There were some intriguing matchups in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night and, according to the combatants, these likely will continue throughout the series.
Miami Heat forward and league Most Valuable Player LeBron James began the contest defending Thunder center Kendrick Perkins.
Much to the chagrin of OKC coach Scott Brooks, Perkins inexplicably has played point guard on several fast-break occasions this season.
Once he noticed James was defending him, was Perkins' first instinct to demand the ball at the top of the key and go one-on-one?
“I thought about it,” Perkins deadpanned on Wednesday, “but then I had to think about it again. That's not my role.”
For James to defend the opposing center is not totally shocking. The 6-foot-8, 260ish-pound James can play all five positions, which is why Heat coach Erik Spoelstra often refers to James as “One Through Five.”
What was shocking is that Kevin Durant was assigned to defend James from the outset, but not vice versa.
Shane Battier instead guarded Durant and Serge Ibaka defended Battier.
Russell Westbrook defended Mario Chalmers, who defended Thabo Sefolosha, who defended Dwyane Wade, who defended Westbrook.
Perkins defended Udonis Haslem, who defended Ibaka.
All this on the game's first possession.
The playground playbook of “take who takes you” apparently will not exist in his series.”
By the fourth quarter of the Thunder's 105-94 victory at Chesapeake Energy Arena, Sefolosha was defending James, and doing so beautifully; Battier was still doing his darndest to defend Durant, who had 17 points and in the quarter and finished with 36, although there was a lot of switching taking place for Heat defenders; Westbrook was defending Wade; and 6-foot-1 Derek Fisher persistently kept an elbow in the chest of the 6-foot-8 Haslem.
The defensive assignments in Game 1 might not match the assignments in Game 2 on Thursday at 8 p.m. Then again, who could keep track?
No need to question who, why and when in all this.
“You coach the game as you see it,” Brooks said of starting Sefolosha on Wade and closing him on James. “We have some very good defenders, and we have guys that can guard multiple positions, and Thabo can guard one, two and threes … Kevin will guard ones, twos, and some threes and that's a good luxury to have, and throughout the game we can switch them off on different players.
“Thabo is one of the premier defenders in the league. He has the defensive toughness, he has the mindset to be a great defender, and he does it every possession. He will guard Wade, he will guard LeBron, and at times he will guard their point guard, but I thought he did a great job.
“It's not an easy cover to guard him.”
By “him,” presumably Brooks was referring to James, but perhaps it was Wade.
Does James envision more mix-and-match?
“Yeah, I think so, just because of the depth of teams and both teams have so many guys that can do so many things defensively, that can guard multiple positions defensively,” James said. “It allows both coaches to be flexible. You can see that throughout the course of the series.”
Sefolosha could be assigned to defend three or four Heat players in the series, though not simultaneously.
“It's probably something both teams kind of like, because both teams are so athletic,” Sefolosha said. “I think we can match up pretty much with anything that any team throws at us. We don't try to worry too much about what they're going to do.”
Nick Collison played a huge role off the bench in Game 1 and could have further success, no matter who he defends and vice versa.
“We've got a lot of interchangeable parts, but I think Miami's really similar, too,” Collison said. “When you have guys who are 6-8, 6-9 playing on the perimeter – and athletes like we do with Kevin and they do with LeBron – you can do that. You can play those guys on bigs or on guards.”
Also thrown into the equation is fatigue and the lateness of the shot clock, which often results in more switches, which was the case with Miami on Tuesday night.
“We're an aggressive, disruptive defensive team,” Spoelstra said. “Now, I don't mind it (switching) at times. We can be very disruptive when we switch, as well, but it flattened out some of our aggressiveness, which makes us unique. So regardless, (Tuesday) night was not decided by schematics. It was decided by force. It was decided by will. It was decided by energy.
“Both these teams have that ability. They imposed that on us (Tuesday) night, and that's the reality. Everything else was probably everything in between.”