John: It happened again.
Funny how that works, too. For all my speeches and blabbity blah about how there’s no cheap victories in the NBA Finals and how nobody ascends from out of nowhere and how you have to get your heartbroken before you can win the title.
Turns it out I forgot my own lesson. Again.
Same thing happened last year, when I wrote this and most of us considered the Heat a runaway freight train, only to watch them have a hard time swallowing all the pressure that came with their first NBA Finals. Yeah, LeBron had been there once before, but only as a proverbial frog for the San Antonio snake. Last year, we watched the Heat lose games more than get beat, and we’re seeing the same thing here. In the NBA finals, that can often be the only real distinction made between the two teams when it’s all said and done. Who gave it away, who took it, or who had it fall into their laps?
Well, there’s one thing I know for certain after watching these two teams battle for four games, and that’s that not much separates them, talent-wise. Truth is, I still consider Oklahoma the better team, not that it’s going to do them any good this time around. Play these games in an empty gym and the Thunder would probably have to be prohibitive favorites and James Harden probably goes for 20 a game. Of course, they have to sell tickets (and advertisements) to be able to pay these guys, so instead we get the younger, less experienced team fumbling around in the dark like a virgin trying to unhook a girls’ bra and Harden looking about as scared as I can recall an NBA player looking on a basketball court, still tryin to convince us some more, pretendin’ he’s raw. That’s what you need a minister for.
I mean, I haven’t seen a meltdown like that since the 2000 Portland Trailblazers missed about 92 shots in a row in the 4th quarter of game 7 of the Western Finals en route to blowing a 15 point lead and their best shot at a championship since Bill Walton left town. Watching that possession in the last two minutes where harden was left wide open at the free throw line, tried to pretend he wasn’t open, then cast up a hopeless jumpy shot was about as awkward as watching the scene in the teen movie where the kid gets turned down by his dream girl for the prom of whatever.
Just tough to watch.
That’s it, really. For lack of a more profound explanation, that’s what it all comes down to. You can talk about all the x’s and o’s and cross-matches and Miami’s dominance in the paint and the clutch exploits of obscure performers like Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier if you want to. Certainly, all of that stuff counts for something. Still, every one of these games has been there for the taking in the last 6 minutes, and Miami has taken the last three, with the Thunders’ assistance. In those moments, we’ve learned of the only real difference between two teams have been separated by a grand total of 5 points in 4 games, and it’s the difference between winners and losers, laid bare for all to see. This time around, the Heat knew just enough to stay out of their own way, while the Thunder are learning old lessons the hard way.
If this seems more like a recap of the series than game 4, I say it’s all the same. This game, all of these games, have told the same story. This is the Heat’s time. Next year, with both teams considered overwhelming favorites to end up in this same spot, the table could very well turn now that Durant and company have taken their lumps. For now though, they are resigned to this fate, as is Miami to theirs.
Hey, that’s how it goes. Hopefully I won’t forget the lesson again the next time.
When it came down to it, the Heat were able to find a way to make the necessary moves to win a basketball game. It’s as simple as that. Their leader was sidelined and they were in a high-intensity, frenetic environment that you might figure would favor a younger and more athletic team (or maybe not – more on “younger” in a minute). However, Miami has shown a knack for weathering storms and has gotten key contributions from role-players throughout the Finals. Game 4 was no exception.
On the flip side, for all of OKC’s youth, energy, and talent, they just aren’t seasoned enough to execute and finish on a consistent basis. Youth can both hinder and elevate, and the Thunder have proved that quite nicely. When it mattered most, the explosive fury and other-worldly physical talents were gone, replaced by mental mistakes that ranged from poor shots to ill-advised fouls. A sort of complete absence of thought that is the result of a pressure so heavy that it can only be dealt with over time… after it has likely wrecked you a couple of times.
To be clear, I blame the collective group for their inability to win these games. No one person is ever absolutely at fault in a team sport. Russ B. Free might have made a poor decision towards the end, but that was only after the guy set the mightiest of tones throughout the evening. The best of what he’s more than capable of doing – a raging, snarling bull with a the demeanor of a rabid wolverine and a look in his eye only previously seen in the pearly-whites of coke fiends and/or paranoid schizophrenics. I don’t think Westbrook is either of those things (scary to think what it would be like if he was). What I do think is that he’s a guy whose faults can be tolerated. Not ignored, but tolerated because, sweet Jesus, he can be frighteningly good.
If you want blame, look at the inconsistent efforts. Look at James Harden, who played the worst game of his career. He had a game so bad that I actually saw confusion and/or self-doubt in his eyes for the first time, well, ever. I watched the majority of Harden’s Arizona State career, and have seen more than my fair share of Thunder games (thanks to wonderful national coverage that is a constant reminder of the ghosts of days gone by). Let me assure you of this: James Harden thinks he’s the best fucking basketball player on the planet and, until these last few games, did a nice job of proving his worth. Game 4 reduced him to a stumbling, hesitant player who didn’t have the slightest clue as to how to did himself out of the hole he was in.
Need more? You should. Look at Thabo Sefolosha… out there shooting the ball off the side of the god-damned backboard (shooting at all, really), and getting thoroughly destroyed by Lebron James on the other side of the ball. I can’t really get mad at him for the latter, but the former is avoidable. Look at guys like Serge Ibaka and/or Derek Fisher, trying to do a little too much instead of staying under control. Hell, maybe even look at Kevin Durant. I know… how dare I? Well, Durant had some nice numbers and obviously wasn’t going to be taking complete control of a game in which the team’s point guard was rightfully running the show, but I think it’d be tough to disagree that KD’s performance was a little quiet. Look at Kendrick Perkins, who is primarily useless the vast majority of the time. Whether it’s immaturity or reality, OKC fans can’t help be a little disappointed, “… ‘cause they ain’t all cracked up to what they should be…”
Add all of the above up, question some strategy, and then consider how this group of players reacts to things. The Thunder have most definitely been on the short end of some bad calls, but they seem to let those things really get under their skin. Furthermore, what I’ve often noticed about them is that, when they make big shots, they look around a lot. At their teammates. Into the crowd. Towards the announcers. Whatever. Of course, dudes like James and Wade are notorious for that, but when they stare off into the distance after completely emasculating somebody, they convey a certain something that says, “I AM the baddest son of a bitch in the world.” When those OKC guys do it, it almost has a sense of, “How’s that? Did I convince you? Did I prove it?”
The answer, at this point, is, “No. Close, but not quite…”
The Heat, on the other hand, survived the bone-jarring opening punch and then proceeded to do what is sort of commonplace for them in this series. Peripheral players were huge (this time, it was Rio Chalmers and the diminutive Norris Cole), and Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh gave inspired efforts.
(Also, the James fellow was a monster, playing what I thought was one of his most impressive all-around games ever up until he was derailed by cramps, which are often the result of dehydration and/or constantly assaulting/suffocating your opponent in a basketball game. It’s pretty damned obvious that, no matter how many times Durant tries to fool me into thinking otherwise, James is the best player on the planet.)
This series isn’t over, but it’s close. If there’s a team that is capable of somehow stealing an opponent’s closeout game in hostile territory, the Thunder could be it. However, I have to doubt that in a big way now. We’ll certainly hear about this group for years to come, but this year seems akin to diving into the deep end of the pool a little too soon. Get those water wings back on and come back when you’re ready, kid…