MIAMI — The old cliché says that you’ve gotta have your heart broken before you can become a champion, and after their 91-85 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Sunday, the Oklahoma City Thunder may have just proven that they’re no exception to the rule.
LeBron James’ Heat are attempting to do what Kobe Bryant’s Lakers did back in 2009—win the NBA Finals the very next year after losing them.
Kevin Durant’s Thunder just helped them.
I won’t go as far as saying that the Thunder can’t win this series, especially not since the Heat coughed up a 2-1 series lead against the Dallas Mavericks in last year’s Finals, but if they are, they’re going to have to grow up. Fast.
Champions show themselves in the final minutes of a game and when everything is on the line. And despite Durant’s foul trouble, and despite the Heat winning fast break and second chance points and points in the paint, in the end, the Thunder were right there.
That is, until they melted down.
Russell Westbrook’s jumper with 1:30 remaining in the game pulled the Thunder within one point, 86-85. But in those final 90 seconds, the Heat may have proven that they are a championship team and the Thunder may have proven that they aren’t quite there yet.
“We just weren’t able to close it out,” Westbrook said after the loss. “I don’t think it was a particular play, just the little things we didn’t do.”
Down the stretch, the Thunder’s offense looked sluggish and uncertain. Westbrook and Durant combined to miss the Thunder’s final three field goal attempts. As a team, the Thunder committed three fouls that yielded five points and Thabo Sefolosha and Russell Westbrook’s miscommunication led to a turnover from an out-of-bounds play with 16.2 seconds remaining and their team trailing by four points. And it happened immediately after a timeout.
That simply can’t happen.
Meanwhile, the Miami Heat continue to make big plays down the stretch and have been the better team this series, and Erik Spoelstra—believe it or not—the better coach. For Game 3, the Heat’s mission was pretty obvious: close passing lanes on the pick and roll, crash the boards, and attack the rim.
Well, the Thunder managed just 11 assists, lost the rebounding battle, and were minus-11 in free-throw attempts.
In short, the Heat did exactly what they wanted. They imposed their will, and that’s something that champions do.
From the time Durant picked up his fourth foul with 5:41 remaining in the third quarter and his team nursing a 60-53 lead, the Thunder began to unravel. Westbrook pressed a bit when Durant was sent to the bench and Coach Brooks’ decision to bench him just 40 seconds later, in hindsight, was a mistake as it robbed the Thunder of their momentum. With Durant and Westbrook on the bench, the Thunder missed their final eight shots of the third period and shot just 3-8 from the free-throw line. Even worse? During that critical stretch five-minute stretch, the Thunder needlessly fouled Shane Battier and James Jones on 3-point attempts on consecutive Heat possessions and gifted the Heat six points after Battier and James nailed all of their free throws.
Obviously, benching Durant—with four fouls—was a no-brainer. But the reason the Thunder have Westbrook is for these types of moments. Prior to Game 3, Westbrook told the media that he had no intention of changing his game. Fair enough.
But if that’s the case, since Coach Brooks has stuck with Westbrook through thick and thin and hasn’t asked his All-Star point guard to alter his game, why pull him from the game when his team needed him the most? With five minutes remaining in the third, Brooks made the dubious decision to rob Westbrook of the opportunity to show his mettle and hold down the fort until the league’s purest scorer was able to re-enter the game to begin the fourth and take the Thunder home.
“Russell had a bad stretch of about three or four possessions,” Brooks said. “I took him out to kind of calm him down… I had done this before.”
But by the time Westbrook and Durant were back in the game, their 9-point lead was gone and there were only 12 minutes remaining. They had opportunities down the stretch, but at the end of the day, they blew them all.
“This was a tough loss, but this is not over. We’ll be ready for the next game,” Durant added. “Today, we could have been better, of course. We missed some shots but still put ourselves in a position to win.”
But in the NBA Finals, when you’re playing on the other guys’ court and you hold them to 37.8 percent shooting from the field—and especially when you have a powerful third quarter and seize the momentum of the game…
You’re supposed to win.
In the NBA Finals preview, I mentioned that for the Thunder to win this series, James Harden would have to outscore the Heat’s bench and Serga Ibaka would have to outplay Chris Bosh. In Game 3, Harden shot just 2-10 from the field en route to scoring nine points while the Heat’s reserves scored 16 total.
Ibaka shot 2-5 and chipped in five points and five rebounds and although neither he nor Bosh will be showing their grandchildren clips of Game 3, Bosh and his double-double (10 points, 11 rebounds) won the individual battle.
Collectively, James, Wade and Bosh combined for 64 points while the triumvirate of Durant, Westbrook, and Harden could only muster 54.
When you take each of these facts collectively, you may begin to piece together a puzzle that shows a young team that’s not quite ready to be a champion.
This series is far from over but the Thunder must win Tuesday night’s Game 4 if they want to have a serious chance of winning this thing. And if they’re to win Game 4, Scott Brooks needs to figure out a way to win the points in the paint battle and limit the amount of possessions in which the ballhandler dribbles for 10 seconds and then creates his own shot off the dribble.
Penetration, passing, and hitting the open man is the only way that the Thunder will be able to conquer the Heat’s athleticism on the perimeter and their effective blitz-and-trap defense.
Sure, some more whistles in the Thunder’s favor would help. But blaming the officiating for a loss is a bit of a cop out and the Thunder are too good for that.
They’re talented enough, they’re deep enough, and they work hard enough. The only question is, whether they’re ripe enough. Game 4 will be their first back-against-the-wall game of the playoffs since they trailed the Spurs 2-0, so we’ll find out.
But for now, I’d bet on them being better and I’d bet on this series going back to Oklahoma City, 3-2. I’d even go as far as to say that come Friday, the Thunder could be the team a single victory away from being the 2012 NBA Champions.
Why? It’s because I believe that today, they are ripe enough.
And if you look at each of the last two games, Durant was limited by foul trouble. In Game 2, he was a foul call against James away from having the opportunity to tie the game and perhaps send it to overtime. And in Game 3? The Thunder—normally a great free-throw shooting team—missed nine in a game that they lost by six.
Yes, there’s a thin line between the ball not bouncing your way and finding ways to lose games you should win. Whether these past two games were one or the other is probably too soon to tell.
On Tuesday, we’ll find out.
And if I’m wrong, it’ll simply mean that Kevin Durant and the Thunder will walk away from the 2012 NBA Finals thinking the same way Kobe’s Lakers did in 2008 and the same way LeBron’s Heat did in 2011…
Maybe next year.
Moke Hamilton is a Senior NBA Columnist for SheridanHoops.com and is on assignment in Miami for the NBA Finals. Follow him on Twitter.