The youngsters from America’s heartland appear poised to take over the NBA.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, led by a bunch of 23 and 22 year olds, playing in its first NBA Finals, overcame a double-digit deficit in Game 1 to defeat the Heat 105-94 at Chesapeake Energy Arena on Tuesday night. The Heat with its cache of veterans and talent was supposed to have the benefit of experience but the Thunder was the team that dominated in crunch time.
Kevin Durant, ringleader of the prairie bandits, scored 17 points in the fourth quarter, outdueling LeBron James, the league’s reigning MVP. Durant had 19 points entering the final period and finished with 36. He was 12 of 20 from the field, 4 of 8 from three-point range and 8 of 9 from the free-throw line.
Meanwhile, James had seven points in the fourth quarter. Certainly his effort was nothing compared to the mystifying fourth quarters of last year’s NBA Finals against the Mavericks but, for one game at least, James couldn’t reproduce the domination he displayed in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics.
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“We felt we had an opportunity in the fourth quarter but they just went away, and that’s what they do,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They’re relentless. They beat us at their game.”
Durant finished with 34 points on 12 of 20 shooting to go along with eight rebounds. James had 30 points, nine rebounds and four assists. While Durant was the fourth-quarter star, Thunder guard Russell Westbrook was the architect of Oklahoma City’s comeback. Westbrook had 27 points, including 12 points in the third quarter, to go along with 11 assists and eight rebounds. His counterpart, Dwyane Wade, was 7 of 19 from the field for 19 points.
James and Wade downplayed the loss.
“This was the feel out game,” James said. “We come here with a lot of energy, try to steal Game 1 and now we get an opportunity to go to the chalkboard, go to the film and have a better game plan for Game 2 since we’ve already seen what they’re capable of doing.”
Chris Bosh, who came off the bench, had 10 points and five rebounds in 34 minutes. Shane Battier had 17 points on 6 of 9 shooting. He was 4 of 6 from three-point range. Mario Chalmers had 12 points, including 10 in the first half.
In an eye-opening statistic, the Thunder outscored the Heat 24-4 in fast-break points. Oklahoma City out-rebounded the Heat 43-35 and had 56 points in the paint.
“They’re fast, they’re explosive, so we’ll have to adjust to that,” said Spoelstra, who added the biggest difference between the first and second halves was .
The Heat led the entire first half and the beginning of the third quarter but a driving layup by Thabo Sefolosha tied the score at 60-60 with 6:44 to play. Led by Westbrook, the Thunder outscored the Heat 27-19 in the third quarter. James had nine points in the period and Wade had six but Bosh contributed nothing.
“Honestly, I think we just came out with a lot more intensity defensively — made them feel us a little bit,” Westbrook said. “That led to easy points on the other end.”
Westbrook converted a three-point play with 16 seconds remaining in the third quarter to give Oklahoma City a 74-73 lead. The acrobatic move against Mike Miller came in the middle of a 12-2 by the Thunder that spanned the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth. When it ended on a layup by Sefolosha, the Thunder held a 78-73 advantage with 11 minutes to play.
“That third quarter hurt us,” James said.
The Thunder maintained that lead for the next 10 minutes before blowing it open in the final minute. A three-pointer from Durant put Oklahoma City ahead 87-81 with 6:29 to play. Less than a minute later, Durant streaked through the Heat’s defense with his impossibly long arms for a layup.
Durant began the game timidly but found his form in the final period. The layup gave him 11 points in the first seven minutes of the fourth quarter and put the Thunder ahead by six points. After a timeout, he then stroked a 19-footer to expand that lead to eight points.
James couldn’t match Durant’s clutch performance. On the next possession, James missed a contested three pointer and then later missed a left-handed layup. With 2:44 left in the game, the James had two points in the final period on 1 of 5 shooting. Meanwhile Durant was 6 of 10 shooting in the same time period. He was 6 of 10 in the first three quarters of the game.
“I think [Durant] got some looks that we didn’t like,” James said. “He got some transition threes we gave up where we didn’t have nobody on him and he had some jumpers we didn’t like. We need to make adjustments.”
In the beginning, it was clear which team had an understanding of the pressure that accompanies The Finals and which team was new to the experience. The Heat built an 11-point lead in the first quarter and led by as many as 13 points in the first half. Meanwhile, the Thunder committed twice as many turnovers (eight) as the Heat and looked unsure offensively.
It didn’t take the Thunder long to figure it out and adapt. Oklahoma City outscored Miami 58-40 in the second half.
“We had to figure some things out and it took a quarter and half, but I think we did that,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “I though they responded well in the second half and moved the ball very well. We only had two turnovers in the second half and that’s huge.”
Said Durant: “This level of basketball is the hardest we’ve played and we just want to take it slow. It took us a couple minutes to the get the nervousness and the jitteriness out of us, so we just have to come out a little better in the next game.”
Two unlikely sources contributed to the Heat’s quick start. Battier was 3 of 3 from three-point range in the first quarter and finished the half with 13 points. The total tied his postseason high for a game. Chalmers had eight points in the first quarter on a pair of three-pointers. Overall, the Heat was 6 of 10 from distance in the first half.
“In the first half, they made six threes and they average six in the playoffs,” Brooks said. “The lead was only seven, so I was encouraged.”