Commentary

Thunder show they're tough enough

Despite loss to Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder show they can put up a fight

Originally Published: March 17, 2012
By Michael Wallace | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- Perhaps Russell Westbrook didn't intentionally try to send a message when he yanked LeBron James out of the air to prevent a breakaway dunk midway through Wednesday's game against the Miami Heat.

Instead, it was more about the Oklahoma City guard's state of mind. At that instant, Westbrook was thinking late June despite the calendar showing early April.

The next time the teams meet could be in Game 1 of the NBA Finals in two months. So despite the Thunder's 98-93 loss to the Heat, the Thunder left Miami feeling as if they've taken another step toward establishing a reputation as a team that won't back down from physical play.

"Definitely playoff-type basketball," Westbrook said of a game in which the teams combined 49 free throw attempts and 44 fouls, including his takedown of James with 5:33 left in the second quarter that drew a flagrant foul. "We stayed together. We just weren't able to knock down the shots we needed to win the game. But it was a good test for us."

A team spokesman abruptly ended Westbrook's postgame session with reporters in the visitors' locker room before he could specifically address the hard foul on James, one that resulted in players from the two teams having to be separated by referees before play resumed.

The Westbrook foul came a few seconds after Thunder center Kendrick Perkins' aggressive foul on Heat guard Dwyane Wade to make sure he would be unable to covert a potential three-point play. Wade got Perkins in the air with a pump fake, and as Perkins landed, he reached out and chopped across Wade's upper body.

The chippy play ratcheted up the emotions in a game that was already intense, with the Heat looking to avenge a 16-point loss in Oklahoma City two weeks ago. Thunder players insisted that neither of the fouls was dirty, and that they were simply designed to make every shot the Heat attempted difficult.

If the Thunder were viewed strictly as team with supreme athletes and prolific scorers, coach Scott Brooks recommends taking a much closer look.

"We're a physical team," Brooks said. "You don't look at us that way because we have some pretty gifted athletes that play the game very smooth. But they're physical. That's how you win in this league. You don't win by not being tough. We're young, but we're not soft. We play the right way and we play hard. Both teams gave everything they had. Physical game. I like that. I'm sure they liked that. Neither team backed down. It's not a game that I can be disappointed in."

In other words, Brooks probably never embraced a loss as much as he did Wednesday night.

He went as far as to suggest that he had "nothing to complain about."

Statistically, the Thunder outshot the Heat from the field, won the rebounding battle, led by as many as 11 points and put themselves in position to steal the game in the final two minutes. The difference was that Miami took advantage of the additional free throw opportunities by outscoring the Thunder 26-18 at the line.

Sporting the best record in the Western Conference at 40-14, the Thunder don't necessarily need moral victories in high-profile games. But as statements go, Oklahoma City made a point that it's capable of matching up with the Heat should games get, well, grimy.

"When you're a good team, everybody looks to play tough against you," Thunder forward Serge Ibaka said. "Personally, I think Russ was just trying to foul [James]. But the ref is the boss. He decided to give the [flagrant], so there's nothing we can do. We'll take that."

Brooks believes just about every game the Thunder play against the Heat will include some bumps and bruises. He said Miami sets a tone with that style of play.

"That's what they believe in," Brooks said of the Heat. "That's the fabric of this organization. We know that the Miami Heat is going to play like that."

If these teams face off in the Finals, it's not a style from which the Thunder will shy away.

The process of toughening up their game actually began during last season's playoff run, when Oklahoma City fought through a seven-game series to beat Memphis before falling to the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks in the conference finals.

Those lessons from last season convinced Thunder forward Kevin Durant that his team only needed some minor tweaks in its approach for this season's playoff push.

"We played strong, but we could have played a little stronger," Durant said. "We're physical. You saw it last year in the playoffs last year against Memphis, and they're the most physical team in the league. And we did a good job against that. We've been physical all season. That's been our M.O. That's our identity. A lot of people might say that I'm skinny. We've got a lot of skilled guys. But we come out and play tough every minute."