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 Overcome Rajon Rondo’s Big Night, Go Up 2-0

Rajon Rondo lit up the Heat for 44 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds, but the Miami Heat were too much for the Celtics in overtime, powering past Boston down the stretch to defend their home court with a 115-111 win in Game 2. Despite missing numerous free throws and a last-second attempt to win the game in the fourth quarter, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade gave the Heat a 2-0 lead on the series after Paul Pierce fouled out.

LeBron led Miami with 34 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists while Wade followed up with 23 points and six rebounds. The Heat rallied from a 15 point deficit in the first half to take a six point lead heading into the fourth. But Rondo and the Celtics remained resilient and fought back to gain a five point advantage with less than three minutes to play. But the Heat stormed back with a 9-0 run to go up 98-94 with a minute to play. Udonis Haslem once again proved to be a clutch piece for the Heat, knocking down key baskets in the fourth quarter and overtime to help out LeBron and Wade on the offensive end. Haslem ended up with 13 points and 11 rebounds and Mario Chalmers was also huge for Miami, finishing with 22 points and six assists. However, the Celtics showed their veteran experience by battling back after Wade missed one of two free throws, which led to a Ray Allen 3-pointer to tie the game. LeBron James, who scored 18 of his 34 points from the free throw line, had the ball with the game on the line but again came up short, which was especially disappointing because he pulled up for a fadeaway jumper at the buzzer instead of driving to the basket with the much smaller Rondo guarding him. However, LeBron and Wade’s performance up to that point was enough to give the Heat the victory, especially when they started hitting their free throws in overtime. But this will be an area of concern for Miami if they advance to face the Spurs or the Thunder in the Finals: how will LeBron and Wade perform under pressure with the game on the line?

LeBron had another great playoff game but he wavered a little bit down the stretch. Will he perform under pressure when it matters?

On the Boston’s side of things, Pierce fouling out really hurt the Celtics and even Rondo’s prolific night wasn’t enough to prevent the Heat from taking control down the stretch. LeBron, Wade and Haslem scored all of Miami’s points in overtime while Rondo singlehandedly kept his team in the game by scoring all of Boston’s 12 overtime points. Unfortunately for the Celtics, nobody else showed up in the clutch. Pierce finished with 21 points before fouling out late in the fourth, Kevin Garnett 18 points and eight rebounds and Ray Allen added 13. But Brandon Bass only took four shots and Boston’s bench combined for just seven points as the Heat ran away with the game down the stretch.

Like I emphasized in my last post, Rondo needed to fully expose his advantage over Chalmers at the point guard position, but it still wasn’t enough to overcome Miami’s two elite superstars with the help of Chalmers and Haslem. Unfortunately for Boston, as much as they battled and showed everyone this series won’t be a cakewalk, they didn’t have what it took down the stretch to close it out. Part of the problem was Garnett wasn’t able to give the Celtics an edge in the paint because of his 6-for-18 shooting night. Moving forward, Rondo has to continue to exploit the Heat defense by getting to the basket (although expecting him to produce at such a high level for the rest of the series is a little too much to ask) and Garnett needs to step up his game just a little more so his presence in the paint allows the Celtics to spread the floor. However, this series looks just as decided as the Western Conference Finals, as LeBron and Wade are playing at too high a level to allow their team to lose. Boston should be commended for making it this far and could make things interesting by taking care of business at home, but they’re just too banged up to proved a real challenge to the Heat at this point.

Rajon Rondo had a memorable playoff performance for the Celtics, but it still wasn’t enough.

Pacers Pound Miami In Game 3

The Indiana Pacers used balanced scoring and offensive depth to rout the Miami Heat at home in Game 3, taking a 2-1 lead on the series as Dwyane Wade and LeBron James struggled to carry the offensive load again. Indiana had big back-to-back quarters in the second and third (outscoring Miami 52-29 over that span) and despite a breakout performance from Mario Chalmers, the Pacers prevailed in convincing fashion at home with a 94-75 win.

The Heat were reeling after LeBron and Wade choked down the stretch in Game 2, but after Game 3 they’re in serious trouble of losing this series. George Hill led the Pacers with 20 points on 6-of-8 shooting, but the rest of Indiana’s starting lineup wasn’t far behind. Roy Hibbert finally had a terrific all-around game with 19 points, 18 rebounds and five blocks. Danny Granger also benefitted from playing in front of the Pacers’ home crowd and had 17 points and seven rebounds. David West chipped in 14 points and nine rebounds and Paul George added nine. Darren Collison only had seven off the bench, but his baskets came at a critical stretch in the fourth that kept the Pacers’ lead in double digits. The Pacers also out-rebounded the Chris Bosh-less Heat by a margin of 52-36. Nobody gave my sleeper team Indiana any credit in this series, even after Bosh went down. But it looks like the matchup problems I pointed out in my series predictions are starting to really come to life without Miami’s All-Star power forward on the court.

Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert had improved offensive nights and got the job done defensively, giving Indiana a 2-1 lead.

In the end, the outcome of this game was thoroughly predictable, especially considering how poorly Dwyane Wade shot the ball. Indiana had all the momentum heading into the night after Miami’s complete collapse in Game 2, which made the message known loud and clear: You might have two superstars, but we have balance and depth. Those two things are going to be tough for Miami to overcome if they continue to get so little out of their supporting cast. Mike Miller only had six points, yet another disappointing performance for someone so highly paid. Shane Battier and Dexter Pittman, two starters, put up goose eggs. But the worst was Wade, who was 2-for-13 from the field for only five points while also committed five turnovers. LeBron James, who had a solid first half with 16 points, finished with only 22 after an extremely quiet third quarter. LeBron hit back-to-back shots in the fourth quarter to try and rally his troops, but Indiana kept scoring to keep their double-digit advantage and Miami couldn’t put anything together as the lead extended to over 20. Mario Chalmers led the Heat with 25 points and Joel Anthony pitched in 10 off the bench, but once again, Miami’s supporting cast failed to show up. You combine that with Wade’s appalling offensive night and LeBron being virtually silent in the second half and there’s no question why Indiana turned the game into a rout.

Without Chris Bosh, this series has turned into a battle between depth and two superstars. Since one didn’t show up, Indiana’s balanced scoring completely overpowered the Heat. Home court advantage certainly didn’t hurt, as Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert came out firing and had much greater confidence on their own floor. Hill proved how deadly he can be when his shot is on and West and Paul gave solid contributions. Unless LeBron James and Dwyane Wade put on heroic performances in another tough road game in Indiana, this series could very well be over. A lot of people undervalued Bosh and downplayed his injury, saying it would just clear the way for LeBron and Wade to take over. But they seriously underestimated the impact Bosh had down low, and now that Hibbert and West are both going hard in the paint, the Heat have little chance. But the impact of Bosh’s injury doesn’t stop there. Bosh’s absence means LeBron has been moved to the power forward position to take on the task of guarding David West. It’s true that LeBron can “guard all five positions,” but that doesn’t mean he can shut down the physical West without their being drawbacks. West is physically wearing LeBron down and tiring him out, which explains his second half struggles in the past two games. Plus, LeBron switching to West means that Granger isn’t being shut down by the best defender on the court. West can overpower LeBron and Granger is starting to increase his offensive production at the same time. At this point, it would take a poor shooting night from the Pacers and transcendent games from LeBron and Wade for Miami to have any hope of tying the series in Game 4. But with Granger and Hibbert seemingly coming back to life, the Heat really have their hands full now.

Mario Chalmers had a big night, but without D-Wade it didn’t matter. Can Chalmers bring it again in Game 4?

LeBron Pushes Miami To 3-0 Lead

The Knicks were ready to play in Game 3 and looked like they were going to take a game and show everyone they could compete with the Miami Heat in the first half. But LeBron James and the Miami Heat would not be denied, blowing the game wide open in the fourth quarter to win 87-70 and take a 3-0 series lead.

Despite an absolutely wicked J.R. Smith windmill dunk on the Heat in the fourth quarter that pulled New York within eight, the Knicks couldn’t sustain enough momentum to counter the offensive onslaught of LeBron James. James scored eight straight points to start the quarter after struggling with his shot and foul trouble in the first half. Carmelo Anthony continued to be the Knicks’ high scorer and best offensive option, but he was once again nowhere near as efficient as LeBron, shooting a poor percentage and requiring  23 shots to put up just 22 points. Tyson Chandler played well in the first half and finished with 11 points and 15 rebounds, but J.R. Smith and Steve Novak struggled to contribute. Aside from LeBron James taking over, Mario Chalmers hit a few 3’s in the fourth to extend the lead and finished with 19 points. For a Knicks team without Amare Stoudemire, Jeremy Lin and Iman Shumpert, a guy like Chalmers can’t score that many points.

J.R. Smith’s wicked windmill dunk got the crowd fired up, but they didn’t have much to cheer about after that.

The Knicks offense went stagnant in the second half after heading into the locker room with a four point lead. In a game where Chris Bosh didn’t do much and LeBron James actually struggled (for the first three quarters, that is), the Knicks needed to take advantage and build a sizable lead. But they were unable to do so and LeBron and company turned what was a close game into a blowout in a matter of minutes. Melo wasn’t clicking offensively and neither was anyone else as the Knicks were outscored 51-30 in the second half.

In their defense, New York hasn’t been able to develop team chemistry because Melo, Amare and Lin have all been injured at different times and the Knicks are missing two of their best three players for the postseason. But what could have been a very competitive playoff series has turned into quite the disappointment. Melo hasn’t been able to compete with LeBron’s efficiency so far and New York hasn’t come close because of it. Credit Miami for their stellar defense, high-flying transition offense and of course, LeBron James for not giving the Knicks any hope. New York has now lost a league-leading 13 consecutive playoff games. Unless everyone shoots lights out in Game 4 in Madison Square Garden tomorrow, the Knicks will extend that streak to 14 and be swept by the extremely business-like Miami Heat and their MVP LeBron James.

LeBron James is living up the MVP hype and has dismantled the Knicks so far in the series.