The Thunder enter Game 4 tonight needing, not a wing and a prayer, but 48 minutes of focus. In Game 1, OKC trailed early but finished strong. In Game 2 the Thunder trailed early, did not finish strong, and left the game in the hands of the referees. In Game 3 the Thunder started strong, were finishing strong, and then submitted 16 minutes of abysmal basketball that left a struggling-but-not-quite-as-much Heat team take the victory in the end.
The difference between winning and losing lies not so much in each team's talent, but in their ability to better optimize that talent over the course of the game. Both teams' defenses have by and large outshone their explosive offenses. (Gone overlooked in this series is how well OKC's defense has played AFTER the 1st quarter has ended.) Miami's defense is highly touted and rightfully so, but the Thunder's effort (fouling the 3-point shooters excepted) has been nearly as good, and certainly good enough to give themselves a shot in any game they play.
With the defenses mucking everything up, OKC must find better ways to put their playmakers in position where they can create. This will involve better spacing, better use of their bigs, and better recognition of when attack lanes open up.
Things worth watching for tonight:
Who is Kevin Durant guarding? As we all know, Durant has gotten in trouble these past two games by nearly fouling out in both. Part of this tendency has resulted from the fact that Durant has been guarding LeBron James, a guy who knows how to draw fouls better than Durant does. LeBron's aggressive offense is not going to stop and it is unlikely he's going to stop getting calls, so OKC needs to move Durant off of LeBron, at least for the first 3 quarters, and then hope that LeBron's outside shooting struggles continue. The benefits will be that Durant will not have foul trouble in the 4th, he will be in better position to grab defensive rebounds (only 9 total in the past 2 games), and he will be much fresher to score much needed points in the 4th.
How many OKC playmakers are on the court? The end of Game 3's 3rd quarter was frustrating to watch, but it underscored one important aspect - the Thunder MUST have at least 2 of their playmakers on the court at all times. With both Westbrook and Durant on the bench for the final 5 minutes of play, everything had to be run through James Harden. Miami responded by putting LeBron on Harden and the result was 9 perimeter shots over the remainder with only 1 shot made. Along with those perimeter misses, OKC fell apart at the free throw line, missing 5 free throws during that stretch. OKC must have multiple players on the court in order to make Miami pay for whomever they decide to cover with LeBron.
OKC needs to get to the free throw line early. OKC has now infamously struggled at the free throw line for 3 straight games. I fear that this trend is going to continue as the stakes go up so the best way to tackle it is head-on. OKC needs to look to create scoring opportunities at the line early on in the game so that they can find their shooting rhythm again. How to do this? The most straight-forward way is to create opportunities to challenge the Heat at the rim rather than look for open jump-shots. Harden and Durant in particular need to take this approach in order to produce efficient offense so that end-game situations are not so viscous.
Russell Westbrook needs to be given scoring opportunities. I feel that Westbrook is due for a breakout game because I don't think anybody on the Heat, LeBron included, can stay in front of him. However, instead of having the offense flow through him, the Thunder need to create situations where Westbrook can finish plays rather than start them. Neither Mario Chalmers nor Dwyane Wade can stay with Westbrook off the ball, so OKC needs to look for ways to use Westbrook in back-door situations, post-up plays, and as the screener so that he can move into open space with room to drive or shoot. Westbrook is a match-up nightmare for Miami, but it is high time that OKC made a better effort to take advantage of it.
Tonight's game might mark the point of no return for the Thunder, and so I expect that they will come out with the same zeal and effort that they displayed in Games 3 and 5 against the Spurs. They have to; there is precious little left to keep this series competitive if they do not. Game 4 should be pretty. Ugly. It will be ugly, but a win would be oh so pretty.