Originally Published: June 12, 2012

1. Thunder Relentless While Heat Diminishes

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

OKLAHOMA CITY -- It will be recorded as the best NBA Finals game that LeBron James, to this point, has ever played in his life. It just won't be remembered that way.

By anyone.

The Oklahoma City Thunder made sure of that Tuesday night, uncorking their latest second-half clinic on the biggest stage of them all. The Thunder clamped down on James when it mattered most, ushered an out-of-sorts Wade further away from his 2006 peak than he's ever been and, by the end of this 105-94 triumph in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, almost made you forget that they were ever down 13 in the first half.

Russell Westbrook
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

"That's what they do," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "They keep on coming. They're relentless."

Relentless and oblivious.

Maybe you thought they were giving into nerves when they spent most of the second quarter trailing by double digits, presumably awestruck by their first collective taste of the Finals, but it was a temporary lapse if they were ever really tight at all. Oklahoma City wound up treating the opening game of the championship round no different than Game 1 of their first-round series with Dallas, thanks mostly to the icy, ruthless closing of Kevin Durant and an unwavering self-belief -- with a dash of blissful naiveté -- that somehow allows these youngsters to play as if they have no idea what's at stake.

Youngsters who in many cases, as my ESPN.com colleague J.A. Adande likes to say, aren't even old enough to rent a car.

Oozing confidence, as if they were sure that the comeback was coming, Scotty Brooks' neophytes have reminded us -- again -- that they don't have a shred of interest in what's supposed to happen to a first-time Finals team. This is forever portrayed as a league where youth can't win, but try telling that to San Antonio after the Thunder flicked away the Spurs' 18-point lead in Game 6 like a Texas bug. And then, for its next trick, OKC brushed off the Heat's early flurry of 3-pointers … and seven clanked free throws in its first 18 trips to the line … and even the foul trouble that limited James Harden to 22 minutes and a measly five points. Brushed it off like it was nothing.

One year to the day of its crushing Game 6 home defeat to Dallas in the 2011 Finals, Miami was powerless to stop Durant and Russell Westbrook from zooming out of reach. The Thunder sliced an 11-point deficit to seven in the final minute of the first half, turned up their defensive energy after intermission and plain loaded up on James and Wade, who stopped attacking with the same zest. With Spoelstra essentially playing just six guys, and paying for it, Miami wore down and faded away, blitzed by a 24-4 differential in fast-break points.

LeBron finished with 30 points and nine boards -- topping 23 points in a Finals game for the very first time -- but there will be zero scorecard debate here over who won the Round 1 duel. Durant rang up 17 points alone in a virtuoso fourth quarter to finish with 36 points and eight boards. Russell Westbrook shook off an ugly first half to flirt with a gaudy triple-double: 27 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds against just two turnovers. And the two of them combined to outscored the Heat by a point after halftime: 41-40.

"Just knowing our guys and being around them, I didn't see they were nervous because we were playing in the NBA Finals," Brooks said. "To a point did it affect them? Everybody is nervous. You're nervous until that ball is tipped up. If you're not, you don't care about what you do. And our guys do.

"[But] I thought they responded in that second half, really did a good job of moving the basketball, taking care of the basketball. I think we only had two turnovers in the second half. And that's huge."

Said Thunder sage Derek Fisher, competing in his eighth Finals and chasing his sixth ring: "We've demonstrated for however long that we're just going to play the game until it's over. … We've got a locker room full of guys that are extremely competitive and fearless and not afraid of the moment."

Now the Heat know it firsthand. Worse yet for Miami, OKC's efficiency is picking up, too. The Thunder dropped two games in the San Antonio series before they started letting everyone touch the ball and locking in on D. That wait lasted only last two quarters against Miami, with Thabo Sefolosha (with his sticky fourth-quarter shadowing of LeBron) and Nick Collison (with eight points and 10 boards) making their own key contributions to cancel out the six 3s Miami got from Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers.

"I told myself I could do it," Sefolosha said of his role in holding James to an ineffectual seven points in the final period.

Is it really that easy?

Suddenly saddled with a 2-9 career record in Finals games, James would surely say otherwise. Wade and his coach, meanwhile, will undoubtedly be forced to spend the next 24 hours trying to talk themselves out of the national media's crosshairs, amid (A) growing suspicions that Wade is hurting more than he's letting on and (B) inevitable second-guessing of Spoelstra's ultra-tight rotation and refusal to start Chris Bosh.

The Thunder's between-games task is a lot clearer and simpler. They've just got to make sure they don't get swept up in the hoopla of a 9-0 record at home in these playoffs. Or the fact that they've rallied from at least 13 points down in every round: Game 4 at Dallas, Game 4 in L.A. against the Lakers, Game 6 at home against San Antonio and Tuesday night's Game 1.

Can OKC resist the temptation to overreact to what we just saw?

Can't see it happening in mid-June as freakishly mature as they've been so far.

"Winning that first game, when it's on your home court, you almost have an obligation to do that," Fisher said.

"Now we just keep going."


Dimes past: May 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 31 | June 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 10

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