Heat vs. Thunder: Will Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook get the best of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade again in Game 2?

June 14, 2012

Facing an undersized Miami Heat frontcourt, the Oklahoma City Thunder benched their bigs in favor of a smaller lineup down the stretch in Game 1 with great success. While Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins continue to make vital contributions this postseason, their absence during the final 14 minutes of the Thunder’s come-from-behind win created more space for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to carve up the Miami defense. Size will once again be key in Game 2 on Thursday night in Oklahoma City, as the Associated Press reported:

Now, the tinkering begins as the teams prepare for Game 2 on Thursday night.

The smaller quintet is nothing new for Oklahoma City, particularly since the signing of Derek Fisher in March, but it has paid dividends in the Western Conference finals and then in Game 1.

“We’ve played that way a lot this year,” said Nick Collison, the only true power forward or center to play down the stretch for the Thunder. “We’re very fortunate to have a 7-footer like Kevin (Durant) who can do it. That’s an advantage we have.”

Durant came into the league as a supersized shooting guard, moving over to small forward after Scott Brooks was promoted to head coach around Thanksgiving in 2008. Since then, he has played more frequently as a perimeter-oriented power forward.

That creates room for All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook and NBA Sixth Man of the Year James Harden to team with another guard — most often Fisher, defensive ace Thabo Sefolosha or 3-point specialist Daequan Cook — in the backcourt.

“When we go small, Kevin’s 6-10 so he’s a big small. But we have another shooter on the floor, we have another playmaker on the floor, we have an ability to create baskets with movement and we have an extra ball-handler on the floor,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said.

“We feel confident going both ways. With our big lineup, we’ve won a lot of games. With our small lineup, we’ve won a lot of games. But I think the best way we win games is using a combination of them both.”

Westbrook, who shook off a dismal first half to spark Oklahoma City’s second-half surge in Game 1, continues to be bothered by a left thumb injury he suffered in the Western Conference finals. But Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Thursday morning that the pain wouldn’t keep his All-Star point guard out of the lineup for tonight’s contest. As Matt Brooks wrote:

Westbrook had his thumb wrapped again during the Thunder’s morning shootaround Thursday and was seen taking one-handed shots with his right hand.

But Thunder Coach Scott Brooks said he doesn’t expect the nagging injury to limit Westbrook’s effectiveness as the Thunder look to take a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals.

“Obviously there’s a little pain, but nothing to prevent him from playing the way he can play,” Brooks said.

If Westbrook elected reduce the strain on his thumb by taking fewer shots, most Thunder fans wouldn’t mind him deferring to  Kevin Durant and James Harden a bit more. Westbrook attempted a game-high 24 shots in Game 1 — four more than Durant (12 of 20, 36 points), who out-scored Westbrook (10 of 24) by nine points. Harden attempted only six shots in 22 minutes.

Westbrook is shooting 43 percent from the field in the playoffs and 32 percent from beyond the arc where he went 0 for 4 in Game 1. Durant, meantime, is shooting a scorching 51 percent from the field.

LeBron James is under the microscope more than ever before this postseason, and New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez can sympathize. As the premier player in his sport, James is the subject of constant scrutiny — and it only increases with each postseason defeat. As Cindy Boren wrote:

When it comes to being a lightning rod for satire and admiration — often simultaneously — perhaps only one man says he can understand what it’s like to be LeBron James.

“Sometimes I feel so bad for him,” New York Yankees third basemanAlex Rodriguez said on “The Michael Kay Show” on ESPN Radio in New York. “I feel like I feel his pain more than anybody. LeBron is definitely under the microscope. He is going to be judged on whether he wins a championship. So, yeah, I’m really hoping he gets this one behind him and I’m cheering for the Heat, but ’09 was a career changer for me.”

A-Rod has found himself in the spotlight for, among other things, posing shirtless in Central Park, being fed popcorn by then-girlfriend Cameron Diaz during a Super Bowl, and, perhaps, hanging a portrait of himself as a centaur over his bed.

LeBron’s offenses have been far less embarrassing. All he needs to do is win — he and the Miami Heat will be trying to even the NBA Finals series against the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight.

More NBA Finals coverage from Washington Post Sports:

Russell Westbrook will play through thumb pain in Game 2

Where does Kevin Durant rank among D.C.’s all-time best?

Durant, Thunder rally past Heat to take Game 1

NBA Finals schedule

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