2012-13 NBA Preseason Rankings

With the new NBA season starting in just six days, here’s a look at my preseason rankings for the 2012-13 season. Here’s the article covering the lower half of the NBA and here’s the article on the league’s top 15 teams.

NBA Finals Series Recap

When the Miami Heat finished off Boston in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, every basketball fan’s eyes lit up. Because unlike years past, that vast majority’s dream matchup in the Finals was going to happen: the young, athletic and resilient Oklahoma City Thunder were going to take on LeBron James and the Miami Heat for a chance to win an NBA championship. You really couldn’t script a better matchup: the two best superstars in the game, LeBron and Kevin Durant, were going to engage in a high-powered matchup for the ultimate bragging rights of 2012. Star point guards were going to clash in Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook. And complementary stars like Chris Bosh and James Harden were going to back up this star-studded matchup as another interesting factor to take into account. The two best teams were about to meet at center stage, and we were all going to be treated to an epic showdown between two seemingly unstoppable forces.

The Thunder, despite being so incredibly young, swept the defending champion Mavericks, throttled the Los Angeles Lakers in five and regrouped from a 2-0 deficit against the unstoppable San Antonio Spurs to win the Western Conference Finals. They showed great poise, couldn’t be stopped on the offensive end, and were unbeaten at home. Role players like Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, Derek Fisher and Nick Collison were stepping up on both ends of the floor and the big three of Durant, Westbrook and Harden were the highest-scoring trio in the league. Simply put, their inexperience hadn’t shown one bit.

How could any true basketball fan NOT be excited about this NBA Finals matchup?

The Heat on the other hand, had plenty of problems to deal with. Miami easily advanced past the Knicks in five games in the first round and LeBron played like a man possessed throughout Miami’s postseason round, but the Heat had some trouble getting by the Indiana Pacers once Bosh went down with an abdominal tear. Fortunately, Wade woke up and LeBron carried his Bosh-less team past the Celtics with a transcendent Game 6 performance in Boston. That game extended the series to Game 7, which the Heat won at home, but there were still a lot of questions surrounding this team and its ability to win a championship. Was Bosh going to be 100 percent for the Finals after looking a step slower against the Celts? Was Wade going to disappear as he had a few times in the postseason, or would he rise to the occasion and backup LeBron? And most important of all, would the King play at the same high level under the exact same pressure he’d fallen to twice in his career? Could LeBron really keep playing at such an elite level in the Finals against a quality fourth quarter team like the Thunder that would force him to either be clutch or face the wrath of the media and public again? Heading into the Finals, the Thunder had home-court “advantage” (I hate the 2-3-2 Finals format) and it seemed like if they played the way they had on their trip to the Finals, even LeBron wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

So how did Miami come out on top, and in such convincing fashion? There were many factors to take into account. The truth is, in this series, the Miami Heat were the better team. There’s no questioning that. But it’s also true the Thunder didn’t make things any easier for themselves. I would go as far to say that if the Thunder hadn’t been rattled at playing on the big stage with zero experience, this series would have been extended to at least six games. Because there’s no denying the Thunder were playing superior team basketball heading into the NBA Finals. But on the big stage, only Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook consistently showed up for OKC, with Durant averaging 30 ppg on nearly 55 percent shooting to go with 6 rpg. Russell Westbrook had an incredible Game 4, but it still resulted in a loss and the rest of the series, Westbrook took too many shots and missed a good deal of them. Oklahoma City’s “point guard” catches a lot of criticism for his reckless style of play and his tendency to take more shots than he should, and I’ve always defended him, because you get a mixed bag with Westbrook; one night he’s missing shots and playing with reckless abandon, but for the majority of the season, Westbrook was a huge part of why the Thunder looked so unstoppable. Unfortunately, it continued to be a combination, despite averaging 27 points, six rebounds and six assists per game. He scored a decent amount of points and racked up rebounds and assists, but it still wasn’t good enough on this stage. Because although Durant and Westbrook played at an acceptable level, the first major problem for the Thunder was that no one joined them. The Thunder’s supporting cast in general was severely lacking after stepping up in the Western Conference Finals. Ibaka, Fisher, Sefolosha, Perkins and Collison all struggled to put points on the board consistently. These role players were monumental in Oklahoma City’s dominant run to the Finals and without them stepping up like Miami’s reserves, it’s surprising the games were as close as they were.

Kevin Durant was still a scoring machine, but Miami’s depth was too much when everyone else in a Thunder jersey disappeared.

The second major problem for the Thunder was 3-point shooting, an area where they usually excelled. Oklahoma City couldn’t knock down the 3-pointers they were so accustomed to sinking, shooting just 30 percent from beyond the arc (30-for-105). The Heat on the other hand, shot an astounding 42-for-98 from downtown (43 percent). When a good 3-point shooting team makes ten less threes than the opposition over the course of a series, you can tell things aren’t going well.

The third huge problem for the Thunder was coaching. Scott Brooks was completely out-coached by Erik Spoelstra, who opted to go with smaller lineups so Ibaka and Perkins wouldn’t have a field day in the paint. Only able to play one big man at a time for extended period of time, Brooks had to go small as well and the Hear were able to spread OKC’s defense thin with perimeter shooters as Brooks stubbornly tried double-teaming LeBron despite the fact that his superior passing freed up wide-open shots for his teammates. Brooks also couldn’t find anyone capable of slowing down LeBron James. Granted, LeBron was a man on a mission, but Brooks’ lineups drew a lot of questions. Sefolosha started off just fine on him, but either got in foul trouble or was subbed out because of his lack of offensive contribution. James Harden was too small and was struggling on the offensive end anyway. And Kevin Durant, the biggest driving force behind OKC’s offense, got in immediate foul trouble as LeBron exposed his advantage in both size and speed while revealing how average a defender he is. Brooks never even tried putting the bigger Ibaka on LeBron as a way to prevent him from attacking the basket, which is exactly where the King killed OKC’s defense. Ibaka would have forced LeBron to settle for jumpers, or at least make him think twice about driving in the paint. But instead, Brooks continued his double team schemes that left open red-hot perimeter shooters like Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier and Mike Miller while letting Nick Collison sit on the bench for way too long.

But the biggest problem was that the magical beard of James Harden, OKC’s Sixth Man of the Year, seemed to lose its power on the big stage. No one was more disappointing than Harden, who failed to have any significant impact other than a prolific first half in Game 2, which still resulted in a loss. Harden averaged only 12 ppg on 37 percent shooting in the Finals, failing to reach double digits in three of five games. Without a third scorer to back up Durant and Westbrook, the Thunder’s once mighty offense had problems reaching triple digits.

Harden’s disappearing act was regrettable, especially after he and his beard had such a stellar season for the young Oklahoma City Thunder.

But give credit to the Heat; a lot of the problems I just described were caused by stifling defense and LeBron’s indomitable will. OKC would have greatly benefitted from switching Ibaka to LeBron, but eventually the King’s desire to win would still have been to much for the slower Thunder power forward to handle. Kudos are deserved for Miami’s role players, who were apparently bluffing for the entire regular season so they could unleash an unprecedented barrage of threes on the unsuspecting Thunder. Shane Battier had a huge offensive impact throughout the series and Chalmers and Miller each had their own breakout game that proved to be too much for a Thunder defense that was already spread thin trying to handle LeBron, Wade AND Bosh. Making that many more 3-pointers than a prolific long-range team tipped the scale in Miami’s favor and the role players stepping up provided a huge advantage for Miami. Before the series, I predicted the Thunder’s strong supporting cast would give the Thunder a lot of leverage because up until that point, Miami’s reserves hadn’t done much. But it was the exact opposite; guys like Battier, Chalmers and Miller took turns being the third scorer that the Thunder never had because of Harden’s disappearing act.

Wade didn’t have the most impressive series of his career, but his numbers were nothing to scoff at (22 ppg, 6 rpg, 5 apg). But then again, he really didn’t need to take over with LeBron at the helm. But Bosh was actually a big part of the reason why the Heat came out on top, even if his contributions didn’t translate on the stat sheet. Bosh clogged up the middle defensively in a way that Udonis Haslem hadn’t. When Durant finally did get around LeBron or Battier’s defense of the perimeter, he had to rush his shot to avoid the double team or attack the basket through three guys, which resulted in quite a few charges for Miami. Bosh’s contributions on the offensive end were big as well, providing more help in the paint that the Thunder didn’t get out of Ibaka or Perkins. And with the Heat’s role players on point, all LeBron had to do was finish the job, which he did with a vengeance.

A lot was made about the quality of officiating during this series. There were definitely times were every 50-50 call seemed to go against the Thunder and they were grossly out-shot from the free throw line in Games 3 and 4. But in Games 1 and 5, the refs were fairly consistent and although that questionable no-call at the end of the Heat’s big Game 2 road win may have swung momentum in Miami’s favor, the officiating gripe wasn’t substantial enough to say it had a dramatic effect on the outcome of the series. When it came down to it, this was LeBron James’ championship and he earned every bit of it. Experience played a much bigger factor in the series than I ever anticipated, and combine that with the annoying 2-3-2 format, it’s no wonder the Heat walked away with rings in five games. The Thunder will be back and they now have the Finals experience and pain of losing that will make them tough to stop. But for now, the team to beat will be Miami until somebody finds away to slow the King down.

LeBron was magnificent and finally lived up to being called “The King” by winning his first NBA crown, sealing Game 5 with a triple-double.

LeBron James Grabs First NBA Title As Heat Trounce Thunder To Win 2012 Finals

There are some nights when winning is an option and a necessity. And then there are some nights when the other team won’t be denied and nothing can be done to stop it. After an assertive Game 5 performance that won LeBron James his first NBA championship, the Heat taught the Thunder exactly how helpless that feels. On a night where nothing went Oklahoma City’s way, the Heat took matters into their own hands and buried the Thunder with one of the more dominant third quarter runs in NBA Finals history. Between LeBron James putting up a triple-double and the Heat knocking down 14 3-pointers, the young and inexperienced Thunder had no chance as Miami closed out the series with a 121-106 win to end the series in five games on their home floor.

After taking a 3-1 series lead, history wasn’t on OKC’s side, as no team in NBA Finals history has ever comeback from that deficit to win the title. But Miami provided the exclamation point on that stat with an unstoppable shooting display in the third that stopped the Thunder’s comeback in its tracks and put the game out of reach before the fourth quarter even started. LeBron James was magnificent throughout and showed greater maturity and poise in Miami’s clincher, notching 26 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds in an all-around impressive performance. But even more key was Miami’s 3-point shooting. After averaging just six 3-pointers per game during the season, the Heat dropped an astounding 14 on the Thunder in Game 5, led by Mike Miller’s incredible 7-of-8 shooting night from beyond the arc. Miller, who hadn’t made a 3-pointer in the entire series, finished with 23 points off the bench and provided the same critical spark from 3-point range that Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole had given throughout the series. It almost seemed like the regular season was just one gigantic bluff from Miami’s reserve players, who suddenly became unstoppable 3-point threats in the Finals. Battier hit three threes to finish with 11, Chalmers hit two and added 10 points and Cole added his only triple to completely sink Oklahoma City’s hopes of sending the series back home for Game 6.

LeBron was terrific again, but Mike Miller’s contributions were nothing short of essential in Miami’s Game 5 win to take the crown.

Make no mistake, although the officiating was an issue at times during this series, it wasn’t in Game 5; the Heat definitely earned their championship and proved themselves to be the best team of the 2012 NBA Playoffs. LeBron James capped off one of the more magnificent postseason performances we’ve seen in the last decade with a triple-double that proved himself to be clutch in addition to illustrating how valuable experience is at this stage. And although the focus was all on LeBron, Dwyane Wade deserves a lot of credit for the Heat’s convincing victory over the Thunder in this series. Wade finished with 20 points and eight rebounds in Game 5, a huge lift for Miami after he struggled at times during the Heat’s postseason run. And Chris Bosh, the third member of Miami’s big three, showed just how important he is by clogging up the paint and finally finding his shooting touch. Bosh had 24 points, seven rebounds and two blocks, dominating Kendrick Perkins in the paint and making it difficult for Russell Wesbrook and Kevin Durant to score in the paint. Finally, Erik Spoelstra completely out-coached Scott Brooks. I’ve been one of many who have criticized Spoelstra for being an ineffective coach, but against the Thunder, his rotations were superior, forcing the Thunder to play small which gave the Heat a huge advantage on the perimeter. Between Miami’s big three playing consistently great basketball and Miami’s role players stepping up and hitting a multitude of perimeter shots, the Thunder had no chance.

Oklahoma City had a memorable run and looked like clear favorites in this series, but had problems scoring on Miami’s stifling defense under the immense pressure of playing in their first NBA Finals appearance. Experience was definitely a huge factor, as the Thunder looked like a very different team from the one that steamrolled Dallas, LA and San Antonio on their way to the Finals. Kevin Durant led all scorers with 32 points and and 11 rebounds, but it still wasn’t enough as Westbrook struggled after his amazing 43-point performance in Game 4. Westbrook finished just only 19 points on 4-of-20 shooting. Durant also didn’t get much help from James Harden, OKC’s Sixth Man of the Year who shied away from the spotlight for the majority of the series. Harden finished with 19 points, but most of them came in garbage time when the outcome of the game was all but decided. Derek Fisher showed up, adding 11 points off the bench, but Serge Ibaka joined Harden with another underwhelming performance of nine points and four rebounds. Perkins and Nick Collison only had two apiece and Sefolosha put up a goose egg, meaning the Heat had a huge advantage in their supporting cast, an aspect of this matchup that was supposed to be an area of leverage for the Thunder. But when it came down to it, no one but Durant and Westbrook had a consistent impact and the Thunder never had a third player step up and score like Harden did during the regular season. With Harden struggling and the rest of Oklahoma City’s reserves failing to step up, Miami’s perimeter shooters had a tremendous impact and were big-time support behind LeBron’s transcendent series. The Thunder needed to hit threes and they needed to stop one if not two members of the big three (especially if their role players were going to disappear) to win, but were unable to do either for the majority of the series.

After such a dominant run to the Finals, it was a disappointing finish for KD and the Thunder. But they’re young, talented and now have experience, so you can expect they will be back next year.

In truth, the game was a blowout from the second quarter on. But somehow, the Thunder were only down by ten at half, despite giving up a staggering 59 points in the first half. And coming out of the locker room, the Thunder made their intentions clear by cutting the lead to five just a few minutes in. But then the turning point of the game arrived, and although it was just a small fast break turnover, it proved to be the catalyst for LeBron and the Heat to take control and win the NBA title. Down by five, the Thunder had a fast break opportunity after Durant blocked LeBron, but instead of passing to Westbrook on the wing, Durant tried to dribble through two defenders and lost the ball. The turnover led to another three from Mario Chalmers, which fired up the crowd and stopped the Thunder’s run and momentum. Then Wade blocked a Sefolosha 3-point attempt and Shane Battier knocked down a three to extend the lead back to 11. From then on, the Heat could not be stopped. Whether it was LeBron attacking the basket with little resistance or Miller knocking down 3-pointers, the Thunder’s defense couldn’t stop the Heat’s relentless attack in the third as they dropped 36 points and five 3-pointers.

I incorrectly predicted that the Thunder would take the NBA Finals in six games, but the inexperience of OKC and the indomitable will of LeBron proved to be too much, especially when coupled with that annoying 2-3-2 Finals format (yes, I will keep complaining about it. Why have the entire postseason in the 2-2-1-1-1 format and then switch it up and give so much of an advantage to the away team? I’m not saying Oklahoma City would have won under the other format, but we might have been treated to one or two more fantastic clashes between these two teams if the format made sense). The Thunder are an extremely young team and if they can somehow hold on to James Harden and Serge Ibaka, they have nowhere to go but up. The Thunder have advanced further into the postseason each year for the past four years: they didn’t make the playoffs in 2009, they lost in the first round in 2010, they lost in the Western Conference Finals in 2011 and they lost in the Finals this year. If they keep improving with their young and talented lineup, we could have a dynasty on our hands, especially now that they have experience and the pain that comes with losing in the championship. At the end of the day, however, the 2012 NBA Finals were about LeBron James. LeBron silenced a lot of critics by sealing his dominant playoff run with a triple-double to win his first championship, if only for one night. After nine years in the league filled with scrutiny, doubters, hype, ridicule, haters and unrealistic expectations, LeBron finally won himself a championship ring. While many will still point to the Decision and call him a sellout for taking a much easier path to the Finals, the fact remains that LeBron cemented his place among the greats with well-earned NBA Finals and MVP trophies. The Thunder have a promising future, but the best player in basketball finally got his ring, and hopefully the LeBron haters will be quiet for a little while. And as LeBron James said himself, “It’s about damn time.”

Like him or not, you’ve gotta respect him now. LeBron James capped off a tremendous postseason run with a triple-double in Game to win his first NBA title and NBA Finals MVP award.

NBA Finals Game 5 Preview

After a furious second half rally that won Game 1 at home, the Oklahoma City Thunder were flying high and had a 1-0 lead on the series. Three games later, they’re fighting to keep their championship hopes alive by becoming the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals. Miami took Game 2 on the road after a questionable no-call at the end of the game before proceeding to defend home-court in two straight games. Because of the pesky 2-3-2 Finals format (which gives WAY too much advantage to the away team, by the way), the Heat have the prime opportunity to end the Thunder’s impressive season and give LeBron James his first Larry O’Brien trophy on Miami’s own floor. Obviously, Oklahoma City doesn’t want that to happen, but history isn’t exactly on their side since the previous 30 teams to attempt such a monumental comeback in a series have all failed.

Heading into Game 5 in Miami, with the Heat having a chance to close out the NBA Finals at home, do the Thunder really stand a chance? They’ve lost three in a row now and don’t look like the same team that came back from a 2-0 deficit against the Spurs to win the West. No team has EVER won the NBA Finals after trailing 3-1, and since the Finals format was changed to the 2-3-2 format in 1985, no team has even extended the series to Game 7. Oklahoma City has come back from two games down before in these playoffs, but this time they’ll have to win an elimination game in Miami, where the Heat are now 10-2 during the playoffs this year. Then they would have to go back to Oklahoma City and face the team that has physically outmatched them, the only team that has beaten the Thunder in Chesapeake Arena. And they’d have to do that twice. The odds are certainly not in the Thunder’s favor, but if OKC somehow does get the win in Game 5 on the road, I don’t know any Miami fan that will be comfortable with the series shifting back to Oklahoma City, where the Thunder have only lost one game in the postseason. For the Thunder, James Harden absolutely has to show up. The Thunder have been so terrific throughout the playoffs up until now because they’ve had a third scorer to back up Durant and Westbrook, but they haven’t enjoyed that luxury in the Finals so far. Harden’s been completely absent in this series after thrilling spectators all year long with his 3-point shooting, relentless attacks to the basket and of course, the beard. But so far, Harden’s shied away from the spotlight on the big stage and the Thunder have been losing games. That’s got to change for Oklahoma City to take Game 5 on the road.

If James Harden’s struggles continue, the Thunder are done. But if Harden can pick up his game again and make an impact on offense, they will send the series back to Oklahoma City for Game 6.

But the improvements don’t stop there. Westbrook has to hit shots like he did in Game 4’s memorable performance, and although no one can expect another legendary performance like this, he needs to consistently hit shots. Kevin Durant needs to take over in the second half like his did in Games 1 and 2. Believe it or not, 29 points isn’t good enough for Durant. He needs to completely dominate from beyond the 3-point line and in the paint. Superstars need to step up in the playoffs, and an elimination game makes that need even greater. Durant can’t just have a great game; he needs to drop 35-40 points and have a phenomenal game. The Oklahoma City Thunder need to execute down the stretch, as they’ve been outplayed in the fourth quarter for the second game in a row. They need to make 3-point shots, as they’ve shot 21 of 77 (about 27 percent) from downtown in the series. They need to force referees to blow their whistles by attacking the basket. And if Harden continues to falter in the spotlight, the Thunder need a third scorer to step up like Mario Chalmers did tonight. Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha have been extremely quiet the last few games. They were huge pieces of the equation that bested the Spurs in six games, but have done very little to slow down Miami’s prolific scorers or counter them with points of their own. The Thunder have had problems keeping two big men on the floor at a time in the series because Erik Spoelstra has smartly kept a small lineup on the floor. This has forced Scott Brooks to do the same, taking away Oklahoma City’s advantage of Ibaka and Perkins in the paint against lackluster scorers like Udonis Haslem and the other centers that now occupy Miami’s bench. But even though the Thunder have a lot to improve on, closing out a team like OKC won’t be easy for the Heat. The Thunder are young, athletic, resilient and now their backs are up against the wall. The last thing Miami wants is for this series to shift back to Oklahoma City, because even though no team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the Finals, if there ever was such a team, I’ve gotta think it would be the Thunder.

For the Heat, they are one game away from the crown. LeBron is so close to winning his first ring and clearly isn’t playing nervous like he did in last year’s Finals. Every game has been close in this series so far, so there’s no room for shrinking from the moment, which has been LeBron’s defining characteristic in Miami until this postseason. LeBron has to continue to play his dominant style of basketball, Wade needs to show up once again, and Miami’s perimeter shooters, who have traded great games up until this point, need to show up for just one more. All Miami really has to do is keeping the same ball they’ve played in the last three games. Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole have all been big for the Heat in a few games by knocking down perimeter shots and spreading Oklahoma City’s defense even thiner than before. With Chris Bosh not getting back into the full swing of the game yet, the Heat need that third scorer to complement LeBron and Dwyane Wade, which is something Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook haven’t been getting out of James Harden. If Miami can have a third member to back up their two superstars in the scoring column, the Thunder are in trouble unless Harden harnesses the power of that magic beard again. LeBron has been magnificent in this series and Wade has rightful deferred to him in the biggest moments of games, but now they’ll need him to be extraordinary one more time. I’m assuming that despite going down in Game 4 with leg cramps, he’ll be back on the floor and at 100 percent for the biggest game of his career, meaning he’ll need another concentrated effort. Getting wins is one thing, closing out a talented and desperate team to win a championship is another thing. If he is able to do it, LeBron will silence a lot of haters and rightfully win his first ring. But if he doesn’t, and if the Heat drop Game 5 at home, they will have missed out on a prime opportunity to go for the kill and open the door of conversation for doubters predicting that the Thunder might be capable of such a momentous comeback. And to be honest, if the Heat don’t win Game 5, I might be one of them. Despite dropping Game 2 at home, the Thunder are still 10-1 at home and you have to think if OKC somehow sends this thing back home, they will be greeted by a delirious crowd that will believe those last two wins are possible. The Heat need to end this series and not even mess around with the inevitable “LeBron and the Heat are going to choke in the Finals again” or “Oklahoma City might be able to pull this thing off!” conversations. The Heat have put themselves in fantastic position, but there can be no room for error if they want to avoid risking the biggest collapse in NBA Finals history.

LeBron is one game away from his first title. If ever there were a time to prove everyone wrong and be clutch, it’ll be Game 5.

Westbrook’s Memorable Night Ends In Defeat, Miami Takes 3-1 Finals Lead

Russell Westbrook kept his team in Game 4 with an array of impossible layups and deadly accurate mid-range jumpers. He was on his way to a truly transcendent performance with 43 points on 20-of-32 shooting to go along with seven rebounds and five assists. In fact, it was one of the most impressive games in NBA Finals history, and it put the Thunder in position to tie the series at 2-2. But in one moment, it was permanently stained by one mental error that ended up costing Oklahoma City the win, giving Miami a 3-1 series advantage in a 104-98 victory.

With the Heat up by three with 17 seconds to play and five seconds on the shot clock, James Harden and Udonis Haslem tied up and faced off for a jump ball. Harden surprisingly won the tip, but Shane Battier got his hand on it over Kevin Durant and tipped it to Mario Chalmers. In that moment, the Heat had less than five seconds to shoot, but Westbrook was unaware of the situation and made the bonehead play of the game by fouling Chalmers. Chalmers went to the line, sank two free throws and put the game completely out of reach. The free throws capped off a terrific game for Chalmers, who finished with 25 points on 9-of-15 shooting, in addition to tainting Westbrook’s legendary performance, which was wasted in the disappointing defeat that puts the Thunder in a nearly impossible position.

Westbrook had a fantastic Game 4, but it wasn’t enough for the Thunder to get the win, especially after a late-game mistake sealed the win for Miami and gave them a 3-1 series lead.

However, Westbrook shouldn’t bear the burden of the game because of that one mistake. Westbrook carried the Thunder down the stretch, scoring 13 straight points for OKC at one point in the fourth quarter. Rather, the majority of the blame should fall on James Harden, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year. But with the way Harden has played in the Finals, you would never have known who he was. Blame it on the pressure, blame it on off shooting nights, or blame it on the beard losing its power. But whatever the case, Harden has been completely absent for the Thunder, which is a huge reason they aren’t winning ballgames. Yes, Miami is a tough place to play and yes, LeBron James has been terrific in the Finals. But there’s no way the series wouldn’t be tied at 2-2 if Harden had shown up to play for even one complete game so far in the Finals. Westbrook broke 40, Durant had 28, but the third member of OKC’s big three registered just eight points on 2-of-10 shooting in addition to 10 rebounds. Westbrook’s foul was a horrible mistake that proved to be a memorable turning point that decided the game, but Harden missed a wide open layup that would have given OKC its first lead in an extended period of time. That missed layup lead to a Chalmers layup that gave Miami the lead and momentum right back. In addition to Harden, the rest of the Thunder’s role players failed to show up as well. Serge Ibaka, after running his mouth about LeBron James’ defensive skills, only put up four points and seven rebounds. Kendrick Perkins also only had four points. Sefolosha scored five. And Nick Collison, who came in and played extremely well early with Ibaka in foul trouble, didn’t see the floor much after that despite dropping six points and a few rebounds in a few minutes.

Once again, the referees were another big factor in the game. I hate to blame the outcome of games on the refs, but the league needs to take a serious look at the quality of officiating, especially during the playoffs. Despite Westbrook driving and attacking the basket like a man possessed, he only got to the line three times. The Thunder took only 16 free throws compared to Miami’s 25. Don’t get me wrong, blaming the entire outcome of a game on poor officiating is a definite cop-out. But when every 50-50 call goes Miami’s way and when the foul difference in this series is so great, it’s hard not to question the integrity of the officials. In the third quarter, numerous questionable calls sent the Heat to the line and kept them in the game. There were numerous reasons OKC lost Game 4, but if you write off the refereeing as a valid one, you don’t know basketball as well as you think you do.

Mario Chalmers had a huge impact  thanks to Norris Cole’s immediate presence off the bench.

Refereeing aside, credit is due to the Heat for quickly battling back from a big double-digit deficit in the first quarter. When the Thunder jumped out to a 17-point lead in the first, it looked like Miami was in for a rough night. But thanks to rookie Norris Cole, OKC’s run stopped and the wheels were set in motion for a big performance from someone the Heat hadn’t gotten much out of in quite some time. Cole hit a 3-pointer to end the first and cut Oklahoma City’s lead to 14 heading into the second. Chalmers, who was pulled before that after starting 0-for-3, watched on the bench as Cole nailed another three to start the second quarter, putting his totals at eight points in less than four minutes. There’s no question this did not motivate Chalmers to step up his game, and from then on, he had a huge impact on the outcome of the game by knocking down monumental 3-pointers and deflating shots from all over the floor that kept Miami in the game. With Chalmers knocking down shots, the Heat went on a run and rapidly erased OKC’s double digit lead to pull within three at halftime. After a 33-point quarter filled with defensive stops and fast break points, the Thunder’s offense went stagnant and couldn’t get out in transition with Miami’s perimeter shooters sinking threes. OKC only had 16 points in the second quarter, which once again showed the Thunder’s tendency to have one bad quarter in a game that hurts their chances of winning. LeBron was terrific and was one rebound shy of a triple double with 26 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds, and Wade had another quality game with 25, but the Thunder lost this game as much as the Heat won it.

After the teams exchanged blows in the third quarter (there were nine lead changes in a four-minute span), the Heat jumped out to a four-point lead heading into the fourth. The Thunder had many opportunities to seize momentum, but couldn’t capitalize like they’ve consistently done up until the Finals. Harden missed the wide open layup. Derek Fisher then took an ill-advised layup with the score knotted at 90 that was blocked by Wade when he had wide open shooters sitting in the corners. That block led to a LeBron bank shot that gave Miami a two-point lead, despite the fact that he went down the play before and was limping from then on. LeBron struggled with cramps and was taken out after that shot and was being tended to on the bench. The Thunder went on a 4-0 run and took the lead with LeBron out, but once he returned, OKC was outscored 12-4 the rest of the way. Despite the fact that he was limping around and would eventually leave the game for good, LeBron hit a monumental three to put Miami up 97-94 with less than three minutes to play and gave Miami all the momentum they needed to finish, even with him off the floor. Why Sefolosha gave the limping LeBron so much room with four seconds on the shot clock, I’ll never know, but Chalmers finished the game off with free throws despite a few Westbrook buckets that kept OKC on life support. And just like that, the Thunder put themselves in the historically uncomfortable position of a 3-1 Finals deficit; no team had ever come back from that position to win the Finals. Which is exactly what the young Thunder now need to do if they want to shock the world and win Oklahoma City its first NBA championship.

LeBron James left the game with cramps but should be fine for Game 5, meaning the Thunder’s impossible task ahead won’t be any easier.

Heat Defend Home Court, Take 2-1 Finals Lead

LeBron James and the Heat did what they had to in Oklahoma City by grabbing a crucial win on the road in Game 2 to send the series back to Miami for a chance to close the NBA Finals out at home. After a defensive battle in Game 3 that resulted in a 91-85 win for the Heat, the league MVP moved his team one step closer to accomplishing the ultimate goal of winning the first title for the big three.

LeBron was once again spectacular with 29 points and 14 rebounds and has all but settled the debate about which superstar is the best all-around player in the league at this point, but the Heat did receive help from a few other key areas as well. First, Dwyane Wade was once again on the attack at the offensive end, and although he only shot a paltry 8-of-22 from the floor, he finished with 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in a low-scoring game where every basket mattered. Chris Bosh still isn’t playing well and had a miserable 3-for-12 shooting night but still managed to chip in 10 points and 11 rebounds. And Shane Battier, who didn’t quite have the same huge impact in Game 3 as he did in the two games in Oklahoma City, still contributed enough to establish himself as the biggest X-factor in this series, hitting every shot he took to finish with nine points. Battier is shooting an astounding 73 percent from beyond the 3-point line in the Finals and continues to spread the Thunder’s defense by knocking down open looks. Another surprise came in the form of James Jones, who added six points off the bench. Udonis Haslem also had six off the bench, Mike Miller had four and Mario Chalmers continued to be a non-factor with just two points. However, the Heat also benefitted from some pretty lackluster play from the Oklahoma City Thunder, especially in the second half.

Dwyane Wade got to the foul line and benefitted from being on the receiving end of a few questionable calls as he made his offensive presence well known in Miami’s Game 3 win.

After sitting out a critical stretch of time in Game 2 because of foul trouble, Kevin Durant once again found himself on the bench early in the third quarter. So despite his 25 points on 11-of-19 shooting to go with six rebounds, Durant had to sit with four fouls and watch as his team’s 10-point lead quickly evaporated into a two-point deficit heading into the fourth. However, given the way that Durant and the Thunder have played in the fourth quarter so far in this series, it would have been ludicrous to count them out, as it seemed like an inevitable fourth quarter rally was coming to help OKC steal Game 3 on the road and revitalize the opinion that even though Miami has home-court advantage for these three games, the series will not be decided without a fight. But then that rally never came. The Thunder, the same team that has outscored Miami by 17 so far in the fourth, never came to life and took control. Instead, LeBron and the Heat were the aggressors, keeping the Thunder at bay with big buckets and even more importantly, free throws. The Heat won Game 3 entirely because of their incredible efforts to make every free throw count. And with the ever-incompetent Joey Crawford at the helm of Game 3’s officiating crew, the Heat had plenty of opportunities to capitalize as they hit 31 of 35 free throws. Oklahoma City, on the other hand, shot an ugly 62 percent from the line and only attempted 24. While suggesting that the referees are rigging the games for LeBron to win a ring (as many are crying out on social media) is ridiculous, it is entirely true that the NBA needs to take a good hard look at the quality of officiating, especially on the league’s biggest stage. When Joey Crawford starts trending on Twitter at the same time as LeBron James and Kevin Durant, it’s not hard to tell that there’s a problem; specifically, one referee who makes every game about himself with an abundance of dramatic and often, inaccurate calls.

That’s not to take anything away from the Heat, however. LeBron James has been steadily improving in the fourth quarter in this series and as a result, Miami has been winning games by a larger margin. LeBron vowed no regrets with this Finals series and is certainly living up to that promise, dazzling spectators with phenomenal performances that are now extending past the third quarter. But at the same time, a team shooting 35 free throws is ridiculous. Wade had a terrible shooting night but because he got to the line 11 times, he was able to make an impact. Nobody wants to see referee-dominated games, especially when that results in Kevin Durant sitting for long stretches of time that have a great impact on the outcome. It was consistently bad on both sides and a few calls were extremely difficult (the foul on James Harden that could have been a charge on LeBron, the LeBron 3-point play that was called a block on Kevin Durant), but most of the major and momentum-changing plays seemed to go right along with the home team. However, although the reffing played a part in helping Miami take a 2-1 lead on the series, it wasn’t the chief reason the Thunder lost Game 3.

The refs were admittedly terrible, but Kevin Durant was the only one who could get anything going for the Thunder on offense in OKC’s Game 3 defeat.

Aside from Durant, no one could really hit shots for OKC. Game 3’s 85 points was the lowest total for the Thunder since Game 2 against the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round and all of OKC’s big names had problems stepping up. Russell Westbrook was 8-for-18 from the floor and finished with only 19 points and five rebounds. James Harden reverted back to his Game 1 struggles by going 2-for-10 to finish with just nine points. He also had six rebounds and six assists, but in such a low-scoring affair, the Thunder needed every point they could get and Harden wasn’t able to deliver with Oklahoma City’s two stars on the bench during the critical Miami run that demolished the Thunder’s 10-point advantage. Scott Brooks coaching was another problem area, as he probably left Kevin Durant and most certainly Russell Westbrook out of the game for too long, giving Miami a lead and momentum heading into the final quarter. It’s hard to completely fault him for that mistake given the way OKC has played in the fourth quarter so far, but nevertheless, Brooks’ rotation strategy let the lead slip through his team’s fingers in a critical Game 3 that would have been a monumental steal.

Heading into Game 4, OKC really needs everyone to step up. Even Durant, who led with 25 points, needs to improve after a Game 3 that saw him only score six points. In fact, LeBron James finally outperformed his younger counterpart in the game’s decisive quarter, tacking on 10 points that kept OKC at bay despite a few late, desperate rallies. Westbrook needs to be more efficient, Harden needs to live up to his Sixth Man of the Year Award again, and everyone but Derek Fisher and Kendrick Perkins needs to increase their offensive output. Fisher had nine off the bench and Perkins finished with 10 points and 12 rebounds, but Serge Ibaka (five points, five rebounds), Thabo Sefolosha (six points on 3-of-8 shooting) and Nick Collison (two points, two rebounds) all failed to back up their big three. The Thunder also need to drastically improve at the free throw line. They’ve shown problems at the line in the first two games of this series but that trouble area came to a climax in Game 3 as the Heat exploited that advantage to defend their home court. LeBron has realized that Oklahoma City has a very hard time stopping him from attacking the basket and if the Heat continue to get to the foul line so often, the Thunder absolutely have to counter that by making all of their attempts. Thabo Sefolosha also has to do a better job of slowing down LeBron or Wade depending on who he’s matched up with. Durant has to stay out of foul trouble and the Thunder have to play like the incredible fourth quarter team we’ve all seen them become. In the end, I still believe Oklahoma City can win this series, even if the pointless 2-3-2 Finals format that favors the away team will make that difficult. OKC has not played like themselves for the majority of this series and are still contending. It might be the youth, it might be the coaching, it might be the reffing, it might be LeBron James’ dominance and it might be a combination of all of those things. But if the Thunder do manage to regroup and play like the stellar team that shocked the Spurs and the world with their improbable run to the Finals, I would not be surprised to see this series go to Game 7.

LeBron James looks poised to win his first title. Will the Thunder bounce back for Game 4?

LeBron James Helps Miami Hold Off Late OKC Rally

The Oklahoma City Thunder did everything they could down the stretch to comeback after trailing for the majority of the night, but LeBron James and Dwyane Wade would not be denied and prevented Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook from grabbing a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals with a 100-96 victory on the road. The Heat’s Game 2 win tied the series at 1-1 and accomplished a feat no one had been able to pull off in nine previous tries: beat the Thunder in Chesapeake Energy Arena.

LeBron James silenced some critics with another phenomenal playoff performance capped off by a  semi-clutch finish, and although his fourth quarter was nowhere near as big or impactful as Kevin Durant’s, the league MVP cleaned up his act at the free throw line and took care of business when it mattered most. LeBron made all 12 of his attempts, including a few critical ones down the stretch, and had key baskets in the fourth quarter for the first time in forever to avoid yet another colossal comeback from OKC. He led the Heat with 32 points and eight rebounds, but I’m not ready to declare him as a clutch player just yet. Because the fact is, he only had six points and one field goal in the fourth, simply making free throws and one bank shot in the process. That’s not good enough against a fourth quarter killer like Durant. In addition to another great performance from LeBron, D-Wade’s big night was just as critical in helping Miami keep its distance, even as the Thunder threatened to pull off the monster upset. Wade finally had an efficient night on the offensive end, finishing with 24 points, six rebounds and five assists. But another key was Shane Battier, the biggest surprise and X-factor of the NBA Finals so far. Battier knocked down five 3-pointers and finished with 17 to help balance out Oklahoma City’s depth. Battier is averaging 17 points in this series after two games and if he continues to knock down open looks, the Thunder will have one more problem to worry about that will be difficult to handle given how much attention OKC already has to pay to LeBron and Wade. And on a related note, Chris Bosh showed why Miami is so dangerous when he is on the floor, putting up 16 points and 15 rebounds to outplay OKC’s defensive frontcourt.

Dwyane Wade finally had an efficient offensive night and gave the Miami Heat a huge edge with a great all-around Game 2 performance.

For the Thunder, Kevin Durant led with 32 points, once again coming alive in the second half. Game 2 showed that no fourth quarter lead is safe in this series, but it was too little, too late for OKC this time around. After being handled for three full quarters, the Thunder have a lot of adjustments to make for Game 3 to avoid coming out slow for the third straight time. Because even though Oklahoma City’s booming crowd helped them surge back into the series’ first two games, the Thunder won’t have that luxury for the next two in front of a hostile crowd that now believes its team can win. Russell Westbrook followed up Durant with 27 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, but once again came out gunning early and missed most of the shots he took took, going 10-for-26 from the field compared to Durant’s 10-for-22. James Harden carried OKC in the beginning and kept them within striking distance with 17 points in the first half, but he only finished with 21 after a second half disappearing act. Granted, Durant and Westbrook started taking most of the shots down the stretch and Thabo Sefolosha saw more time as the Thunder desperately needed stops against LeBron and the Heat, but it was a disappointing finish to what could have been a series-changing performance. After a subpar Game 1, this was Harden’s chance to make a statement, and while he had a good game, it wasn’t enough in the second half to help the Thunder defend their court in their most important home game yet.

After trailing by as many as 16 in the second quarter, OKC worked to chisel away at the double-digit deficit until it was 11 heading into the fourth. At that point, the Durant show started once again and Westbrook’s huge 3-point play cut the lead to four with six minutes to play, but a lucky bank shot 3-pointer from Battier (and yes, it was lucky) helped the Heat retain their composure and avoid a complete collapse. Even so, the Thunder still threatened to steal a Game 2 the Heat had been thoroughly dominating just a few minutes earlier, never saying die, even after Miami built a 98-91 lead with 53 seconds left. Westbrook cut it to five with a quick two and a costly turnover caused by OKC’s full-court pressure led to a clutch Durant 3-pointer to pull the Thunder within two with 37 seconds to go. From there, it looked like LeBron would have a chance to truly prove himself as a clutch performer, but he bricked a three, OKC got the rebound and it looked like the Thunder were about to pull off the massive comeback. But on the inbounds play, Westbrook quickly found Durant who tried to catch LeBron off guard by immediately attacking because he was late to match up defensively. However, this smart plan backfired when LeBron reacted so quickly he was able to get in front of Durant for a controversial, potential game-tying shot that was short on the front of the rim. The shot was seen as controversial because many believed LeBron fouled Durant with his body/elbow, but the no-call may have been the correct decision given the context: in an NBA Finals game with less than 10 seconds to go, it was probably a foul, but because Durant was in such a hurry and rushed the shot, it looked like he was playing for a foul, which a referee will never reward. If Durant had taken his time and put up a regular shot, the ref might have rewarded him with the chance to take the lead at the free throw line. But he rushed his shot and it looked like nothing more than a feeble attempt to draw a foul. After that, LeBron hit two clutch free throws to extend the lead to four and win Game 2 in an arena where no one but Oklahoma City has won in the playoffs this year.

James Harden had a monster first half and kept OKC alive as Miami threatened to pull away, but didn’t have much impact in the second.

Aside from not showing up in the first half, the Thunder had another major problem that was an advantage in Game 1: role player production. Derek Fisher, Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins each went 1-for-5 to finish with two, three and four points, respectively. Nick Collison didn’t take a single shot. And Serge Ibaka, who scored 10 points in the first half of Game 1, hasn’t had a major impact since, finishing Game 2 with seven. Production from role players is just one area that the Thunder need to improve before Game 3. Miami is a tough place to play and Oklahoma City no longer has home court advantage in this series, meaning at least one road win is necessary to prove they are the better team I believe them to be. First of all, they have to start Game 3 on a fast note. The Thunder fell behind by double digits in the first half in Game 1 and repeated the trend by coming out dead flat in the first quarter of Game 2. After falling behind 18-2, the Heat went into the second quarter with a 27-15 advantage. Oklahoma City started the game 1-for-12 and had only five points in almost eight minutes of action. For the highest scoring team of the postseason, 15-point quarters can’t happen, especially against an imposing defense like Miami’s. Durant and Westbrook can’t go a combined 1-for-10 in the first quarter again. Durant and OKC once again impressed by their ability to battle back in a furious rally in the fourth quarter, but if they would come out with that same fire and intensity in the first half, neither of the first two games would have been close. If the Thunder put together four (or even three) quality quarters, Miami has no chance in the fourth. LeBron was finally clutch down the stretch for Miami, but other than a pretty bank shot to put the Heat up by five with just over a minute to play, all he had to do was knock down free throws. If the Thunder actually enter the fourth quarter with a lead, the only way Miami will win is if they can get their crowd riled up enough to bother the cold-blooded composure of Durant and the Thunder. OKC also needs to get out on the break more for Game 3. In Game 1, the Thunder had 24 fast break points but in Game 2 they had major problems in this area.

For the Heat, the only thing they need to do is duplicate their Game 2 effort and hope their defense can contain the Thunder for four full quarters. Because Scott Brooks is a good coach, he will have his players motivated and prepared to come out strong in Game 3. And as good as the Thunder are in the fourth, the Heat need a sizable lead to withstand the inevitable Oklahoma City rally. LeBron needs to continue to play effectively on both ends of the floor and Wade needs to stay engaged on the offensive end. Bosh looked back to normal in Game 2 and if Battier can keep draining 3-pointers in the unbelievable way that he has in the Finals so far, those are two major threats that can’t be stopped with so much attention being paid to LeBron and Wade. However, the Heat can’t get too comfortable; they have benefitted from lackluster first halves from the Thunder so far in this series and although they now have home court advantage, all it takes is one road victory for Oklahoma City to be the favorites again. Miami needs to win both games at home to win the Finals; if they don’t they will really have their hands full with a resilient Thunder team that had no problem rebounding from a 2-0 deficit against the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. All in all, this series is playing out to be every bit as competitive as we’d hoped it would be and although Miami seems to have the upper hand right now with the next three games at home (the NBA Finals uses the ever-frustrating 2-3-2 format), don’t underestimate Kevin Durant and the Thunder. Although LeBron played well down the stretch, he’s not having the impact in the fourth he needs to if the Heat want to outlast Oklahoma City in the fourth quarter of close games.

LeBron James isn’t clutch yet, but he made his free throws and led the Heat to a crucial Game 2 victory to tie the series. Round 1 went to Durant, but Round 2 was won in the end by LeBron.