Commentary

Thunder's big three isn't cutting it

Another bad third wheel costs Oklahoma City its third straight loss to Miami Heat

Updated: June 20, 2012, 6:35 PM ET
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Russell WestbrookMike Segar/US PresswireRussell Westbrook surged for 43 points, but he and the Thunder got hung up again in Game 4.
MIAMI -- This was the night of cold reality for the Oklahoma City Thunder, the night their championship dreams dropped to the bottom of a 3-1 hole in the NBA Finals, the night Russell Westbrook learned that sometimes even outstanding isn't good enough, a night when Kevin Durant looked like a kid who'd been told the world's candy supply was exhausted, when Scott Brooks was no longer the little coach who could. Worst of all, it was the second consecutive game the very foundation of the team failed in the season's most critical juncture.

It's easy to cast the Thunder as the polar opposites of the Miami Heat, but the truth is both teams are built on the same premise: three stars to lead the way.

The Thunder are coming up short because they aren't getting full production out of their top three. Not even Westbrook carrying his weight and then some with 43 points in Game 4 was enough, not with James Harden scoring in single digits once again.

Nothing about Tuesday night -- not even their explosive, 33-point first quarter -- felt like the Thunder we'd grown accustomed to. There was even -- gasp! -- griping. Part of the charm of the Thunder is that you don't see finger-pointing or hear second-guessing from them. Not until Game 4, when Kendrick Perkins said: "I just don't understand why we start out the first quarter the way we did, with the lineup we had, and all of a sudden we change and adjust to what they had going on."

And also: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Yep, I think that qualifies as a complaint. Note that Perkins was part of that starting lineup that quickly grabbed a double-digit lead. And how ironic it is that Brooks' lineups could become an issue, even from within, after he finally broke out the long-requested grouping of Westbrook, Durant, Harden, Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha.

[+] EnlargeJames Harden
Mike Segar/Getty ImagesJames Harden's woes continued. The 2-guard finished 2-for-10 for a second straight game.

Any lineup with Westbrook in it was going to look good on a night he made 20 of 32 shots, scored 13 straight Thunder points in one stretch and scored their final four baskets of the game. It was a defiant performance by the target of most Thunder-related criticism, although he resisted saying, "Told you!" to the media.

"Let me get this straight: What you guys say doesn't make me happy, doesn't make me sad, doesn't do anything," Westbrook said. "It's all about my team and us winning a game."

Durant is used to walking on rose petals tossed his way, but he is getting outdone by LeBron James during crunch time in this series. Even when LeBron had to sit out chunks of the fourth quarter with leg cramps and was moving like he was in a body cast when he was out on the floor, he managed a 3-pointer with 2:51 remaining to break a 94-all tie. That was one more basket than Durant made in the final three minutes.

Another issue for the Thunder was lack of clarity in a critical late-game situation.

With Miami up three with 17.3 seconds remaining, Shane Battier tipped a jump ball out to Mario Chalmers, and Westbrook rushed to foul Chalmers along the sideline -- even though the shot clock had dwindled down into the decimals

Westbrook called it: "Miscommunication on my part." It was the right sentiment to take the blame, even if he used the wrong terminology. It was a mistake, not a miscommunication. "Lack of communication" could have been an acceptable answer, and since blame moves upward, it has come to Brooks; Harden indicated there was no clear-cut message before the play about clock awareness.

It's not that Erik Spoelstra is coaching circles around Brooks, a guy who likes to use his ability to last in the NBA for a decade despite being 5-foot-11 as a sign of his tenacity and a lesson to his players that anything is possible. In each loss, the Thunder have been within a shot in the final minute. But you can't say Brooks keeps making winning moves when the Thunder aren't winning. Like everyone else on the team, he is putting in effort but isn't getting the results.

If Harden keeps playing at this subpar level, Brooks might be forced to bench him. Harden played 37 minutes in Game 4, including the entire fourth quarter. He shot 2-for-10 for eight points and had four turnovers, days after a nine-point Game 3. His confidence was so tattered by the end of the game that when he got the ball with just more than two minutes remaining, he looked around for any option other than shooting, realized the Heat's defense was forcing (begging?) him to take the shot and fired up an errant 16-footer.

Brooks stood by Harden in the postgame news conference just as strongly as he did on the court.

"James has put us in a position to be where we are," Brooks said. "He had a tough shooting night, but he competed, he battled, he fought, he defended, he was guarding one of the best players in the game [LeBron]. I don't judge a guy's game on shots, on makes and misses.

"I love James' effort, and that's all I judge him on. If he wasn't playing hard, yes, I would have taken him out earlier and sat him and put somebody else in."

I've always thought Durant-Westbrook-Harden made for a better trio than LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh because Harden didn't seem to sacrifice as much of his game as Bosh did. Bosh was the team's focal point in Toronto, but there are times when he's forgotten in Miami, running around on offense, setting a screen, rolling off it, waiting for a pass that isn't coming, trying to find the right place to go where he won't be a hindrance.

In this series, Bosh has been, at worst, sufficient, such as the 13 points and nine rebounds he provided in Game 4. A stat line like that would get LeBron locked in the stockade of the Internet town square, but for Bosh, the best part of not being asked to dominate is there's no consequence when he doesn't.

Harden is integral to the Thunder's success, a reason he won the Sixth Man of the Year award. There's a penalty for his poor play. The Thunder are paying it.

So this referendum, this battle of small market versus sexy market, is being won by the Heat. It still makes for a juicy storyline, one even Pat Riley took up while doing a rare podium appearance pregame to receive his Chuck Daly lifetime coaching award.

"People who dig down deep and look how franchises are built, we've never been a team that wanted to be a lottery team and build through the draft," Riley said. "The first two years we were in the lottery here, we got Caron Butler and we got Dwyane Wade, and then I quit. That was enough for me.

"You can skin a cat a lot of different ways. In 2006 and 2007, when we knew that 2010 would be a banner year for free agents, we began to plan to build our team that way, and at the same time keep the team competitive, which we did by being a playoff team.

"What OKC has done and [Thunder GM] Sam Presti, what they have done is incredible, and I think what he did for all intents and purposes, [is] another way to build the team. We got very fortunate that at the right time and at the right place, three players wanted to play together. Whatever it takes to win in this league, I think that's the way you're going to try to approach it and attack it."

Not only did all three of the Thunder's players come together at the right time, they're playing together at the right time -- now. Had they won Game 4 to even the series, they would have happily taken a situation in which they needed only two of the remaining three games. But two out of three star players isn't cutting it.

The truth is the Heat's way is the Thunder's way, in function if not process. Only the Thunder's way isn't working.