- Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Staff Writer
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Miami is winning the Big Three battle thanks to their swarming defense that has stymied the Thunder.
MIAMI -- The Miami Heat just held the Oklahoma City Thunder to only 85 points.
Not through three quarters, mind you. The whole game.
It's not about lacking experience. This was a Thunder team that, just a couple weeks ago, looked experience straight in the eye and laughed in its face. To reach the Finals, the precocious Thunder barreled through the titled trio of the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks. All had championship pedigree and all were utterly defenseless against the explosive Thunder.
And now, all of a sudden the Thunder look like a mess.
Led by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, the Thunder registered a 110.1 offensive efficiency heading into the Finals, easily ranking as the top offense in the postseason and even rivaling some of the best postseason offenses in recent NBA history. They were young, they were bold and they were unstoppable.
And then they met the Heat.
For all the fireworks and dominance we expected from the Heat when the Big Three joined in the summer of 2010, we didn't foresee it coming on the defensive end. What we're learning now is that this team loves to win ugly. And when we talk about winning ugly, what we really mean is that they win by mauling the opponent defensively.
The Heat ranked fourth in defensive efficiency this season, which is decidedly better than anything the Thunder had faced yet this postseason. A big question heading into this series was how Oklahoma City would fare once it faced a team that prides itself on defense. Hint: It's not going so well. After scoring 105 points in what James termed as "a feel-out game," the Thunder dropped to 96 points in Game 2 and 85 in Game 3.
Grinding it out, winning ugly, whatever you want to call it: That's the Heat's identity these days.
"That's our mindset, period," James said after winning Game 3 91-85. "That's just how we play. We always feel like we want to grind out games."
Think about this: a team anchored by Chris Bosh is suffocating the league's top offense, in the Finals no less. Yes, that Chris Bosh, the same one who anchored the lowly Raptors for so long, a franchise that perennially ranked as one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA. The same Bosh who was ridiculed for padding his stats on a team that laid down defensively and couldn't get out of the first round of the playoffs.
Well, maybe this is a different Chris Bosh. In critical possessions, it was Bosh, not James, who was the antidote for the league's most prolific scorer, Kevin Durant. With Miami up by one halfway through the fourth quarter and needing a stop, Durant blitzed past James, drove through the lane and tried to drop a floater into the basket. He has converted hundreds of these drives this season, but this time it was blocked by Bosh. Nick Collison recovered the ball, but was blocked by Bosh again. Twenty-four-second violation. Heat ball.
About a minute later, Bosh bailed out James again. Durant dribbled past James at the top of the key, but instead of receiving a red carpet to the rim, Bosh calmly rotated over to wall off Durant at the rim. Upon Bosh's arrival, Durant subsequently lost the ball trying to maneuver around the 6-foot-11 big man. Heat ball.
Then, with about a minute to go in a one-possession game, Durant got a step on James and built some speed going downhill toward the rim. But there was Bosh, standing there, waiting for Durant. As Bosh rotated over to help, he dared Durant to shoot over him. Durant did just that and bricked the ball off the backboard. Heat ball.
"You've got to give them a lot of credit," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "They get into you and they make you work for every shot. They're a very good defensive team."
The Heat are defending unconventionally without a presence like Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum in the paint. All in all, the Thunder converted fewer than half of their layups and dunks in Game 3, shooting 13-for-27 at the rim, according to Hoopdata. But with defensive guru Erik Spoelstra turning Bosh into an above-average defender and leveraging their extraordinary length on the wings, the Heat have put the Thunder on their heels, making them look uncharacteristically hesitant and intimidated around the basket.
The Heat are now using defense to jump-start their offense. After a Game 1 in which the Thunder tallied 24 fast-break points to the Heat's mere four, the Heat maintained that their defense was to blame. If they could get some stops, they hoped that that fast-break disparity would flip on its head. And sure enough, since Game 1, the Thunder have totaled just 23 points on fast breaks combined in the past two games, which is fewer than their sum in the opening contest. The Heat have gotten stops and have converted the Thunder's 25 turnovers into 29 fast-break points over the past two games.
Are the Thunder buckling under the pressure of the Finals? Maybe. But if you're looking for a tangible reason why the Thunder have been undressed in the Finals recently, look no further than the Heat's swarming defense. Miami may not be winning pretty, but pretty doesn't win championships.
8hMatt Walks, ESPN.com
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