Oklahoma City came out and threw the first punch in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, getting out to a 17-point lead in the first quarter against the Miami Heat. But the Heat counterpunched in the second quarter to essentially even things up and then a combination of OkC being stone cold from behind the three-point line and Miami being smarter down the stretch produced a 104-98 win for the Heat to give them a commanding 3-1 series lead.
With the exception of the first half of Game 2, Oklahoma City has gotten absolutely nothing from James Harden, the sixth man who plays starters’ minutes and whose shooting is desperately needed. He went 1-for-5 behind the arc last night and there were clean, wide-open looks that were nowhere close to finding the bottom of the net. Harden struggled to a 2-for-10 night from the floor and only eight points and there is zero chance the Thunder will win if he’s not contributing. Kevin Durant was also cold from long range, at 1-for-5, but Durant still put together a 28-point night with some good shooting from two-point range. But the lack of three-point shooting from the team as a whole—they missed 13 of 16 from trey range—and the lack of anything from Harden, all served to negate a brilliant performance from Russell Westbrook who dropped 43 points on the Heat, with a dazzling display of drives that Miami knew was coming and was powerless to stop.
What Miami did exceptionally well was get everyone involved in the offense and the credit for that starts with LeBron James. He had “only” 26 points, but delivered 12 assists. This is a facet of his game that doesn’t get nearly the credit it deserves and why it often makes sense for him to pass off in a key situation. James excels at getting the ball in the post and if he’s not able to score, to find an open man. When Larry Bird did it over and over again for the 1980s Boston Celtics, he got the nickname “Larry Legend.” When LeBron does it, it’s somehow an act of weakness. But there’s nothing weak about getting Mario Challmes involved to the tune of 25 points, many of the same kind of drives to the basket that Westbrook excelled at. There’s nothing weak about getting Dwayne Wade enough touches for him to knock down another 25.
Miami still shot too many threes—26 in all, and the makes that stick out in your mind don’t make up for the number of ill-advised attempts on possessions that could have put the Thunder away. They made 10, which is good enough to justify the trey attempts per se, but only if you don’t count the lost opportunities to do something in the lane. But it would be a three from LeBron that would be a dagger late in the game. It was a shot Oklahoma City has to give up—you can’t give him a drive to the basket—and he nailed it.
So is this series over? No team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals, but in fairness, most teams in that spot don’t have two home games in the bank like Oklahoma City would if they can win Thursday night. And while I picked the Thunder to win this series, I was clear that I felt they needed to pick up one win in South Beach and that as long as they took the series back to OkC it was essentially even, even if they trailed 3-2. But the flip side is that I thought the win would come in either of the last two games. And it’s one thing to come home 3-2 coming off a Game 5 loss where you can regroup and get ready for one final push. Winning three in a row, regardless of venue, is obviously much more difficult. Even if the series is extended back to Oklahoma City, I’d place the Thunder’s odds of winning at 35-40 percent rather than the even money I’d have given if they won last night.
And then there’s the further factor of wondering what chance Oklahoma City has on Thursday night in Miami. It’s clear that the Heat’s intangibles—championship experience, even if it came in defeat—are playing a huge role down the stretch, so while there’s every reason to think the Thunder will make Game 5 another good one, what basis do we have for confidence in their ability to execute in the end game? If they didn’t win when Westbrook turned in one of the great Finals performance in league history, how’s it going to happen otherwise? Players like Harden, in their first Finals, are unlikely to suddenly turn it on. This has all the markings of being OkC’s learning year, while it’s Miami’s championship year.
So while I give the Thunder more a chance than I would almost anyone else in this spot, it’s hard for me to say it’s any better than 1 in 10 right now. I expect to see the end of the NBA season on Thursday night.