before halftime by himself, kept the Thunder close.

Durant more than made up with his second-half performance, scoring 26 points in 21 minutes. He caught fire in the fourth quarter. Playing with five fouls, Durant was utterly unstoppable, scoring 16 points on 11 shooting possessions, including three triples in four attempts. His last three brought Oklahoma City within two points with 37 seconds remaining. With so much difference between the game and shot clocks, Brooks chose not to foul and Miami struggled to get a good shot attempt, settling for a LeBron James three with time running down. The Thunder rebounded and had a chance to tie after a timeout.

Coming out of the break, things got weird. James, defending Durant, seemed not to realize the ball was ready to play. Durant caught the ball unmolested before James reacted, creating contact as Durant went up to shoot on the baseline from seven feet out. For better or worse, the referees swallowed their whistles and the shot bounced in and out. James still had to make two free throws to put the game away after collecting the rebound. He calmly made both and the Heat stole the win it needed in Oklahoma City.

Nearly as important to Miami as the win was seeing Dwyane Wade play well. He scored 24 points on 10-of-20 shooting and was visibly more explosive, dunking twice in the first quarter. The extra burst turned Wade mistakes from Game 1 into better decisions this time around. He had five assists against three turnovers and set up the Heat's biggest score, using a James screen to get to the paint and kick to Chris Bosh for a dunk that pushed Miami's lead to seven with 53 seconds to play. The Heat also got a terrific effort from Shane Battier, who defied his own lecture on regression to the mean with another terrific effort--17 points on just eight shot attempts, seven of them threes and five of those makes. Even Battier's lone two, a floater off the dribble, was perfect.

In many respects, this was the Miami model at its best. All three stars played well--Bosh was terrific on the glass, coming up with seven offensive boards and 15 total--and the rest of the team supplied just enough contributions. That the Heat still needed to sweat out Durant's attempt shows how difficult it will be to beat the Thunder in this series. That Miami won on the road demonstrates it certainly can be done--especially if Oklahoma City fails to adjust.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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