Russell Westbrook had the shooting night of his life, finishing with 43 points and producing numbers rarely seen in NBA Finals series over the last 25 years. But it wasn’t enough. What the Oklahoma City Thunder brought to the table wasn’t enough. The Miami Heat showed more than just a hobbling LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. As the playoffs progress, this turns out to be much more than just a 2.5 superstars team.
Only two other players have had a shooting night like Westbrook’s – over 60% from the field, and have scored more points in an NBA Finals game over the last 25 years. Shaquille O’Neal, with 44 points in the 2001 Finals and Michael Jordan with 46 points in 1992. Westbrook made 20-32 of his shots, mostly jumpers. And it wasn’t enough. Kevin Durant scored 28 points and was perfect 9-9 from the line. It wasn’t enough. They combined for 71 of the Thunder’s 98 points. They were the only Thunder players who scored points during the last 16 minutes of the game. Clearly, that’s not the right way to win.
Over on the other side, the Miami Heat are realizing they’ve just won three straight games in this series. That no one has ever come back from a 1-3 deficit in the Finals. No one has ever taken it to 7 games as well. That goal that has been like a road of sorrow for the Miami Heat over the last couple of seasons, especially for LeBron James, seems to be reaching a happy ending.
They overcame a 17 points lead by the Thunder through unusual culprits – Mario Chalmers with one of this best games this season, scoring 25 points, shooting 9-15 from the field, and Norris Cole. He played only 8 minutes, but scored 8 points and the Heat were +12 during his time on the floor. James Jones and Udonis Haslem both had similar impact on the game during their time, although it didn’t necessarily show up on the stat sheets.
And what about negative impact? James Harden is choking in these NBA Finals. He finished in double digits for the third time in four games (8 points), and is shooting 35.1% in the series. He’s also turning the ball over 4 times a game. And the problem is that Brooks can’t find the way to counter this or balance it out. Thabo Sefolosha is great on the defensive end, but is simply a non factor offensively, at shooting guard nonetheless, going 2-7 from the field, finishing with 5 points. Derek Fisher spent 22 minutes on the floor and took only 1 shot.
The Miami Heat decided they’re going to let the Thunder’s stars win this game. The Thunder player not named Westbrook and Durant finished with 27 points, shooting 11-31 from the field. It was nearly enough for a win, but LeBron James came back with his cramped up leg, nailed a three pointer with Sefolosha’s hand in his face and went right back to the bench. Dwyane Wade had the finish covered, as it looked like that three pointer completely deflated the visitors.
When Durant began the game covering Chalmers, it meant that Scott Brooks partially conceded that his team were the inferior in this matchup. They keep doing all the changes, and they keep going back trying to find new ideas on how to stop the Miami Heat and deal with their mismatch problems. Chris Bosh isn’t exploding offensively, but Brooks can’t keep a lid on James and Wade. They kept being aggressive, with LeBron scoring 16 of 28 points in the paint, while heading to the line nine more times. He needed one rebound to finish with a triple double.
He was simply not going to sit out as the Thunder took a 94-92 lead with 4 minutes to go. The Heat tied the game, and James came up with that huge, huge three pointer. Not as insane as his long long bomb against the Celtics in Game 7, but just as, if not more, important.
As usual, despite all the talk and explanations, it comes down to one play on each side by big players. Those who deliver, those who don’t. LeBron James, like he has all through this postseason, delivered, backed up by his teammates support. Russell Westbrook didn’t notice the shot clock after a jump ball won by the Heat. Mario Chalmers ran to the corner, Westbrook hounded him and foolishly fouled him despite the Heat having only 5 on the shot clock. It was 101-98 with 15 second left when he committed that foul, later apologizing for his mistake.
Great games, 45 minutes of sensational basketball and shooting, don’t mean that you’re not prone to make a mistake right at the end. It didn’t lose the Thunder the game, but it prevented them from having an opportunity to tie the game with a final shot. Westbrook, who has seen quite a few arrows of criticism pointing his way this season and in this series, should be ready for a bit more.