A Stranglehold On The Series

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Now that was a game they’ll be showing on ESPN Classic in the years to come.

If you watched last night’s exhilarating Game 4 between the Heat and Thunder, you’re probably still catching your breath. If you missed it, then I really don’t know what to tell you—other than the fact that you messed up big time. Miami triumphed, 104-98, to go 3-1 up in the series, but that doesn’t begin to tell the story.

If Sunday night’s Game 3 was an ugly, scrappy affair, then Game 4 was the polar opposite. Playoff basketball at it’s absolute finest.

And oh the talking points. So many talking points.

Russell Westbrook dropping 43—single-handily dragging his team back into contention in the 4th quarter, before making a major error in judgment. A much-maligned starter, Mario Chalmers, having his greatest game in a Heat uniform, hitting clutch shot after clutch shot. Dwyane Wade’s epic defense down the stretch (two massive blocks!), and, of course, that man LeBron James—a near triple-double performance from the MVP, which was almost overshadowed by leg cramps at the end of the game.

Breathe. Just breathe.

Lets begin at… well… the beginning

Playing with Urgency

Quick question: How many teams have come back to win from 3-1 down in the NBA Finals? Answer: Zero. Last night’s narrative: A must-win game for OKC.

That aforementioned statistic loomed large for the Thunder as they entered Game 4. The pressure was firmly on their shoulders. Brook’s men simply couldn’t afford the type of sluggish start they’ve made in a number of games in these playoffs.

And they were anything but sluggish to start last night’s game.

In fact, OKC played their best 12 minutes of basketball yet. They were aggressive, pushed the ball up the floor with great pace, and were tenacious on defense. Westbrook, there’ll be more to say about him later, made his first 4 shots—that sweet pull-up jumper was falling beautifully. Durant was firing, and even Nick Collison was getting in on the act—scoring 6 points and pulling down some big rebounds.

OKC were rolling. Miami were shell-shocked. They trailed 33-19 by the end of the 1st quarter.

King James and the Counterpunch

Of course, if you thought that the Heat were out of this game after one bad quarter of basketball, you really haven’t been watching these playoffs too closely. Quarters seem to be distinct entities—games within the game that often have little bearing on what follows.

Miami absorbed the hit, sucked it up, and counter-punched with force. After falling down by 17 in the 1st, the Heat went on a 16-0 run to draw the game level. The rookie Norris Cole hit two massive 3s, after receiving the ball from LeBron out of double-teams, to get the Heat rolling. The Miami crowd was the loudest it’s ever been. If you closed your eyes, it might have been Boston, or even Oklahoma City.

And now that I’ve mentioned his name again, lets discuss that guy James. He was phenomenal in this game—particularly in a first-half in which he flirted with a triple double (10-6-8). It’s getting a little redundant to credit him for being awesome, because that’s what he’s been all playoffs, but the non-scoring facets of his game were something special last night.

James finished with 12 assists in this game—his jaw dropping line: 26-9-12. Yeah, not bad. OKC tried to double him numerous times last night, but his fantastic passing tore that tactic to shreds. James made one pass in particular, an instinctive ‘read the play before it unfolds’ beauty to Wade under the basket, which was something to behold. He even made a clutch 3-point shot to put the Heat up 97-94 with two minutes left. I thought he didn’t hit those.

But allow me another quick tangent.

Defining a player’s greatness by indirectly disparaging another great player is something I try to avoid. The ‘Durant is better than LeBron’ contingent are hard to ignore, however. Yes, Durant is a fantastic player—probably the second best on the planet. If you want to compare scoring abilities between the two, then that’s a fair fight—maybe a coin toss. But if you also factor in one-on-one defense, passing ability, and rebounding, it’s no contest. I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face: LeBron is the best player in the NBA. End of tangential rant.

Unfortunately, as well as LeBron played in the 2nd quarter, OKC started to hurt themselves. After such a great 1st quarter, they reverted back to one of their major problem areas from the regular season: too much isolation ball. The Heat, having one of the best half-court defenses in the league, were able to get stops partly because the Thunder weren’t moving the ball. The Thunder’s play was slow and predictable, and their lead shrunk to just 3 points by half time.

The Thunder continued to struggle early in the 3rd, while the Heat got some serious scoring from an unlikely source: Mario Chalmers. Chalmers, who leads the league in scowls and obscenities directed at him by teammates, hit some massive shots for his team. He made big 3s, but also displayed his hugely underrated quick first-step, which got him into the paint for easy lay-ups. Largely thanks to Chalmers, who would finish the night with 25 points, Miami were up by as many as 7 in the 3rd quarter.

Cue the furious Russell Westbrook-inspired comeback.

The Great and the Not-So-Great

Westbrook was immense in the 4th—there isn’t really any other way to put it. With James Harden struggling badly (He’s looked awful in these last two games) and LeBron making Durant fight for every clean look, the Thunder’s young point guard took over. He’d been shooting well all game, but he was on another level in the 4th.

Westbrook hit 11 straight points for his team, none of them easy, to tie the game up, 90-90. He’s been heavily criticized, many times unfairly, for shooting too often this year. He’s never wavered from his aggressive style however, despite all the flak, and he changed nothing about his game last night.

If you hate Russ for being a shoot-first point-guard, it would be the height of hypocrisy to love his game last night. It’s a make-or-miss league, and Westbrook made shots last night. That’s the only difference. And I, for one, love Russell Westbrook’s game.

Unfortunately for Westbrook, and this is where basketball is sometimes a cruel sport, much of the focus will be shifted from his fantastic scoring display, and placed firmly on his massive error in judgment late in the game.

After making another big shot to close the gap to 3, (99-96) James Harden forced a jump ball with 17 seconds left. Miami had 5 seconds left on the shot clock—one stop and OKC would have a chance to tie the game. When Battier tipped the ball out to Chalmers, Westbrook lost his bearings and inexplicably fouled Chalmers, sending him to the free throw line. A 3-point lead became a 5- point lead, and it was effectively game over.

It was a dumb play, but it would be a major injustice if a single brain cramp overshadowed one hell of a performance.

Oh, and that was one hell of a game.

Over in 5?

Unfortunately, if NBA history is anything to go by, we could be nearing the end of this fantastically exciting series. Not only has no team ever managed to come back from 3-1 down in the NBA Finals, no team has even managed to force a game 7.

Can the Thunder make history?

They certainly have the talent. OKC went 2-0 down against the Spurs, a team that had won 20 straight, and bounced back to win the next 4 games. They won’t give up the fight, that’s for sure. One thing needs to change, however, if they want to get back into this series.

James Harden needs to recapture his rapidly diminishing confidence. During the 4th quarter he was deferring on open shots. That can’t happen. He can’t shoot to save his life right now, that’s obvious, but he needs to stay aggressive. The Thunder needs a massive performance from the Bearded One in Game 5, if they’re going to take the series back to Oklahoma.

Unfortunately for OKC, there are things they can’t control in this series too. They can’t control the fact that LeBron is playing transcendent basketball. They can’t control the extreme intensity that the Heat are playing with, and they can’t control the fact that Miami’s role players are hitting everything from beyond the arc.

OKC might have one foot in the grave. Game 4’s loss was backbreaking and history is against them. But for the sake of the neutral basketball fan, lets hope they can pull it out in Game 5. The more we get to see of this series, the better. Sorry Heat fans. 

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