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Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka are on the spot for Thunder

Serge IbakLeBrJames

Serge Ibaka, LeBron James

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Updated: July 18, 2012 6:48AM

MIAMI — Let the record show that coaching made the difference in the Dallas Mavericks’ upset of the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals last year.

The series turned when Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle realized after losing Game 3 at home that his team was better off with two of his three point guards — Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and J.J. Barea — on the floor.

By keeping two point guards in at all times, the Mavericks rallied from an 11-point deficit in the third quarter to tie Game 3. They lost 88-86 to fall behind 2-1 in the series, but Carlisle had found his winning formula.

In Game 4, he started Barea instead of shooting guard/defender DeShawn Stevenson and took shooting guard Peja Stojakovic out of the rotation. He kept two ball-handling guards on the floor at all times and took the next three games 86-83, 112-103 and 105-95 to win the NBA championship.

Though coaches loathe major changes in the playoffs, they have to be open-minded — and clear-minded — enough to tweak the lineup a little bit.

That’s the challenge Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks faces heading into Game 3 of the Finals at AmericanAirlines Arena. Win or lose in the first two games, his team was never better than when big men Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins were on the bench.

With various combinations of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Thabo Sefolosha, Derek Fisher and Nick Collison, the Thunder outscored the Heat by 16 in the final 14:30 of Game 1 and by 10 in the fourth quarter of Game 2.

Plus-minus is an inexact and often misleading statistic in basketball, but it tells the tale here: Perkins is minus-19 in the first two games, and Ibaka is minus-17.

With Durant, Westbrook and Harden, the Thunder often can afford to let Ibaka and Perkins be defenders only. But not against the Heat. If the roaming LeBron James only has to worry about three positions, he’s way too fresh on offense. When Ibaka and Perkins combined for 35 points on 16-for-21 shooting on March 25, James scored 17 on 8-for-18 shooting in a 103-87 Thunder victory. When Ibaka and Perkins combined for six points on 3-for-9 shooting on April 4, James scored 34 on 10-for-20 shooting in a 98-93 Heat victory.

They might not know it, but Perkins and Ibaka are on the spot heading into Game 3. Perkins talked about being more aggressive. Ibaka talked about being tougher. Whatever it takes, they better find a way to score. Otherwise, ‘‘going small’’ might be Brooks’ last hope to win this series.

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