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June 18, 2012
Playoff Prospectus
Upper Hand

by Bradford Doolittle


at Miami 91, Oklahoma City 85 (Heat lead 2-1)
Pace: 87.5
Offensive Ratings: Miami 104.6, Oklahoma City 96.6

How did we get so negative? Why is always about a player choking or a team quitting or folding or a coach losing his mind? Can't a team simply be outplayed? My Twitter stream suggested the kneejerk reaction to the Heat's Game 2 win was that Oklahoma City wilted down the stretch like three-day old lettuce. The Thunder made some crucial mistakes, but give Miami credit for playing a tremendous defensive game.

It started with the job that LeBron James did on Kevin Durant, which seems like a superficially odd statement given Durant's 11-of-19 shooting performance. Nevertheless, James' ability to deny the ball from Durant, particularly down the stretch, was essential in limiting the looks of the game's best scorer. When Durant tried to force the issue, James helped to hound him into five turnovers. During the last six minutes, with the game very much in doubt, Durant hit just 1 of 4 shots -- an elbow jumper with 3:37 left out of a timeout, when Scott Brooks was able to set up a series of screens to free Durant from James' clampdown.

Oklahoma City had one late burst, a 6-0 run to come within 86-85 with 90 seconds to play. That dash featured Thabo Sefalosha picking Dwyane Wade's pocket at halfcourt and going in for a dunk and culminated in Russell Westbrook nailing a short pull-up jumper. That was it for the Thunder, however, as Miami scored the last five points of the game, all from the foul line. Westbrook missed a pair of 3-pointers down the stretch and Sefalosha threw away an in-bounds pass after a timeout. Durant got just one look, missing a 10-footer off another post-timeout play call.

James Harden committed a pair of bad turnovers a couple of minutes before that, helping Miami open up the lead. On the first one, Harden was essentially running the point, with Westbrook and Durant flanking him on either side. It's a set that has worked well for the Thunder, but with Shane Battier keeping Harden from penetrating, OKC tried to free up Durant on the weakside with a pindown screen, but Harden was rushed and delivered the ball with a poor angle. On the second one, Harden tried to force his way into the lane against Mario Chalmers, who had help from weak side, and Chalmers was able to poke the ball away. In both cases it was poor decision-making by Harden, who had his second miserable game in the series, but also in each instance, you have to give credit to the scrambling Miami defense for disrupting the rhythms of Oklahoma City's attack.

Perhaps the key sequence of the game occurred in the third quarter, during which the Thunder built a 10-point lead. Oklahoma City led 60-54 when Durant picked up his fourth foul on a questionable call and went to the bench. A short time later, Westbrook was called for a charge and also went to the sidelines, though he had just two personals. Derek Fisher came on and quickly hit a 4-point play, extending the lead to 10. From that point on, Miami went on a 15-3 dash to finish the period and grab the lead, the entire run taking place with Oklahoma City's two best players watching from the sidelines.

Miami won by doggedly attacking the paint. The Heat got 20 of its 28 field goals at the rim, and also hit 31 of 35 from the line. That latter tidbit was a crusher for the Thunder, which missed nine of 24 free throws, negating one of its biggest perceived advantages heading into the series. The Heat's shot chart is a testament to persistence, if anything. Miami hit 20 of 31 in the restricted area. In the paint, but beyond the immediate basket area, the Heat was just 3 of 12. From midrange, the Heat hit 1 of 18. One. For. Eighteen. Tack on 4-of-13 from beyond the arc, and you can see what kind of offense the Heat was running.

That offense was attacking, with Wade and James getting into the lane and kicking out when they couldn't get shots. Everything revolved around that. Largely due to the constant penetration, the Heat grabbed 14 of 41 offensive rebound opportunities and outscored the bigger Thunder on second-chance points. James had five of his 14 rebounds on the offensive end as he continues to excel as de facto power forward, working the block and running the baseline while Wade attacks from the perimeter. James has become more of a finisher than a creator in this series, but that's fine. It's what Erik Spoelstra needs. Given James' ability to play any position on either end of the floor, the series has been a perfect example of how it's James' full range of skills that mark him as the best player on Earth and to focus on any one facet of his game that may be misfiring is to do him a gross injustice.

According to MySynergySports.com, the Heat averaged a point per play on pick-and-rolls, which accounted for a fifth of its offensive arsenal. With Miami doing so much damage in the paint, it's odd that Brooks elected to play Serge Ibaka for just 22 minutes in the game and just nine minutes in the second half. He didn't play at all in the fourth quarter while Brooks alternated Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison as the center in a mostly small lineup. Perhaps it was because the Thunder was having trouble scoring, but with the Heat doing all of its damage near the rim, it seems like Ibaka could have helped throttle the Miami attack. His face-up jumper also gives him one more offensive weapon than either Perkins or Collison. On the small-sample, plus-minus ledger, Ibaka was +8, while Collison was -11.

So now we've seen Miami win a couple of different games, one in which it rolled up a big lead and held on, and another when they overcame the mystique of the Thunder's late-game aura to rally in the second half. The Thunder improved over the course of its win over San Antonio in the West finals, but the trend seems to be the opposite against Miami. It's the Heat that learned what works against OKC, and they've hammered the Thunder with it for two games now. It's Brooks' turn to come up with the big adjustment. He's got to get more clean looks for his stars, and he's got to defend without Durant and Westbrook getting into foul trouble.

Something I saw on the Web: Over the last 20 Finals, the first team to win two games has taken home the trophy 18 times. Both exceptions involved the Heat--in 2006, when Miami won, and last season, when it didn't. In a sense, that may work against the Thunder because Miami knows from experience that a 2-1 lead offers no assurances. The Heat will be primed for a knockout blow on Tuesday and Brooks' ability to make the right tactical adjustments may be the only thing that can keep Miami from putting a stranglehold on this series.

(Note: Data from MySynergySports.com and NBA.com/Stats were used in this piece.)

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

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