Perhaps it was ambitious for me to assume that the young, relatively inexperienced Oklahoma City Thunder would be able to defeat the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. The Heat had to listen to an entire off-season of critics that believed they would not and could not win a championship together, and were humbled by last year’s NBA Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks. As Kevin Durant walked off of the court and into the arms of his mother following the Thunder’s 121-106 Game Five loss that eliminated them from the NBA Finals, I can’t help but think that I was ambitious to crown them.
The Thunder lost the series in a fashion that reminded me of how the Heat lost last year’s finals. With the exception of Game 5, every game came down to the wire, but the Thunder just were unable to make the right play. Each of them are responsible for the loss – Harden, Westbrook, and Durant. They were thoroughly outplayed, and their youth, which enabled them to wear down an older San Antonio team in the Conference Finals, was easily exploited by the Miami Heat.
Their youth began to be exposed in Game Three. Holding a ten point lead late in the third quarter, Russell Westbrook tried to hard to sink the dagger. Hurried jump shots with plenty of time on the shot clock did not fall for the point guard with a shooter’s mentality. The Heat erased the deficit before the quarter even ended. Then, with 15 seconds left in the game and down by four, OKC miscommunication by Thabo Sephalosha and James Harden on an inbound pass cost them a chance of mounting a comeback. The team, which led the NBA in foul shooting percentage in the regular season, shot a paltry 63% in the team’s six point loss. Whether it was nerves, fatigue, or just bad luck is tough to guess at.
In Game Four, the Thunder jumped out to a 17 point lead after twelve minutes of action. But missed assignments on defense allowed Norris Cole and James Jones to sink critical three point field goals that evened the score in the blink of an eye. Despite Russell Westbrook’s massive scoring performance, and LeBron James limping around in the fourth quarter, the Thunder could never seize control of the game from that point on. Again, a silly mistake cost them. On a jump ball when there is less than five seconds remaining on the shot clock, the shot clock is reset to five seconds should the team that last possessed the ball regain possession. That was lost on Russell Westbrook, who thought the Heat were awarded a fresh 24, and inexplicably fouled Shane Battier instead of forcing him to put up a desperate shot. In Westbrook’s defense, with the way Battier was shooting the ball and with the luck that failed to side with OKC throughout the series, a desperation shot would have probably went in anyway. It was that sort of series for Oklahoma City.
Just ask James Harden, who should be humbled the most of all after this series. Harden’s clutch shooting was second to Kevin Durant’s will on the list of reasons why the Thunder won four straight games against San Antonio to make it to the NBA Finals. Similarly to what Tony Bennett once crooned, James Harden must have left his game in San Antonio. Harden shot just 32% from three point range in the five game series, well below his 41% average over the entire playoffs. What was even worse was Harden’s mindset, particularly in Game 4. Harden missed open jumpers, turned the ball over, and worst of all looked afraid. A telling sign was when Harden caught the ball at the foul line with no Heat defender within five feet of him, dribbled for three seconds and then put up a contested jumper that failed to go in. The worst was when following a steal, Harden missed a layup that any NBA player would make 999 out of 1000 times. All of this was in the final quarter where no team led by more than six points. Then there was just bad luck. Twice in Game Five, Harden had three pointers rattle in and out of the rim. That’s the way the series went for Oklahoma City.
Most shocking was how Kevin Durant disappeared from the final two games. He scored, and he actually averaged a tenth of a point more than LeBron James (the Finals MVP) did. But you never felt his presence or his will to take over games after he orchestrated a near-comeback in Game 2. Foul trouble in Game 2 and Game 3 caused him to miss considerable time. When Miami went on that aforementioned run to erase the 10 point lead in Game 3, Durant was on the bench after picking up his fourth foul. In Game 4, as Russell Westbrook was keeping his team in it by putting up over forty points, Durant was an observer. Westbrook took 32 shots, and Durant only 19. There’s nothing wrong with that, as Westbrook proved he is very much capable of taking and hitting those shots. What was alarming was that Durant differed to Westbrook. He wasn’t calling for the ball, he did not want to be the closer that he was against San Antonio or in Game One of the Finals.
When Durant did try to be the hero, and start demanding the ball, it was in the third quarter of Game Five, as the Thunder hopes began getting thinner. And Durant answered by sinking a three to start the second half and scoring seven points in the first five minutes of the half in an ultimately vain attempt to hold back the dam from bursting.
For that, you can credit LeBron James, who was not assigned to cover Durant in Game One. In Game Two, the constant presence of James caused Durant to commit both offensive and defensive fouls, which led to him being on the bench. The story was similar in Game Three. The Thunder could never adjust to how James played Durant, and when you factor in James Harden dropping down a level from how he played for the first 81 games of the Thunder regular and postseason, it all adds up to a swift elimination.
Let’s remember that this is still a young team, well ahead of schedule in terms of development. Durant is only 23, as is Westbrook. Harden is a mere 22. There is time to watch these players grow. Head coach Scott Brooks and GM Sam Presti have done a remarkable job assembling title contending team. Remember how long it took LeBron James to win a title, and how a year prior to tonight, the Heat were embarrassed to finish as runner-ups.
This is a learning experience for Durant, for Westbrook and for Harden. The brilliance of it is that we get to watch these play for a long, long time.
For reaction to the Miami Heat’s championship, read my article here.