Slow start sinks Thunder this time
Oklahoma City can't rally in Game 2 after spotting Miami Heat another early lead
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The NBA's young playoff darlings, I'm afraid, deserve every ounce of the sting that comes with squandering home-court advantage in the NBA Finals.
The NBA's young playoff darlings know it, too.
That was clear late Thursday night when Kevin Durant, up there in his familiar seat at the postgame podium, was presented with a wide-open lane to complain about the whistle that never came in the final seconds of this pivotal Game 2.
Not once, not twice, but three times.
And he passed up every invitation.
"I missed the shot, man," Durant finally said.
That was Durant's way of stiff-arming Question No. 3 from the assembled media about the amount of contact he absorbed from LeBron James just before short-arming an inviting jumper on the baseline that could have pulled the Oklahoma City Thunder even with just less than 10 ticks left. It's one of the qualities that makes Durant such an endearing superstar: He always sticks to the No Excuses script.
Yet it's also, in this case, Durant's only justifiable approach after the Thunder, for the third successive home game, fell behind by double digits almost instantly. It happened in the Game 6 clincher against San Antonio in the Western Conference finals, Game 1 of these Finals with Miami and here again in the Biggest Game in Franchise History, as each successive game is labeled now.
After just seven minutes of this Game 2 -- long before Durant was swinging back at last and scoring 16 of his 32 points in the fourth quarter -- OKC was down a whopping 18-2.
"Oh, man," Durant said. "That was the game."
The locals angrily spilled into Thunder Alley when it was all over, raging about the noncall that brought a halt to OKC's furious comeback in the fourth, enabling James to save Miami's season with the two ensuing free throws he earned and drained to seal a 100-96 triumph.
You could likewise bank on choice mutterings in the streets about Shane Battier, thanks to that straight-on banked triple Battier heaved in with 5:08 to go, after the hosts had roared back on this night of back-and-forth haymakers to slice an 82-69 deficit down to four.
Yet you can credit the Thunder's tone-setters, Durant and coach Scotty Brooks, for keeping the blame pointed where it belongs. They know this wasn't the occasion for alibis. They know the truth.
You can't come out flat at home three straight games against title-worthy teams. You can't expect to win with a paltry 14 assists and iffy free throw shooting and Russell Westbrook needing 26 shots to score 27 points ... which will surely shift a good chunk of the between-games scrutiny from LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Erik Spoelstra onto Westbrook's own sensitive shoulders.
The Thunder, folks, never led for a second in this one. Westbrook came out of the gates wild and it took the hosts a full four quarters to dig out of the hole. Even with James Harden's return to prominence (21 points) and five emphatic blocks from Serge Ibaka (after an uncharacteristic zero swats in Game 1), they played 48 minutes of catch-up. And they suddenly aren't playing the same sort of team ball that memorably slayed the Spurs four straight times, as a playoff-low 43 points at the half -- with zero fast-break points at that stage -- would suggest.
The truth? Even if Durant had gotten that call on the baseline, OKC would have had a l-o-n-g way to go to take a 2-0 series lead to South Beach. Even if LeBron had been called for hooking KD before that ill-fated baseline floater went up, OKC would have needed two free throws from Durant for the tie on an evening he shot just 4-for-6 at the line ... and then a stop at the other end to force overtime ... and then a flourish in OT while Durant was saddled with five fouls.
Durant, remember, picked up his fifth with 10:31 to play on a silly loose-ball foul and did well just to get to the end of regulation without picking up No. 6 while keeping the rally going. He wasn't going to dodge that sixth foul forever.
"We didn't play with no type of tenacity until the end of the night," said Thunder center Kendrick Perkins.
Said Brooks: "When you get down 17 [early], too many things have to happen well for you and perfect for you. I give our guys credit that we did fight back, but we can't afford to have ... that's two games in a row, first six minutes, down 10 or 12 points. We've got to come out better."
"I thought they established their game and they played attack basketball right from the very start. They had us back on our heels, and then we took some bad shots ... and it's tough to overcome when you have a bad start.
"We took too many bad shots," Brooks continued. "That's the bottom line. And then we got down and we had to play with desperation."
As for the foul Durant didn't draw, Brooks insisted that he "won't even look at that." Reason being: "I'm going to focus on the first six to eight minutes of the game. That's more important."
You suspect that he and Durant might have some psyche-mending to do with the point guard as well. Especially once Westbrook -- on top of the usual heat he gets whenever the Thunder's ball movement and shot selection are askew -- catches wind of the halftime claim on ABC from Magic Johnson that he'd never seen worse QB'ing on the Finals stage.
Gone is the Thunder's perfect 9-0 record at home in the playoffs, replaced by fresh doubts about which Westbrook will show up in Miami. And as the series shifts to South Beach for Sunday's Game 3, OKC has inherited the desperation after James, Wade and Chris Bosh rammed the ball inside and, more worryingly, looked like three stars in-sync again.
"Can't start off down 18 to 2," Durant said, speaking the loudest truth of the evening.