What Can The Thunder Do To Win Tonight, Avoid Facing Elimination On The Road?
Aside from being in a tough 3-1 hole, the reason that the game tomorrow night is so incredibly important to the Thunder is because if they lose they will face elimination in Miami in Game 5. Winning tomorrow night ensures that the Thunder will not face elimination on the road and can go back home to play in front of the best fans in the league, which is important to this young team.
So here's some adjustments I'd make if I were running the show:
Let me get this one out of the way: there were a lot of fans and analysts calling for James Harden to start in Game 3. I would absolutely not do that. Just no. Terrible idea. First of all, you already have the first and fifth leading scorers in the entire NBA out there. They shouldn't need any help. These guys averaged a combined 51.6 points per game this year, and you're telling me they need another scorer on the court to get them started? No. That problem will fix itself. Young guns got some butterflies in their stomachs in their first finals is all.
Also, Thabo Sefolosha is a must-start player. I don't care if he's not hitting his shots (6 points per game on 33% shooting during finals). He needs to guard LeBron. Durant has now been in bad foul trouble for two straight games, and it's hurting the team badly. I love that Durant wants to guard LeBron, but it's just not worth it. Durant is not an elite defender and is too valuable to rack up fouls trying to guard LeBron James. Despite the lack of offensive production, Sefolosha is averaging 2.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game with only 2.7 fouls, which are very nice defensive numbers. I like Harden starting in place of Kendrick Perkins better, but I still wouldn't do it for the sake of bench scoring...
Which leads to my last point as to why Harden should not start: they need his bench scoring. If you replace Sefolosha or Perkins in the starting lineup with Harden, who in God's name is going to score for that bench? Derek Fisher and Daequan Cook are good for a spot up three now and then, but they can't create. Nick Collison, Sefolosha, and Perkins are defensive role players. Harden is essentially the point guard, creator, and scorer for that bench unit, and without him on the bench the Thunder have not a single decent bench scorer.
Enough with the one adjustment I wouldn't make, now for the adjustments I would. As I mentioned before, Sefolosha needs to guard LeBron. Enough of Durant making his case as an immortal all-around monster who racks up points and shuts down the MVP. We all respect Durant for trying, but it's just not worth it.
Next, I think Coach Brooks gave this a shot last night, but I think he should try it again. Give Daequan Cook some minutes. The lack of three point shooting for the Thunder (4-18 last night) is giving their top scorers a hard time getting into the paint, which is crucial for guys like Westbrook and Harden. Cook had a down year this season from three, but last year he shot 42.2% from behind the arc. If he just so happened to get hot and hit a couple, he could really spread the floor. If the Thunder come out draining threes tomorrow night, leave him be in his courtside seat, but if they come out chucking up bricks from outside again, give Cook some run and see if he can make something happen.
Scott Brooks has to get his team being more fierce on the defensive side of the ball. No more of these "rake LeBron's arms and give him an easy and-one" fouls. If LeBron's about to blow by you, pound his forearms, wrap him up, take him down, whatever. I know Brooks has some Van Gundy in him from his days with the Knicks, and I want to see some Van Gundy violence in that paint. It starts with Kendrick Perkins setting the tone down there; that's what he's here to do. I know it's easier said than done to foul LeBron hard, but these are all professional atheltes and LeBron's not invincible.
The Heat hate those hard fouls. You can see it every time they happen. After a hard (but clean) foul these guys hop up like someone just threw a punch. And it gets to their heads. The Pacers' tough fouls in the paint led the Heat to lose their cool, have two players get suspended, and go down 2-1 to a vastly inferior team.
Another adjustment would be making Westbrook stop bringing up the ball and immediately shooting so often, but no one on Earth could get him to stop doing that.
Finally, I need to see some more fluidity out of the offense down the stretch. Last night it seemed to me like the Thunder just fell back on the "give it to Durant thirty feet from the hoop and let him go to work" play. No matter how good the player is, that "play" can only work so well, especially when no one is hitting jump shots. I would like to see some more off ball screens to get Durant open on curls and whatnot, more of Westbrook taking it to the middle and finding an open man, and just more ball movement in general.
I'm probably just being optimistic, but I'm gonna go ahead and pick the Thunder to win tomorrow night in Miami. I think they know how important this game is. I think Durant comes up BIG and rebounds from his poor fourth quarter performance. I don't see Harden having two straight bad shooting games. I think they keep Bosh off the boards (not completely, just more than in Game 3). I hope to see some outside shots start falling again. Westbrook is always a wild card but I'll just pray that he can be efficient. Battier will return to being... Battier. And I think LeBron will get his numbers but it won't be enough.
And let's be honest, we all want this to go seven games, so I think we're all on the same page here rooting for OKC.