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.

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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.

Boston Outlasts Miami In Overtime, Ties Up Eastern Conference Finals

And just like that, we have a series again. After the Thunder tied up the Western Conference Finals Saturday night, Boston came out and defended their home court to do the same, outlasting Miami in a 93-91 overtime win in Game 4. Although the contest was greatly influenced by overzealous refereeing (thanks again, Joey Crawford), it was consistently poor on both sides of the ball and ultimately only robbed the audience of a potentially classic overtime battle as Paul Pierce and LeBron James both fouled out in the game’s extra period.

Boston got off to a fast start, quickly building up a 21-9 advantage behind Pierce and Ray Allen and they led by 14 at the break. The Celtics got huge boosts in the first half and the entire game from Allen, who knocked down four 3-pointers and finished with 16 points. Boston also got improved performances out of Brandon Bass and Keyon Dooling, who finished with 11 and 10, respectively. Pierce led the Celts with 23 points before fouling out on an off-the-ball foul against Shane Battier, marking the third time he’s fouled out in the past five games. Rajon Rondo had 15 points and 15 assists and Kevin Garnett finished with 17 points and 14 rebounds. LeBron James once again had a quality first half without getting much help from his teammates, which has been a recurring issue in the past two games and explains why the Heat have had to battle back from double-digit deficits in the second half of their two games in TD Garden. Dwyane Wade went 2-for-11 in the first half and finished with 20 points on a meager 7-of-22 shooting, with one of those misses being a last-second 3-point attempt that would have given Miami the overtime win. Wade had an open look and his poor shooting night certainly didn’t help matters, but Erik Spoelstra should take the majority of the blame for drawing up such a feeble attempt of a play to end the game both in regulation and overtime. I understand the tendency in the NBA to just give the ball to your star player in the clutch and let him pull up for a dramatic jump shot for the win, but how do you not convert down the stretch twice with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the floor?

With LeBron James and Paul Pierce both out of the game, Dwayne Wade missed a last-second 3-point attempt to win the game and gave the Celtics the Game 4 OT win and even the series.

The Heat remained resilient and battled back with Wade and Mario Chalmers stepping up in the third quarter, but couldn’t hold on to a minimal fourth quarter lead after taking momentum back. Chalmers and Udonis Haslem each finished with 12 points but Shane Battier only pitched in six and Mike Miller only had two. LeBron led all scorers again with 29 points and even hit a clutch 3-pointer to tie the game that would eventually send it to OT. But he didn’t get much help from Wade and got next to nothing from his supporting cast for the second game in a row, which meant a win for the home team. LeBron will also have to deal with the criticism of not being clutch because he passed on the last play in regulation (which is absolutely ridiculous since he hit the three to send it to OT and also because he was TRIPLE-TEAMED on the game’s final possession). After a devastating overtime defeat that was heavily influenced by the referees on both sides, the Miami Heat are now under heavy pressure to reclaim the lead against a team that was seen as banged up and broken before the series started.

Like the Thunder, the underdog Celtics stared a 2-0 deficit in the face and beat it into submission with back-to-back wins on their home floor. Now the Eastern Conference Finals are tied and all the pressure is on Miami to prove that the last two games didn’t matter. But unless Wade and Miami’s supporting cast wakes up and steps up on their home court, the overall balance of the Celtics looks like it has what it takes to get the best of LeBron James. Pierce, Rondo and KG are all pitching in while role players like Bass, Dooling and Allen are outshining Miami’s bench. The Heat could really use Chris Bosh right about now, who has been sitting out since the Heat’s series against Indiana in the second round. Many people take Bosh and what he does for granted, and while it was fine for him to sit out with the abdominal strain when the Heat were up 2-0, now that Boston has put the pressure back on Miami, it might be time for him to suit up again. Because this experienced and veteran Celtics team has proven that they have what it takes to win and they have all the momentum heading into a pivotal Game 5 on the road. But unlike Game 4, hopefully the disgraceful refereeing of the NBA won’t deprive us of anything special again.

Keyon Dooling and Boston’s role guys were huge once again for the Celtics, who now have a shot.

Kevin Durant Powers OKC Past San Antonio In Game 4

Thanks to a phenomenal performance from Oklahoma City’s big men and a prolific second half from Kevin Durant, the Thunder finished their defense of their home court and evened up the Western Conference Finals. With the series tied at 2-2, the Spurs will have to defend their home court and try to snatch momentum back with a pivotal Game 5 on the line.

By halftime, the Thunder had built up a 12-point lead because of elevated play from their frontcourt. Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison were 15-for-17 in the first half and scored 33 of OKC’s 55 points. Ibaka’s performance was key and showed how deadly Oklahoma City can be when he plays at such a high level, finishing with 26 points on a ridiculous 11-of-11 shooting night. Perkins finished with 15 points and went 7-of-9 from the floor and Nick Collison added eight off the bench. But what was even most impressive about the Thunder’s first half lead was how little Kevin Durant had done up until that point: 1-for-3 from the field and just eight points in the first half. But after exploding for 28 points in the second half (18 of which came in the last seven minutes of the game), it seems he was just warming up for something special. The Thunder’s 15-point lead was cut to just four with less than seven minutes to play, but the Durantula kept his team afloat by scoring 16 straight points for the Thunder to give OKC a nine-point lead with less than two minutes left in the game.

Kevin Durant had a Jordanesque performance in Game 3, singlehandedly lifting his team past the Spurs in the fourth.

Oklahoma City should be feeling pretty good about themselves at this point. They tied the series up and defended home court; they got over the hump and proved that they can beat this high-powered offensive team; Kevin Durant is coming off a Jordanesque performance; Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka were truly impressive on the offensive end; but most important of all, they won in convincing fashion despite the fact that Russell Westbrook and James Harden had meager performances. Westbrook had only seven points and five assists while Harden finished with 11 off the bench. The fact that the Thunder are winning without Westbrook taking a ton of shots should show OKC how important it is for Durant to take the majority of the shots, especially when their role players play to well. All of this should build confidence for a critical Game 5 in San Antonio. They have all the momentum after defending their home court and not collapsing under the pressure of a 2-0 deficit supplied by this offensive juggernaut known as the Spurs. They’ve proved to the world and to themselves that Gregg Popovich’s high-flying team is vulnerable and can be beaten. The question now is whether or not they can do what no one has been able to do so far in this series by winning on the road.

The Western Conference Finals looked dire for the Thunder after the Spurs won Games 1 and 2 at home. Now the series is a best-of-three where San Antonio has home court advantage for two games. But the Thunder come into Game 5 with the knowledge that they can win if their role players and big men play at a high level, they can win the series. The Spurs have a lot of adjustments to make after Game 4. They were out-rebounded 41-31. They got 11 points out of Stephen Jackson off the bench, but Manu Ginobili only took seven shots. And most important of all, Tony Parker had only 12 points and four assists with Thabo Sefolosha once again playing phenomenal defense on him. So while it was reassuring to see Tim Duncan lead the Spurs with 21 points while Kawhi Leonard picked up his play and added 17, the Spurs need to find a way to handle the Thunder defensively. San Antonio shot 50 percent from the field, but they gave up 56 percent shooting to the Thunder. This series still remains a pick ’em, but something tells me the aging Spurs won’t have enough to overcome Oklahoma City’s youth and enthusiasm with momentum on their side, which is why I’m still standing by my prediction that the Thunder will advance in six games.

Serge Ibaka had a huge game for the Thunder. Can OKC’s role players step up again for Game 5?

Spurs Sweep Clippers, Advance To Western Conference Finals

San Antonio was down late, on the road, against a Clippers team that was finally enjoying a quality performance from Chris Paul. But Tim Duncan and the Spurs would not be denied and swept Lob City in Game 4 with a 102-99 win. The victory marked their second sweep of the playoffs this year and their 18th win in a row, a streak extending back to the regular season.

The Clippers battled, Chris Paul dropped 23 points and 11 dimes and still the Spurs came out on top to finish Lob City off. Blake Griffin added 21 and Eric Bledsoe had 17 off the bench, but there was no answer for the Spurs’ execution in the game’s final two minutes. The Clippers fought hard, got decent scoring off the bench and DeAndre Jordan even pitched in 10, but San Antonio proved to be a little too much for this team in only their first year together. Tim Duncan led the Spurs with 21 points and nine rebounds and Tony Parker had 17 points. Daniel Green had 14, Gary Neal matched that number off the bench and Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter added 11 apiece. As has been the case throughout the series and the playoffs so far, the Spurs’ depth and incredibly balanced scoring overpowered San Antonio’s opponent and their execution under Greg Popovich has been flawless up to this point. The Clippers gave the Spurs everything they could handle at home but San Antonio is playing the best basketball in the NBA right now.

Say what you want about his age, but Tim Duncan is still getting it done.

The Spurs really are the complete package right now, despite the fact that one of their best three players has been aging ever so steadily over the past few years. Even so, Tim Duncan hasn’t slowed down. His athleticism and defense on skilled post players leaves a little to be desired, but his offensive technique, rebounding and passing ability and his sheer experience and knowledge on how to win games makes the Spurs a big contender. Tony Parker is playing great basketball on both ends of the floor, Manu Ginobili is scoring off the bench again and almost all of the Spurs’ role players and reserves are fully capable of scoring, knocking down 3-pointers and playing defense. It was nice to see Chris Paul play well, but down the stretch, Daniel Green was able to shut him down and keep the Spurs on top at the end. This is just one of many examples of how this well-oiled machine functions as parts of a complete team and will provide a huge challenge to either the Thunder or the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

As I mentioned before, Clippers fans shouldn’t hang their heads after their team won its third playoff series in 35 years. The result was disappointing, but Lob City was only in its first year and if the Clips can get Chauncey Billups back, replace Vinny Del Negro with somebody better (almost anyone applies here) and maybe improve at center and small forward, they could be dangerous next year. This year was a learning process and LAC still accomplished so much; unfortunately, they got the difficult task of matching up with the San Antonio Spurs juggernaut in the second round. Although they have a lot of unrestricted free agents at the end of this year, if they can sign the majority back and make improvements where necessary, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin could be a force in the playoffs next year. As for the Spurs, this sweep just highlighted how dangerous this “old” team really is. Whoever gets them in the Western Conference Finals will certainly have their hands full.

Don’t hang your heads, Clippers fans. Lob City got a tough matchup and will be back next year.

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade Overpower Pacers

Ever since Chris Bosh went down in Game 1, I’ve been saying this series would be a battle between two elite superstars and a team with overall balanced scoring. In Game 4 between the Heat and Pacers, the two superstars won out. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade combined for 70 points, 27 rebounds and 15 assists to lead the Heat to a 101-93 win. Danny Granger scored 20 points for the first time in the series, but LeBron and Wade rattled off 38 consecutive points for the Heat during one stretch and tied the series at 2-2.

For Indiana, this was a prime opportunity to take a commanding 3-1 lead with three chances to finish Miami off. Unfortunately for the Pacers, that opportunity was wasted by mediocre performances from Roy Hibbert, David West and George Hill. Hibbert finished with an uninspired 10 points and nine rebounds while Hill and West could only muster eight each. It was Indiana’s bench that kept the Pacers in the game, with Darren Collison scoring 16 and Leandro Barbosa and Tyler Hansbrough adding eight each. But without decent offensive outings from three key Pacers starters, Indiana wasn’t able to take care of business at home and put real pressure on the Heat. Now the momentum has shifted back to Miami for the upcoming Game 5, and the Pacers will be hard-pressed to fend off LeBron and Wade with this sense of renewed confidence.

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade completely took over and carried Miami to a Game 4 victory.

Although Danny Granger led the Pacers in scoring, some of the blame for LeBron and Wade’s resurgence in Game 4 has to fall on him. LeBron was rolling early on, but Wade started the game 1-for-8 before a confrontation with Granger (which resulted in a technical on Indiana’s leading scorer) fired Wade up for the second half. Now I defended Granger’s tough guy act at first, because the Pacers needed that “never back down” attitude in this series, which is what he was providing. Indiana doesn’t have the star power that Miami has, but a team with balanced scoring that finds its rallying cry is especially dangerous, and I think Granger’s standing his ground set an example for his teammates. Granger’s confrontations with LeBron seemed petty and pointless on the surface, but since he wasn’t exactly giving his team stellar shooting nights, the macho routine was establishing the tone for the Pacers. Unfortunately for Granger and Indiana, that plan backfired and shook Wade out of his mediocre state of play. Wade came alive after that, scoring 22 of his 30 points in the second half. Adding that to LeBron’s 40-point performance and it’s no wonder the Heat came out on top.

I’ve been saying that without Bosh, it would take a Herculean effort from both LeBron and Wade to overpower the balanced scoring of Indiana. It turns out Game 4 was exactly that. However, Miami also got a big fourth quarter boost to maintain their narrow lead from Udonis Haslem, who knocked down a few open jumpers when the Pacers started double teaming Wade and LeBron whenever they touched the ball. Haslem finished with 14 off the bench, eight of which came in the fourth. The Heat definitely benefitted from subpar performances from Hill, West and Hibbert, but LeBron and Wade showed a great amount of leadership as they put on a complete two-man clinic in the third quarter to reclaim the lead. I still believe Indiana’s balanced scoring and team play will give Miami problems, (even if LeBron and Wade have more prolific nights like this) but they’ve lost momentum and now that the Heat have home-court advantage for two out of three potential games, we could have an extremely competitive series on our hands.

Danny Granger had a better scoring night, but may have been the spark that ignited the Miami Heat in the second half.

Late Kevin Durant Three Caps Off Thunder Comeback

The Thunder’s come-from-behind win at Staples Center last night revealed one important truth about this Oklahoma City-Los Angeles series: no lead is safe in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, that truth has stung them twice and left them on the wrong side of a 3-1 series advantage after the Thunder’s 103-100 win in Game 4. Russell Westbrook took over in the fourth quarter rally and led the Thunder with 37 points and five assists, but it was Kevin Durant who put the final nail in the coffin with a clutch 3-pointer to put OKC up 101-98 with 13 seconds to go.

Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 38 points, eight rebounds and five assists, but his struggles in the fourth quarter opened the door for the Thunder’s comeback that will now send the series back to Oklahoma City for an elimination game. Andrew Bynum had 18 points and nine rebounds and everyone in LA’s starting five scored in double digits. But the Lake Show made critical mistakes down the stretch and couldn’t stop the Durant-Westbrook tandem down the stretch and gave up a nine point lead with less that six minutes to play after leading by as many as 12 in the third quarter. In fact, the Lakers were ahead for the majority of the game, racking up points in the paint and physically abusing the Thunder on both ends of the floor. But OKC hung around and as is the case with any great team, if you let them hang around, you will come to regret it in the end. After the 42 free throws debacle in Game 3, the refs (relatively) shortened up on the whistles, which meant the Lakers greatly benefitted from their advantage in being able physically push the Thunder around in the paint and on the defensive end for the majority of the game. LA was the aggressor for almost the entire game, abusing OKC’s bigs, getting to the foul line and letting the Thunder settle for contested jumpers because Oklahoma City couldn’t get anything going to the basket against the Lakers’ physical defense. Serge Ibaka finished with 14 but the Thunder didn’t really get much out of anyone else. James Harden had an off night, shooting 2-for-11 from the field to finish with just 12 points, but Westbrook made up for it as he caught fire with 10 points in the fourth quarter. Durant finished with 31 points and 13 rebounds and the Thunder ended the game on a 22-8 run, capped off by the Durant 3-pointer and two Harden free throws that sealed the Lakers’ fate.

Kobe Bryant helped the Lakers build a 12 point lead in the 3rd quarter, but he struggled down the stretch once again, going 2-for-10 in the 4th.

The series now heads back to Oklahoma City for Game 5. This is a pretty demoralizing loss for the Lakers, who led for the majority of the night and did everything they needed to to win except finish. The Thunder outscored LA 32-20 in the game’s final period and after three quarters of being dominated in the post, OKC turned the game on its head by becoming the aggressor. The Lakers reverted to the Thunder’s patented style of basketball by shooting a large number of long distance jump shots as OKC got to the basket and started hitting mid rand jumpers. Kobe Bryant, who choked down the stretch in Game 2, once again had problems living up to his distant accolades as a clutch performer by going 2-for-10 in the fourth quarter, jacking up a large number of perimeter shots that didn’t find their mark. So even though Ron Artest knocked down a few critical jump shots with Kobe on the bench to keep the Lakers’ lead alive, as soon as Kobe returned to the floor, the ball never made it back inside the paint to Bynum and Kobe launched it every time he got it. Pau Gasol, who has been criticized throughout the playoffs for playing soft and disappearing on the offensive end, once again disappointed Laker fans not only because of his 10-point, 5-rebound night, but also because of his critical turnover that led to Kevin Durant’s 3-pointer to seal the game.

All the momentum is now with the Oklahoma City Thunder. They’ve got home court advantage, they were able to overcome a (relatively) balanced scoring effort from the Lakers without Harden playing well and they once again showed their resilience, grit and determination in the fourth quarter, even facing a deficit against a tough team on the road. Kobe is doing all that he can do and since Bynum has mentally checked out, as long as he’s putting up double doubles Los Angeles will be satisfied. But if the Lakers don’t get a lot more out of Gasol, Kevin Durant and the Thunder should have the killer instinct to put this series away on their own terms at home in Game 5.

Kevin Durant proved how clutch he is in the playoffs and gave the Thunder a 3-1 lead.