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.
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.
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.