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Heat 104, Thunder 98: On the Brink (2012 NBA Finals Game 4 Quick Recap)

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Box Score

What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?

Well, that was something.

For the first time in the entire series the Thunder started out the game playing their own brand of basketball. They were pushing the tempo, forcing the Heat into long-range shots, built and early lead, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who thought we might be getting a replay of Game 3 against the Spurs. The Thunder demonstrated that in the open court they may have no equal in the current NBA. A 14 point lead looked like it was about to get doubled in short order.

Perhaps a lofty 1st quarter performance was the last thing OKC needed. They followed it up by playing way too passive in the beginning of the 2nd quarter, and in the blink of an eye (about 4 minutes, actually) the Heat had caught the Thunder at 35-all. In those first four minutes of the 2nd, the Thunder missed three 3-pointers, missed 2 layups, and had a turnover, and the Heat capitalized on just about every miscue.

To OKC's credit, they responded to the Heat run by refocusing their offense, keeping their cool, and finished out the quarter by outscoring the Heat 14-11. Even though OKC still had the lead at that point, it was visible that their mental focus was slipping. The Heat followed up their recovery in the 2nd by blitzing the Thunder with 33 points in the 3rd, which essentially determined how the game was going to play out. OKC would have to outscore the Heat, and given their offensive struggles, that was an order too tall to meet, even with Russell Westbrook playing the game of his life.

What was, overall, the main reason the Thunder lost?

The Thunder defense ran out of energy. OKC had been doing a remarkable job in holding the Heat offense in check for most of Games 2 and 3. In Game 2 the Heat only scored 45 second half points, and in Game 3 only managed 44. The defense was putting the work in to give the offense a shot.

Things finally came undone in Game 4 when a fatiguing OKC defense could not keep up with the Heat's inside-outside game. LeBron James played a remarkable point-forward game throughout, collecting 12 assists on the night and repeatedly finding open shooters for either 3-point shots or cuts to the rim. The Heat rolled off 27 points in the 2nd and 33 in the 3rd, and the Thunder's fatigue at that point became very apparent. They were slower on their rotations, did not box out as well, and made mental mistakes that the Heat did not.

The Thunder had the slimmest of hopes late in the game, as LeBron had to leave the game with an apparent leg cramp, and Durant immediately went to work in scoring 4 points to give OKC a 2 point lead with 4:20 to go. Unfortunately, the Thunder could not get key defensive stops on the other end. The Heat closed out the game on a 12-4 run.

What is a key statistic to understanding tonight's game?

It kills me to have to write this, but the key stat that tells us so much about the Thunder's inability to match the Heat has been the (lack of) production of James Harden. I don't know if his play is a sign of the fatigue of trying to body up against LeBron for 30 minutes a night, the lofty expectations of being in a Finals, or something else entirely, but Harden looks like he is mentally finished.

Harden is now shooting 13-37 for the series (35%) and has only shot 2-10 in the past two games. He is OKC's best 3-point shooter, yet Harden is only shooting 29% from behind the arc. He has struggled with fouls and turnovers and his normally sharp passing skills look like they're a beat slow.

Most importantly though, Harden looks like he's afraid to shoot, and that is something we haven't seen from him since before Jeff Green was traded. The two perfect examples are the breakaway dunk that he completely botched and the free throw jumper he missed in the 4th. The jumper in the 4th was particularly telling because the Heat defense had gotten mixed up in a switch, Harden was just standing at the free throw line with nobody on him for several seconds, and he looked terrified to shoot the ball. Harden missed the easy jumper. Harden looked like he had lost his faith in his abilities, and unfortunately his errant play is taking down the Thunder with him.

Alternatively, you might assign a mental statistical error to the entire Thunder team, who failed to recognize and comprehend a key jump ball situation with only 16 seconds to go. OKC, down 3 points, had just gotten a huge stop by forcing a Dwyane Wade shot that did not hit the rim. The ball was tied up, and so the rules governing the situation stated that if Miami won the jump, they would have 5 seconds on the shot clock to get up a shot. Unfortunately, OKC either did not understand this rule or failed to properly inform everyone on the team about what they had to do. When Miami won the tip and Mario Chalmers corralled the ball deep in the corner, Westbrook trapped him and only needed to prevent him from getting up a shot. However, Westbrook thought the shot clock had reset on the possession, unnecessarily fouled Chalmers, and Chalmers' two free throws all but ended the game. It was a brutal ending to Westbrook's night, a night when he almost single-handedly kept his team in the game by scoring 43 overall and 17 points in the 4th.

What does this game mean for the Thunder today and moving forward?

There is no place left to go. Game 5 is it. Win, and something can start which has never happened before - a Finals recovery from a 3-1 deficit. Lose, and there won't be a place far enough to escape having to watch the Heat celebrate LeBron's first title.

Gotta win it.


Thunder Wonder: Russell Westbrook, 43 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists

Thunder Down Under: Kevin Durant, 28 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists

Thunder Blunder: James Harden, 8 points on 2-10 shooting

Thunder Plunderer: LeBron James, 26 points, 9 rebounds, 12 assists, 2 steals


Next Game: Game 5 on Thursday, June 21, 8:00 PM Central Standard Time