It was the biggest test the Thunder has faced all season.
Many dubbed Sunday's showdown with the Miami Heat a potential NBA Finals preview.
By the time it was over, the Thunder had emphatically proven, in front of a national-television audience, just how premature it would be for anyone to hand the Heat the Larry O'Brien Trophy after what is widely expected to be the matchup we see playing out in June for all the marbles.
Behind some infuriatingly suffocating defense and incredibly smart offense, the Thunder cruised to a 103-87 win inside Chesapeake Energy Arena. The regular season rematch, which will be played inside American Airlines Arena, is now just nine days away.
But 48 minutes couldn't have been more telling Sunday. Here are five things we learned about what a Thunder-Heat series could look like.
*Kevin Durant is capable of dominating more than LeBron James.
Once upon a time the Thunder had to hide Durant on a much less capable offensive player rather than throwing him in the deep end against James. Not anymore. The two stars now go head-to-head for the majority of the night each time they step on the floor, and Sunday showed us that, surprisingly, it's Durant's defense that gives him the edge in the individual matchup. Durant defended everyone from James to Dwyane Wade to Shane Battier, all with enormous success. Of James' eight made field goals, only one came off an isolation play against Durant — and it was a tough fadeaway jumper five minutes into the game. And for all of James' physical gifts, he struggled mightily to muster anything inside against the much leaner Durant, be it out of post-ups or drives. Oh yeah, Durant also showed once more that James has no answer for him at the other end, finishing with a game-high 28 points with nine rebounds and eight assists.
*OKC's big men will have to be accounted for.
Serge Ibaka scored 19 points with 10 rebounds. Kendrick Perkins had a season-high 16 points with six rebounds. The Heat couldn't stop either one of them. And it all stemmed from the heavy attention Miami was forced to pay to Durant and Russell Westbrook. The Thunder's perimeter players picked the Heat apart with drive-and-kicks and easy dump-offs to their bigs, who were happy to finish with either wide open baseline jumpers or forceful dunks. It's an effective means of offense for the Thunder that doesn't figure to change given how the Heat has to send multiple defenders at Durant and Westbrook. And for all the national rhetoric claiming OKC can't score easy buckets, the Thunder just demonstrated how easy paint points can come against the team that is supposedly standing in its way of a title.
*Shane Battier is a bad matchup for James Harden.
Harden did what he does best, coming off the Thunder's bench Sunday to score 19 points on 6-for-7 shooting with three rebounds and six assists in 32 minutes. But there were stretches where Miami unleashed Battier, its bulldog defender, on Harden and stymied OKC's Sixth Man. Battier used his length, strength and savvy to disrupt Harden unlike any other defender we've seen. Battier forced Harden (game-high seven turnovers) into dribbling into a crowd and making bad passes on multiple possessions. Only when Harden was covered by Wade did he really have success. If these two teams do indeed meet in the Finals, Harden will be the game's biggest X-factor. And Battier is Miami's best chance at eliminating him. The question is how much can the Heat afford to keep Battier on anybody but Durant?
*The Thunder's discipline is bad news for the Heat.
Strange, isn't it, that for the better part of 48 games the story of the Thunder's season is inconsistency, yet in the biggest game of the year the Thunder strings together by far its most disciplined performance? Against a defensive team that Thunder coach Scott Brooks before the game called “stifling at times,” OKC remained poised and patient all night. The Thunder made the extra pass throughout and tallied 26 assists, one shy of tying a season high. Here's why that's significant. Dallas showed in last year's Finals how simple discipline and undying trust in the system can be the detonator to a Heat team that in the past has been a time bomb in fourth quarters. We saw it Sunday. When Miami fell behind by as many as 15 in the third quarter, Wade went into hero mode, jacking all-or-nothing 3-pointers to try to save the Heat. Fortunately for Miami, three dropped and kept the Heat in it. But that's the exact type of ball that has burned Miami in the past.
*Miami can't match or handle OKC's size advantage
With Chris Bosh in tow, the Heat would have the best big men in a potential Finals series with the Thunder. But if it's Bosh and Joel Anthony against Ibaka and Perkins, then the big man battle tilts in OKC's favor. Add in Udonis Haslem and Ronny Turiaf for Miami, and Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed for the Thunder, and it's a runaway for the Thunder. The Thunder, which has been a pitiful defensive rebounding team, held Miami to four offensive rebounds and just six second-chance points. OKC out-rebounded Miami 36-31 for the game and outscored the Heat 46-36 in the paint. Collison, especially, could have enormous value in a Finals series because of his ability to slide over and draw charges against the Heat's slashing wing players. It's a position of strength for the Thunder, and one that could ultimately help decide which team wins this year's NBA championship.