Kevin Durant drove to a dunk that drew the Thunder within 96-95 with 44 seconds left in the game, and you thought maybe the Boomers’ all-game climb might end in glory. Thought the Thunder might knock off the Heat in front of the biggest crowd in Miami indoor history and a snowed-in, nationwide audience watching the NBA’s two best teams.
But in those final 44 seconds, especially the next 19 seconds, Miami had a huge advantage. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had his best players on the floor. Scotty Brooks did not.
Miami called timeout, and for the game’s biggest possession, Spoelstra inserted Ray Allen for Shane Battier. That gave the Heat a lineup of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers and Allen. Brooks stayed with his lineup of Durant, Westbrook, Kevin Martin, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka.
With the shot clock winding down, LeBron had the ball isolated on the left wing. Through switches, Westbrook guarded LeBron, which frankly, is not the worst matchup for the Thunder. No Boomer really can handle LeBron alone. Durant was dogging Wade. Martin was on Allen. Perk defended Bosh. And Ibaka was on Chalmers.
Forget everything else, for a moment. Ibaka was guarding Chalmers not because of switches. Ibaka was guarding Chalmers because Brooks chose to keep two big men on the floor, while the Heat had just Bosh. Ibaka is a wonderful player, with so many attributes it’s probably not fair. Someone asked me Tuesday if Ibaka is a better player than Bosh, straight up, and the answer is yes. Ibaka is better. But when Ibaka is guarding Chalmers 25 feet from the basket, Ibaka’s value is diving toward nil.
OK, so you know what happened next. Perkins, sensing that LeBron was about to drive on Westbrook, moved over to help against the surely-coming attack. Bosh zipped to the basket, no Thunder teammate rotated, LeBron’s pinpoint pass found Bosh for an easy dunk and virtually every blue jersey sniped at Martin for not rotating, though I didn’t see why Martin was in any better shape to rotate than was Durant.
When Durant and Westbrook missed 3-point shots on the next possession, the game was over.
But here’s my question. With 44 seconds left in the game, after a timeout, with a Heat possession in which OKC absolutely had to have a stop to have its best shot at victory, why was the Thunder’s best defender not on the floor? Why was Thabo Sefolosha sitting on the bench?
Brooks doesn’t like to situationally substitute, and I suppose there’s something to that theory. Certainly helps the flow of the game when the same group can play minute after minute. But in the final minute, there is no flow. Basketball becomes a football game. A play, then a huddle. A play, then a huddle.
Miami had just called timeout. After the Heat’s possession, the Thunder called timeout. If you don’t want Thabo in on offense, fine (though that’s not necessarily an automatic call, either). But at least have him on defense. Maybe it’s Thabo that ends up on LeBron on the left wing, and Perk is a little less quick to be ready for a double team. Or maybe it’s Thabo in the middle, whose job it is to rotate.
I don’t get it. Thabo played 27:38 against the Heat. He came out of the game with 5:29 left in the third quarter and did not return. That seems crazy to me. Your best perimeter defender, against the league champion, a team filled with great perimeter playmakers and great outside shooters, doesn’t play the final 171/2 minutes.
In the plus/minus category, the only Thunder starter who had a plus was Thabo: +2. The Thunder outscored Miami by two with Sefolosha on the court. Nick Collison was a +4. No surprise there. Reggie Jackson was a +1 in 13 minutes. Everyone else was a minus. Westbrook, who played poorly, was a -9. Ibaka and Martin were both -8. Perk and Durant were -6.
Brooks has his reasons for sitting down Thabo for long stretches. But there is NO reason to sit him in the game’s critical possession, when the opponent has the ball. Frankly, Brooks saying the Thunder is a defensive team with a defensive mentality, is all just talk at such junctures. A defensive team would not go without its best defender.
You know me. I’m all about Thabo getting more minutes in general. But absolutely Brooks has to adjust and substitute situationally more in the final minutes of close games. Else Thabo Sefolosha will find himself sitting for the game’s most important possessions.