We got robbed! Somewhere along the way, we got robbed. And I’m not even talking about the prospect of watching Kevin Durant, a singular confluence of basketball virtuosity and likability, hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. I’m talking about something more basic and aesthetic.
Yes, almost everyone in the country is rooting for the Oklahoma City Thunder, and yes, they are indeed the far more likable team. But beyond that, now that the Thunder are down 3–1 after their 104–98 loss to the Heat in last night’s Game 4 of the NBA finals, it will be hard not to feel robbed as a basketball fan if Miami is able to close things out Thursday night. After all, three games in, this had all the makings of a for-the-ages final, a seven-game slugfest reminder of all that is right in this sport.
The Thunder were really only in this game because of Russell Westbrook’s blazing play (43 points on 20-of-32 shooting) and inferno of a fourth quarter. Their nagging problems on offense—simply put, stagnation and an overreliance on one-on-one action—never went away. Obviously the Heat’s defense, which did an excellent job of making Durant uncomfortable all night, had something to do with this. But the Thunder aren’t the Celtics; there’s no reason to throw up our hands and say, “Oh, well. They ran into a superior athletic team.” No. The Thunder are the only team in the league that might be more athletic than the Heat. They are thoroughbreds of the highest order. So some fingers need to be pointed at Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
Where’s the imagination, Scottie? There was one lonesome, sterling flash of it last night for the Thunder, and it came halfway through the fourth quarter. Coming out of a timeout after Westbrook had scored the Thunder’s last 11 points, Brooks smartly anticipated that the Heat would double-team him to get the ball out of his hand and had James Harden bring the ball up instead. It’s a regular feature of the Thunder’s offense, but here it was timed perfectly, a deft counter-countermeasure. Sure enough, Harden got the ball to an unencumbered-by-a-double-team Westbrook, who had freed himself with some good off-the-ball movement (note to the Thunder: this is a thing), and who then got fouled by Dwyane Wade on a jumper, nailing both free throws.
But that play and Westbrook’s historically awesome performance were for naught, because the Thunder, ostensibly a very good team, spent too much time being very bad. Their offense was very bad. Their defense on a late Mario Chalmers layup was very bad. Westbrook’s foul at the end, when all he had to do was play a few more seconds of defense to give his team a chance to tie the game, was very bad. Maybe, as I suggested after Game 3, youth is the culprit here, but what about Brooks? The Thunder have now punished themselves with two catastrophically dunderheaded late-game fouls in two games. Do well-coached teams succumb to such self-immolation?
Moving on to the always tetchy subject of one LeBron Raymone James: if, as is looking likely, he nabs his first ring Thursday or Sunday or Tuesday, it will be very easy to hate, both because of “The Decision” and the way his team was constructed. But it will also be hard to say he didn’t earn this one. All series, he’s showcased his improved inside play, but last night was the first time he fully unleashed his unfair advantage in the post. The Thunder had no answer, and when James is in this mode it fundamentally changes the nature of the Heat’s offense, eliminating its two major downsides: the lack of a post presence (Chris Bosh is a very good power forward but not a bona fide inside threat) and the fact that James and Wade are both perimeter players who need the ball in their hand. When James is inside, forcing different sorts of double-teams and defensive rotations, it opens up a whole new set of opportunities for an already formidable offense.
So if he has to win one, this is how he should win one: Having already lost two, having shown his ability to understand his weaknesses and chip away at them, and having hit big, late-game shots, even under trying circumstances (how painful did his cramps look last night?). I won’t be tearing up with joy when James, not Durant, is hoisting that trophy sometime in the next week. But I’ll find it much harder to spite him than I would have just a few weeks ago.
But I wanted those seven games, dammit. This was looking so good.