The Thunder lost 91-85 Sunday night to put the Heat up 2 games to 1 in the series. The 2 losses have been for completely different reasons. In game 2, the loss was mostly attributed to the awful start as they went 1-12 in the opening minutes and fell behind 18-2 making it catch-up for the duration of the game. In game 3, after playing a solid 40+ minutes of basketball, poor decisions in crunch time led to their downfall.
Lets first talk about game 2:
After having such a bad start, a comeback of this magnitude against the Miami Heat in the Finals even with a guy like Durant is hard to come by. Since game 1 was also similar in that the Thunder fell behind early (shot 1-6 from opening tip resulting in a 20-10 deficit in first quarter), people were wondering whether Harden should be in the starting lineup to add scoring to the slow-starting offense. Sefolosha was not posing any offensive threat at the shooting guard position or doing his job on defense (3 points in Game 2) and Perkins wasn’t playing much of a role either (combined 8 points 15 rebounds in Game I and 2), so it was a valid point.
But who in there right minds would want to tinker with the starting lineup in the finals when for the whole playoffs the starting lineup of Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Kendrick Perkins was working – they won 13 of 17 games and went 47-19 in the regular season. Scott Brooks said in an interview before game 3 “it hasn’t even crossed my mind to change the starting lineup”. Westbrook in an interview on slow starts said that its all about “coming out ready to play and they were more ready to play than we were…we have to come out and play harder.” Later he was asked what adjustments they needed to make and Westbrook said he isn’t making any adjustments “regardless of what anybody says.”
The Thunder improved on their game 2 deficiencies in game 3.
1. They came out with a strong start, never being down by more than 6 in the first quarter shooting 9-19.
2. Sefolosha came back from a poor game 2 and played outstanding defense on Wade and Lebron coming up with 3 steals, one of which was one of the most important plays of the game when he stripped it from Wade dribbling up the court and finished for a layup to make it a 3 point game with around 2 minutes left. He also hit the first basket of the game.
3. Perkins proved all the doubters that he should stay in the starting lineup by going for 10 points on 12 rebounds, 6 of which were offensive.
4. The Thunder’s defense forced 8 turnovers in the 4th quarter, close to as many as all of game 2.
But with all of these improvements, plus Durant still scoring 25 points, the Thunder still lost. Bottom line is that in a very tight game, the Thunder still did not make smart decisions. Whether is was Westbrook’s offensive charge, or Harden’s rookie move fouling Lebron with 16 seconds left (they did not need to foul down 3) as he tried to draw a charge with his below par acting skills. Then the miscommunication on the inbound pass from Sefolosha down 4 with 13 seconds left, which is truly unaccetable… lead to their demise. This cannot happen if the Thunder want to win the finals. In game 2, you could come back being down in the 1st quarter, but in game 3 when you make mistakes in the final minutes, there is no coming back.
So How Can The Thunder get to Game 6?
One thing for sure is they need to hit their free throws. In game 3 they shot 15-24 from the line and with every game being decided by 6 points or less, where leads come and go as fast as a jaguar in the finals, this cannot happen.
Another thing that needs to happen is Westbrook needs to find a medium of aggressiveness. He needs to pick his spots – when he needs to step up and drive to the basket and when he should just give the ball to Durant and that is a point guard job to do.
In game 3 the thunder improved on their game 2 weaknesses but weren’t smart down the stretch. And in game 4 they need to not only improve on game 2 weaknesses by getting off to a better start but also game 3 weaknesses by finishing the game wisely.
If they overcome all these weaknesses – slow starts, lack of production from supporting cast, Westbrook and Harden playing without intelligence late in the game, and poor free throw shooting, we will see the Finals return to Oklahoma.