Be honest, you’ve dreamt of this matchup. After a rough day at work you came home, cracked open a cold one, fell asleep in your favourite ugly armchair, and dreamed beautiful images of LeBron and Kevin trading buckets long into the third overtime of game seven. We’ve all been there. So far, this series has been pretty close to the stuff of dreams.
We’re only a pair of games in, but my god, what a pair. Game one featured a magical comeback from OKC in front of their next level home crowd, with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook outdueling LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in dramatic fashion. As good as game one was, though, game two may just have been better, even if it didn’t start out that way.
Miami came out of the gate flying. I mean soaring. They were head and shoulders (and chest, and stomach, and waist) above Oklahoma. LeBron found his way into the paint early and set up camp there. He backed defenders down and scored on little baby hooks, or turned to the basket before blowing by for easy layups. Wade was also solid. He weaved his way to the hoop for a couple of jams, and knocked down a couple pull up jumpers. Even Chris Bosh, who was reinserted into the starting lineup, got into the mix, connecting on a few free throws and starting what would be an impressive rebounding night.
Oklahoma, meanwhile, simply didn’t look up to the task in the first half. By three minutes in, they were still scoreless, and had gone zero for five from the field, leaving their poor fans standing as they waited for that opening home bucket. At the seven minute mark, they’d still scored but one basket, a Durant jumper, and they trailed by as many as 18-2. In addition to a general inability to either score or defend, Westbrook and Durant picked up two fouls each, throwing the Thunder rotation into immediate chaos. The only bright spot was Sixth Man of the Year winner James Harden, who equaled his game one output of five points after taking just two shots. He managed to keep his side within shouting distance of the Heat, but they still trailed by 12 at the end of the first.
The second quarter offered little respite for the reeling Thunder. Miami continued to challenge shots and swarm on any penetration, slowing the Oklahoma offence to a crawl. Foul trouble and bad shooting kept Westbrook and Durant from becoming factors, while their Miami counterparts continued to play solid basketball on both ends of the court. Shane Battier, who has been a welcome offensive spark for the Heat thus far in the series, continued his hot play, knocking down several first half threes, and finishing with five on the night.
After letting the lead slip out to 17 in the second, the Thunder managed to connect on a few jumpers, and cut the lead to 12 by halftime, thus limiting damages but not making any real progress in reining in the scorching Heat.
Heading into the second half, a second consecutive Thunder comeback seemed highly unlikely. Their offensive sets were lifeless, their defence slow and uninterested, and their two best players were spending an inordinate amount of time on the bench. Things looked grim in Oklahoma.
Once again, the third began with the Heat dominating play. Oklahoma managed to repeatedly cut the lead to 11, or 10, or even nine, but were unable to break the eight point barrier, and Miami looked supremely confident in their closeout abilities. KD picking up his fourth foul with 3:30 left in the quarter certainly didn’t help matters.
The Thunder fans responded to the adversity by giving spur-of-the-moment standing ovations and chanting “O.K.C! O.K.C!” until the letters failed to hold any meaning. Great, great fans. Despite the incredible atmosphere in the arena, though, Oklahoma failed to gain significant ground, and trailed 78-67 going into the fourth.
At this point, a lot of televisions were flicked off around the world. Some fans began to think about work the next day. Others passed out in their ugly armchairs. Others still Googled pictures of James Harden before he decided to lose his mind and grow an NHL playoff beard and keep it all season. And what a mistake these folks made.
Game two’s fourth period dragged the first three quarters out of the realm of the mediocre and into must-see territory. There was a sense of the epic around the arena, surely due to the unmatched fervor of the Oklahoma faithful, and the first two sequences of the forth boded well for those with a taste for the dramatic.
First, Russell Westbrook marched confidently into Heat territory and calmly stroked a pull-up from the free throw line, shooting like he hadn’t been bricking shots all night. On the very next play, backup Heat point guard Norris Cole misguidedly lunged for the basket, allowing veteran OKC centre Nick Collison to calmly slide over and take a charge. The place went nuts.
Soon afterwards, just after picking up his fifth foul, Kevin Durant knocked down a contested three, grabbed a defensive rebound, and galloped down the floor for a huge one handed slam in Battier’s grill. Five points in about 20 seconds to cut the lead to eight. Then it was Westbrook’s turn again, as he went directly at LeBron in transition, managing to sneak home the lay-up while drawing a foul on the King. He knocked down the free throw to make it a 4 point game with six minutes remaining.
The Heat regained their composure, though, and the two teams went back and forth for a few minutes, each side seeming to score at will. James and Wade both looked smooth and composed as the clock ticked away, making tough shots look easy. Wade looked particularly silky. He moved like smoke through the Oklahoma D, and his little floaters and fall-aways were money in the bank even before they’d left his fingertips. When he’s on his game, he’s one of the most entertaining players in the league to watch.
With less than two to go, Westbrook deposited a little put back slam on the fast break to cut the lead to three. LeBron answered immediately with an effortless fade-away off glass to push it back out to five. Then, after an OKC turnover in Miami’s end, the Heat inbounded to Wade, who lost the ball amidst a swarm of trapping Thunder. Oklahoma jumped on the loose ball and swung it around to Durant, who buried the open three to chop the lead down to a paltry two. Everyone in Miami who wasn’t tanning or at clubs held their breath.
After a failed Heat possession, Oklahoma had a chance to tie or take the lead and complete a timeless comeback. They got the ball to Durant, who drove directly at James, but couldn’t convert on a soft little jumper from ten feet. James grabbed the rebound, was fouled by Westbrook, and buried his two free throws without a care in the world. Ice water in his veins. Game over. Final score: 100-96 Miami.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have a problem on their hands: they can’t seem to play a solid first half. This phenomenon has become a troubling trend in their past two series, and they have had to rely on their come-from-behind ability on several occasions.
But you simply can’t give a team with players like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade any more advantages than they’ve already got. When the Thunder were blasting back to try and even things up in the fourth, it was the absurd shot-making ability of those two players that kept them at bay. The Heat are simply too talented to be handed an 18-2 first quarter lead. So if OKC is to survive past game five, they’ll need to play a few complete games. They’ve got the talent, the depth, the size, and the defence to win this series as long as they can go hard for 48 minutes. And it’d be a tragedy to deny those fans a banner.