What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
I really, really didn't want to have to write a recap for this game. You mad, bro? You probably should be, because I know I am.
It isn't even worth touching the foul call disparity at this point. This is what sometimes happens in series, and part of being a fan is reacting to it. The Thunder have certainly been on both ends of the spectrum, and so the calls are what they are. I understand that, but I can't dwell on a call that went this way or that. Ultimately, a team either succumbs to the foul disparity or they say, "screw it," and win anyway.
No, what steamed me the most was the way the Thunder played an absolutely ridiculous stretch of dominant defense for 3 quarters and yet threw it away with such a head-scratching stretch at the end of the 3rd quarter that it may have more far-reaching repercussions than just a single loss.
The Thunder were following what has become the 'Thunder Formula' for playing challenging games: keep it close in the 1st half, make some halftime adjustments, then turn up the defensive intensity in the 3rd. Go on an early run and then play keep-away the rest of the game. Through the first five minutes of the 3rd, this formula was going according to plan. With the defense playing the way it was, the game was right there to be taken and put the fear into the Miami Heat.
What was, overall, the main reason the Thunder lost?
The formula was working. The Thunder, trailing by one at the half, came out full force in the 2nd half. OKC had surrendered 20 points in the paint in the 1st quarter alone, but since then had worked hard to eliminate anything on the interior. Consider this - with almost 9 minutes played in the 3rd quarter, the Heat had only managed to score 9 points total. OKC had successfully turned the Heat into a perimeter team, and as we found out, the Heat are not a very good perimeter team. 9 points. Remarkable. All OKC had to do was put together enough offense in the remaining 3 minutes of the 3rd quarter and they would go into the 4th with a lead and a stout defense to lean on.
You know what happened. In the midst of this great defensive run, Kevin Durant picked up his 4th foul and headed to the bench. Durant's departure was coupled by Russell Westbrook running 4 poor possessions on offense, where he had his pass stolen by Mario Chalmers, missed a contested 3-pointer, missed a lay-up, and then committed a charge. He too was soon sitting on the bench, leaving James Harden to run the show.
The next stage of the 3rd quarter collapse involved the defense, which had been playing so dominantly, committed 2 horrible defensive plays that reversed the Heat's fortunes. One two consecutive possessions, the Thunder fouled a corner 3-point shooter on a night when neither team was hitting its 3-pointers. First Shane Battier and then James Jones were rewarded with 3 free throws, and the pair went 6-6. Suddenly a once double-digit lead was down to 3 points.
Scott Brooks elected to keep both Durant and Westbrook on the bench, which meant that Harden was the only shot creator that was left on the court. The Heat clamped down on Harden and the Thunder did not get another good look for the rest of the quarter. The Heat completed the turnaround with a 12-2 run and all of OKC's hard work in the 3rd was like so much refuse right down the sewer drain.
What is a key statistic to understanding tonight's game?
15-24. That is the free throw shooting total for the Thunder in Game 3. There will be plenty of clamor around the studio space that talks about the foul and free throw disparity, but I find it difficult to muster a grievance against it when the Thunder, the league's best free throw shooting team for the past two seasons, missed 9 hugely critical attempts in the game. Durant missed 2 in a row that could have given OKC the lead in the 4th, Nick Collison missed 2 in a row, and Harden went 2-4 during that critical stretch at the end of the 3rd. With those misses, OKC failed to keep the pressure on the Heat offense, which was devolving almost as quickly as the Thunder's offense was.
I really don't know if the misses can be chalked up to nerves, inexperience, the size of the moment, or something else, but it has become truly baffling at this point. OKC has now missed 7 and 7 and 9 free throws in consecutive games, and with the last two games coming down to final possessions, that is the difference between winning and losing.
What does this game mean for the Thunder today and moving forward?
As frustrating and disheartening as Game 3's loss was, given how well OKC had played for stretches, panic is the wrong emotion right now. The Thunder have lost 2 in a row, but they had lost 2 in a row in the last series as well. However, Game 4 is now monumentally important because it will determine whether the Thunder will be able to see another game on their home court, or if the Heat will have a chance to close out the series in 5 games. In a way, the entire series rides on how the Thunder comport themselves in 48 hours.
All is not lost, but something must be found, and found in a hurry. The Finals hangs in the balance.
Thunder Wonder: Russell Westbrook, 19 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks
Thunder Down Under: Kendrick Perkins, 10 points, 12 rebounds, 1 block
Thunder Blunder: James Harden, 9 points on 2-10 shooting
Thunder Plunderer: LeBron James, 29 points, 14 rebounds, 3 assists
Next Game: Game 4, Tuesday, 8:00 PM Central Standard Time