MIAMI — No matter how much they tried, no matter how much they insisted Wednesday’s clash wasn’t about them, neither Kevin Durant nor LeBron James could deflect or downplay the attention from their head-to-head duel.
When you coupled the magnitude of their matchup with their respective place in the game, perhaps even history, it was going to take an act of God to turn Thunder-Heat into anything else.
We might have just witnessed that act.
Because when Scott Brooks walked in the halftime locker room, set his sights on Perry Jones III and informed the second-year forward he’ll start the second half guarding James, it served as a minor miracle and became the surprising story of the Thunder’s thrilling 112-95 come-from-behind win inside American Airlines Arena.
For just the second time in his six-year tenure as coach of the Thunder, Brooks made an in-game lineup adjustment to start a half. He sat starting center Kendrick Perkins in favor of Jones and ushered in a tidal wave that flipped not only the game but maybe even this matchup, which for the last three years has been embarrassingly one-sided.
“I thought to win this game that we had to make a decision to go with a smaller lineup,” Brooks explained. “It’s just this game. It’s not something that we have to do all the time.”
Since the 2012 NBA Finals, when the Thunder lost the final four games of that series, it’s been clear that Oklahoma City’s big lineup that features Perkins and starting power forward Serge Ibaka is futile against the small, fast and furious Heat.
Brooks, though, never countered by matching wits with Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.
And the end result was the Thunder trotting out a younger, longer and more athletic lineup that gave the Heat a second-half headache and possible a month’s worth of dilemmas that need to be deciphered before the next meeting.
“It’s a better matchup, I guess,” Durant said. “Perry came in and did a great job of just giving us that length on defense and being aggressive on the offensive end … It’s going to be games where guys are going to play more minutes and games where guys are going to have to sacrifice a little bit. And that’s what we did. Guys sacrificed in that second half … and we got a good win.”
Guys, plural, didn’t. Perkins did.
He never checked back in after exiting with 7:24 left in the opening quarter. While he was in, however, the Thunder was blitzed, outscored 15-2.
In that same span of the third quarter, the Thunder outscored the Heat 15-8.
“That was a big adjustment for us,” Durant said. “That’s probably the second time we ever did that. But he had to do what was best for the team.”
The first time was Game 6 at Houston, when a similar Rockets’ small-ball attack that had been severely punishing the Thunder all series forced Brooks to sit Perkins in favor of DeAndre Liggins to start the second half.