Oh, yeah: not a single member of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s core trio is older than 23. Amid all the plaudits heaped on the Thunder recently—and I was one of the heapers myself—it’s been easy to forget that in basketball, youth doesn’t just mean springy legs and 45 minutes a game without an ice bath afterward. It also means a propensity for screwups in key moments, for picking selfishness over selflessness—or vice versa—at the wrong time, or vice versa, for getting out-calmed by more experienced opponents.
And that’s part of what happened last night during the Thunder’s 91–85 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 3 of the NBA Finals: the Thunder froze up in the biggest moment of their young basketball lives.
Playing the inexperience card is a bit of a dangerous game. After all, the Thunder shot 15 of 24 from the foul line, a chicken-breast-thawing-on-the-counter clip of 62.5 percent. Miami was 31 of 35. There’s your ball game, and you’d be hard-pressed to blame that on the experience gap.
Still, watching the Thunder, particularly in the second half, it was hard to shake the feeling that they were hurt by their youth in this, their first road finals game. There’s a certain toughness that veteran teams can use to ride out chaotic late-game finishes on the biggest stages, a collective savviness that develops over time and eventually—but only eventually—hardens into an armor able to withstand even the highest-intensity situations, when you’re in front of a hostile crowd and need just one stop or one bucket.
The Thunder have been plenty seasoned in recent years, but they’re still very young to be in this position, the finals are a different beast, and maybe their armor hasn’t hardened just yet. Because that’s how the series feels (and this comes with the essential caveat that the last time the Thunder were down in a series, 2–0 to the San Antonio Spurs just a couple weeks ago, it felt like the Spurs were going to roll them): these teams are quite evenly matched, each has more than one player the other can’t stop, each is blessed with remarkable athleticism, but Miami is just readier.
Yes, Miami had a lot of late-game turnovers, which is a strike against the experience-gap hypothesis. But there’s plenty of evidence on the other side of the ledger. For large swaths of the second half, Oklahoma City played a maddening brand of one-on-one ball. James Harden versus everyone, followed by Russell Westbrook versus everyone, followed by Kevin Durant versus everyone. Durant had no assists last night; Westbrook had four. Harden paced the team with six, but, as if to compensate for this one bright spot, he shot the ball at an abysmal 20 percent.
A lot of this goes back to Westbrook, the most polarizing figure, basketballwise, in the series. The dynamic of how he fits in with Durant and coach Scott Brooks is fascinating. Basically, everyone knows he shoots too much and forces the ball at times, but Durant and Brooks both have smartly realized that they have nothing to gain from pillorying him publicly for these shortcomings.
And the fact is that he should shoot a lot. He’s an incredible offensive weapon. No one in the league can stay in front of him. Most defenders opt to play several feet off him, which lets him launch his jumper—on which he gets sensational elevation—whenever he wants; and if they play up on him, he can blow by them and finish with an explosiveness that may be unrivaled at his position, with the possible exception of pre-injury Derrick Rose.
But there’s still rawness to him, a hero-ball tendency that doesn’t work when you have teammates named Durant and Harden, and it hurt the Thunder last night. During one awful 80-second stretch midway through the third quarter, Westbrook racked up a turnover, two misses off bad shots, and another turnover on an offensive foul, which garnered him some well-deserved time on the bench. It’s hard to overstate Westbrook’s talent and upside, but if he wants to be one of the best players in the league, which he has all the ability to be, he can’t have nightmare stretches like that in the finals. He’s now 28 of 68 from the field in the series, or 41 percent, and has taken seven more shots than the greatest basketball scorer on the planet, Kevin Durant (though that number is slightly skewed by Durant’s foul trouble).
But despite the Thunder’s adventures in offensive stagnation and Westbrook’s poor play, they were once again in it at the end. Then, unintelligent basketball reared its head one last time and nipped the Thunder’s dreams of going up 2–1 in the series, this time in the form of a terribly foolish Harden foul on LeBron James with 16 seconds left that you could see coming from six miles away. One LBJ free throw and one errant Thabo Sefolosha pass later, and suddenly the Thunder were on the ropes.
Harden is 22. Would a 27-year-old Harden have made such a stupid decision? Maybe it’s overly reductive to say no, but it sure is a tempting explanation for some of the brain-dead basketball he and his teammates played last night. Either way, if the Thunder don’t show up at American Airlines Arena a bit more grown-up Tuesday night, this series will be over quickly.