1. Thunder Looking Bigger And Better
MIAMI -- The Miami Heat were growing tired of the hands interfering with their driving lanes and the big bodies shoving them around under the basket. The frustration was showing on their faces and on the scoreboard.
Then then horn sounded and the Oklahoma City Thunder made substitutions. Sitting on the scorer's table ready to check in were Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka -- a rugged physical banger and a freakishly long-armed leaper acting as the relief.
Those sorts of moments made it a long night for the Heat as they faced the reality of the new -- and, of course, easily overlooked -- weapon that have the Thunder on a surge. When healthy, Oklahoma City now has one of the deepest, tallest and most versatile rotation of big men in the league.
It was dramatically apparent in the Thunder's 96-85 victory over the Heat, draining Miami's mojo from an impressive three-game win streak. It is probably the Thunder's most impressive victory of the season, as they've struggled recently against the league's elite.
With the victory, the Thunder have now won five straight games and eight of nine to put themselves firmly in the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference. It might not be a bad idea to begin taking notice of them with the postseason just a month away.
Perkins is back from a knee injury and in the starting lineup, allowing Ibaka to move over to his more natural position at power forward for much of the game. The backups are Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed. They can all play center, they can all play power forward, they can all alter shots and they can all rebound. And when they work in tandem, the Thunder take on a new edge.
"We've got four bigs that do a good job of rotating and helping each other," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "They've got a lot of experience, I'm confident in any of the guys out there. They can all mix and match. They all play hard. They all set good screens. They all make extra passes."
Right now that rotation is working and the Thunder are developing into the dangerous team they were expected to be at the start of the season. The Heat, flustered by their inability to get clean looks in the paint, shot just 39 percent and tallied their fewest points total over the past 13 games.
Over the past three games, buoyed by Perkins' playing in his first games since he was acquired along with Mohammed at the trade deadline, the Thunder have allowed just 37 percent shooting and 83 points per game.
On Wednesday, their overall size smothered the Heat. Before the surprising deadline deals, the Thunder already had the all-wingspan team on the perimeter -- long-armed Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Thabo Sefolosha. The extra size inside has made them both rangy and big. That contributed to the Heat's missing 17 shots in the paint during the loss and limited the usually dangerous interior scoring ability of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.
"They're better, they did a great job of getting themselves prepared for the West [playoffs]," Wade said. "They're going to be right there in the thick of things because they've added some beef up front."
Wade, James and Chris Bosh combined to shoot just 21-of-59, as the Thunder collapsed to crowd the middle and used their long arms to make every shot seem like a low-percentage attempt. At times, the Heat were unnerved by the physical play that officials let go, though the Thunder's front four were still called for 14 fouls.
Mostly, the Heat were angry at the the resistance they didn't seem prepared for. Ibaka swarmed around, blocking three shots and changing maybe 10 others in addition to grabbing 12 rebounds.
Mohammed and Perkins combined for six offensive rebounds that helped Oklahoma City rack up 24 second-chance points. Collison played 16 consecutive minutes in the second half and put on a clinic in help defense and ball denial, helping the Thunder slowly squeeze the life out of the home team.
"When we were able to break free to get opportunities that looked like they would normally be rim opportunities for us, they either blocked, challenged or forced us into some tough misses," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "They started to frustrate us a little bit."
That defense allowed the Thunder to win in Miami despite Westbrook shooting just 5-of-16 with six turnovers. As a team, Oklahoma City shot just 40 percent and that was with Durant carrying them on offense, hitting 12-of-21 shots on the way to 29 points.
Getting a win under those circumstances was eye-opening, indeed. All season long, the Thunder have suffered from not showing the same consistency on defense as they did a season ago.
Assuming that they have it all put together may be premature. But seeing how their new big men collectively fit into the scheme and can impact an already good team was easily the most positive development to come out of the latest victory.
"We haven't been the 48-minute defending team that I would like, that we need to be," Brooks said. "But tonight we defended right from the start, for four quarters. That is the way it should be played."
2. Celtics' New Bench Making Progress
Special to ESPNBoston.com
BOSTON -- There may yet come a time when we see an O'Neal, or maybe even two of them. Pending such a grand occasion, when yet another lineup tweak will have to be made, Doc Rivers figures he has finally, finally got his Boston Celtics bench in order.
And he likes it. A lot.
"They're more talented now,'' Rivers said after watching his reserves close out the Indiana Pacers 92-80 at the TD Garden, keeping the Celtics unbeaten at home against Eastern Conference teams (21-0). "That's No. 1. You've got Jeff Green in your second unit, Delonte West in your second unit, Glen Davis. Pretty good second unit."
Then, as if to state the obvious, "It's nice to see them all on the floor."
Indeed. With West's return to duty Wednesday night, we saw a bench that, for the first time this season, is one that Rivers could actually envision, never mind utilize. He never got that opportunity with the first bench -- Nate Robinson, West, Marquis Daniels, Davis and Pick An O'Neal. Someone was always hurt or suspended.
But this is Bench 2.0 and, barring further calamity, it will be at Doc's beck and call as the team heads into a potentially torturous stretch with road games in Houston, New Orleans (both of which won in Boston) and New York (with the Celtics' first look at the Melo/Chauncey Knicks.)
The bench pretty much chalked up the 'W' against Indiana. Green was a force with 17 of his 19 points in the first half, including 13 in the game-turning second quarter. For a while there, Green was the Boston offense. Ray Allen didn't even attempt a field goal until there was less than five minutes remaining in the first half. Rajon Rondo didn't attempt one in the second and third quarters (he sat out the fourth).
West, meanwhile, playing for the first time since Feb. 26, looked terrific. He had a ridiculous block on Paul George. He hit a tough fadeaway jumper for his only basket. He had two rebounds and three assists in 16-plus active minutes. Rivers said he thought West must have been playing on the side while he was out "cause his rhythm was too good. I was amazed at how well he handled the ball."
West said he felt a little winded, but quickly added, "Oh man, I have fresh legs still from summertime. I've just been sitting around, waiting for my opportunity to get out there."
Here's an added bonus going forward for the new bench: Three of the guys have played sparingly this season, including Troy Murphy, whose only activity before the Celtics' signed him was walking to the bank to deposit his check.
Murphy is predictably rusty, but he is fresh. He will get better. (He'd better get better.) West, too, should be frisky. He has played fewer minutes this season than either Green or Nenad Krstic has played since the trade. And Carlos Arroyo played 23 minutes -- total -- in the month of February for Miami, so he still has plenty to offer.
3. Daily Dime Live
Zach Harper, TrueHoop bloggers, ESPN.com's NBA crew and DDL regulars hold forth and give their in-game opinions on all topics throughout Wednesday's slate in Daily Dime Live.
4. Extreme Behavior
C.J. Miles, Jazz: Miles celebrated his elevation to starter with a can't-miss performance. Miles netted a career-high 40 points, making 14-of-18 field goals (6-of-7 from 3) in a 119-104 win over the Wolves.
Carlos Delfino, Bucks: The drive for the East's No. 8 spot has all the drama of a three-legged sack race in Jell-O. The preseason darling Bucks fell to the Magic in OT, as Delfino missed all seven of his shots in 21 minutes of work.
TWEET OF THE NIGHT
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"I didn't know [about] that. I hired him for $3,000 a month. I didn't really know what his role was. ... He was working in a mail-order company back then."
-- Clippers owner Donald Sterling, reportedly claiming not to know the basketball pedigree of Elgin Baylor when he hired him. Biggest indictment of Sterling to date?
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Boston Coach Backs Rose MVP
CHICAGO -- Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers was by his son's side Tuesday afternoon as Austin Rivers received an award as the nation's top high school player, but the coach wouldn't accompany his son to a Chicago Bulls game Tuesday evening.
Doc Rivers, who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Maywood, agreed with Austin and the growing consensus who believe Derrick Rose has earned the nod as the league's best player.
And although few expected the Bulls to be battling the Celtics this late in the season for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, Rose's development made Doc a believer.
"I'm not that surprised [the Bulls are contending]," Rivers said on ESPN 1000's "Afternoon Saloon." "Derrick Rose is the best player this year in the NBA. I think he'll be the MVP, and when you have the MVP on your team, you're usually pretty good."
Rivers also credited the coaching of Thibodeau.
"I talked to Thibs this afternoon for a long time," Rivers said. "We're still very close."
7. Free Show By Dirk
Dirk Nowitzki was 12-for-12 from the foul line for the Dallas Mavericks in their victory at Golden State on Wednesday night to extend his streak to 53 consecutive free throws made, the longest in the NBA this season, surpassing Steve Nash's streak of 48 straight (Dec. 15-Jan. 12). Nowitzki posted the league's longest streak on consecutive successful free-throw attempts last season (74 in a row).
8. Good To Beat The King
9. Bright Future With Blake
Jordan (DC): Future Power Rankings: How can you put the aging Celtics ahead of the young and extremely talented Clippers? Obviously organization wise, there is a huge gap, but based on young talent, it seems the Clips would be higher.
Chad Ford: The numbers should spell it out. We ranked the Clippers' roster as the sixth best going forward (Celtics were 12th). So if the rankings were based just on talent, the Clippers win. The Clippers also have more money to spend in free agency and they'll have better draft picks (despite sending their No. 1 this year to Cleveland). But the Celtics make up in a big way because of ownership/GM/coach and also in market. If the Clippers had a real owner instead of a punchline, they'd probably be ranked No. 4 in our FPR instead of No. 8.