|A healthy Chris Bosh is cancelling out the advantages Serge Ibaka brings to the Thunder. (US Presswire)|
MIAMI -- The Thunder didn't have much, but they had this. They had superior depth. It's not the sexiest advantage -- better to have the advantage of "LeBron James" and "Dwyane Wade" -- but the Thunder were in no position to be choosy. They reached the NBA Finals with a special cast of role players.
Look, we all fell for it, me included. We were wrong about that so-called depth advantage for the Thunder, but it's the kind of thing you have to see on the court to understand. These games aren't played on paper, because if they were, the Thunder would have a 2-1 or maybe even a 3-0 series edge. On paper, the Thunder have a Big Three that can match the Heat's Big Three, which means the series would be decided further down the line. By guys like Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher, proven winners, NBA champions. By a shot-blocking gazelle like Serge Ibaka. By a defensive specialist like Thabo Sefolosha.
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That was the narrative, and we all wrote it, and you all believed it. Thunder fans were comforted by it. Heat fans were scared of it. And we were wrong, all of us, because games are played on the court, where Kendrick Perkins' championship experience with the Boston Celtics doesn't change the fact that he's best suited for occupying the other team's low-post presence -- and since the Heat don't have a low-post presence, Kendrick Perkins isn't of much use.
Sefolosha is a very good defender, but he's not as good at defense as Dwyane Wade is at offense -- and he's no match for LeBron James. So if Sefolosha is on the court for his defense, but he can't stop either of the guys he's trying to defend, well, you see where I'm going with this. He's like a smaller Kendrick Perkins: great on paper, and certainly great against some opponents. Just not against this one.
Serge Ibaka? On paper, he's just what you want at the end of a grueling season. He's young, he's bouncy, he's long. Problem is, the Heat have a long, bouncy guy in Chris Bosh, who's also fresh after missing weeks with a stomach injury that has healed.
"Bosh has his legs back," LeBron James said.
Ibaka has noticed. He's playing against a bigger, fresher, savvier version of himself, and it's not working. In this series his scoring (7.3 ppg), rebounding (5), blocked shots (2.3) and shooting accuracy (45 percent) are down from his season averages of 9.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 3.7 bpg and 53.5 percent.
So what we have for the Thunder is this: the need to rest their best players, as all teams must, yet the inability to do so without being punished. Scott Brooks saw that in the third quarter of Game 3, when the Thunder led by 10 but the coach had to sit Durant with foul trouble -- and chose to sit Westbrook after another of his in-game freakouts, forgetting he had teammates as he careened wildly around the court, fueling the Heat by giving them the ball repeatedly in transition. The Heat closed the quarter on a 15-3 run.
Brooks was asked about those five minutes when he had Durant and Westbrook on the bench, and he almost sighed as he said, "You've got to rest the guys sooner or later."
True, that. But the drop-off has been awful at times. In hindsight, the Thunder are so limited offensively that they cannot cope when two of their only three scorers (Durant, Westbrook, James Harden) are on the bench. And sometimes against this particular opponent they can't cope with even one of them on the bench, which helps explain why Westbrook has been so aggressively awful to start games -- when Harden is on the bench -- and definitely explains why the Thunder have been overmatched in the opening minutes of each of the first three games.
Meanwhile, the Heat are getting something we didn't see coming -- quality help from their supporting cast. And even that supporting cast knows the world doesn't think much of them.
"We have a term for the other guys not named Chris, LeBron and Dwyane," forward Shane Battier said. "We actually call ourselves 'the other guys.'"
Humble, sweet -- and, at the moment, misleading. Although he's an 11-year NBA veteran having the worst shooting season of his career (33.9 percent on 3-pointers), Battier hasn't been some "other guy" this series. He has been spectacular, making 11 of 15 shots from 3-point range (73.3 percent) and tripling his season scoring average of 4.8 ppg to 14.3 in the NBA Finals. Battier has been so indispensable, so far removed from being just some guy, that he's averaging almost 40 minutes per game this series.
Battier helped shoot the Thunder right out of Game 2, drilling two early 3-pointers as the Heat went on an 18-2 run for a lead they never surrendered, and then he teamed with James Jones to help rally the Heat in Game 3.
Who is James Jones? Some other guy who hasn't done much this season (3.6 ppg) and has done even less in the playoffs (2.7 ppg) -- until combining with Battier for nine points in five minutes to fuel that Heat rally in the third quarter and continuing into the fourth.
They're not doing the heavy lifting, these guys. Udonis Haslem added six points and three rebounds and blocked a Derek Fisher shot in Game 2. Creaky Mike Miller swooped in from the wing to tap home a Bosh miss. Battier hit a trio of free throws after being fouled behind the arc. Next time down, Jones did the same thing. These are small contributions, but they are contributions.
The Thunder's Big Three has actually outscored the Heat's Big Three, 201 to 195. But the Heat have all these other guys.
And the Thunder, contrary to what we all thought, do not.