MIAMI — The bad blood continues to build, but it's the same old bad habits that continue to hold the Thunder back against the Miami Heat.
In a game that felt all-too familiar to last year's NBA Finals, cosmetically and in its conclusion, Oklahoma City suffered a 103-97 loss in its Christmas Day confrontation with the defending champions.
The outcome was nothing more than a byproduct of long-standing imperfections, flaws that bubbled up and bit the Thunder in the behind in the fourth quarter.
Miami, as it did in the final four games of last season's championship series, played with more poise, greater patience and much better precision. While the Heat controlled the game with a calculated attack, offensively and defensively, the Thunder down the stretch reverted to a frenzied, freewheeling approach that played right into the Heat's hands and, as a result, caused OKC to leave South Florida yet again smacking on a sour taste.
“We weren't good enough with our details,” said forward Nick Collison.
The final five minutes would best be described as anarchy.
The Thunder, which has become so lethal late in games, uncharacteristically backslid Tuesday inside American Airlines Arena, perhaps overcome by an admitted desire for retribution.
After trailing 92-90 with 4:54 remaining, the Thunder went just 2-for-8 down the stretch. Ball movement took a backseat to hero ball. Quality shots were replaced by forced attacks.
“They got better shots than us late in the game,” Collison said. “We got away from executing down the stretch. Every bucket we got was so difficult. Guys had to make incredible plays to get a bucket.”
Kevin Durant shook off early foul trouble to score 25 of his game-high 33 points in the second half, and Russell Westbrook added 21 points but missed 14 of 19 shots. Despite now being fully aware that the best way to beat Miami is through balance, the Thunder's All-Star duo turned into a two-man show in the final 24 minutes. Everyone else on the Thunder's roster scored just 11 points in the second half, that output coming from three players.
“We have to keep trusting what we do and do it in the difficult times, too, late in games,” Collison said.
Five straight Thunder possessions inside the three-minute mark defined how difficult the Thunder made things Tuesday.
First, Westbrook corralled a rebound and either didn't see a streaking Kevin Martin down the right side or looked him off. Westbrook, instead of passing, dribbled the length of the court and forced a layup in between three Heat defenders. The shot missed.
On the next possession, Westbrook tried to finish a fast-break layup but barreled over Ray Allen and was called for an offensive foul. Kendrick Perkins then picked up a second consecutive offensive foul on an illegal screen.
Martin followed by missing another contested layup, and Durant ended the string of questionable shot selection by attacking a paint full of Heat defenders but drawing a foul. Even when he went to the foul line, he split a pair of free throws, which about summed up the Thunder's night.
Defensively, the Thunder didn't look much better than it did in June guarding Miami. LeBron James led the way with a team-high 29 points, eight assists and nine rebounds. Dwyane Wade added 21 points, and Mario Chalmers broke out of a recent slump with 20 points, making four of eight 3-pointers.
After Durant pulled the Thunder within 96-95 on a driving dunk, another Thunder miscue essentially sealed it for Miami.
Perkins attempted to double team James on the left wing, but nobody rotated and covered his man. It left Chris Bosh all alone under the rim for an uncontested dunk.
It was a play that characterized both the Thunder's Christmas Day performance and the gap that still exists between the champs and the runners-up.
“The margin is really small against this team,” Collison said. “It's a lot of little things that we can do better. I think that's what we should focus on. It's just like any other team, those little things are what's going to win you the game. It's not so much about the matchups or the talent.”