The Miami Heat got off to a blazing start last evening, led by Shane Battier’s three 3-point shots in the first period. But the Oklahoma City Thunder defense clamped down on Miami in the second half and then spent the balance of the fourth period running away from them to win Game 1 of the NBA Finals, 105-94, at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The Thunder suffered a boat-load of turnovers in the first period (though they finished with a modest total of ten for the game), and their loose and porous perimeter defense gave Miami some wide-open looks. However, Oklahoma City righted the ship heading into halftime with some pinpoint-accurate shooting by Kevin Durant, and a couple of timely buckets by Derek Fisher, who, playing in his eighth Finals, lent some needed stability to the Thunder’s youthful and nervous squad.
Another factor that gave Oklahoma City encouragement was the questionable decision by Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra to remove Battier in the first five minutes of the first period, after he had hit for nine quick points. After he was pulled, Battier could be seen on the bench frowning and whispering incredulously to teammate Mario Chalmers, “I’m hot!”
And Battier wasn’t the only Heat player racking up the points (he finished with 17, one shy of his career high). Miami hit 83% of its three-balls in the first period, going 5 for 6. And as hot as the Heat were in their scoring in the initial frame, the Thunder were freezing cold, hitting only one of six shots. Russell Westbrook, the prolific scoring Oklahoma City guard, was only 3-of-10 in the first half.
Miami used some intriguing defensive matchups early, putting LeBron James on the Thunder’s Kendrick Perkins inside, and Battier on Durant, which flummoxed the young host team into giving up as much as a 13-point lead in the first half. And the fact that Battier, in addition to his scoring prowess, was frustrating Durant into several early misses, made his removal by Spoelstra seem all the more curious.
But Oklahoma City, down by seven at the half, started to put on the jets in the third period, outscoring the Heat for that quarter by eight, and the fourth by ten points. The Thunder were led largely by the speedy Westbrook, and practically demolished the Heat in fast-break points, 24-4.
On the boards, the Thunder out-muscled the Heat’s big men in rebounding, 43-35, and in that respect got a huge night from Nick Collison, who in 21 minutes of playing time pulled down ten. Also, his efforts under the nets, with multiple dunks, was enabled by Oklahoma City’s stellar ball movement. And supplementing Collison’s outstanding play was the duo of Durant and Westbrook, who attacked the rim relentlessly in the second half, en route to decisively winning the points in the paint, 56-40.
But arguably one of the most important efforts of the night was delivered through the picture-perfect defense of the Heat’s Dwyane Wade by the Thunder’s Swiss import Thabo Sefolosha. He stuck to Wade like fly paper in the second half and never let the Heat’s crunch-time specialist get rolling. And in general, the Thunder chose to guard the Heat’s “dynamic duo” of Wade and James very differently than the Boston Celtics had in the last series. They didn’t let James go to double-team Wade. They spread their opportunistic defense out in the latter two frames and limited Wade to 19 points on the night, and James—though he tallied 30 for the game—faded in the last quarter, hitting only 2 of 6 from the field.
As the Heat’s pilot light was dimming, the Thunder started rumbling. Durant scored 17 of his game-leading 36 points in the fourth period, and together with Westbrook fast-breaking and driving Miami into oblivion and Collison relentlessly grabbing rebounds, the Heat could never regain their first half form. For the game, Durant and Westbrook combined for 63 points, and held Wade and James to a collective total of 49 points.
Oklahoma City once again did not disappoint their 18,000 thunderous home fans who filled Chesapeake Energy Arena – en route to winning their ninth straight home playoff game (9-0), while the Heat dropped to 4-5 on the road. Game 2 will be Thursday night at 9 p.m. Eastern in Oklahoma City.