After Game 1 of the NBA Finals, everyone will focus on Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in the second half. Err... Actually everyone will probably focus on LeBron James, because that's just how things work. But after that... They'll talk about Russell Westbrook's radioactive third quarter and Kevin Durant's outrageous fourth, and how that was the difference.
It was and it wasn't.
Because let's not forget how completely awesome the Heat looked during the first half Tuesday -- they led by double-digits for most of the half, and more importantly, they were whipping the ball all over the court and ending with wide-open shots. Lay-ups, threes, getting to the line... Everything clicked. Miami went into halftime up seven, with 54 points. The Heat are 33-4 and 8-0 in the playoffs when they score 100 points.
For the Thunder, though, it's defense that makes the difference. It was defense that ultimately changed their entire series against the Spurs and got them to the Finals, and Tuesday, it was defense that got them back in the game. After scoring 29 and 25 points in the first two quarters, Miami was held to 19 in the third.
The Heat stopped getting wide open jumpers, the ball movement slowed down, and by the end of the quarter LeBron and co. were fighting for every bucket they got.
All the missed jumpers from Miami created kamikaze fast break opportunities for Russell Westbrook and co., and when that happens, all of Miami's half-court D and trapping doesn't really matter anymore. If OKC's going to win the NBA Title this year, this is how it happens.
And it's how the Thunder became contenders in the first place. They've always been explosive enough to score with anyone, but their ability to tighten up on D is part of what's changed this year. Next to competent defense, their never-ending assault on the other end becomes that much more lethal. And that's what happened in Game 1; as Miami struggled on offense in the second half, the Thunder's offense became even more deadly, and OKC outscored the Heat by 18 points in the final two quarters. When OKC plays D, they aren't just better than anyone, they're A LOT better.
Now, then... A few other talking points from Game 1.
It's too early for the world to come crashing down on LeBron, right? Maybe? Probably not. In any case, he wasn't good enough in Game 1. He was great for the first half, yeah, but he didn't guard Kevin Durant for most of the game--presumably to save energy for the other end--only as the game went on, he got more and more irrelevant. Part of this is Dwyane Wade dominating the ball for possessions-at-a-time, but especially in the fourth quarter, it's on LeBron. He scored two points in the first nine minutes of the fourth Tuesday night, and by the time he added five more, the Thunder already had a comfortable lead, running the clock down to close it out.
LeBron will always face ridiculous scrutiny, and in turn, there will always be scrutiny of the scrutiny from a whole bunch of people who say all this criticism is unfair. But this series is about the two best players on earth, and nothing exposed LeBron's relative irrelevance better than Kevin Durant's fourth quarter in Game 1. Speaking of which...
KEVIN DURANT IS COMPLETELY UNSTOPPABLE
He had 17 fourth-quarter points in Game 1, and no matter what Miami did -- smother him with Shane Battier, trap him off pick-and-rolls, throw Udonis Haslem at him -- Durant kept getting off jumpers, got to the rim, and basically just terrorized Miami for the entire quarter.
THAT is how you close out an NBA Finals game at home. And now is as good a time as any to link Dirk Nowitzki's comments on Durant (via Marc Stein at ESPN):
"He's arguably the best player in the league right now. I see a guy that really has no holes. He's a 6-10 guy with a 7-4 wingspan who can shoot it from the parking lot. He's posting up now. In transition he's so long that, when he gets a pass from the 3-point line, it's a layup or dunk with one step. He's got the one- or two-dribble pull-up, which you need to be a great scorer, because you can't just shoot 3s or go to the basket if you want to be a great scorer, 'cause sometimes you can't get all the way to the bucket. He can go both ways, one or two dribbles and up."
"And he's clutch, too. He's hit big shot after big shot all season long. He made three game winners on us this year. I thought he's always been clutch, but now it's almost like you know he's going to make them. He's phenomenal."
It read like hyperbole when I first saw those comments yesterday. In the fourth quarter of Game 1, none of that seemed like hyperbole. Kevin Durant is phenomenal.
JEFF VAN GUNDY NAMED HIS CAT CHEEKS
I think my favorite part of Game 1 was Jeff Van Gundy's soliloquy to Maurice Cheeks, who's now an assistant coach with the Thunder. "Maurice Cheeks was so good when I coached him, I named my cat after him," he said. "He died 18 years later." Only Jeff Van Gundy would tell that story and still include a matter-of-fact note about his cat's death. And that's why we love Jeff Van Gundy. I bet Cheeks was a great cat. And as someone who named dogs Rafer (after Rafer Alston) and Gilbert (after Gilbert Arenas), I totally support NBA-themed pet names. In fact, if you're an NBA fan and DON'T name your pet after a player, you're probably doing it wrong.
Anyway, the ABC studio team is pretty insufferable compared to TNT, but even if you want to complain about it, never forget that Jeff Van Gundy is just the greatest. #RIPCheeks.
THE RUSSELL WESTBROOK ROLLERCOASTER
Russell NoNoNoNoYessssbrook.— pourmecoffee (@pourmecoffee) June 13, 2012
He's not a perfect point guard, and he can drive even objective viewers completely insane, but then just when you're ready to turn on him forever, he'll go on a run like in the third quarter Tuesday, and you pledge your love to him forever. Russell Westbrook is the best.
Also, in this series he and D-Wade are the undercard to LeBron and Durant. It's a pretty fascinating duel, and I liked this rendering from Brian Phillips at Grantland:
Wade and Westbrook are demons who have assumed human form in order to slake their thirst for devastation on the basketball court. Stylistically, they're surprisingly similar, bowling-ball guards who hurl themselves at the rim across space and time. Temperamentally, they're opposites — Wade a contemptuous aristocrat coolly wrecking peasants, Westbrook an enthusiastic experimenter with drugs he invents in his basement.
...And Round 1 goes to the guy who invents drugs in his basement.
As for the sneering aristocrat...
DWYANE WADE THE ALBATROSS
Watching Dwyane Wade is just the worst these days. He dominates the ball, he settles for bad (badly missed) jumpers, and to make everything a little worse, he just LOOKS old and hobbled. The difference between the Wade we knew and Wade now is the difference between Vince Carter in Toronto and Vince Carter in New Jersey. Everything just feels so labored these days. Wade's not quite Vince in Dallas yet, but he's definitely not the player he used to be. Or hasn't been, save for a brief throwback against the Pacers.
The problem is that he still functions in Miami's offense like a 30-point scorer. He dominates possessions and gets his shot regardless, and that takes away from LeBron and sabotages the flow of the offense. LeBron deserves blame for not dominating, but Wade a big part of the problem, too. Maybe he can find his game over the next week or so, but if he doesn't and continues to anchor the offense regardless, he's the anchor that could pull Miami down entirely.
OKAY BUT REMEMBER IT'S JUST ONE GAME
The Thunder looked great, Kevin Durant looked better than LeBron James, and especially because of how thoroughly the dominated Miami in the second half, Game 1 felt pretty definitive. But if the whole "it's only one game" thing feels like an obnoxiously sobering cliche ... Here's what Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski wrote after Game 1 of last year's Finals:
This time, Wade had to laugh when Game 1 was over. Yes, LeBron James is the MVP of these playoffs, but on the final night of May, in maybe the final days until he can again call himself a champion, Wade had a message for his running mate.
“He congratulated me after the game on my first Finals victory,” James said.
The sweep to the San Antonio Spurs was a distant memory, a too young star playing with too modest of a supporting cast with Cleveland in 2007. Everything’s changing now. Everything’s aligning. Yes, everyone keeps probing these Miami Heat, praying for regressions, praying for something gone to resurrect itself again.
Midnight came on Tuesday, the calendar turned and wouldn’t you know it: June’s here, and LeBron James and these Miami Heat are creeping closer to self-proclaimed and self-ordained championship destiny.
So yeah, really, it's only one game. Don't count out LeBron and the Heat just yet.