OKLAHOMA CITY -- Remember the T1000 in "Terminator 2"? It was the futuristic killing machine composed of liquid metal that allowed it to copy a person's looks, voice and mannerisms simply by coming into contact with him. That's the Oklahoma City Thunder. All they have to do is spend some time on the court with a team and they can incorporate its best traits.
They became the San Antonio Spurs during the Western Conference finals. Halfway through that series, they were patient on offense and making the extra pass, doing everything that had made us think it would be the Spurs representing the West in the NBA Finals. One time, Russell Westbrook even adopted Manu Ginobili's sneaky trick of backing into a defender to draw a foul just a couple of quarters after Ginobili pulled it off.
On Tuesday night, it took the Thunder only one half to become the Miami Heat: the team with NBA Finals experience, the team that turns defense into offense, the team that wins with a mix of two superstars who are impossible to keep from getting to the basket. The Thunder, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra lamented, "beat us in a way that's very similar to us when we're playing well."
By the third quarter, the Thunder had figured out what it would take to win this game (maybe even win this series). They ramped up the defense, using their athleticism to swipe passes and create turnovers. They scored seven fast-break points in the third period, when seven of their eight made field goals came from inside the paint, as the Thunder erased the rest of what had been a 13-point Heat lead in the first half.
"At the start of the third quarter, that's when we started playing our game, started being aggressive, rebounding the ball, just playing Thunder basketball," Westbrook said.
Except lately Thunder basketball isn't what it was throughout the season, when they were a high turnover-low assist team. In the second half Tuesday, while the Heat offense was reduced to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade alternating solo forays, the Thunder had 10 assists to only two turnovers.
Nick Collison's simple explanation: "I just think we calmed down."
They had learned what constitutes an acceptable effort for this stage of the season ("This level of basketball is the hardest we play," Durant said) and realized all they had to do was play that way in order to win.
That the Thunder figured things out so quickly is a big blow to the Heat. If there was a time for Miami to get the victory it needs in Oklahoma City to win this series, this was it. The Thunder's Finals naiveté was supposed to last a game, not a half. The previous 13 times a team's key players made their Finals debut against a team that had been there before, the new team was 3-10 in Game 1. Plus, the Thunder had been off for five days after finishing the Spurs, potentially enough time to fall out of rhythm. For Miami, it was like a strike force counting on the element of surprise having its cover blown.
Westbrook and Kevin Durant outscored the Heat by themselves 41-40 in the second half. By the fourth quarter, Westbrook realized he should stop shooting 3-pointers. He's not that great at them in the first place (108 players had a better 3-point percentage this season) and he had missed all four of his attempts in Game 1. One of the Thunder's best fourth-quarter possessions involved Westbrook forgoing a 3-pointer and passing to Durant, who took a short jumper. Durant missed, but there's something to be said for a higher-quality shot; Collison was able to come up with the rebound. The ball got to Durant, who passed to Derek Fisher, who passed to Thabo Sefolosha for a layup.
If you pay attention to the Thunder, you can actually see them grow, similar to this time-lapse video a man made of his daughter from her birth to age 12.
In the Spurs series, Durant talked about learning to get open by slowing down to make better use of screens. In Game 1 of the Finals, he discovered another counterintuitive device: going forward by moving backward.
Late in the fourth quarter, Shane Battier was denying Durant, keeping him from getting the ball at his desired spot near the right side of the free throw line. So Durant gave in. He yielded that bit of real estate and retreated out toward 3-point range, got a little space from Battier, and took a pass from Westbrook. Then he dribbled past Battier, drew a second defender and deftly passed to Collison for a bucket.
Durant didn't insist on scoring on his terms. He didn't score at all. He made the right play. He adapted.
Even before the game started, Durant discovered how different the NBA Finals can be. He likes to adhere to his normal pregame routine that's become very established at this point. He'll play imaginary hackey sack with Serge Ibaka by the scorer's table. Then he'll skip to the far corner of the court, where Kendrick Perkins is waiting to give him a super-low five. From there it's a few steps across the lane, over to Westbrook to give him some dap. Then he heads over to the sideline to give his mother a pregame hug by her courtside seat.
But during the Finals, the timing changes. After the players are introduced, ABC goes to a commercial break -- a long commercial break -- before tipoff. It was so long that Perkins grew tired of waiting, so he returned to the bench and wasn't in his customary spot when Durant got there.
Durant looked to the sideline, but his mother wasn't in her seat. You can't miss her normally. Her colorful outfits stand out against the mass-distributed blue T-shirts like a floral bouquet tossed in the water. In the moments before tipoff, she was nowhere to be found.
She was running late, she explained later. She drove her usual route to the arena but was so distracted she made a wrong turn. That's how nervous she was about her son's first Finals game. That's how different the Finals are.
Flustered, Durant returned to the Thunder bench, waited for everyone to return to their normal places, then started the process all over again only still no mom to hug. He felt a little off.
"I was nervous," he said.
For a young team playing deep in June for the first time, it's not just figuring out your opponent. It's about learning to play in the NBA Finals, with all of the distractions and disruptions that entails. And nobody learns faster than the Thunder.
"I'm used to it now," Durant said. "I'll be ready next game."