Oklahoma City’s Calm Under Pressure

The Oklahoma City Thunder possess all the traits of a championship-caliber team.

They’re explosive and athletic at both ends of the floor. They defend with skill and tenacity; have an elite shot-blocker in Serge Ibaka, and solid role players like Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha.

Of course, in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, they possess three of the greatest shot-makers in the game today.

Perhaps the most underrated, and dangerous, aspect of the Thunder’s game, however, is their supreme confidence level. This team is cold as ice in the clutch.

No team absorbs the opposition’s best punches, flips the switch, and keeps their composure when all seems lost, better than OKC. Time and time again, against the Spurs in Game 4, Oklahoma City weathered the storm.

San Antonio came out firing at the start of the game, while Oklahoma City missed their first seven shots. Did they panic? Of course not.  They simply went on an 18-5 run to end the quarter.

At the start of the third, Manu Ginobili took over the game and the Spurs put together a 23-9 run—but still no panic from the Thunder. Durant stepped up and Oklahoma City led by nine at the quarter’s end.

In the fourth, the Spurs once again attempted to seize the game by the scruff of the neck—going on a 13-2 run and getting within two points of the Thunder.

Oklahoma City’s response: James Harden hit two massive 3-point shots, including the game’s biggest basket—dropping the trifecta with Kawhi Leonard draped all over him, to put the Thunder up by five.

This team simply doesn’t waver off course.

Against the Mavericks and Lakers, they were down late in games and hit massive, momentum-shifting shots to win. Durant did his best Michael Jordan impression in Game 4 of this series, hitting 18 points in the fourth, but if he’s not feeling it (and that’s rare), Harden and Westbrook are more than ready to take the big shot.

The Big 3 of Oklahoma City epitomizes the fearlessness this team. Miss or make, it doesn’t matter—nothing fazes them. Last night Westbrook turned the ball over, and missed jump shots on consecutive possessions, but his confidence level never faltered.

He followed up some poor possessions by draining a ridiculous 20-footer. Westbrook never seems bothered by his failings. Sure, he makes some poor decisions at times, and will continue to do so, but he never loses confidence in his game. Scott Brooks realizes that Westbrook will live and die by the jump shot—but it’s a risk that’s worth taking. We may pick apart his game, but we cannot question his character.

Harden also seems immune to fluctuations in confidence. He wasn’t at his best against the Lakers—looking tired after having to defend Kobe Bryant for long stretches—and in the first game of this series he struggled. But like Westbrook, Harden seems to have selective amnesia. He followed up Game 1, with a 10-13 shooting performance in Game 2, and has been clutch ever since.

Last night, Harden took two of the biggest shots in these playoffs thus far. A three-pointer, that became a four-point play when he was fouled by Manu Ginobili, and the aforementioned game-clinching shot.

Before the series began many, myself included, pointed to the Spurs’ experience and veteran know-how, as a reason why they would prevail over a young Thunder team. The Spurs were playing unbelievably great basketball—some of the greatest we’ve ever seen—and maybe the Thunder, as young as they are, just weren’t ready for the Finals yet.

But perhaps we overlooked the fact that the Thunder don’t worry about outside perceptions—they don’t feel like they’re too young and inexperienced. They just go out and play their game. If they feel pressure internally, they don’t’ show it externally.

Experience and championship pedigree go a long way in the playoffs. No team as young as the Thunder have won an NBA title. But no team has looked as supremely confident as Oklahoma City —as unconcerned with external pressures.

They’re young, skillful and talented, but their tranquil state of mind, in the biggest moments, might just be their biggest strength.

LeBron James Steps Up For Miami

The knock on LeBron James so far during his NBA career has been that he wilts under pressure.

Too much of a spotlight in Cleveland? Bolt to South Beach to play with two of his buddies from the Olympics.

Too much attention during the fourth quarter of playoff games last season? Defer to his teammates and become a distributor instead of a lethal scorer.

But, with Chris Bosh out of action on Sunday due to an injury and Dwyane Wade playing through an injury of his own, James took the opportunity to put his stamp on Game 4.

Miami struggled to start the game and James scored his teams first points with an emphatic dunk. Indiana coasted to a 25-18 lead to end the first quarter, but King James did anything but coast. He went 4-9 from the field for a team-high nine points.

Throw in James’ three dimes in the opening quarter and his fingerprints were on seven of Miami’s first nine field goals.

When James wasn’t active looking for his shot, he was grabbing rebounds with one hand while holding off an Indiana defender with his other arm.

James finished the first half scoring 19 of Miami’s 46 points while going an efficient 8-14 from the field. His well-balanced game also included five rebounds and four assists.

What was impressive was James’ determination to attack Indian’s defense and either get easy points in the paint or draw fouls. In the second quarter James six of his seven shots came in the paint. This was just an extension of the first quarter where James was attacking the rim and attempted eight of his ten field goals in the paint.

James left the court at halftime with his shoulders dropping and a bewildered look on his face, almost asking, “What else can I do?”

Instead of forcing things in the third quarter or giving up in resignation, James allowed Wade to get some easy looks which got his teammates into a groove. Wade started the third quarter 3-3 from the field with all of those looks at the rim.

James, however, wasn’t a ghost during this stretch. He went 2-3 from the field and continued to be aggressive while helping Wade get into a groove.

Indiana called a timeout in an attempt to stop the bleeding and James answered with an emphatic dunk to pull Miami to within two points. On Miami’s next possession he attacked the rim and forced David West into fouling him and he made both free throws to tie the game at 61.

The play of Wade and James was huge in a 17-2 run that allowed Miami to secure a 68-63 advantage. James and Wade combined to score 27 points on 10-of-11 shooting in the third quarter.  This capped a run that started during the second quarter during which the duo combined 38 straight points for Miami.

Miami’s strong play culminated in a 30-16 advantage during the third quarter which helped move the heat from a seven point deficit at halftime to a six point lead heading into the fourth quarter.

Just when Indiana appeared to be making a run in the fourth quarter, James dunked a miss by Anthony that hushed the crowd. This pushed Miami’s lead back to five and Indiana wouldn’t be able to get any closer the remainder of the game.

One of the main reasons why Indiana wasn’t able to make a run to get back in the game is because West and Roy Hibbert spent most of the second half on the bench in foul trouble. This was in large part due to James attacking the defense and taking the contact on drives to the bucket.

In short, James was focused on getting Miami the win they would need to even this series at two games a piece. His stat line of 40 points, 18 rebounds, nine assists, two steals and two blocks was nothing short of flawless.

It’s a shame that a large group of fans and members of the media will turn a blind eye to James being the reason why Miami was able to snatch a win from the jaws of defeat.