Thunder can't handle Heat ... again

MIAMI -- Before Russell Westbrook had the stomach to look at his list of text messages, put on his lime pants, orange shirt or spike-studded white high tops, he was doubled over and just staring at the locker room floor.

The sting of the Oklahoma City Thunder's latest loss to the Miami Heat -- 103-97 on Christmas evening -- won't exactly sting like it did in June. But it was still tough for Westbrook and his teammates to immediately accept.

You could easily start a heated debate between Thunder and Heat fans talking about Westbrook's missed 3-pointer that could've tied the game in the final five seconds. Dwyane Wade made contact with Westbrook's arm and Westbrook stuck his leg out to hit Wade. There was no whistle and no make.

In a way, it was much like when Kevin Durant missed a jumper in the final seconds of Game 2 of the Finals, when LeBron James defended him tightly on a potentially tying shot. These are the sort of things that lead to fiery disagreements, even if they don't truly define the game's outcome.

"It's part of the game," Westbrook said. "Sometimes it doesn't go your way. You have to keep playing."

Westbrook's visceral reaction wasn't so bland as he let loose a stream of curse words before punching a table, which triggered an automatic technical. After a game in which he missed 14 of 19 shots and committed five turnovers, he was not in the mood.

Break down the angle-by-angle replays all you want, the Thunder's reality coming out of this game is the same as it was when they lost four of five in the Finals. There have been plenty of platitudes about how that series was closer than the result. The same could be said of Tuesday evening.

But the Thunder may have to evaluate their strategy against the Heat if they hope to turn this tide around. They have their reasons for what they're doing -- this well-regarded organization always does -- but the results continue to create question marks that it seems they must address.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra took what happened in the Finals last season and made it a mantra, the idea that playing with a "positionless" system with James as the hub was the way to play for the future. If anything, Spoelstra found himself regretting that taking so long to make the switch to that style might have cost his team the title in 2011.

Thunder coach Scott Brooks took his team's struggles to match up with the smaller Heat in that series and employed virtually the same game plan in the first meeting this season. He stuck with his big lineup, featuring Kendrick Perkins playing with Serge Ibaka while leaving the versatile Nick Collison on the bench, again, in crunch time. The seemingly delicious proposition of playing Durant at power forward against James was left largely unfulfilled.

The Perkins issue has been a popular target on the Thunder for some time. The analytic experts who write about the league regularly question Brooks' decision to play Perkins so much and so much when games are close. Plus/minus statistics are skewed heavily against Brooks' strategy. During the Finals, for example, Collison was a plus-13 for the series and Perkins was a minus-25.

The Thunder, at least by their actions, ignore this. They often point out Perkins' intangible role because of his attitude, toughness and experience. As they size up their opponents in the Western Conference, they refer to the big men on the rosters of the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies.
Perkins indeed has the ability to handle those tough assignments. He's also got a good history dealing with Dwight Howard, now with the Lakers, that further backs up the Thunder's perspective here. Last year the Thunder cut through the Spurs and Lakers with Perkins anchoring that back line.

But the Heat don't play in the West and they don't play that style. The Thunder seem to be either slow to adopt that reality or are really protecting their long-term plot.

Perkins was a minus-6 Tuesday, Collison was a plus-4. There were times when there was a complete mismatch with Ibaka guarding Heat point guard Mario Chalmers and Wade able to guard Perkins, who is offensively limited. Bottom line, it allowed the Heat to play with their favorite small lineup with Ray Allen out there in crunch time and not worry about any negative effects.

In a vital possession Tuesday, Perkins was caught in no-man's land trying to help guard James and it led to a free dunk for Chris Bosh, Perkins' man, when James beat the defense with a smart pass. Meanwhile, Thabo Sefolosha, who could've proved valuable in that possession when a switch forced Westbrook onto James, was on the bench.

"We can play many ways," Brooks said. "You have to be able to play small, you have to be able to play big, fast, slow, half-court, aggressive. We can do most of them. I'm not going to tell you the one we don't do well."

It isn't fair to say the Thunder don't play the Heat very well but, well, the decisions and the data are as unfavorable as the recent results. The Heat shot 46 percent and averaged 102 points per game in the Finals, their best offensive series of the postseason. On Tuesday, they shot 48 percent and scored 103 points.

This is far from a simple equation, as there are many things to take into account. But the overriding truth is the Heat are quite comfortable playing against the Thunder this way. And the Heat may be the only team standing between the Thunder and a title.

"We like guarding smalls, we like switching out on smalls," said Perkins, who is allowed by Brooks to sometimes guard opposing point guards. "We work on it every day in practice. I thought as far as Serge and myself we did a great job of keeping them out of the paint."

It wasn't good enough, though, just like it wasn't in the Finals.