Thursday, March 17, 2011

Thunder look every bit like a contender

When it was over, when the Thunder finished throttling the Heat Wednesday night, my thoughts turned to Boston and L.A.
For a night at least, the Thunder reminded me of the Celtics and looked like the most dangerous threat to unseat the Lakers in the West.
“They’re better,” Dwyane Wade said of Oklahoma City. “They did a great job getting themselves prepared for the Western Conference. They are going to be right there in the thick of things, because they have added some beef up front. And they have athleticism.”
Yeah, the acquisition of Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed appears to have transformed the Thunder from a dangerous playoff team to legitimate contender. Wednesday night’s 96-85 road win at American Airlines Arena was the Thunder’s fifth straight.
The outcome said far more about the Thunder than the big-game-weary Heat.
“Tonight is not one of those games where you feel bad about how you played,” LeBron James said. “We can be satisfied with this loss because we know we kept a team shooting 40 percent from the floor. We couldn’t make any shots. ... It is nothing to hold our heads (down) about.”
That’s because first and foremost Oklahoma City is San Antonio’s and Dallas’ and Los Angeles’ problem to deal with long before the Heat would face the Thunder in the NBA Finals.
Wade and James are probably tickled with joy knowing Boston sent Perkins to OKC. The Celtics used to be as long, strong, deep and athletic as the Thunder.
In restoring their confidence during a three-game winning streak, Wade and James lived at the rim, slashing to the basket in Miami’s halfcourt offense and finishing in the paint or drawing a foul.
Wednesday, the Thunder contested everything. James and Wade sank a combined 15 of 42 shots. Perkins, Mohammed, Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant and Nick Collison challenged nearly every shot in the paint. They only blocked four, but their defensive effort caused Miami to shoot 38.5 percent from the field.
“We have a lot of athletic, versatile defenders,” Collison said. “We keep it tight in the paint.”
The Thunder looked like a young Boston. Their legs are fresher. They get off the ground quicker. And now Perkins and Mohammed give Oklahoma City added toughness and six hard fouls.
The Heat were clearly frustrated. Late in the fourth quarter, Wade had a chance to cut OKC’s lead to five. Ibaka contested Wade’s fast-break drive, the refs swallowed their whistles and Wade erupted when his missed shot wasn’t bailed out by a foul call. He drew a tech. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra drew one, too, complaining about the no-call.
“When we were able to break free to get opportunities that looked like they would normally be paint-rim opportunities for us,” Spoelstra said, “they either blocked, challenged or forced us into some tough misses. That started to frustrate us a little bit, and I think that affected our defensive focus.”
Wade is shooting a career-high 50 percent from the field this season. Wednesday, he was seven of 21.
“We did a great job of making it tough on him,” Durant said. “We made it tough on him all night. Luckily he was missing some shots. It was a great job by our bigs.”
I understand the Celtics had to move Perkins. He and the Celtics couldn’t agree on a new contract. But, man, he makes the Thunder a whole lot better. OKC dominated the boards Wednesday, outrebounding the Heat 51-40 and collecting 17 offensive boards.
It will be interesting to see if the Thunder have enough offense to win a seven-game playoff series against the Lakers, Spurs and Mavericks. There is no doubt OKC will be able to get the necessary fourth-quarter defensive stops.
I like the Thunder’s chances. OKC’s bruising big men are sort of like hockey enforcers for Durant. KD is free to roam the ice like Wayne Gretzky. Despite facing a motivated James most of the game, Durant had little trouble scoring 29 points. Early in the game, Durant got to the rim on backdoor cuts. When James took that away, Durant relied on his quick-release jumper.
“This team came in and got the win,” Wade admitted nonchalantly. “They beat us. You can accept that.”
That’s respect. The Heat know they faced a championship-caliber team on a hot streak.

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