Heat Come Back from 17 Point Deficit, Take 3-1 Finals LeadThe Miami Heat withstood a tremendous 33-16 first quarter outburst by the Oklahoma City Thunder and a historically great individual performance by Russell Westbrook to take a 3-1 NBA Finals lead with a hard fought 104-98 victory. Leg cramps limited LeBron James in the final five minutes of the game but he still just narrowly missed posting a triple double with 26 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds, leading the Heat in all three categories. Dwyane Wade added 25 points, five rebounds and three assists and Chris Bosh contributed 13 points while tying James with nine rebounds but the difference proved to be Mario Chalmers' playoff career-high tying 25 points, including the final five points of the game; Chalmers' layup with :44 remaining put the Heat up 101-96 and he then calmly drained three out of four free throw attempts to ice the win. There is a reason that many NBA talent evaluators like to draft players who won a championship at the collegiate level (assuming, of course, that the player has at least one legitimate NBA skill); Chalmers won the 2008 Final Four Most Outstanding Player award while leading Kansas to the NCAA title and he is a perfect complementary player for the Heat because of his willingness/ability to take and make big pressure shots, much like John Paxson, Steve Kerr and Derek Fisher filled a similar role on many championship teams in the past two decades. None of those four 6-3 and under guards were/are traditional point guards but they were/are all excellent spot up shooters.
Twenty four years ago, Isiah Thomas scored 43 points in game six of the NBA Finals--many of them on one leg after he sprained his ankle--as his Detroit Pistons lost to the L.A. Lakers 103-102; Westbrook did not sprain his ankle and he did not pour in a record 25 points in one quarter the way that Thomas did but Westbrook's 43 points on 20-32 field goal shooting (plus seven rebounds and five assists) will be remembered as one of the greatest single game performances in NBA Finals history. It is hard to overstate just how well Westbrook played and just how rare his overall numbers are, particularly at the NBA Finals level: Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal are the only other two players in the past 25 years who made at least 20 field goals in an NBA Finals game, they are the only other two players in that time span who scored more than 43 points in an NBA Finals game while shooting better than .600 from the field and they are also the only other two players in the past quarter century who scored at least 43 points in an NBA Finals game while accumulating at least seven rebounds and at least five assists.
No Heat player can stay in front of Westbrook--and that was as true in games one through three when he missed good, point blank shots at the rim as it was in game four when he made those same shots, a reality that ESPN's Magic Johnson finally acknowledged; Johnson apologized for the disparaging comments that he made about Westbrook's game two performance and Johnson conceded that the way Westbrook plays is an essential part of the Thunder's success this season.
I rarely comment much in my game recaps about officiating and I do not plan to change that policy now, but here is one interesting statistic to consider: even though Westbrook is an attacking player who scores many of his points in the paint, he is the first player in NBA Finals history to score at least 43 points in a game while having three or fewer free throw attempts.
While Westbrook put his name in the history books alongside legends like Isiah Thomas and Jerry West (who tallied 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists in game seven of the 1969 NBA Finals to become the first and only Finals MVP from the losing squad), LeBron James is on the verge of making history as well; the best player in the NBA is just one win away from capturing his first NBA championship. James' playoff numbers this year are great but he has put up similar numbers before; the big difference now is that his effort level is consistently high and he is making a conscious effort to relentlessly attack the paint instead of settling for jump shots or meekly passing the ball without first drawing multiple defenders to create an open shot for the player who receives the ball: it is one thing to passively give up the ball while standing three feet behind the three point line and it is another thing entirely to post up, get both feet in the paint to draw an extra defender and then fire a pass to a teammate for an open shot.
The way that James is playing now is the way that James should have played against Boston in the 2010 playoffs and against Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals; if the Heat win the 2012 NBA Championship then James will obviously deserve to receive the Finals MVP and all of the accolades that go along with being the best player on a championship team but that accomplishment will not justify the narcissistic excess of the "Decision" or James' ludicrous boast that it would be "easy" to "win multiple championships"--and I suspect that if James is honest about it he would admit that nothing about this season or this playoff run has been easy. Perhaps James has learned how important it is to respect the process involved in becoming a champion and how important it is to play hard all of the time. The idea that James could just team up with two perennial All-Stars and cruise to multiple titles was foolish, as was the idea that fleeing Cleveland relieved James of the pressure to perform at a high level; in order for the Heat--or any other team--to win an NBA championship it is necessary for the best player to dominate the game and that has almost always been true (the 1979 Sonics and the 2004 Pistons are perhaps the only exceptions to that rule, with multiple All-Stars on those squads almost equally sharing the collective load).
After the first quarter it did not seem likely that we would now be thinking about James possibly hoisting the Finals MVP on Thursday night; for the first time in the series the Thunder exploded out of the gates, with Westbrook leading the way, but the Heat weathered the storm and Norris Cole's three pointer with :03 left started a 16-0 run that erased almost all of the Thunder's initial advantage. The Thunder never led by more than five the rest of the way, so it is important to understand that even though much attention will be focused on the final minutes of the game the Thunder actually lost this game in the second quarter (and, to a lesser extent, in the third quarter when they fell behind after leading by three at halftime) when they so quickly surrendered a huge lead and could never again muster the energy that they displayed in the first 10 minutes or so of the contest. A big part of the problem for the Thunder is that their transition defense fell apart, so much so that on occasion they gave up layups (or fouls in the paint) even after they scored--something that exasperated ABC's Jeff Van Gundy (and surely must have infuriated Thunder Coach Scott Brooks): at one point, Van Gundy declared that if players are tired then they should go sit on the bench but that there is no excuse for jogging back on defense, particularly with an NBA championship at stake.
After the Thunder blew their big lead, the game was close the rest of the way. The individual plays that will be most discussed took place in the final six minutes of the fourth quarter, starting with Derek Fisher's steal from LeBron James with the score tied at 90. The 37 year old Fisher, who has never been a great finisher at the rim, recklessly went all the way to the hoop and got his shot stuffed by Wade like a little brother getting packed by his big brother in the driveway; Wade's block ignited a Heat fastbreak and--as Hubie Brown likes to say--a missed layup at one end of the court in an NBA game almost always results in a score at the other end of the court within three or four seconds. James made a short shot from the left wing to put the Heat up two, but he came up lame and after Westbrook missed a jumper the Heat called timeout and James had to be helped to the bench because of leg cramps.
James missed 1:10 with the injury, came back at the 4:05 mark to play for a little more than three minutes and then sat out the final :55--during which the Heat (specifically, Chalmers) outscored the Thunder 5-2. When James returned to action, the Thunder failed to attack him at either end of the court: they should have crowded him on offense and they should have driven the ball right at him on defense but their offensive possessions during that crucial time resulted in three long, missed jump shots, two turnovers, an offensive foul by Durant and a strong driving layup by Westbrook (the Thunder's only score). Bill Russell once said that he would have been insulted if Willis Reed--or anyone else--had tried to play against him on one leg the way that Reed played against Wilt Chamberlain in the 1970 NBA Finals; toward the end of his career, Michael Jordan torched Kenyon Martin for 45 points after Martin foolishly admitted to Jordan that a back injury was limiting his mobility. Jordan could not believe that someone would volunteer such information to an opponent. It is inexplicable that the Thunder permitted James to hobble around the court for three minutes without making him and the Heat pay. James' three pointer with 2:50 remaining put the Heat up 97-94 and the Heat led the rest of the way; James spent that entire possession as an immobile decoy--which is why Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra removed him from the game shortly thereafter--so it is baffling that the Thunder did not force James to put the ball on the floor, even though that obviously contradicts the scouting report about how to guard a healthy James. Unless the Thunder thought that James was faking--and there was no reason to think that--they had to attack him at that crucial point in the game.
The Thunder's last realistic chance to save the game happened when Udonis Haslem and James Harden contested a jump ball at the Heat's end of the court with 17 seconds remaining and Miami leading 101-98. Miami controlled the tip but only had five seconds to shoot; if the Thunder got a stop and a rebound then they would have had time to try a tying three pointer but Westbrook--who apparently thought that the shot clock had reset--intentionally fouled Chalmers, who made both free throws. Coach Brooks correctly stated that one play out of 200 or so does not win or lose a game--and I would add that the Thunder's mistakes in the second and third quarters plus their refusal to attack the wounded James had more to do with the loss than one mental error by the player who almost singlehandedly kept them in the game with a performance for the ages.
The bottom line is that Westbrook needed more help and if he had received just a little more assistance then this series would be tied 2-2. Kevin Durant scored 28 points on 9-19 field goal shooting and 9-9 free throw shooting but his floor game was once again subpar; in the last three games, LeBron James has physically dominated Durant, preventing Durant from receiving the ball close to the hoop and essentially forcing Durant to revert back to being a one dimensional player who does not impact the game in other ways (Durant only had two rebounds and three assists).
Besides the way that James has outplayed Durant since game one, the big difference in this series has been the disappearance of 2012 Sixth Man of the Year James Harden; listen closely and you can hear all of the people who loudly stated that the Thunder should keep Harden and trade Westbrook scurrying into hiding. Miami's Big Three is fully functional, with LeBron James filling up all of the box score columns, Dwyane Wade serving as the second leading scorer and secondary playmaker and Chris Bosh providing a paint presence at both ends of the court--but Oklahoma City's Big Three has turned into a Big Two now that Harden is scoring in single digits while shooting a low percentage. Harden had just eight points on 2-10 field goal shooting in game four.
No team has ever won the NBA Finals after trailing 3-1 and no Finalist has even forced a game seven after facing that deficit; the only solace the Thunder can take now is that all of the games have been competitive and they have proven that they can outplay the Heat for significant stretches of time: one road win sends this series back to Oklahoma City, where the Thunder have only lost once this postseason. If the Thunder can revive James Harden and get some more production from their big men then perhaps they can make history--but it is more likely that 10 years from now James' gimpy legged three pointer will be featured in a TV commercial similar to the one that now highlights Michael Jordan's famous "flu game."
posted by David Friedman @ 2:48 AM