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June 13, 2012
Playoff Prospectus
Halftime Switch

by Kevin Pelton

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at Oklahoma City 105, Miami 94 (Oklahoma City leads 1-0)
Pace: 85.8
Offensive Ratings: Oklahoma City 123.1, Miami 108.9

Since the Oklahoma City Thunder quickly erased an 18-point deficit during the clinching Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, an early 13-point lead for the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the NBA Finals certainly wasn't about to faze the host Thunder. Just as in the last game at Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City returned from halftime with renewed energy, using a 9-3 run to draw even barely five minutes into the third quarter. The Thunder took the lead for good late in the third quarter and pulled away late to provide a misleadingly lopsided final margin.

The result was two halves that bear little resemblance to each other. In the first half, Miami outscored Oklahoma City 54-47. After halftime, the Thunder held a massive 58-40 advantage. Looking at points per 100 possessions only underscores the shift in the game. Oklahoma City went from a 109.3 Offensive Rating to an unstoppable 138.1 after halftime, while the Heat dipped from 125.6 points per 100 possessions to 90.9.

From a strategic perspective, the biggest difference was the way Miami defended the Thunder's pick-and-roll games. In the first half, the Heat's trapping defense helped confuse Oklahoma City and force turnovers--eight in all, although mostly of the dead-ball variety, keeping Miami from getting out on the break. Over time, the Thunder started to do a better job of staying patient and finding the open man, which led to 64.7 percent shooting in the second quarter. Miami's adjustment late in the game was to switch everything and lay back, trying to deny the drive. As a result, Oklahoma City committed just two turnovers after halftime.

That Erik Spoelstra and his coaching staff felt the need to adjust is testament to the Thunder's growth during the postseason. Oklahoma City's ball movement has made rapid strides over the last two months. In the first quarter, the Thunder assisted on six of its nine field goals, and the mark was still 60 percent of made field goals by halftime. That rate dropped in the second half, but only because Oklahoma City no longer needed crisp ball movement to create good shot attempts.

With LeBron James largely defending Russell Westbrook, the Heat defaulted to switching every on-ball pick, even light ones that the defender on the ball could have fought through with moderate effort. The result wasn't mismatches per se, since Miami had athletes at every position on the floor, but less favorable options against the Thunder's stars, like the smaller Dwyane Wade on Kevin Durant. Durant took full advantage, scoring 17 points on 12 shooting possessions during the final period.

When Oklahoma City did miss, Nick Collison was there. The Thunder's backup big man played nearly the entire fourth quarter at center and anchored the team in the paint. He came up with two key offensive rebounds, which is better than it sounds because there were just seven total boards on Oklahoma City's missed shots. Miami had four defensive rebounds in the entire quarter, which shut down the Heat's transition game and secondary break and forced the offense to play against a set defense throughout the period.

On the other end, Collison spent most of the fourth period putting on a pick-and-roll clinic. Continually tested by screens set by Chris Bosh, Collison helped on the perimeter, got back to his man and was still able to provide help defense in the paint. Collison wasn't exactly the No-Stats All-Star on this evening, since he got in the box score for eight points and 10 rebounds, but his plus-minus (+13) was more telling of his impact on the game.

That Collison was the lone big man on the floor for the Thunder down the stretch was crucial. One of the intriguing storylines entering this series was how the two teams would balance big and small lineups. Miami stuck with its smaller starting lineup against Oklahoma City's bigger unit to great early success, but ultimately those lineups played essentially to a draw (Miami +2 in 22:06). So too did small vs. small (Oklahoma City +1 in 9:44) and big vs. big (Miami +1 in 3:30). The game was decided, then, when the Heat had both Bosh and Udonis Haslem (or, briefly, Bosh and Joel Anthony) on the floor against just one Thunder post player. During those 12:40, Oklahoma City had a massive 13-point advantage. Such was the matchup late in the third quarter and early in the fourth when the Thunder went on a 12-2 run to seize control of the game.

Another important development in terms of personnel was Thabo Sefolosha emerging in a key role after halftime after playing less than nine minutes in the first half. Sefolosha was on the floor for the entire fourth quarter, matching up with James the entire time. James wasn't exactly invisible, scoring seven points, but he missed four of his six shot attempts and had a tough time dealing with Sefolosha's defensive attention. Scott Brooks also had Derek Fisher on the court much of the fourth, meaning 6th Man award winner James Harden was on the bench. Improbably, the move worked. With Durant and Westbrook supplying nearly all the scoring, Fisher was free to space the floor and successfully defend Mario Chalmers. If Brooks tries the same thing again, Miami has to do a better job of forcing Oklahoma City's role players to make plays.

On the other side, the Heat's other guys struggled down the stretch after terrific first-half performances by Chalmers and Shane Battier, who combined for five triples, 23 points and one sideline interview (for Battier) before halftime. In the fourth quarter, they had two points between them.

I think we need to be careful over the next 48 hours not to overstate the magnitude of the Thunder's advantage in the fourth quarter. Miami had a chance to win as late as the last minute and a half, before a Collison dunk and a missed three by Bosh extinguished those hopes. Change a couple of Oklahoma City's second-chance scores to stops, or give the Heat a couple extra makes from the perimeter, and this game could have had a different outcome.

Nonetheless, by turning the ball over just 10 times and creating good shot attempts through ball movement, the Thunder demonstrated that the level of play we saw in the Western Conference Finals was a function of more than just a matchup against an aging San Antonio team. If you came into this series expecting Oklahoma City to win, Game 1 reinforced that opinion.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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