Running notes from Jonathan Gault during Miami's 104-98 Game Four victory.
Oklahoma City—particularly Russell Westbrook—open up by doing exactly what they failed to do in Game 3 by taking advantage of some poor shooting by the Heat to take an early 13-3 lead. Miami misses five of its first six field goals, while the Thunder hit six of seven, including three from Westbrook without a miss. Obviously, this is unsustainable, but the Thunder need to capitalize on the Heat’s dry spells if they want to get back into this series.
Norris Cole hits a three-pointer with 3.1 seconds left in the quarter, but the Thunder still lead 33-19 after one—their first time leading after one quarter in this series. The Thunder have done a tremendous job of tremendous denying penetration in the first quarter. They’re not playing zone, but each defender is shading towards the paint when their man doesn’t have the ball. Additionally, they’ve been able to prevent the Heat from getting to the rim without fouling—which is huge when you play Miami. The Heat have shot just five free throws, missing three.
Miami has done pretty much the complete opposite on defense—if you’re wearing a Thunder jersey tonight, getting to the rim hasn’t been an issue. OKC has gotten pretty much whatever shot they want, and they end the quarter shooting 15-for-24 (63%) to the Heat’s 8-for-23 (35%). Heck, even Nick Collison has looked comfortable driving the lane, and he’s 3-for-3 after one.
Miami uses another three from Cole, an incredible circus layup from LeBron James and a fast break dunk by Dwyane Wade to put themselves right back in the game, cutting a 14-point Thunder lead in half after 1:33 of the second quarter. It’s almost as if OKC was so happy they finally led after the first that they forgot to come out for the start of the second.
I can’t remember a series where both teams have mixed brilliance with mediocrity so frequently. After four minutes of the second, a Wade three-pointer ties the game at 35. The Thunder led by 17 with just seconds to go in the first, but since then, Miami has knocked down threes and been more effective at the rim, while OKC has suddenly struggled to hit shots. This has basically been the story of this series—both teams have shown that they’re talented enough to score in bunches, but they’re so evenly matched that no run can last for long.
The Thunder lead 49-46 heading into halftime. They’ve played like two different teams tonight, but the constant has Westbrook. As he said he would prior to Game 3, Westbrook has not changed his aggressive style, and it’s paid dividends so far in Game 4. You know that you’re going to get a few decisions and rushed shot attempts from Westbrook, but his athleticism and playmaking have more than made up for it so far, as he’s 9-for-15 with 18 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and just 1 turnover.
James has also played a great all-around game, with 10 points, 6 rebounds and 8 assists. There has been a lot of talk during this series about who’s guarding who, and for most of the first half of Game 4, it’s been Thabo Sefolosha on James. This is the matchup OKC should be playing as much as possible—it’s clear that Kevin Durant isn’t a strong enough defender to handle James without fouling, and asking him
to guard the league’s MVP AND score 30 points is too much, even for someone as talented as Durant. No one can stop James completely, but Scott Brooks needs to keep Sefolosha on James because, even though he limits what OKC can do offensively, Sefolosha has done well on James in the past—particularly the second half of Game 1. They simply can’t afford to have Durant on James for extended periods.
OKC has been allowing a lot of open threes tonight, a natural byproduct when you pack defenders in the paint to deny penetration. The Heat haven’t been able to make the Thunder pay, as they’ve shot just 5-for-15 from deep with 9:29 to go in the third. Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers are a combined 1-for-8 from so far.
James is the only player on the floor who’s looked like a point guard so far. No one on the Thunder is cutting to the basket or coming off screens. Westbrook’s been taking it himself a lot too,—not necessarily a bad thing—but he can’t do that every possession. OKC won’t win in the fourth quarter playing that way. They need to go back to using real plays rather than going one-on-one every possession. That way, they can actually get some good looks on three-pointers instead of forcing up bricks from beyond the arc. With 3:22 to go in the third, they’ve shot just 3-for-11 from deep.
Miami takes a 79-75 lead into the fourth and is just 12 minutes from a commanding 3-1 series lead. The Thunder, on the other hand, have become distracted by the officials’ performance, and it’s impacted their play so far in the second half. They have a reason to feel upset—several questionable calls went against OKC in the third, and they’ve shot just 11 free throws through three quarters—but they cannot afford to get hung up on something out of their control, especially during a critical portion of a critical game in the NBA Finals.
James Harden misses a wide-open three—for the second consecutive possession—before missing a relatively easy layup on a fast break. The Heat punish the Thunder for not taking advantage, getting a layup and three-pointer from Chalmers (off an offensive rebound, no less) to firmly grab the momentum along with an 85-79 lead with 8:56 to go. Harden is suffering through another poor offensive outing, as he’s just 2-for-9 from the field to this point. The 22-year-old has improved so much in his short NBA career, but he’s been unable to deliver so far on the sport’s biggest stage.
Westbrook continues to amaze, answering a Wade three with a drive between three Heat defenders (and the foul) to cut the Heat lead to four. He follows that up with a pull-up jumper, a shot he’s been money on tonight, and the Heat lead by just two with 6:47 to play. He’s been brilliant (37 points, including 11 of the Thunder’s 13 in the fourth so far), but OKC needs someone else to step up at some point if they’re going to pull this one out. You can’t play one-on-five against one of the league’s top defenses and expect to come out alive.
James comes up limp after falling on offense, and he comes out of the game with 5:15 to play with what appear to be cramps. Durant immediately capitalizes and draws a foul on Battier (he makes both free throws), followed by a pull-up jumper to put OKC up, 94-92. James checks back in with 4:04 to go, but his brief absence certainly had an impact.
The next sequence is exactly what Pat Riley envisioned when he assembled the Heat’s Big Three in the summer of 2010. Wade hits Bosh for a layup, James hits a huge three-pointer at the end of the shot clock, and Wade hits a shot at the rim to give Miami a 99-94 lead with 2:18 to play.
With LeBron back on the bench, Chalmers hits a layup with 44 seconds to go to put the Heat up five. Chalmers may not be a top-10 point guard in this league, but he’s hit some big shots in these playoffs and isn’t afraid of the moment (remember, he hit the game-tying shot in the national championship game in college at Kansas in 2008).
Westbrook commits a huge mental gaffe, fouling Chalmers immediately following a jump ball with 13 seconds to go in a three-point game—even though there were only four seconds left on the shot clock. Westbrook clearly thought the shot clock reset on the jump ball, but it’s Game 4 of the NBA Finals—he can’t be excused for not knowing the situation. Chalmers comes through again, hitting both free throws to give the Heat a five-point lead.
25 points from Mario Chalmers (including 12 in the fourth quarter) give the Heat a 104-98 victory. The underappreciated point guard was huge down the stretch, including five points in the final minute with James on the bench.
It’s a tough pill to swallow when you get 71 points from Durant and Westbrook and lose. OKC has had chances to win in all three of their losses, but their youth has shown. When it’s mattered most, a variety of players on the Heat have made plays in this series; the same can’t be said for the Thunder.
Even though they have to deal with Durant and Westbrook, in some ways, the Thunder are actually a good matchup for Miami. The biggest thing is that OKC doesn’t have anything resembling a post presence on offense—Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, and Nick Collison combined for 14 points in Game 4—and that’s the Heat’s one big weakness defensively. A team like the Lakers might, I repeat, might have given the Heat more trouble because they have multiple guys who can kill you down low (though Pau Gasol has been a shell of his former self the last two playoffs). Of course, things have also been a lot easier for the Heat because James Harden has done nothing in three of four games this series.
Harden’s line in Game 4: 8 points on 2-for-10 shooting. He was visibly afraid to take shots in the fourth quarter, and once you’re in that state of mind, you might as well be on the bench.
There was some questionable officiating in this one, to be sure. Westbrook attempted 32 field goals but just 3 free throws. He didn’t attempt his first one until midway through the fourth quarter, after he had already shot 28 times. And Westbrook wasn’t jacking up threes—as always, most of his attempts came on drives to the basket. How is it possible that he attempted just one more free throw than Battier, who had four field goal attempts (all three-pointers)? HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE? [Editor's Note: Both teams shot 6 FT's in the first half, but the Heat shot 19 to the Thunder's 10 in the second.]
OKC can’t get discouraged—every game has been close, and if a few things break their way, this series could be 2-2 or 3-1 the other way. But it’s really hard for a young team that’s lost three tough games in a row to suddenly bounce back and win three in a row. I just don’t see them coming back at this point.