MIAMI -- Three games into the NBA Finals, 84 games into this season that has taken them to places they've never been, the Oklahoma City Thunder stepped back into their past. They regressed.
Poor execution late in the game, excessive turnovers, missed free throws -- all the stuff they thought they'd left behind the way they did the Mavericks and the Lakers and the Spurs -- resurfaced at this critical junction, leading to a 91-85 defeat that put the Thunder two games away from losing this series to the Miami Heat, with two games still to play in Miami.
Much will be made of the lineup Scott Brooks had on the court in the third quarter, when Kevin Durant was forced to the bench with four fouls and Brooks sat Westbrook "to kind of calm him down" following, in sequence, a turnover, missed 3-pointer, missed wild layup and a turnover. The patchwork lineup of Thabo Sefolosha, James Harden, Derek Fisher, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins surrendered a 10-point lead.
But this was still a game that was there for the taking throughout the fourth quarter, with only one point separating the teams at the nine-minute mark, the eight-minute mark through the five-minute mark, and one more time with a minute and a half left to play.
The Thunder had taken possession of the fourth quarter during these playoffs, winning the final frame in six of their previous seven games. Not Sunday night. It's tough for a team to win any quarter in which it commits six turnovers.
Well, hold up. The Heat actually had nine turnovers in the fourth quarter. They shot 38 percent from the field as well. But Miami grabbed 13 rebounds to the Thunder's six and made 9 of 10 free throws while the Thunder made 4 of 6 (Miami enjoyed a 16-point advantage in made free throws for the game).
Only the older players were talking at the end of the night in the Thunder locker room. All those under-25 guys had cleared out while Perkins and Fisher stood in the corners, trying to explain what transpired.
"We were just trying a little too hard, maybe," Fisher said. "I thought our effort was great and our mindset was in the right place but we did things that cost ourselves."
"You've got to understand that, over there in the other locker room, this is a team that really wants it," Perkins said. "You've got a couple of guys that want it, like they want this. Nothing's going to be given to us. We've got to go take it."
It's not that the Thunder don't realize they need to take it. It's that they might not fully comprehend what it takes to take it.
They finally played a competitive first quarter -- no double-digit deficits for them this time after surrendering a 12-point lead in Game 2 -- but they couldn't match the Heat in the fourth quarter. It was almost as if their young minds couldn't process the needs for both, so they chose one.
Kevin Durant didn't learn from his mistakes in Game 2, when he got in first-half foul trouble, and again found himself with five personals by the end of Game 3. That's too quick for that to happen again to a superstar. For instance, since LeBron James fouled out in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals -- the first time he has fouled out since joining the Heat -- he has reached the four-foul mark once in the six ensuing games.
Maybe the whistle doesn't blow as often when a superstar is involved (see the no-call on James on Durant's final shot attempt of Game 2), but it's also a superstar's responsibility to take the choice out of the official's mind. Durant bit on a pump fake by Dwyane Wade, who drew a questionable fourth foul on Durant. Then he didn't stay set while trying to take a charge from LeBron and was called for the block with 3:47 remaining (worst of all, James made the basket for a three-point play to give Miami a seven-point lead).
"Maybe the charge was kind of questionable, but at the end of the day they're fouls, and you've got to be smart," Perkins said. "We need him on the court at all times. So maybe you have to give up a layup and it is what it is. At the end of the day he's just got to play smarter. And Kevin will."
Earlier, up on the podium (and without Westbrook at his side, for a change) Durant said: "Two games in a row, man, so I've just got to play smarter next game." Which might suggest that Perkins had already chatted with him. Or maybe such a conversation wasn't necessary.
After scoring 17 and 16 points in the previous two fourth quarters, Durant didn't come through in crunch time, finishing 2-for-6 in the final period of Game 3.
"I know I have to do a way better job," Durant said. "We've just got to own up to it."
Westbrook-bashers will have much more ammunition from this game (in which he missed 10 of 18 shots and had only four assists) than Game 2, when the mercurial point guard occupied the scrutiny that's usually reserved for LeBron. It's almost as if someone has to pay a penance for losing in the Finals, and Westbrook may be the one targeted after missing an open 3-pointer and then a pass on Oklahoma City's final two possessions.
But it can't be both ways for the second-guessers. Can't blame both his time on the bench in the third and his time on the court in the fourth for the Thunder's loss. In reality, they went down as a team. A team without many reps at closing out a Finals game.
"Experience is not overrated at all," Wade said. "Tonight that helped us win this ballgame."
The Thunder do have experience in coming back in a series. Two-one can't sound as bad as the 2-0 deficit they faced against San Antonio, especially with the prospect of being home for Games 6 and 7. It would be foolish to count them out of this one.
"This is a resilient young team," Fisher said.
In Game 3, more young than resilient.