When I watched the Thunder today, I thought they had solved a lot of problems. Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka were succeeding on offense. Battier wasn't getting open jumpers. Durant was the best scorer on the floor. And Chris Bosh was almost totally shut down. But as soon as those problems were solved, it seemed a bunch of all-new problems arose.
Now, most people are pointing to the fact that Kevin Durant was taken out with four fouls halfway through the third, during which the Thunder completely lost their 10 point lead. But as with all things, the reason wasn't so simple, nor was it very black and white. You could argue that Kevin Durant's presence would have changed things, but the lineup the Thunder had in place could have easily kept the lead.
First of all, the Thunder fouled the Heat at the three point line twice, and gave LeBron James an open three. Now, I know the Thunder had some trouble keeping tabs on Battier a little bit earlier, as they slowly started to put more defensive presence in the paint. But the Thunder had managed to shut him down throughout the entire first quarter with a big lineup, and Ibaka had been benched for letting him hit a three in the second. Both fouls came with the Heat waiting to snipe the Thunder in the corner after drawing pressure from one side. The fouls were committed by Derek Fisher and Serge Ibaka, both of whom were overcompensating. Fisher was trying to make up for his slower play, and Ibaka was taken out earlier in the game for failing to stay with Battier. LeBron's three was a defensive folly, as Thabo Sefolosha didn't look behind him when LeBron went into the corner, thinking he was posting up LeBron in the pain. In actuality, he was posting up Udonis Haslem, and LeBron got away with murder.
Second of all, Perkins, Ibaka, and Harden all failed to make the cut offensively. You can't count on Durant for all of your teams points, so you've got to defer to your other guys. Perkins and Ibaka were spot on during the first quarter, drawing their defenders outside by hitting jumpers. Also, they were killing it inside, getting easy buckets by standing on the weak side or on the block when a teammate was driving the lane. But in this quarter, the two went 1-4 from the free throw line, and Ibaka missed two jumpers. Harden, on the other hand, was nowhere to be found. He was heavily involved in moving the ball, but he didn't take a whole lot of shots, and those that he did seemed to be ill-advised. He only drove the lane once in a non-transition play, and seemed to have a lot of trouble with Wade.
Third of all, the Thunder didn't take advantage of their superior rebounding. They had 13 rebounds during the period of the third in which Kevin Durant was out, while the Heat only had four. The stat speaks for itself.
Below: Other Reasons For The Loss, Why I'm Confident About Game 4, Awards!
But obviously, a way to prevent all of the above from happening is to keep Kevin Durant out of foul trouble. The problem is, Joey Crawford was the head referee for tonight's game. Now, I don't really mean to rail on the guy for bad officiating. But it's clear that he calls a different style of game, one much like fellow official Violet Palmer. In essence, fouls are called all the time. If you so much as scrape the defender's arm, it's a foul. Want proof? The combined free throws taken by both teams in Game 1 and Game 2 were 45 and 51, respectively. Tonight, there were 59 free throws taken. It doesn't seem that huge, but when you consider that it's 4 or 5 more fouls than you usually get, it can spell disaster for a player that gets a lot of minutes. Durant has to keep in mind what style of play the ref is going to tolerate, and adjust his defense accordingly.
And you can't forget the significance of the fourth. There weren't any underlying themes, but the guile shown by both teams was unbelievable. After no player but Wade or James scoring points in the third, the Heat continued to exploit the Thunder's lax perimeter defense, and they gave two easy baskets to Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers. After that, the team rode on the talent of Dwayne Wade and LeBron James. Meanwhile, the Thunder were relying on fouls, not moving the ball, and forcing up bad threes. Only a strong Durant jumper out of a timeout sparked the offense again, bringing them all the way to within one. But the fact is, the Thunder blew two golden opportunities to seize the game by the throat, with Durant badly missing a runner and Westbrook bricking an open three.
Looking at the game overall, free throws were obviously a huge deal. Coming off of a season where the Thunder were one of the greatest free throw shooting teams ever, having a 62% night is just unbelievable. There's no one guy to blame, since everybody but Collison was at or over 50%, and Collison only took two. But I can't really count it up to anything but a loss of nerves. The Heat crowd certainly wasn't intimidating enough to make them miss.
Despite the disappointing loss, I'm feeling pretty confident about Game 4. The Thunder have proven they can solve the problem of open guys on the perimeter, and Brooks benching Ibaka as soon as Battier got a shot in was a strong statement. They also got their big men into the offense early on, effectively negating any advantage the Heat would gain by going small. The problems now, like falling into foul trouble, getting Harden going, and hitting free throws, seem really fixable. It's all a game of nerves. Do the Thunder have the presence of mind to take it all the way?