LeBron James sat and watched from the bench as his Miami teammates put the Heat within one win of an NBA title. He wasn’t in foul trouble, he wasn’t having a bad game, nor was he shrouded in shame. No, ill-timed leg cramps prevented the Heat’s MVP from playing the final minute of an outstanding Game 4 battle with the Thunder which was easily the best game of these NBA Finals. How fitting for James, after all these years of carrying awful lineups deep into the NBA playoffs, that it was his teammates who stepped up and carried him, both literally and figuratively to victory.
And what a game it was.
The Thunder exploded out of the opening whistle for by far their best first quarter of the Finals. They hit a barrage of jump shots from all over the court, led by Russell Westbrook. The talented Thunder guard had 8 points in the first 3:45 of the game, sending a message to the Heat that no one could change the style of his game, or stop it for that matter. Before the Heat knew what hit them they were down 10 in a shocking role reversal for the script that the first quarters have followed thus far.
Miami would cut the lead to five, but again the Thunder responded with terrific play. In a surprising break, the Thunder actually had a ton of success when Serge Ibaka left the floor with two quick fouls. It forced the Thunder into a small ball lineup featuring Nick Collison at center. This was the exact lineup Scott Brook’s critics had been begging for all series. You’re never going to believe this, but it worked! It worked so damn well that the Thunder rode Collison to a 14-point lead after one, which could have been 17 if not for a near buzzer beater.
As this series has taught NBA fans though, no big lead is safe. These teams are so talented, so quick to convert lazy passes into fast break layups, so good at finding the open man. By the second quarter Miami realized that LeBron James would have to resort back to the distributor role that fans are so used to seeing him in rather than the rebounding force of nature fans have witnessed thus far. Oklahoma City had made the decision to force the other Heat players to beat them, doubling LeBron any time he tried to get the ball in the post.
In the past these were the type of moments that frustrated James. He has the best passing vision of his generation and yet so many times his open teammates would let him down. When Mario Chalmers struggled to hit much of anything in the first quarter, many wondered whether it was all happening again. And then something funny happened. A rookie out of Cleveland State named Norris Cole hit a pair of threes, one to close the first, one to open the second, and suddenly Miami found its groove.
They cut the lead to a single point within four minutes and it would take the Thunder almost that same amount of time before they scored their first point of the quarter. From there a sort of hesitant back-and-forth ensued between the two teams. Miami would seem to be seizing the momentum of the game only to see Westbrook drive with ease to the hoop and hush the crowd. Punch. Counterpunch. The Heat would never get the lead before halftime but they trailed by only three at the break.
So many fans and analysts are currently attempting to hijack the NBA Finals and turning it into a narrative of dubious officiating and the ethics of the block/charge conundrum. These myopic fools are missing the best Finals since Michael Jordan retired from basketball. The third quarter proved it.
The great signature of a legendary Finals matchup is when two teams begin executing at such a high level that it leaves the fans wondering which team will miss first. One stretch in the third quarter saw seven straight possessions end with points, six of which were field goals. It’s the type of back-and-forth that can only be described by using language out of boxing. First Chris Bosh hit the Thunder with a driving and-one layup. Serge Ibaka countered with a fadeaway around the free throw line. Dwyane Wade crossed the Thunder with a jumper of his own. Thabo Sefolosha then counterpunched with a jumper fed by Kevin Durant. LeBron James then got inside and hit them with a layup. Russell Westbrook then bobbed and weaved to one of his patented two-pointers . It seemed no one would break. And finally Dwyane Wade slipped his way to the foul line while the basketball world could only stand and catch its breath. Wow.
And there was still a quarter to play.
LeBron James came within a single rebound of a triple-double, finishing with a 26-9-12 line. Dwyane Wade contributed a very solid 25-5-3. Mario Chalmers came back from the dead and chipped in a much-needed 25 points. And yet for all of those remarkable contributions, this game should have been remembered as the Russell Westbrook game.
How to explain a player that is so uniquely talented, yet so unanimously criticized by the mainstream media? Westbrook certainly exorcised many, if not all of the demons unfairly thrown upon him by the talking heads on this night. He was easily the most dominant player on the floor, and if not for his heroics, the Thunder probably would have faced an embarrassing loss that could have haunted them for years down the road. To measure his impact, consider that Westbrook scored THIRTEEN straight points for the Thunder during a five minute stretch to begin the fourth quarter to tie the game at 90-90.
The physical nature with which he was getting his baskets was something the Finals hasn’t seen since the days of Shaquille O’Neal being simply unguardable in the low post. Westbrook is light years faster than every single player in the arena, even LeBron James is helpless to attempt staying in front of him. His violent attacks to the basket paired with his silky touch on mid-range jumpers is a set of skills that no other player in the league can lay claim to at the moment. He finished with 43 of the bravest points of the season but sadly, it was not enough.
For all of Westbrook’s gallantry, Oklahoma City’s two goats stole the show. James Harden failed to crack the double digit mark in points for the third time, finishing with a nightmarish 2/10 shooting line. One shot in particular gave fans insight into just how far he’s fallen. Harden found himself wide open with about two minutes left and the Thunder trailing by five, needing a bucket to stay in the game. He was so wide open that he had time to catch, hesitate, scan all four of his teammate’s positions on the court, and then fire off a shot before the Heat defense got around to covering him. It was the mark of a player afraid to pull the trigger, the biggest sign of a lack of confidence. This game should be the symbolic passing of the torch from Westbrook to Harden as the go-to player on which radio hosts can place their blame. And for once I don’t pity the player, not after rumors floated around on Twitter all week that Harden has been seen partying late into the night before these big games.
And finally there was Scott Brooks, he of the stubborn devotion and loyalty to his veterans. As awful as Harden has been, if the Oklahoma City Thunder do go on to lose the NBA Finals, Brooks needs to accept the overwhelming majority of the criticism. How else to explain the Kendrick Perkins lineups in spite of visual evidence that the Thunder play excellent small ball? How else to explain his decision tonight to leave Derek Fisher in late into the fourth quarter when the Thunder so desperately needed Thabo Sefolosha on LeBron James? And finally, how else to explain Brook’s ultimate brain fart, the lack of coaching he provided to his players following the bizarre jump ball sequence that decided the game.
On the play in the final minute of the game, the Thunder trailed by three and forced a jump ball with less than a second remaining on the shot clock in Miami’s possession. NBA rules state that the shot clock is to be set at five in that situation, but none of the Thunder players on the court were aware of this as it is such a rare situation. Brooks should have been screaming this at the top of his lungs to his players. Instead, Miami won the tip, and Russell Westbrook committed a cringe-inducing foul that was straight out of the Chris Webber playbook on dumb plays in clutch moments. But again, this was the fault of the head coach, not of the player. For all the talk of Phil Jackson coaching rumors, one can’t help but think he’s a potential candidate to land with this team after the awful performance of Brooks.
It’s worth mentioning that no team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals to win the title. It seems a foregone conclusion that by the end of the week we will be living in a world in which we say LeBron James, NBA Finals MVP or LeBron James, NBA Champion. His biggest critics will laugh that he was on the bench while his team sealed the deal, but there was something poetic about it all. For once, James could let someone else shoulder the burden. For once, he wasn’t on his own.
Finally, he has a real team.
A dream series for NBA fans was bound to produce one stinker of a game. Game 3 smelled of desperation, tension and anxiety. Miami took an all important 2-1 series lead in what traditionally turns out to be the deciding game in the seven-game playoff format. But gosh if it wasn’t a sloppy victory.
Nerves were bound to take over at some point. After both teams executed at the highest of levels in the first two games, it was clear that the Thunder and Heat both knew that the stakes were now raised. The heavyweight fighters had seen the other’s best punches, knew exactly what their opponent was capable of doing. And the best part about it is that both know that they’re equally talented. As tends to be the case in nervous bouts, fundamentals were the deciding factor.
How many times do NBA fans hear that rebounding and free throw shooting win basketball games? It’s a tiresome cliche and yet so often the team that prevails in those two statistical categories ends up going home with rings instead of disappointment. It should surprise no one then that the Heat won the rebounding battle 45-38. They also went an incredible 31-of-35 from the line while the Thunder struggled and finished 15-of-24.
This was not the Thunder team the basketball world is used to seeing.
For the second consecutive game Kevin Durant found himself in foul trouble and the irritation was written all over the Thunder star’s body language. For what seemed like the first time in this year’s playoffs, he began to force bad shots, attempting to get the Thunder back in the game all by himself. He was met by the surprising length of Chris Bosh and his terrific help defense as he struggled to convert baskets that he’s so used to making.
Then there was James Harden. For the third straight game the bearded third of the Oklahoma City Thunder big three failed to make an impact. He finished with an alarming 2-of-10 shooting performance and failed to crack the double-digit mark in points for the second time in the series. What’s frustrating for the Thunder is that there seems to be no particular reason for his recent poor play. So often it’s the slower Dwyane Wade in front of him on defense, a player that Harden should be feasting on with his quick dribble penetration. A chorus that is so quick to blame Russell Westbrook might soon be turning its critical gaze on Harden. And deservingly so.
And then there was Scott Brooks. The Thunder head coach made a bold decision prior to the game to keep Kendrick Perkins in the starting lineup. This despite all factual evidence proving that the Thunder would be far better off without him on the floor. It was a calculated decision with the clear intent of delivering a message to his team that they weren’t going to change their style for anyone. The Thunder way or the highway, if you will.
The message was well received as the Thunder didn’t find themselves with a double-digit deficit heading out of the first quarter for the first time this Finals. Unfortunately for them, it made them incredibly susceptible to Chris Bosh’s skillful cuts to the baskets and the Miami pick-and-roll. He made them pay with a quick six points in the first quarter despite an overall performance that would fall well short of what the Heat will continue to need out of him in this series. His final line was 10 points and 11 rebounds. That wasn’t the last time Brooks would make the wrong decision though.
Any bizarre game needs a bizarre quarter. The third quarter was just that. Both teams turned in poor performances in the first two periods. The Thunder allowed the Heat to stay in the game by failing to protect the rim (the Heat converted only three shot attempts outside the paint in that whole half). Miami allowed the Thunder to hang in the game when they had another opportunity to take a decisive lead. One team would surely come out in the second half and execute at the levels expected of them. Oklahoma City seemed to be the team.
The Thunder immediately turned a halftime deficit into a ten-point lead and looked to be taking over the game after Derek Fisher polished off a four-point play at the 4:33 mark. Right before that though, Kevin Durant was hit with his fourth foul and had to sit nearly the final six minutes of the third quarter. It would turn out to change the course of the game, and possibly the series.
For the final five minutes of the third quarter the Thunder fielded a lineup without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and the results were devastating. They scored only three points after the Fisher four-point play and trailed by two entering the fourth quarter. This young team cannot afford such large mistakes by their head coach when the stakes are so high.
While it’s obvious Durant had to sit because of the fouls, there was no explanation as to why Westbrook wasn’t charged with keeping the Thunder lead. He wasn’t in foul trouble, was having rather a good game up to that point and as any NBA fan knows, he just doesn’t get tired. Miami took advantage of the weak Thunder lineup and got to the free throw line twice after James Jones and Shane Battier were fouled behind the three-point line.
The decision to pair Westbrook with Durant on the bench cost Oklahoma City Game 3.
Durant and Westbrook would rise from their seats and attempt a Thunder rally, but it never materialized. The long period on the bench took its toll on both players and robbed them of their shooting rhythm. Durant, who seemingly never misses free throws, missed a crucial pair in the fourth quarter. Westbrook was only able to contribute four points in the fourth.
Free throws and rebounding. LeBron James accomplished both of those down the stretch. He grabbed four boards in the fourth. He also hit the latest biggest free throw of his career to create a two-possession lead with only 16 seconds left in the game. It’s worth adding that he’s looking remarkably poised and mature when compared with the detached player from last year. Fitting then that his 29-14 line was something straight out of the Dirk Nowitzki playbook. His success as a power forward in this series has many wondering whether the latter stages of his career will see him there instead of the point-forward position he’s played thus far.
Alas, the series heads on to Game 4. Fans can surely expect the high level of play to resume. What team will make the better adjustment though? Can the Heat continue to make the Thunder pay with their small ball lineup? Will James Harden finally realize he’s playing in the NBA Finals? Game 4 will no doubt be the best game of the series. The Thunder can’t afford to fall behind 3-1. The Heat have to capitalize on their momentum in the last two games.
As has been the case so many times in NBA history, it’s now decision time for LeBron James or Kevin Durant. Both have a chance to seize the title from Kobe Bryant as the alpha dog and face of the league. One player will enjoy a year as reigning NBA Finals MVP, while the other will have to deal with a calendar year of critics wondering if he’ll ever really be a champion. Quite frankly, neither can afford the latter.
Give this round to LeBron, but the title is still up for grabs.
That’s James Harden of the Thunder guarding him, oh by the way.
You be the judge.
I for one didn’t think a foul should have been called. Harden didn’t jump and did a great job keeping his stand. Great defense, in my opinion. I’d actually say JR traveled before even attempting the shot anyway.
I’m looking forward to hearing Matt’s take on the call and the game later on.