Before everyone completely shuts off for All-Star Weekend, it’s Thunder-Heat, round two on Thursday. We all know the recent history, so there’s certainly a little more on the line here than just a single win or loss. Especially for the Thunder.
Not only do they need a boost of confidence against Miami, but with LeBron James and Kevin Durant having near historical seasons, could Thursday’s game decide the MVP too?
1. True or false: The MVP is on the line Thursday for KD.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: False. Ish. False-ish. Here’s why: While there are still some 30 games to be played which means a whole lot could happen, if LeBron beats Durant again it’s going to plant that seed in a lot of minds that he’s simply a superior player. That’s not true at all because if you watched the Finals, you know that KD was absolutely brilliant and OKC’s losing really had very, very little to do with him. But narrative is the name of the game in sports, and when voters review their options come voting time, they’re going to have the fact that LeBron would’ve topped KD both times this season. Fair or not, that’s the way the MVP game often works. I don’t think Thursday should decide anything and I’m sticking with false that it won’t, but with the recent media blitz LeBron has had lately, a loss for KD head-to-head certainly isn’t going to help.
Michael Kimball, Daily Thunder: False. And it’s not even close to being true, in my opinion. First, the season is barely half over. Also, there’s plenty of time for LeBron James to slump, and KD will have several more high-profile appearances on national TV. I just have a hard time believing many MVP voters will make their final decision based on one performance on Valentine’s Day. Any any of them who would do something like that probably already have their minds made up anyway.
J.A. Sherman, Welcome To Loud City: False. While head-to-head matchups certainly spike the ratings and our collective interest, I think this season is going to come down to how we view various stretches of both Durant’s and LeBron’s seasons. Specifically, it seems like whenever one of them hits a run of great basketball, the other takes notice and ups the ante. Perhaps it stems all the way back to when the two guys did their “Hell Week” workouts, but I believe that they are intentionally each other’s measuring stick. Durant had been playing a torrid stretch of basketball as of late, scoring efficiently, distributing, and showing a ever-deepening understanding of how to play the game. A year ago, Durant’s PER was a distant 4th from LeBron’s league-leading metric, but in this season Durant has closed the gap considerably and has been playing the game in a very LeBron-esque way. The media started talking it up and perhaps LeBron took notice, because he then ramped up his speed to 88 MPH and as we know, did something in these past six games that has never been done before, which does not simply connote a hot streak, but basketball mastery. This stretch, which is still ongoing, may be the thing that ultimately puts LeBron on top this year.
What makes me most excited about the development though is that I think this 2-man race is structured well — LeBron is the best but knows that KD is right on his heels, while KD knows he must continue to improve and expand his game if he is ever going to catch James. Perhaps Durant will never get there, but in trying to get there, not only are we all ‘witnesses,’ but winners as well.
2. What’s the best approach to matching up with the Heat?
b. Two bigs
c. Lots of Nick Collison
d. New idea
Young: I think it’s almost entirely C. Smallball is a worthy plan, but it also plays into the style the Heat prefer, and it doesn’t necessarily work unless the matchups fit. And what’s obvious the Heat is that they aren’t a strong interior team at all, so it makes enough sense to remain big against them. But it’s about choosing the right combination of bigs, one of which I think has to include Collison. He’s one of the best help-and-recover bigs in basketball and he’s a legit offensive threat 20 feet and in. Combined with his defense and rebounding, I think that kind of spacing is absolutely vital to executing good offense against Miami. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the game Collison played the most minutes (21) was also the only game OKC won in the Finals.
Kimball: A and C. To be clear, this answer applies to almost every team in the league. The Thunder are good enough with their smallball units to not even really care who is on the floor for the other team. OKC has been obliterating people with KD at the four and only one other big man at his side. It’s even more important for the Thunder to go small against the position-less Heat, but the data has shown for quite a while that small is better for the Thunder in almost any situation. Plus, “lots of Nick Collison” is the answer to pretty much anything in Thunderville. Need a screen on a key play? Lots of Nick Collison. Need someone to kill time with in your closet during a long severe weather night during tornado season? Lots of Nick Collison. Can’t decide who to vote for? Lots of Nick Collison.
Sherman: I’m going to go with a lot of choice (c) with a little bit of (d), but both should center on the kind of front line the Thunder have to have in order to take down Miami. Unfortunately for the Thunder, they cannot boast of a great offensive front line that can attack the Heat’s lone weakness in the middle. We also have to endure the painful reminder that, in the Finals, Miami really did a number on them, confusing OKC’s bigs progressively as the series went on. Kendrick Perkins was injured, Serge Ibaka wasn’t ready mentally, and for some odd reason OKC’s best front line option, Nick Collison, was woefully underused.
I’m sure you remember as well as I that Collison played a great Game 1 and then practically disappeared the rest of the series. Why was he effective? I believe it is because he is an extremely intelligent post defender and seemed like he was the only guy who could see what Miami was doing offensively and was able to put himself in the right place at the right time to prevent the easy buckets that increased over the course of the series. What I hope for is more of Collison’s court awareness combined with the defensive improvement of Serge Ibaka and an all-together better mental focus on how to keep Miami from getting easy buckets. It is no easy task, but given how well LeBron scores around the rim, the improvement is necessary and essential.
3. Are the Thunder currently equipped to beat the Heat in a seven-game series?
Young: Yes, absolutely. What people have to understand is that while yes, the Heat have now won five straight against the Thunder, all but one of those literally came down to probably 12 total plays. This matchup is on a knife’s edge — it’s a razor thin margin. So far, the Heat have managed to get big performances from Others like Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller and Shane Battier while OKC has finished games wondering where their supporting cast went. I’m not implying the Heat have gotten lucky by any means, but I think the Heat have performed to their potential against the Thunder, while OKC has consistently left something to be desired. Whether it was James Harden, a poor shooting night from Russell Westbrook or gross execution, the Thunder can be better.
Kimball: Yes. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Thunder should be the favorite if they eventually match up with the Heat in the Finals, but OKC is certainly capable of beating Miami four times in two weeks. They were only a whisker away from making it a long series last season, when the final two games would have been in OKC (which is likely to be the case this year in a similar situation). The Heat have a mental edge, for now, and LeBron has a physical edge on every basketball player in the world (again, for now — I see you, KD). But a few key plays here and there, or a couple of missed Shane Battier or Mario Chalmers jumpers, and the Finals and even the Christmas Day game would have looked a lot different. Anyone who writes the Thunder off now hasn’t been paying attention.
Sherman: I thought the Thunder were actually well equipped to beat the Heat in last year’s Finals. The details of that series will be eventually lost within the mythology of LeBron, but the truth was that the Thunder played mediocre ball for much of that series and yet were within one or two possessions of winning 3 out of their 4 losses. Durant and Westbrook weren’t bad per se, but they weren’t really that good either (James Harden though, he was pretty bad).
The point is that the tools that the Thunder had then and display now on the court are sufficient to take down the champs. What we also know however is that the famous Isiah Thomas saying, “The secret to basketball is that it’s not about basketball,” applies. The Thunder weren’t ready for that championship moment a year ago, just like the Heat weren’t ready for it the year before, Dallas wasn’t ready in 2006, etc. For OKC, part of becoming ready lies within the losing to the Heat – they hopefully learned how close winning and losing is on the ultimate stage and when the key moments arise again, they won’t be wasted. What is it that Scott Brooks likes to say? “We just have to play better.” That’s it, really. The Thunder have the necessary components, but they have to do a better job exhibiting them when they share the court with the Heat.