We are now a few hours away from tonight's 2012 NBA Finals Game 4, a game between the Thunder and Heat that will go a long way in telling us how this series will evolve. Either the Thunder will leave with a 2-2 series split and earn the right to go home for 1 more game, or else the Heat will put everyone on notice that they have learned what it takes to succeed at the highest level of competition.
Thinking about tonight's Game 4 reminds me of two of last year's Game 4's, two games that demonstrably showed us both how far the Thunder had come as well as how far they still had to go.
I don't think I've ever had to write as difficult a post as this one about the Thunder's Game 4 meltdown against the Mavericks in last year's Western Conference Finals. OKC came into the game having shown promise and tenacity, but were thoroughly outplayed on their home court in Game 3. They responded by putting together approximately 40 minutes of championship-level basketball.
They ended the game by blowing a 15 point lead in the final 5 minutes of play, succumbing to the same late-game mental gaffes that had plagued them all season long.
Losing to the Mavericks last year was instructive because it showed us that 1) experience DOES matter; and 2) there is no substitute for a team's collective IQ that only arises from experiences shared together. That Game 4 gave us a blueprint for how the Thunder would deal with a team like the Spurs this season, having to come up with a better scheme on-the-fly against a superior opponent. That blueprint culminated in the remarkable Game 4 in the Spurs series, where OKC started to slip in the 3rd but righted themselves before things got too out of hand. The Thunder then slammed the door shut with superior play-calling and shot-making in the 4th.
This game is obviously a better memory because it had a positive outcome, but also because it offered us a young Thunder team which had to decide, mid-stream, how it was going to play out the series.
The Grizzlies, 2011's 8th seed, had already upset the #1 seeded Spurs and were looking to have a repeat performance against the Thunder. They had surprised OKC in Game 1, took a 2-1 series lead by winning Game 3, and started out Game 4 by kicking in the Thunder's teeth. By the 2nd quarter, the Thunder were trailing by 18 points and staring at the brink of elimination.
That version of the Grizzlies was actually a pretty good facsimile of this year's Heat. The Grizz were led by Zach Randolph (LeBron), a powerful bruiser who played an inside-out game and dominated on the boards. He was joined by another big man in Marc Gasol (Chris Bosh), who could play on the perimeter and had a knack for finding lose balls. The rest of the team was comprised of opportunistic shooters who always seemed to hit big shots when it mattered most. Above all, their fearlessness and willingness to battle on every possession turned the Thunder into a complete train wreck. The series was on the brink of ending earlier than anybody had imagined.
However, something then happened to the Thunder. Down 18 points on the visitor's home court, they decided that they were going to fight. They were not going to go down as passive bystanders as Z-Bo and the Grizzly gang laughed their way to the WCF. So the Thunder went to work, tightened up their defense, and began to chip away at the lead. By halftime, an 18 point lead was cut to 4.
The next five (5!) quarters of the game was comprised of a series of one team pushing and then the other team pushing back. OKC earned a 1st overtime and used its momentum to jump early, only to see a seldom used back-up hit a 3-pointer to tie it and send the game into 2OT. In the 2nd OT, none other than Shane Battier helped propel his Grizzlies to a two possession lead, only to have Russell Westbrook and James Harden tie the game again. In the 3rd OT, the Thunder finally won the war of attrition as the Grizz simply ran out of gas. It was not so much that OKC had won the game as much as they had simply survived. OKC had passed a mental and physical test that they had not anticipated.
I think that tonight's game is going to carry a similar tenor as the Game 4 against Memphis. Miami is rolling right now with just enough of a mix of great defense and LeBron James offense to outlast the Thunder. There is going to come a point in tonight's game when OKC looks like it is about to slip and lose all traction in these Finals. It is at that moment that the Thunder will have to consider what they are going to become in 2012 and decide to either ride out the string or fight back.
Game 4 is there for the taking. OKC is good enough to do it, smart enough to do it, and strong enough to do it. The only question left is this - when the game-deciding plays are there to be made, will OKC be ready to make them to decide the game?