MIAMI — Did the basketball gods just play a cruel joke on us?
Tuesday night’s Game 4 of the NBA Finals has come and gone, and although the game was competitive and entertaining, I feel cheated. I wanted LeBron James and Russell Westbrook to go at each other over the final two minutes of the game, continuing their epic showdown.
Instead, neither walked proudly off the court as the game ended.
In the game’s final minute, the Miami Heat should have needed James—the probable Finals MVP—to bring them home. Westbrook, for all his brilliance, should have had the ball in his hands with a chance to win the game.
Instead, Westbrook blew the game while James was on the bench.
Tuesday night’s Game 4 saw the Heat best the Oklahoma City Thunder, 104-98, and take a commanding 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. The Heat is now just a single victory away from claiming the 2012 NBA title. The King’s coronation could come as soon as Thursday night.
But consider the irony.
James scored a team-high 26 points, hitting 10 of his 20 shots. He chipped in nine rebounds and 12 assists. He also cramped up in his legs, forcing him to watch the final moments cringing on the bench.
So with 13.8 seconds remaining and the Heat needing two free-throws to clinch the game, it was Mario Chalmers at the charity stripe. It was he who held the Heat’s fate in his hand at the game’s most critical juncture.
And even crazier? It was Westbrook—who scored 43 points—that needlessly put him there.
After failing down the stretch once again, the Thunder are faced with a daunting uphill climb and will attempt to make history by being the first team to win the NBA Finals after trailing 3-1.
To that, I say don’t hold your breath. Scott Brooks has proven on more than one occasion that he’s in over his head. Perhaps we shouldn’t blame him for that. Brooks, after all, is only in his fourth year as an NBA head coach. But what you can blame him for is Westbrook’s critical and unnecessary foul that put the nail in the Thunder’s coffin.
With 17.3 seconds on the clock and the Thunder trailing the Heat, 101-98, Udonis Haslem and James Harden were whistled for a jump ball with 0.8 seconds left on the shot clock. Westbrook, unaware that the shot clock was then reset to 5 seconds, fouled Chalmers after Shane Battier directed the loose ball to him. Chalmers would sink each of his free throws and help push the Heat to within one game of winning the championship.
That is just the latest mistake down the stretch of a game that may end up costing the Thunder the championship. Clearly, Westbrook did not understand the situation, and his coach is to blame. Although it’s reasonable to expect Westbrook to have the presence of mind to know the game situation, it’s the coach’s job to ensure that he does.
“If they win the jump ball, they gotta shoot within 5 seconds, so don’t foul!”
Brooks failed to give such an instruction and ended up robbing us of what should have been a better ending to Westbrook’s amazing performance.
In the moment immediately following the foul, Westbrook let the world know that he was clueless about the game situation since the first thing he did after committing the foul was look at Brooks. Brooks yelled “No Foul!” during the final seconds of Game 3, but James Harden didn’t hear him and made the same exact error as Westbrook.
Fool you once? Shame on you.
Fool you twice? Shame on your coach.
Afterward, Brooks refused to acknowledge that the blunder significantly hurt the Thunder.
“One play does not determine the outcome of a game,” Brooks said. “There’s 200 plays involved in every basketball game, it doesn’t come down to one play.”
As the Brits would say, poppycock.
In that moment, in that situation, Westbrook should have known better and his coach should have made sure he did. And because of this, Westbrook’s heroic 43-point effort is forever diminished, just like the 20 shots he made in 32 attempts and the seven rebounds, five assists, and three steals that he killed himself for.
He’ll be remembered for his brain fart.
“My performance doesn’t mean anything,” Westbrook said. “We didn’t come out with the win and that’s all that matters.”
He’s right and that’s sad. His performance, his effort, and his team deserved better. But instead of talking about his magnificent game, we’ll be discussing why the Thunder continue to crumble in big moments after never showing their immaturity before this point.
As I said in Sunday’s post-game piece, maybe it’s all just growing pains.
After all, LeBron and the Heat had to go through much of the same sort of on-the-fly learning during last year’s playoff run. When I spoke with Mario Chalmers on Monday, he said that the Heat were much more comfortable executing in end-of-game situations because of what they’d been through as a team.
“We’re a lot better, closing is now something we’re all comfortable with,” he said. “We don’t get shaken by anything.”
It was somewhat prophetic considering Chalmers had to score the final five points for the Heat. James, who played 45 minutes in Game 4, began to cramp up midway through the fourth quarter. In the first three games of the series, James logged 46, 44, and 43 minutes, respectively. His attrition, then, is no surprise.
In his third NBA Finals, James has been masterful. If his 29.3 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 6.0 assists weren’t proof enough, he’s shooting 49 percent from the field and 81 percent from the free-throw line. He’s simply playing his guts out.
The idea that he always shrinks in big moments is now a farce. James has come up big when it’s counted most. He’s dominated the Thunder on both ends of the court and has been absolutely punishing them on the interior while operating from the post. He is finally playing with the attitude of an MVP who knows he is an unstoppable freak of nature.
“For me, it’s all about seizing the moment,” James said earlier this week. “Last year, I didn’t think I had many game-changing plays, but this season, it was all about just trying to have more.”
And despite being limited down the stretch of Game 4, he did just that.
Hobbled and dehydrated, James was forced to check out of the game with 5:15 remaining and the Heat nursing a two-point lead, 92-90. With him on the bench, the Thunder scored four consecutive points and took a 94-92 lead with 4:05 remaining.
Limping badly, James re-entered the game and gave the Heat the lead for good when, with just under three minutes to go, he drilled a 3-pointer to break a 94-all tie.
James’ performance in these Finals—and especially on this night—have been nothing short of inspiring.
What’s most interesting, though, is that he didn’t finish the game. James checked out with 55.5 seconds remaining and the Heat nursing a three-point lead. At that point, it was Chalmers that scored the final five points for the Heat and sealed the deal.
So in the end, though Westbrook and James engaged in a joust worthy of acclaim, neither would have wanted the story of Game 4 to end like this.
I can’t remember an NBA game—especially not in the Finals—that ended with neither of the game’s top performers outshining the other as the final seconds expired.
As the game’s final precious seconds ticked away, neither of the stars that shined brightest were emitting light. One’s failure was mental and the other’s physical.
As we look toward Game 5, we can only hope that the basketball gods continue to bless us with what has been a much more entertaining series than the 3-1 game count suggests.
Moke Hamilton is a Senior NBA Columnist for SheridanHoops.com and is on assignment in Miami for the NBA Finals. Follow him on Twitter.