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.”