MIAMI — The experience is an essential one, perhaps even a rite of passage for all seeking to be the last team standing.
For the Oklahoma City Thunder, their 4-1 series loss to Miami in last year's NBA Finals was a heartbreaking setback but one that now could spur them to a special season.
When the Thunder walks into American Airlines Arena for its Christmas Day showdown, it will be its first return to where last season hit a dead end. Naturally, this first of two regular-season rematches evokes memories of what went right, what went wrong and what's left to be done.
“You know when you get to the Finals you have to do a lot of things well as a team. And we did that,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “In order to win the Finals you have to take it another step. And I thought Miami did that. They played better in the Finals, but we got some great experience just being there.”
Amazingly, only six players on this year's Thunder squad played in last year's Finals series: the starting five and Nick Collison. Of those six, only Kendrick Perkins had played in the NBA Finals. He journeyed there as a member of the Boston Celtics. Perkins twice reached the Finals with the Celtics, winning the 2008 title. He suffered a knee injury in Game 6 of the 2010 finals, sidelining him for Boston's Game 7 loss to the Lakers.
“Sometimes it's good to go through losing and tough times,” Perkins said. “You want to win so bad and bring it home. But now you know what it takes.”
For starters, that entails overcoming the magnitude of the moment, something many of the other five now say was indeed of factor.
“It was just the experience of playing on that stage,” Kevin Durant said. “Everybody's watching you every night. You're the only thing on TV. The media (coverage) is crazy. So just that experience of it all was different. But the basketball part is something I've been playing my whole life so it wasn't like it was any different on the court. Just everything on the outside was a little bit too much.”
Russell Westbrook said he realized the best way to conquer the elements is to simply “focus on the task at hand.”
“All the media and all the stuff that comes along with being in the Finals is good but it's not good if you don't win,” Westbrook said. “Hopefully we can get back and take care of business.”
When asked what he learned from the Finals, Westbrook talked most about making every possession count. He remembered how the Finals intensity was the highest he had ever experienced and how, as a result, it became ultra important to take care of the ball and search for quality shots on each trip.
Things the Thunder couldn't do consistently.
“They won four straight so there were a lot of possessions where we didn't do a good enough job,” Collison admitted. “Both sides of the ball, we didn't stop them enough so we have to get better at both ends of the floor.”
Collison continued, going on to further dissect the team's offense and defense and stressing how the time to shore up last season's shortcomings is now.
“We have to continue to build toward that time late in the year,” he said.
And be consistent with that effort, said Perkins
“With the talent that we have, we can score points,” Perkins said. “But I think we got to make sure we have a consistent effort and be consistent on the defensive end. I think our defense can overshadow a lot of things. That also develops a trust for everybody. If anybody knows they're about to get screened, they know I'm going to be there. If my man rolls to the basket, I know somebody's got him. So if you develop that trust it's almost like you don't even have to talk it out no more. You almost know that the guy's going to be there.”
There hasn't been a better chance to date for the Thunder to showcase in the regular season how it has grown from its postseason disappointment than this Christmas Day showdown.
“We learned a lot after making the Finals,” said Serge Ibaka. “We know how hard you have to work to be there. Now we know how to do it, and I think if we get there we'll do better.”
Thunder at Heat
When: 4:30 p.m.
Where: American Airlines Arena
TV: ABC (Cox 8/HD 705).
Radio: WWLS 98.1-FM, WWLS 640-AM
Three things to know
* This is the first of two games the Thunder and Heat will play this season.
* Miami defeated the Thunder 4-1 in the NBA Finals last year.
* The Thunder and Heat split last year's two-game regular season series, with each team winning on its home floor.