MIAMI — You realize the Thunder had us spoiled, right?
All playoffs long, they’ve been a comeback team. In Game 1 and Game 2, they were a comeback team. For nearly 2 months, they’ve looked wise beyond their years.
After the Oklahoma City Thunder lost Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night, I wrote that squandering an opportunity to take a 2-1 lead after holding the Heat to 37.8 percent shooting and forcing nine fourth-quarter turnovers was a sign that the Thunder aren’t ready to be champions.
After speaking with Thabo Sefolosha and Russell Westbrook on Monday, though, I can tell you that the Thunder certainly don’t feel that way.
But in the spirit of Monday morning quarterbacking, let’s take a closer look at what transpired during the final 90 seconds of the game.
To their credit, the Thunder don’t quit.
They trailed 86-79 with 2:19 remaining after LeBron James dribbled from half-court straight to the cup, beating Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden off the dribble before finishing a reverse layup over Kendrick Perkins.
The game looked over at that point, but Dwyane Wade gave the Thunder life down the stretch. He fouled Perkins on the ensuing possession and after Perkins converted both free throws—with 2:07 remaining—the Thunder trailed by five, 86-81.
For some reason, Wade—not James—was bringing the ball up the floor for the Heat. From where I sat, it looked as though Wade should have been whistled for an 8-second violation for lollygagging and failing to advance the ball past half-court, but he wasn’t. So it was perhaps poetic justice when Sefolosha picked his pocket and converted a very difficult reverse layup over Wade to close the gap to three, 86-83. That occurred with 1:56 remaining in the game, so the Thunder scored 4 very huge points in just 11 game seconds.
On the next Heat possession, Wade tried to redeem himself, but missed an 18-footer. After Perkins secured the rebound, Russell Westbrook nailed an 18-footer of his own. Thanks to that shot, the Thunder would trail by a single point (86-85) with 1:30 remaining.
They’d scored six quick points in just 37 seconds. With 1:30 remaining, they had the opportunity to win.
From there? Nothing but bad.
MISTAKE No. 1: To that point, the Heat had shot 5-for-30 from outside of the paint, so the Thunder should have packed it in and forced the Heat to shoot jumpers. but instead, with 1:19 remaining, they were again beaten by James and he found a cutting Chris Bosh, who was fouled at the rim by Sefolosha. Bosh would convert both free throws and push the Heat’s lead back to three, 88-85.
MISTAKE No. 2: The Thunder put the ball in Durant’s sure hands, and let him isolate against James. Durant drove to his right, but he couldn’t beat James off the dribble. Despite having 11 seconds on the shot clock and forcing Bosh to come out and help to defend him, Durant forced a floating 10-footer over both James and Bosh.
Amazingly, James contested the shot, forced the miss, and grabbed what was rebound number 13.
On the Heat’s next possession, James missed a jumper after running 20 seconds off of the game clock. Westbrook secured the rebound and gave the Thunder another opportunity with 45 seconds remaining. Trailing by just three points, with timeouts remaining, the Thunder needed to be smart. They weren’t.
MISTAKE No. 3: Russell Westbrook brought the ball up the floor before giving it up and he, Durant, and Sefolosha stood around the perimeter. Westbrook turned down a wide-open 3-pointer from the corner after Durant found him, and would eventually miss a good look from the behind the arc with just 29 seconds remaining. At that point in the game, the Thunder didn’t need to play for a 3-pointer, but that’s exactly what they did.
Shane Battier secured the rebound with 29 seconds remaining and gave the ball up to James, who brought it up the floor. The Thunder still trailed by just three, 88-85. Armed with timeouts and with a five-second differential between the shot and game clocks, the Thunder didn’t need to foul. And if, for some reason, they did decide to foul, they should have taken it immediately to preserve as much game-time as possible.
MISTAKE No. 4: For some inexplicable reason, Harden pressured James out at the halfcourt line and got away with two fouls before being whistled for a block after James appeared to lower his shoulder and crash into him. Though that call was questionable, Harden simply shouldn’t have played James so tightly. At that point in the game, in that situation, the correct play would have been to give James space, allow him to run time off of the clock, contest the jumper that was coming, and get the rebound. At that point, down three with 29 seconds remaining, you play the possession out and trust your defense. You don’t foul. Scott Brooks should have advised his troops to back off and not give the officials the opportunity to think that the Thunder’s intentions were to foul. With 16.2 seconds remaining, James would convert one of his two free throws and make it a two-possession game, 89-85.
MISTAKE No. 5: Armed with two timeouts, the Thunder still had a chance. Brooks used a timeout to draw up a play, but Sefolosha and Westbrook got their signals crossed and Sefolosha threw the ball right to Dwyane Wade. A brutally bad mistake coming out of a timeout.
Wade was fouled, and unlike James, converted both of his free throws. With the score 91-86, the final 13 seconds of Game 3 were irrelevant and the Thunder were defeated.
After reviewing the tapes and play-by-play, it’s pretty obvious that Brooks, Sefolosha, Durant, and Westbrook all failed miserably down the stretch.
When I asked Westbrook about the Thunder’s execution down the stretch, he agreed that they’ve failed.
“We honestly thought we had an opportunity to win both games,” he said. “We feel like we let two get away, but we feel like tomorrow, we’ll have an opportunity to win again.”
Sefolosha was the inbounder on the game’s most dubious out-of-bounds possession, and told me that he’d accept the blame for that critical turnover.
“It’s my fault,” he said. “I was inbounding the ball and I didn’t make a good pass. It was a miscommunication and it was unfortunate.”
But like his teammate, Sefolosha is confident that there is a lot of basketball to be played.
“We know we can beat this team and we are confident we can beat this team,” he said. “We have a lack of experience, but we have a lot of talent to make up for it and we have a lot of heart.”
Nick Collison told me that for the Thunder, Game 4 is a must win. And that makes perfect sense since no team in NBA history has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the Finals.
Westbrook says the Thunder will have an opportunity to win Game 4 and Collison says it’s a “must win.” Sefolosha says the Thunder’s talent and heart can make up for their lack of experience.
After dissecting the final 90 seconds of their Game 3 loss, tomorrow night, I’m looking forward to finding out if that’s true.
Moke Hamilton is a Senior NBA Columnist for SheridanHoops.com and is on assignment in Miami for the NBA Finals. Follow him on Twitter.