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.
“Perk brings so much to us,” Brooks said. “We won the game and the guys understand that. It’s not about what I did. It’s about how we played as a collective group. We’ve got a bunch of guys that is always about the team. Tonight was a clear and prime example of that.”
The Durant-James matchup lived up to its hype. Durant scored a team-high 33 points with seven rebounds and five assists, pushing his streak of 30-plus-point games to 12 while helping the Thunder snap a six-game losing streak to Miami.
James scored a game-high 34 points with three rebounds and three assists.
The difference was Durant got more help from his supporting cast.
Serge Ibaka scored 22, Jeremy Lamb came off the bench to pour in 18 and Derek Fisher chipped in 15 points. Lamb and Fisher combined for nine of a Thunder record 16 3-pointers made.
It was the ninth straight win for the Thunder.
“It’s a good team win,” Brooks said. “I thought that a lot of guys chipped in.”
The Heat jumped all over the Thunder at the start, erupting out of the gate with a 22-4 run in the fist six minutes. Miami scored on its first 10 possessions and pulverized the Thunder by popping the ball around the perimeter and pumping in shots from all areas of the floor. The Heat made their first nine field goals and assisted each other on seven of those. But perhaps the worst part was James was responsible for only two points and one assists during that dominating stretch. Dwyane Wade, meanwhile, contributed just two as well. It was Chris Bosh who sparked the Heat, scoring nine points during the spurt and scoring on an array of jump shots driving layups and 3-pointers. His free throws with 6:20 remaining in the quarter gave the Heat their 18-point advantage.
OKC showed extraordinary mental toughness, though, hanging in and weathering that early storm. The Thunder responded with a 12-0 run, led by seven points from Durant, to cut it to 22-16 and create some much-needed momentum.
But whatever good that was crafted appeared on its way to crumbling when Durant was whistled for his second foul with 1:32 remaining in the quarter. It forced him to the bench, but for as bad as things were the Thunder trailed by just nine after the opening 12 minutes.
And that’s when the Thunder’s second unit, with its star saddled with foul trouble, stepped up and gave OKC new life. A lineup of Fisher, Lamb, Jones, Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha went on a 12-6 run in the first 3:07 and cut Miami’s lead to three. Lamb ignited the rally with back-to-back 3s and capped it with a tip-in in transition.
“Ball movement,” Lamb explained of the second unit’s offensive surge. “We really passed the ball and had a lot of open shots. I think that was huge. When you pass the ball like that, that’s what a shooter loves.”
After Durant, Ibaka and Reggie Jackson returned, the Thunder tied the game at 46-all on another Lamb 3-pointer with 4:11 left in the first half. Following a layup by James, Durant drilled another 3-pointer on the Thunder’s next possession, and OKC never looked back.
The Thunder closed the second quarter on a 9-4 run and took an improbable 55-50 lead at halftime.
That’s when the lineup shuffle flipped things and, more importantly, put the Heat on notice.
Durant has developed enough to top James, and the Thunder’s small lineup can now run circles around the Heat.
It’s a new day.