OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - JUNE 12: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat goes up for a shot over Nick Collison #4 and Thabo Sefolosha #2 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second half in Game One of the 2012 NBA Finals at Chesapeake Energy Arena on June 12, 2012 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Larry W. Smith/Pool/Getty Images)
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were great as usual, but it may be the Thunder's superior depth that will prove to be the difference in the NBA Finals.
After falling behind by as many as 13 points in the first half, the Oklahoma City Thunder rallied to dominate the Miami Heat in the second half and take a 1-0 lead in their NBA Finals series. Including the final minute of the first half that saw the Thunder score the final four points to cut the Miami lead to seven at halftime, Oklahoma City outscored Miami 62-40 over the final 25 minutes of play.
It was an impressive performance by the Thunder, and one doesn't have to look far for key advantages exploited by OKC in the game. In the battle of the mega-stars, Kevin Durant and LeBron James each acquitted themselves well, posting eerily similar lines (36 points, eight rebounds and four assists for KD; 30, nine and four for LBJ). But in the crucial fourth quarter, which began with the Thunder leading by a single point, Durant outscored the man who beat him in the MVP vote 17-7. That 10-point edge happened to be how much the Thunder outscored the Heat by in the fourth -- which is no coincidence.
Still, one suspects the battle of the superstars to be relatively even over the course of the series. Durant and Westbrook won Game 1, but James and Wade will be be back and they'll win their individual duels plenty of times this series. Where Oklahoma City has what appears to be a sustainable advantage is in its supporting cast.
Durant and James (46 minutes each in Game 1), Westbrook and Wade (42 minutes each) are all clearly going to play huge minutes in the series. But look at the rest of the rotation for each team.
Oklahoma City played nine players in Game 1, with six outside of its two stars each logging between 21 and 29 minutes, giving Scott Brooks an effective eight-man rotation. Eight different Heat players saw action, but with Joel Anthony playing just two minutes and Mike Miller logging 10, Eric Spoelstra is essentially playing just six men.
Each of Oklahoma City's key role players made significant contributions to the Game 1 victory, with the possible exception of Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, who certainly can be counted on for major contributions over the course of the series. The Thunder's group of six role players (starters Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha, reserves Harden, Nick Collison and Derek Fisher) gives Brooks the flexibility to play them in almost any combination alongside Durant and Westbrook. Bigs Perkins (post defense), Ibaka (shot blocking) and Collison (rotations) each bring different strengths to the team, and Brooks can go big and play two of them, or go smaller with just one. Harden is a star in his own right despite his struggles Tuesday night, Fisher adds playoff experience and veteran savvy, and Sefolosha is one of the top perimeter defenders in the league.
In the fourth quarter of Game 1, the Thunder built a 10-point lead with a lineup of Durant, Westbrook, Collison, Sefolosha and Fisher, and while Durant and Westbrook carried most of the scoring load as usual, the contributions of the others were significant as well. Sefolosha defended James in the fourth (an assignment that had fallen to Durant when the Thunder were playing a more traditional lineup) and held him to 2-6 shooting with one turnover. Collison's help defense was also crucial in containing both James and Wade late in the game. For good measure, Collison also got a pair of dunks in the final minutes to put an exclamation point on the victory, topping off his eight-point, 10-rebound performance.
On the other sideline, the supporting cast just isn't as deep. Shane Battier, Miami's equivalent to Sefolosha as a defensive stopper, played 42 minutes himself while contending with Durant -- but was unable to slow him down a bit. Battier (17 points on 6-9 shooting and four three-pointers) and Mario Chalmers (12 points on 5-7 shooting and two three-pointers) actually had outstanding games scoring the ball, which is a good news/bad news scenario for the Heat. It's great that they scored, but they're not likely to shoot that well very often, and Miami didn't manage to win despite their hot shooting, which feels like a squandered opportunity.
In the frontcourt, Spoelstra has lost confidence in Anthony and Ronny Turiaf, leaving Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh, still rounding into shape after a prolonged injury absence, as the only bigs. As a consequence, Oklahoma City's superior frontcourt depth helped them to a decisive 43-35 advantage on the boards in Game 1.
This series is just getting started, and while Oklahoma City dominated Miami in the second half of Game 1, the Heat will surely play better at some point in the series. But one factor that figures to favor the Thunder throughout is their superior depth, and in the end it could bring the championship to Oklahoma City.