The Oklahoma City Thunder came into Game 4 having outscored the Heat (286-285) but down 2 games to 1. The use of the big lineup by Scott Brook has come under fire from many members in the media for good reason. Both Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins has been near useless and rendered completely ineffective by the mobility of Chris Bosh and the mid to long range shooting of Udonis Haslem, James Jones and Shane Battier. Spoelstra went to the lineup with Chris Bosh at the 5 after Game 1 to try to exploit the Thunder’s lack of speed in the post and it worked out for the next two games. Should the Thunder lose Tuesday night, they would find themselves down 3-1, a hole no team has ever been able to comeback from in the NBA Finals.
Unlike the past three games, it was the Thunder grabbing control of the game early, jumping out to a 13-3 lead in the first four minutes. Russell Westbrook came out firing, going 4 for his first 4. The Heat struggled to hit jump shots in the first, continuing a trend they have had all series, and had to force a lot in the paint, while the Thunder looked a step quicker and had the ability to find openings to knock down jumpers. Oklahoma City shot 15-24 to the Heat’s 8-23 in the first quarter, leading 33-19.
In the second quarter, the Heat came out running scoring 12 in a row and firing up the crowd. The Thunder had no real answer for Lebron James once he got deep into the paint, and he routinely made the right play, whether it was passing out of a double play, or pro-hopping into a layup. The contributions from Norris Cole, James Jones, and Mario Chalmers were somewhat unexpected but certainly timely, especially Chalmers and Cole who were a combined 2-20 (!) in the last two games.
The big story for the Thunder was Russell Westbrook, who is a polarizing figure for his questionable shot selection and volume. However, on Thursday, his midrange shots were falling. As you can see from his shot chart in the first half, we went 6-9 from beyond 10 feet as well as 3 dishes, 4 boards, and only 1 turnover.
Lebron was equally as good and the Miami Heat only found themselves down 3 at the half. Neither side had a decided advantage in the first half in shooting, rebounding, or getting to the line, signaling two great but evenly-matched teams just grinding it out for an important victory opportunity.
The third quarter was more of the same, with the teams trading the lead multiple times. It was interesting to note the lineup the Thunder went to for much of the quarter with the Big 3, Thabo Sefolosha/Derek Fisher and Serge Ibaka/Nick Collison, the type of lineup most wanted Brooks to implement to start the game. As usual, things got chippy as 13 fouls were called in the third quarter.
At the start of the fourth, Mario Chalmers picked up where he left off in the first half, scoring on a slash to the hoop and putting in an open three pointer on back-to-back possessions. Russell Westbrook helped to stem the tide by knocking down more jump shots. The big story was Lebron coming down with an apparent leg cramp with 5 minutes remaining. He initially stayed in the game and hit an 8 foot bankshot but had to limp to the bench to get attended to. A couple minutes later, he returned and pulled up in an isolation at the top of the key to drain a three pointer over Thabo Sefolosha. He would eventually leave again, but Mario Chamlers would pick him up down the stretch, as he went 4-5 for 12 points in the fourth. He showed an extra burst of explosion to the hole that rivaled Westbrook. Russell would get the ball from an out of bounds play and drive to cut the Miami lead to 101-98 with 30 seconds to go. Wade put up a floater that missed badly but the ball was grabbed by Harden and Haslem simultaneously. Harden would initially win the tip, but Battier was able to secure it. Unaware of the expiring shot clock, Westbrook fouled to stop the clock and put Mario Chalmers on the line where he knocked down both free throws.
Russell Westbrook is not to blame for losing because of that foul, considering his monster stat-stuffing line. He was 20-32 for 43 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and only 3 turnovers (one at the very end when the game was already decided). Everyone else on the Thunder not named Durant or Westbrook shot 11-31, including Harden, who was 2-10 with 4 turnovers. They had never seen a team with the strength and lateral speed to defend their star players this well this postseason and it really shows in James Harden’s play this series. Lebron James finished one rebound away from a triple-double but the real story was Mario Chalmers, who was able to blow by Westbrook and Fisher repeatedly putting in 25 points on 9-15 shooting.
Looking forward, the Thunder have to be in full panic mode upon seeing the steephill to climb needed to win this series but if they can take Game 5, Games 6 and 7 would return to Oklahoma City. However, they have not gotten much contribution from Harden or the bench. Scott Brooks has to come up with a solution to put his supporting players in better position to get open shots, since only Westbrook and Durant have been able to get separation on their own. For Lebron James, Game 5 is a chance to put his name in the history books and dispel any notion of a lack of clutch ability. He has been waiting for this chance since early in his Cleveland years, and too often, has been on the wrong end of a team hoisting the trophy while he can only watch. There is no way of knowing the outcome, but Game 5 will most certainly prove to be as exciting a game as Game 4 was.
Heat lead 3-1.