The Thunder came out with a vengeance on Tuesday night and took an early lead against Miami in a crucial game four. Oklahoma seemed to understand the importance of getting a win to tie the series at 2-2, going into game 5 at home on Thursday.
However, despite Oklahoma City building a comfortable 33-19 lead by the end of the first quarter, Miami struck back in the second and third periods to overcome the deficit and establish a four point lead going into the final quarter. In a neck and neck battle in the fourth, the focus of the game revolved one player: none other than OKC’s explosive point guard Russell Westbrook.
After demonstrating one of the greatest finals performances that the NBA has seen in years, Russell Westbrook made a late-game decision that may have arguably cost his team the game, and has since become the center of controversy in the basketball world.
With 40.5 seconds left in the game and the Thunder only down by 3, James Harden and Udonis Haslem got tangled up for a jump-ball call. With five seconds remaining on the shot clock, the jump ball was tipped by Harden where Mario Chalmers of the Heat was able to scoop up the loose ball. Considering that there were only 5 seconds left on the shot clock, the Heat would be rushed to get off a shot and pending a miss, the Thunder would regain possession of the ball with an opportunity to tie up the ball game. However, out of sudden impulse, or purely bad decision-making, Westbrook decides to run up and intentionally foul Mario Chalmers. Chalmers, being an excellent free throw shooter, gets a free trip to the charity stripe to knock down two clutch free throws and essentially seal the deal.
Did Russell Westbrook commit a terrible foul? Yes. Did he cost his team the game? No. While all the haters will be quick to point fingers at Westbrook for his questionable decision making down the stretch, the fact of the matter is this: Russell Westbrook scored a game-high 43 points including 17 of which came in the fourth quarter to put his team even in contention, and even if Westbrook had not committed the foul, the Thunder were still looking at slim chances to win the game.
Headed back home to Oklahoma City for a much-anticipated game 5 on Thursday night, the Thunder must figure things out quickly if they are to have any hope of extending this series. And with there being no team in the NBA’s past to ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the finals, history is definitely not on their side.
Can the Thunder re-write history?
The Miami Heat are just 96 minutes, or two games away from earning their first NBA title since the “Big 3” era. Leading 2-1 in this Finals series against the Oklahoma City Thunder and going into game 4 tonight, the Heat are in a very familiar position. In last year’s finals, Miami similarly held a 2-1 lead over the Dallas Mavericks going into their fourth game. Miami would fall short, however, as they would allow the Mavericks to take over for the remainder of the series and earn three consecutive wins for the title, proving that Miami had yet to become a championship caliber team.
Don’t let Miami’s poor showing last year fool you, because this year’s Heat team is not the same. The season’s MVP and also Miami’s leader, Lebron James, is walking proof of this idea. Averaging 30.3 points and 10.3 rebounds so far in the series, he is already showing a huge improvement from last year’s 17.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game averages against Dallas. But these increases are only the most negligible of changes. The real change in the Miami team comes from its newest ability to attack the paint and draw fouls from inside. James’ 29 free throw attempts so far in the series, as well as Miami’s 31 out of 35 points from the charity stripe in game 3 is confirmation of the Heat’s efficiency inside the key.
Despite trailing one game, Oklahoma City is all but defeated. After coming back from a 2-0 deficit in the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, the Thunder demonstrated that if any team can come back to win a series in the playoffs, it’s them. In a nerve-racking game 3, the Thunder failed to play strong interior defense allowing Miami to penetrate into the paint too easily. Also, the league’s leading scorer, Kevin Durant, getting into foul trouble in the third quarter significantly hurt the Thunder’s offense, as Harden and Westbrook were left with the scoring burden. However, if the Thunder can make some adjustments and come out in game 4 with a collapsing zone defense that packs the middle, Miami will be forced to shoot more jump shots, which will change the pace of the entire game.
While the Heat are only two wins away from putting an end to this highly physical, nail-biting series, the Thunder’s striking morale is nothing if not an indication that this series is far from over.
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