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Steve Aschburner

Scott Brooks
Scott Brooks is confident the Oklahoma City team can stay focused amid the glitz of Miami.
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Thunder must avoid 'vacation mentality' to capture road wins

Posted Jun 17 2012 9:59AM

MIAMI -- The last time the NBA Finals rolled into Miami for a solid week, what happened off the court seemed to matter as much as the time spent on the court. Distractions grabbed hold of the Dallas Mavericks. Friends and family morphed into foes -- at least according to coach Avery Johnson -- and a team that had unpacked only a few days earlier found itself packing yet again, switching hotels with a game to go in its south Florida stay.

"A vacation mentality," Johnson called it after his Mavs' 2-0 series start in 2006 vanished with a loss in Game 3 and a 98-74 spanking in Game 4. "So I'm going to fix that."

Johnson yanked the Mavericks from their downtown Miami digs to a more remote, team-only location in Fort Lauderdale. Then Dallas went out and lost Game 5 in overtime on the shores of Biscayne Bay, followed two nights later by the Heat's clincher back in Texas.

It marked only the second time since the NBA went to its 2-3-2 series format in 1985 that the home team had swept the three middle games. It was a move by Johnson that didn't help his job security -- either the coach was responsible for players getting distracted in the first place or he was panicking after the fact -- and sure enough, he was fired less than two years later.

And it all gave Miami's Dwyane Wade a chuckle on the eve of another middle three on his team's court.

"I forgot all about that," Wade said. "That was funny back then."

Yeah, to him and his team it was. The Heat won. Now the Oklahoma City Thunder is the bunch facing a week in south Florida, and they are headquartered in a stunning high-rise hotel with gorgeous views, pulsing nightlife and a driveway gridlocked with Maseratis, Mercedes, Aston-Martins and Porsches.

The key for Oklahoma City's players and coaches -- and family and friends -- will be treating all that sizzle like they're shuttered in an Embassy Suites near the airport. In Columbus.

"I've never had any issues with our guys playing on the road," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "They've always been focused. I don't think you get to this point [with] guys that are not committed, guys that are not really locked in, geared in to what we're doing as a group. Miami is a great city, there's no question. It's a great environment, but we're here to play basketball.

"There's only 10 days, two weeks left of the season, then there's plenty of time to vacation. I think our guys have always been good on the road because they've been committed. We have toughness on the road, and I expect to see that [in Game 3]."

Home-court advantage, a staple of the NBA playoffs, gets a little funky in The Finals, where the 2-3-2 format switches up the rhythm and shifts around the pressures of the 2-2-1-1-1 schedule used in earlier rounds.

It still matters overall -- the team that starts at home and has the extra game on its floor if it needs it has won 21 of the 28 championship series since 1985. That's a 75 percent success rate. But on a game-by-game basis, home teams in the Finals have won just 60.4 percent of the time (93-61) through Games 1 and 2 this year.

Teams with the middle three games at home have won them all only twice -- Detroit did it in 2004 and, as noted above, Miami did it two years later. But road teams have swept Games 3, 4 and 5 three times. Beyond the fact that the lesser Finals team, based on regular-season records, gets those middle three games -- and this shortened, post-lockout season was trickier in labeling anyone "lesser" -- it also suggests a different dynamic. Playing three road games in a row happens in no other series than The Finals.

Here's how screwy things can get: Before OKC's practice Saturday at AmericanAirlines Arena, some intrepid reporter asked Thunder guard James Harden if his team planned to play the games one at a time.

Usually that cliché is reserved for the answers, not the questions.

A couple of Harden's teammates, meanwhile, seemed to be looking forward to the venue shift.

"The best thing about being on the road," forward Kevin Durant said, "is you have to come together as a group even more. We do it a lot at home, but we have to come together even more because everybody in the stands is against you. The other team, of course, is against you, so it's fun kind of being like the villain on the road. So you have to come out and start off quick, and play hard from the beginning, and hopefully you make a few shots, and we've got to get stops, as well."

Had the Thunder done that at home in Game 2, of course, it would be up 2-0 rather than tied 1-1. And technically it wouldn't have to win at all in Miami this week. That's not the case now, nor apparently is it a concern. The crowds at Chesapeake Energy Arena are generally considered the loudest and most supportive in the league, but that doesn't necessarily bring withdrawal pains when Oklahoma City plays elsewhere.

"Nah, I think we actually play better on the road," Thunder center Kendrick Perkins said. " I think we like it when everybody's against us. ... 'Cuz at home I feel like we get too comfortable. In my opinion, I feel like we're too relaxed and feel like, just because we're at home, we're going to win the game. Instead of just going out there and attacking.

"When we're on the road, we have the mindset that we have to go out and play with some type of force. Y'know, grind, grit and just play hard."

The numbers don't quite back up Perkins' feelings on the matter, but they're close. Oklahoma City was 26-7 at home this season and outscored teams at CEA by 9.7 points per game. On the road, it was 21-12 with a 2.5 edge in scoring. So far in the postseason, the Thunder is 8-1 at home, 5-3 on the road.

With Miami, the fans are the ones known for not being game-ready, many settling into their seats during the first quarter. But the Heat went 28-5 this season at AAA and outscored the other guys by 10.9 points on average, compared to 18-15 and 2.4 on the road. In the playoffs, Miami is 8-2 at home and 5-5 on the road.

There are all sorts of " X & O" items on the agendas of both sides -- a faster start, a steadier hand by Russell Westbrook and maybe more Nick Collison and less Perkins for OKC, compared to more bench help, a stronger finish and continued specialness from LeBron James for MIA. But flexing home court, or thwarting it, looms large for both.

"That's been our focus, is to make sure this place in here is a place that we feel comfortable playing. It's a place that it's tough to play," Wade said. "A lot of stuff has been said about our fans, and it will always be said about our fans, but they're our fans. We love them. We appreciate them. And Game 7 [against Boston in the East finals] was the loudest I've heard it here in a very, very long time.

"Yeah, OKC had an unbelievable fanbase. It got very loud -- at one point I was shooting a free throw and it was the loudest I've ever heard [any NBA arena]. But we love our fans, too, and I think they're excited about this game."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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