It’s a credit to Kevin Durant and co. that it’s taken as long as it has for the Oklahoma City Thunder to have come under scrutiny and to face legitimate questions about whether they are ready to win a title.
However, after leaving little room for criticism through three rounds of exceptional play and an inspired showing over the first two games of the NBA Finals, the team’s inherent inexperience finally began to reveal itself in Sunday night’s Game 3 loss.
A team’s performance is dictated from the top down and, for perhaps the first time this postseason, the Thunder didn’t get the spark they were hoping for from their franchise star. After owning the fourth quarter through two games, Durant’s foul situation left him timid offensively and looking decidedly out of sorts. He had as many made field goals in the final frame as turnovers (two) and missed his only two free throws of the quarter.
As bad as Durant’s crunch time scoring was, his defensive miscues may have proven more costly. The 23-year-old has gradually allowed himself to be goaded into a primarily one-on-one battle with LeBron James during the series, which contributed to his aforementioned foul trouble (he picked up his fourth mid-way through the third quarter and his fifth with nearly four minutes remaining in what was a six-point game).
That fifth foul was particularly ill-advised, coming on a hard-charging James without offering much resistance to his field goal attempt from in close.
Of course, Durant’s performance wasn’t without its positives (25 points, 11-19 shooting) and, to be fair, it isn’t as though he was the lone blue-clad performer to underwhelm. Late in the third quarter, with OKC still clinging to a nine-point lead, the club committed an inexcusable set of back-to-back fouls on Heat shooters beyond the arc. Over-zealous play on the part of Serge Ibaka and Derek Fisher, who should certainly know better, gave Shane Battier and James Jones six free throw attempts (they converted all of them) and shifted momentum firmly towards Miami.
Westbrook, meanwhile, was another case altogether. After taking a defiant tone after Game 2 in expressing his unwillingness to alter his attacking style of play, the Thunder point guard’s strong resolve continued to cost his club. The UCLA product remained a ball stopper and rhythm killer, failing to get perimeter shooters like James Harden, Thabo Sefolosha and Fisher (combined 8-26 shooting) involved.
That Scott Brooks benched Westbrook for a five-minute stretch of the third quarter indicates that the 23-year-old’s individualism is becoming a problem for his team.
As is the case with so many young teams, turnovers also became a problem late for the Thunder (14 in the game, five in the fourth quarter). While they weren’t as costly as they could have been (Miami actually scored only two fourth quarter points off turnovers), they did rob OKC of a must-score possession with 16.2 seconds remaining and spoke volumes of a team that appears to be growing increasingly unsure of themselves.
To say that the Thunder are blowing the series is both overly simplistic and unfair to both Finals teams. After all, Sunday’s game saw them lose by just a six-point margin to a Heat squad that is playing some of their best basketball of the year (you can’t blame Durant for failing to stop James when no one in the league can do so).
Still, cracks in the Thunder’s veneer are beginning to reveal themselves and they could have significant implications over the rest of these NBA Finals.