Here are five observations from the Thunder’s disappointing 103-81 loss in OKC on Thursday night…
1. LeBron’s dominance - Kevin Durant still holds the lead in the MVP race. But what LeBron James has done recently, culminating with a whooping of Durant and the Thunder in OKC on Thursday, has narrowed a Grand Canyon gap back to a debatable level. For the last 25-plus games, we’ve got a race. And LeBron made sure of it on Thursday. Right from the tip, he was breathtakingly good. Fadeaway jumper, hammer dunk, steal and breakout, powerful post-up of KD. He busted out all his tricks. And that was just in the first four minutes, where he scored the Heat’s first 12 points. At the end of the opening quarter, he had 18 points. The Thunder had 17. At the end of the game, he had an efficient 33 on 15-of-22 shooting, punctuated by a ferocious finish on Serge Ibaka, which left him with a bloody nose (shown below). Best player on the court, by far. Best player in the world, still. Big-time performance.
2. Durant’s downer – Kevin Durant’s final line wasn’t dreadful: 10-of-22 shooting, 28 points, eight rebounds. Bad shooting night by his standards. But those happen, particularly against swarming, smart defenses like Miami. So it wasn’t the overall output that was disappointing. It was the lack of force with which he played, particularly early on. Durant had a week off between games, a raucous home crowd behind him, the defending champs in house and his MVP nemesis standing across the way. There was all the reason in the basketball world to be fired up. But for whatever reason, he just looked like he wasn’t. He was unenergized, sloppy and a bit passive for much of the first half, which contributed to an early double-digit hole. LeBron had 14 points on 7-of-8 shooting before Durant even took a shot. KD turned it on a bit late…but it was too late. The game was out of hand. Bad timing for one of his worst performances of the year. But I have this sneaking suspicion he might be OK.
(Example of Durant’s disconnect early on — sloppy turnover, lack of hustle):
3. Westbrook’s spotty return - About what should have been expected from Russell Westbrook in his return. He looked rusty at times, particularly early, losing the ball on his dribble, missing some makeable shots and passing up some looks he typically uncorks without hesitation. But there were flashes, brief spurts where the explosion appeared unaffected. In the final two minutes of the first half, he scored 10 quick points, finishing twice at the rim and enticing a trio of fouls with his breakneck speed and fearlessness around the hoop. Dwyane Wade on Westbrook after the game: “He had moments where you would think, ‘Man, has this guy missed any time?’” Plus, it’s just good to have the guy back. Good for basketball and good for our entertainment. On and off the court. Just check out the ‘Happy Bday Mom’ shoes he wore on Thursday night and the Orange Lambo he rolled up to the game in (of course he drives and Orange Lambo). Welcome back.
4. The other stars - LeBron was the star, but Miami won this game off the stellar performances from Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Wade turned back the clock to 2008, creating havoc in the passing lanes, firing in some mid-range Js and finishing everything at the rim. He had 24 on 11-of-17 shooting, plus 10 assists. And Bosh was his typically steady self: 24 points on nine shots, plus eight rebounds and a game-high +32 when he was on the court. Combined, the Big Three had 81 points on 30-of-48 shooting. You’re not beating this team when its star trio is playing like that.
5. Reversal of fortune - Down in Miami, the Thunder had its most prolific 3-point shooting game ever. OKC made 16 (!!) threes on only 27 attempts. Derek Fisher and Jeremy Lamb went a combined 9-of-11 from deep. On Thursday, well, it was just about the opposite. The Thunder went a woeful 2-of-20 from deep and Fisher/Lamb, who had been shooting well of late, went a combined 0-of-8. I guess things have a way of balancing themselves out. But to beat a team like Miami, the Thunder need at least a far better showing from its second-unit. OKC bench: 8-of-26 shooting, combined plus/minus of -39.
-Strange moment: To start the second half, Scott Brooks made the adjustment to put Thabo Sefolosha on LeBron James. As the teams readied to put the ball in play, Thabo went over and planted himself next to LeBron. A somewhat stunned LeBron shot a strange look down at Thabo (who was now bent over with his head down), then looked over at Kevin Durant. He gave KD a quick back-and-forth look, basically saying ‘You’re really going to have him guard me??” Durant just shook his head and turned away. Unsatisfied, LeBron then shot a look over towards Scott Brooks and the Thunder bench and mouthed: “He’s too small”. Over the next few minutes, Thabo did no worse than some of the Thunder’s other primary LeBron defenders on Thursday night. But I guess that’s not saying much.
-Derek Fisher had one of those fouling binges early in the fourth quarter, bodying up Ray Allen as the Heat veteran scrambled around the court through a variety of screens. Fish has been great for the Thunder this season, particularly of late, but these are the kind of stretches can frustrate fans. He gets called for a questionable foul, then, maybe out of pride, amps up the physicality even more, while also exaggerating contact from the offense and staring down the ref, daring him to call something. It never seems to go his way. In a 30 second span on Thursday, he got three fouls, placing the Heat right at the bonus early in the fourth quarter. It’s detrimental to a comeback attempt. But from an entertainment standpoint, the Derek Fisher foul fest is one of my favorite Thunder sequences. It’s high comedy, right up there with the Kendrick Perkins illegal screen, get mad because you called an illegal screen, then compound the problem with a glare, stare and technical sequence.
-Charles Barkley ripped Kevin Durant’s performance on TNT after the game, saying he lacked killer instinct and of the MVP race: “You want to take something from somebody, you can’t come out passive”
-This was the Thunder’s most lopsided home loss since April 3rd, 2009 against Portland (its inaugural season) and its worst overall loss since Feb 25, 2011 at Orlando.
-Biggest problem: OKC had 20 turnovers leading to 27 Heat points. It was particularly a problem early. The Thunder had nine turnovers in the first quarter, leading to a steady stream of breakout dunks and easy layups for Miami, which climbed to a 17-point first quarter lead.
-Kendrick Perkins left with a groin strain. His status moving forward remains unknown.
-Jeremy Lamb in 21 minutes: 1-of-9 shooting, 0-of-6 from three, 1 rebound, 2 assists, 2 fouls, 2 turnovers, -13.
-Up next: Clippers at Thunder on Sunday. Tips at noon on ABC. Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook are back. Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin made leaps in their absences. Should be fun.