The Miami Heat were 8-of-40 on jumpers during Game 3 of the NBA Finals … and they won.
The prime reason the Heat were able to sneak away with the victory was because they attacked the paint, attacked the paint and attacked the paint some more.
With one of the best driving forces of all time on their side in LeBron James, along with the ever-motivated Dwyane Wade, steady forward Chris Bosh and emerging sharpshooter Shane Battier (11-of-14 from distance in the Finals) capable of spreading the floor, they were able to get into the paint at will during the first half, and finished 20-of-34 on layups and dunks.
In Game 1, Miami was 14-of-21 from point blank range. In Game 2, it was 15-of-28 on layups and dunks. As the series has progressed, the Heat have made getting inside the Thunder’s defense an increasing priority.
If you’re Scott Brooks and the Thunder coaching staff, this trend has to concern you, especially when your starting lineup boasts the two best interior defenders in the Finals.
The Thunder have to find a way to keep the Heat out of the paint and make them shoot jump shots. They have to play the odds, force the Heat into being uncomfortable, and take them out of rhythm.
It is nearly impossible to play man-to-man defense for an entire seven-game series against the Heat, who are too good at getting into the paint and making unselfish plays. They are excellent at getting the best shot that they can on a given possession because of the high-octane speed and power that both James and Wade offer.
If James and Wade aren’t scoring or assisting, they’re probably getting fouled. Miami got to the line 35 times in Game 3, making 31.
And when you are drawing that many fouls, there are residual factors. In Games 2 and 3, Kevin Durant has been saddled with foul trouble, primarily because his defensive assignment has been James or Wade.
“Kevin plays aggressive basketball and he’s a defensive player,” Brooks said. “And a lot of times you look at him, how gifted he is offensively. But we’re a good team because he defends and and he has to continue to defend. We might have to change a few things up, but he’s an aggressive player on both ends of the floor.”
Time and again, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has said his team has to “stay true to our identity. Play aggressive. Play with resolve. Figure out a way to get it done.”
After witnessing Game 3 – and the rest of these playoffs – it is obvious that despite their lack of a true post presence, the Heat want to live in the paint and take the other team’s heart out of the game by scoring easily and often.
With these things in mind, will the Thunder change their defensive strategy? Will they adjust and perhaps turn to some kind of zone defense to slow down and possibly confuse the Heat?
“It’s not like we’re gonna play zone and call it a zone, but there’s ways that we can defend where we can keep it tight in the paint,” Thunder forward Nick Collison said. “We can start in and get out to shooters. You can see in our tape that when we’re spread out, bad things happen. When we’re in tight, we’re starting in, and we’re tagging them and guys are cutting off us, so that it doesn’t look open to those guys, that’s when we’re at our best.
“It’s not going to be called a zone. We’re not going to change to something totally entirely different than we’ve done ever, but the principles are similar. It’s just our man-to-man defense, but its the way that we do it. If we’re engaged and in tune, that’s how we play. If we’re not, we find ourselves creeping out and guarding guys too far away from the basket away from the ball. Our mindset always has to be ‘What’s going on in the play? Where is the problem? When we’re good, we’re tied to the problem and when we’re not so good, we’re spread out.”
If that response is any indication, it seems as though the Thunder will go back to the drawing board. Although they won’t overhaul their defense at this point in the season, they have to read and react quicker to plays. They have to remember that stopping the ball is the primary goal and that an open jump shot for the Heat is a better result than a bunny in the paint.
“This is a very athletic team that can cover a lot of ground, OKC,” Spoelstra said. “So they’re forcing us to move bodies, try to move the ball. Even at times where it doesn’t look like it, the emphasis is there. The guys are trying to understand; if we don’t move our bodies, we don’t get the ball moving.
“Still, we want to get guys where they’re comfortable, where they can be aggressive. Dwyane really likes to be aggressive up top, but we have to move them, otherwise they can cover the court with this. And then their speed, they can really bottle you up.”
If the Thunder are going to make this a series, they are going to have to zone in on their defensive rotations. Whatever Brooks and his staff come up with, his young team is going to have to soak it up in the moment and turn a disadvantage into an advantage.
Spoelstra and the Heat are aware that the Thunder are fully capable of a quick transformation. Against the Spurs, the first two games and the last four games were like night and day.
In the end, defensive execution will likely be the key to the Finals for the Thunder. Learning on the fly is never easy, but if they are to surprise the world with a comeback against the Heat, they will have to excel under the limelight.