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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