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The Miami Heat suffered a disappointing opening game loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night, falling 105-94 after leading by seven points at the half. The Heat were severely outplayed by Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in the second half, and Durant shone brightest in the fourth quarter when he scored 17 points to keep the game out of reach.
Several things went wrong for Miami in that game, and they need to shake things up if they want a different result in Game 2 tonight. We enlisted the help of Hardwood Paroxysm's talented contributor Jared Dubin. Jared identified a few key things that the Heat have to do in order to escape OKC with a win. Here are his thoughts on what went wrong for the Heat and the kind of adjustments they can make tonight. Mr. Dubin knows his stuff, so I suggest you pay attention to his answers.
Even though they lost the first game, what went right for Miami in Game 1 on offense and defense?
LeBron, mostly. He played well enough on offense; he just wasn't the otherworldly version of himself that he was in the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals. It's kind of unbelievable, but he wound up with 30 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists in Game 1, and it was pretty universally considered a “bad” game for him. In the first half, the Heat repeatedly found Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers for open 3-point looks through ball and player movement, and Battier and Chalmers were able to capitalize by knocking them down. In the second half, however, we saw much more of the stagnant, isolation, hero-ball offense that has led to ineffective stretches for Miami in the past.
The Heat had some success trapping Russell Westbrook on pick-and-rolls early in the first half, but he quickly figured out a strategy to beat the trap (either accelerating so hard around the screen that he couldn't be trapped, or trusting the roll man – whether Serge Ibaka or Nick Collison, to make a play with the ball after the catch). Honestly though, I can't really say that too much went right defensively for Miami when OKC put up an offensive efficiency nearly 10 points per 100 possessions better than San Antonio's league-leading regular season average. The Heat have a lot to clean up on that side of the ball. If you want to say that they held James Harden to just 5 points on 2-for-6 shooting, go ahead, but to me it was much more the foul trouble and light minute load that held Harden down than anything specific the Heat did defending him.
Conversely, what was the one thing that doomed Miami from Tuesday's opener on each side of the ball?
The Thunder figuring out how to exploit Miami's aggressive pick-and-roll traps really threw the Heat for a loop, so much so that they eventually changed their pick-and-roll defense strategy – something Miami rarely, if ever, does – and began switching on all screens. Additionally, the idea of using LeBron James as an all-purpose disruptor rather than as Kevin Durant's primary one-on-one defender might have sounded good in theory, but in practice it seemed to be a case of Erik Spoelstra overthinking things a little bit.
The idea was that the Thunder love to get Durant open by working him off screens, so if LeBron is guarding the screener, the Heat can just switch off the pick and have Durant's man pick up the screener. But when LeBron was guarding Kendrick Perkins (yeah, that actually happened), the Thunder just had Serge Ibaka set picks for Durant or Westbrook. When James switched onto Westbrook, OKC went back to the KD pin-downs with Perk or Ibaka setting the screen. And so on and so forth. The Thunder constantly geared their offense away from James to get Durant into favorable match-ups, something that is obviously much more difficult to do if James is actually guarding Durant. Oh, and Miami let the Thunder leak out in transition for easy buckets far too often. That was bad too.
Offensively, Miami was done in by a stretch of cold shooting from the outside, – after opening the game 5-for-6 from 3-point land, the Heat went just 3-for-13 the rest of the night from deep – Dwyane Wade taking horrible shots and Chris Bosh being turned into a glorified spot-up shooter. Bosh's 3-pointers in Game 7 of the ECF were nice, but they were a luxury, not something that was begging to become a staple of the offense. Bosh needs to be involved in the pick-and-roll actions; screening, moving toward the hoop, getting those mid-range jumpers he likes. And Wade needs to be much more under control. He was forcing the issue way to much, and not in the good way.
One of the bigger complaints I saw about Miami was their poor transition defense, especially against a team that likes to run in OKC. What can Miami do to negate OKC's advantage on the fast break?
You know what helped in the first half of Game 1? Making shots. But even then, Wade and even LeBron got beat up the floor by Westbrook and/or Durant. Once the shot goes up, make or miss, Miami has to be thinking about defending against OKC's transition game. Mario Chalmers – or whoever happens to be playing point guard at any given time – needs to get his… posterior back on defense immediately upon the release of the shot. If Westbrook, Durant or Harden has even the slightest sliver of an opening in the open court, they're gone. Miami can't go through those periods of lax defense they've been prone to in the last couple rounds; they have to be on point for all 48.
What are some adjustments Miami can make on the offensive end to get Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh going?
For starters, they shouldn't have Wade act as the primary ball-handler in the half court nearly as much as they did in Game 1. Get him moving off the ball, cutting to the basket and working around off-ball screens to get him more open space rather than working against a defense that is focused on containing his one-on-one drives by sticking a long-armed defender on him and walling off the paint. Wade's clearly not physically right and doesn't have the same explosion he normally does, so asking him to consistently beat guys off the dribble and manufacture baskets isn't going to work unless he gets his knee drained again. Moving him around off the ball, especially if he's being screened for by Bosh or James, is a much easier way to get him open looks. He also needs to stop fading away on every jumper. Go straight up, D-Wade.
As for Bosh, well, they need to move him back inside the 3-point line. Too often, he was just stationed outside the arc like a glorified Steve Novak. Involve Bosh in pick-and-rolls, get him screening for LeBron or Wade under the hoop and ducking into post position, give him the ball at the elbow and let him throw a series of pump-fakes at Ibaka until he bites (which he will). Whatever the plan, Bosh needs to be much more involved than he was in Game 1. The guy is an extremely capable scorer, he can't be turned into a bystander on offense. Maybe starting him rather than bringing him off the bench would do the trick. He seemed to struggle when matched up with Nick Collison in Game 1. Getting him a more favorable match-up against Ibaka or Perkins could get him untracked early.
How does Erik Spoelstra go about defending Durant/Westbrook in Game 2?
Put LeBron on Durant all game. KD was 0-for-2 with a turnover in 5 possessions with James guarding him one-on-one in Game 1, while he was 12-for-18 with 1 turnover against every other defender Miami sent his way. Shane Battier has guarded power forwards for long stretches of the playoffs; let him deal with Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison. Use the best perimeter defender in the league on the NBA's best perimeter scoring threat.
As for Westbrook, go back to the traps they used all season to guard pick-and-rolls. Russ can still be careless with the ball from time-to-time, and if you direct him to the right spots and trap him there, you can force some turnovers, get out in transition and use defense to fuel offense. Miami pretty much shut Westbrook down in their regular season meetings over the last two seasons. He figured out a way to make them pay in Game 1, but Miami needs to try to make him do it again. If Westbrook gets either impatient or overly aggressive, that's a relative win for the Heat.
This should be an intriguing Game 2. It will be interesting to watch what kind of adjustments both teams make, especially the Heat. I wouldn't quite call this a must-win game for Miami, but it's certainly in their best interests to avoid falling down 0-2 against this strong Thunder team. I think Miami pulls this one out tonight, but if they don't make changes, this series will be a lot shorter than most of us anticipated.