The situation? Oddly familiar. The Miami Heat went into Game 4 last year with a 2-1 lead as well. The Oklahoma City Thunder lost two straight games in the Western Conference Finals before making a sweeping comeback. But LeBron James is a different player than he was a year ago, the Miami Heat a different team.
Suddenly, the pressure of the finals and the huge expectations and hatred (slowly fading) for a team that pretty much announced to the NBA they were going to dominate the basketball world for more than a year or two aren’t that disruptive. LeBron James is no longer someone being crushed by the expectations to perform in the fourth quarters, while Dwyane Wade gets over his first half problems each and every single night.
And then there’s home court to speak of. When the Miami Heat were up 2-1 last year, they played Game 4 in Dallas. When the Oklahoma City Thunder came back from that 0-2 start against the Spurs, they went back home. This time, after a tough loss to the Miami Heat in Game 3, not managing to create the same second half surge as they did in the first two games, the Thunder still have to win on the road. Not the toughest arena in terms of atmosphere, but it’s more about the lack of push the Thunder miss from back home.
At the root of their problems is matching up the aggressiveness of the Heat’s offense down the stretch. Maybe it was the foul trouble that got Kevin Durant out of sync in Game 3, but maybe it was just that the Miami Heat finally found a way to slow him down. LeBron James was on him like a leech, and Chris Bosh was always behind to support. Durant finished with 25 points with good shooting percentage, but he managed only 6 rebounds and turned the ball over 5 times.
James is the only player in the NBA, probably, with enough energy to hound Durant for about 40 minutes, as it seems Spoelstra has given up on Shane Battier trying to stop Durant. As the first two games proved, he simply can’t, but maybe we’ll see this matchup again in this series, who knows. On the other side of the floor, it’s only when Sefolosha is guarding James that the Thunder feel like they’ve got a shot of slowing him down. James Harden, Kevin Durant or any other combo just doesn’t work. And Sefolosha is also used to keep Dwyane Wade in check as well.
And as much as the Thunder seem like the more talented team offensively, with more weapons to use, the mismatches created by Chris Bosh’s return and the ‘small’ lineups the Heat use is giving Scott Brooks too much of a headache. It seemed like he was doing the exact opposite of what everyone were expecting him to do – bench Kendrick Perkins and use Ibaka as his only big man. Ibaka disappeared in the bench in the fourth quarter while Perkins got 34 minutes on the floor.
And Brooks needs one of his ball leaders – James Harden or Russell Westbrook, to show up this time. Westbrook got punished for a couple of bad possessions which led to the third quarter collapse which the Thunder never rebounded from. James Harden had his second awful night of the Finals, scoring 9 points while finishing with 2-10 from the field. He had a problem or two on the defensive end as well, getting to guard James and Wade.
The Heat feel comfortable with the game’s pace. Their fast break numbers have dropped, and they don’t get into transition as much as they would like, but it’s more important to keep the Thunder from running wild, like they did in the second half of Game 1, scoring 58 points. The Thunder were halted at 85 in Game 3, shooting 42.9% from the field. It was their second lowest scoring night of the playoffs behind their 77-75 win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
One of the questions is the Heat’s confidence – Real, and for good reason, or misguided and some sense of illusion guiding them into thinking they’ve actually come up with a formula to keep both Westbrook and Durant at bay, as much as humanly possible. It’s all about keeping up their energy levels in the fourth quarter and staying aggressive on defense all nights. It might be a cliche, but that mindset puts them in the best situation to win each and every night. It’s a mindset the Thunder must now switch to.
Getting more to the line and keeping the Heat out of the paint. Maybe the pressures of the Finals are getting somehow to these young players. Maybe it’s getting to their coach, who now faced another 48 hours of trying to find what adjustments he can make on both ends of the floor. A loss in Game 4, and it might be too much of a blow to recover from.