The Christmas Day rematch of last year's NBA Finals matchup between the Thunder and Heat may be in the rearview mirror, but Oklahoma City's latest loss, its fifth straight at the hands of Miami, lingers.
For myriad reasons, the Thunder just can't handle the Heat.
But in each of the defeats, there has been a common denominator, a disturbing factor that has defined Oklahoma City's futility against the team that without question has become its most frustrating foe.
The Thunder has been obsessed on playing its big lineup.
In June, it was a decision that ended in disaster. On Christmas Day, it again contributed to the Thunder's disappointment down on South Beach.
No one with the Thunder will publicly concede that the manner in which the team matches up against a smaller Miami team might be misguided. The recurring result, though, speaks for itself.
Scott Brooks defended his team's defensive scheme when asked about it following Tuesday's 103-97 loss.
“We can play many ways,” the coach said when asked if Miami's small-ball style makes things tough on his team. “The good teams in this league, you've got to be able to play small, you've got to be able to play big, you've got to be able to play fast, slow, halfcourt, aggressive, fullcourt. And we can do most of them. I'm not going to tell you which one we don't do well. But we can do most of them. And just like Miami, they can do them all. And in order to win in this league you've got to be able to play many ways.”
By now it's become clear that Brooks is sticking to his guns, for better or worse. Based on the Thunder's most recent meetings with the Heat, however, that decision doesn't bode well for OKC in a potential Finals rematch.
Oklahoma City fell Tuesday in the same fashion that it did in the final four games of the Finals. The Thunder could neither consistently defend the Heat nor repeatedly generate high-percentage shots.
It was the defense that was most worrisome.
Although the Heat put its most potent offensive unit on the floor for large stretches, the Thunder on Tuesday continued to counter with a more traditional lineup that features both Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. Against most teams, Ibaka and Perkins can anchor the Thunder's defense. Against the Heat, one of the two big men is forced to defend a wing player in a guard-heavy Heat lineup. It leads to a mismatch that greatly favors Miami.
“They're trying to put their best scorers out there. And it helps when one of those so-called smalls is 260 pounds, 270 (and) 6-9,” said Nick Collison, referring to LeBron James. “So I think that's a good thing for them to do. For us, that's when I think we need to be sharper and have less mistakes.”
Miami's most used lineup this season, according to 82games.com, includes Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, Shane Battier, James and Chris Bosh. That unit is the Heat's most successful and also is the same one that shredded the Thunder last season — when Ibaka was sucked away from the basket and out to the 3-point line to defend Battier.
Little has changed since June, as the Heat on Tuesday provided far too many flashbacks to that forgettable experiment. At one point in the second half, Ibaka or Perkins was covering James at the top of the arc on three straight possessions. On the game's most critical possession, with 44 seconds remaining, Ibaka inexplicably was on Chalmers, the Heat's point guard, while Perkins was assigned to Bosh and defensive ace Thabo Sefolosha was on the bench.
“To be honest, we like guarding smalls,” Perkins said of himself and Ibaka. “We like switching out on smalls. We work on it every day in practice. And I thought, as far as myself and Serge, we did a great job of just keeping them out of the paint. They hit some contested 2s over our hand. They were some bombers. But at the end of the day I feel like we had pretty good switch-outs and we did a pretty good job.”
The record shows the Thunder's defense can't afford to be just so-so against the Heat.
Over the past eight games against Miami, six of which the Thunder has lost, OKC has allowed the Heat to shoot 45.3 percent. Despite their best efforts, Perkins and Ibaka have been exploited when sharing the court against Miami. Meanwhile, neither has consistently been able to make Miami pay with their offense.
Perkins is a combined minus-29 in the plus-minus category in the past eight games against the Heat. Ibaka is a combined minus-32 in those same eight games. That means the Heat have outscored the Thunder by 29 and 32 points, respectively, in Ibaka and Perkins' time on the court.
Over the five-game skid against Miami, those numbers swell to minus-31 for Perkins and minus-48 for Ibaka.
The second and final round of the regular season Finals rematch is Valentine's Day.
We'll see then whether the Thunder adjusts or continues to accept its current stagnant status quo.