MIAMI -- In the 2012 NBA Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had a revelation.
Rather than try to match OKC’s size up front, Spoelstra decided to venture in the other direction. Go small. Start Shane Battier. Create chaos on defense and rain from downtown. This was the pinnacle of “pace and space” and it helped deliver them a championship as OKC coach Scott Brooks was slow to counter.
On Wednesday, Brooks finally punched back. Turns out the Thunder ended up beating the Heat at their own game.
The score from that point on?
Thunder 110, Heat 80.
The Heat were amiss and the Thunder got everything they wanted. With Perkins looking on from the bench, the Thunder upgraded by downsizing. From then on, they blitzed the Heat in transition, scoring 20 fast-break points off of a barrage of Heat turnovers. With an extra 3-point shooter on the floor, the Heat scrambled to keep up with Kevin Durant and the rabid ball movement. The Thunder’s 16 threes were the most they've ever made since being known as the Thunder.
No, the Thunder won’t shoot about 60 percent from downtown every night. That’s not sustainable; Derek Fisher, who scored 15 points off the bench, can only bank-in so many threes.
But what may be sustainable is the blueprint -- the one Spoelstra drew up for the Heat almost two years ago. Go small, put the all-world player at the 4 and spread the floor with shooters.
“I figured they would [go small],” LeBron James said. “They have some guys that can play multiple positions like we do.”
It’s a blueprint that has worked wonders for the Thunder, but Brooks hasn’t fully trusted that formation until Thursday when he kept Perkins on the bench to begin the second half. Since 2011-12, the Thunder have played 234 minutes with Perkins off the floor against the Heat, according to NBA.com data. In those minutes, the Thunder have beat up Miami by 48 points over that time, or approximately 10 points every 48 minutes.
But when Perkins is on the court? The scoreboard gets turned upside down. The Thunder have been outscored by 56 points in 246 minutes, or 10.9 points every 48 minutes.
That’s a 20-point swing.
By moving Perkins to the bench on Wednesday, the Heat got a taste of their own medicine. The thinking has always been that Perkins anchors the Thunder’s gritty defense. But on Thursday, the Thunder strangled the Heat with go-go-gadget arms, relentless energy and athleticism. The two-time champs looked like a team that wasn’t mentally prepared against one of the greenest teams in the league.
“You do have to credit them for [going small] but they certainly put some pressure on us and forced us into uncharacteristic mistakes,” Spoelstra said. “They do have length, but we play ourselves all the time [in practice].”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the floor, the Heat’s potent offense, which entering Wednesday’s game ranked No. 1 overall in efficiency by a hair over the Portland Trail Blazers, looked completely out of sorts dealing with the Thunder’s ubiquity. Bosh got off to a masterful start against Perkins, making four of his first five shots of the game. At one point, Bosh jab-stepped from the right corner, put the ball on the deck and blew right past Perkins for an easy one-handed flush.
“Judging by the start they had, I figured it made sense for them to put a little more athleticism out there,” Bosh said. “It worked out for them. It spread us out.”
No matter what, the Heat are going to look bad when they make 14 fewer 3-pointers than the opponent. But it’s possible that Wednesday’s game provided a tipping point for Brooks. The Thunder aren't a 3-point shooting team as a whole. Entering Thursday’s game, the Thunder ranked 18th in 3-point makes and 18th in percentage.
But that all changes when Perkins rides the pine. With Perkins on the bench, the Thunder score 110.8 points per 100 possessions with 23.1 percent of their points coming from 3s. When he’s in the game the Thunder’s scoring output drops to 102.7 points per 100 possessions and the portion of 3-pointers drops to 17.7 percent, according to NBA.com. Statistically, the defense doesn’t change in effectiveness either way.
All of these numbers come as no surprise if you watched Wednesday’s blowout. The Thunder are a different team with Perkins. As a plodding, turnover-prone big man who sets hard screens, it’s easy to see why the Thunder would be more powerful with him out of the picture against most teams. Brooks may have found the recipe against the Heat.
But was Wednesday’s performance definitive enough to start phasing out Perkins in general and go with speed instead?
“I thought to win this game that we had to make a decision to go with a smaller lineup,” Brooks said, defending Perkins. “It’s just this game. It’s not something that we have to do all of the time. Perk brings so much to us.”
That’s a no.
Remember, this isn’t just a blip. The Thunder have found success against the Heat when they go away from Perkins, who should only be a spot starter at this point. If the two juggernaut teams meet again in the Finals, maybe it’ll be Spoelstra who will have to find a counter.