Individually, the career paths of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are on the upward curve. Unfortunately, though, the Oklahoma City Thunderís head-to-head record against the Miami Heat, the team Durant, Westbrook and Co. are most likely to face should they make the 2013 NBA Finals, has taken an altogether different path, a complete downward spiral.
After beating the Heat, 105-94, in Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Finals, Oklahoma City has lost six straight games, including their latest meeting on Valentineís Day, to the Miami Heat. While the four straight losses after their Game 1 win, which saw the Heat emerge NBA champions for the first time in the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh era, could be blames on OKCís inexperience at the final frontier, what does one make of their continued struggles against the Heat this season? Mind you, the Valentineís day defeat, a 100-110 scoreline, was not as close as the score reflects.
The biggest problem the Thunder have against the Heat is with their own frontcourt. Against any other opponent, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka come across as a formidable pairing of size and athleticism. But Perk and Ibaka havenít really been able to impose themselves and play like traditional Ďbigsí against the Heat. Between them, the two men cumulatively scored only 59 points (less than 12 points per game), while making only 23-of-54 shots (42.59 percent) from the field, in the five games of the 2012 NBA Finals. Also, with the Heat regularly employing a smaller unit on the floor against the Thunder, with Shane Battier playing at the four spot, the OKC big men, particularly Perkins, find themselves outrun and outmatched by the quicker and more agile Heat team in transition.
Then there is LeBron. After putting up a phenomenal showing in 2012 where he walked away with several honours, including an Olympic Gold and the league MVP title, few would have thought his game could improve any more. But it has. He has been on a tear in recent games, with his 39-point, 12 rebounds, seven assists and two steals against the Thunder on February 14 epitomizing the all-around impact he has had on the Heatís fortunes this season.
Put those two problems together and OKC is faced with yet another issue while playing the Heat. They cannot afford to consistently double up James because that leaves them exposed against Miamiís 3-point shooters Ė Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers and Battier. Also, when Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha are not scoring for OKC, it allows the Heat to focus entirely on Westbrook and Durant.
Yet, all is not lost for the Thunder. The gap between them and the Heat is not insurmountable. A few minor tweaks could help make them a lot more formidable. They could make a few trades that would bolster their chances on the offensive and defensive ends of the court. Josh Smith and Paul Millsap are a few names being bandied about that would allow the Thunder to match up on a more equal footing with the Heatís smaller lineup. Additionally, the Thunder could explore a host of names out there, including the likes of PJ Tucker of the Phoenix Suns or Alonzo Gee of the Cleveland Cavaliers, to contain (only contain) LBJ. Offering backup point-guard Eric Maynor or forward Jeremy Lamb, in addition to throwing in a couple of draft picks, could make any of these trade possibilities a reality for the Thunder. And even then, with the trade deadline round the corner, if OKC donít make any moves, they must adapt with what they have. Starting Nick Collison at the four and playing Ibaka at the five would also be an improvement on their current arrangement of starting with Perkins.
But try and experiment the Thunder must. Because should they meet the Heat again this season, the stakes will be very high.
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