Posted Jun 18 2012 5:58AM
MIAMI -- They arrived here by outplaying and outsmarting the Mavericks, Lakers and Spurs, three hardened ex-champions, which meant the Thunder were either lying about their birth certificates or defying them.
Yes, whenever anyone mentioned youth with this Oklahoma City team, it was always about legs, bounce and spirit but not composure, which was uncommonly cool for a team that never reached this deep into summer ball.
But let the record reflect the Thunder finally sank to the level of their age and experience, on a night when nothing went right whenever the situation called for poise under pressure.
Was this just a belch during a lengthy postseason run, which would be understandable and even forgivable, especially in their first road game of the NBA Finals? Or something more troubling for a team aiming to become the second-youngest to win an NBA title?
Whatever it was, on Sunday the Thunder looked young enough to be arm candy for a sugar daddy. A 10-point lead midway through the third quarter disappeared in seconds by an avalanche of errors. They missed free throws. They took questionable shots, made curious fouls. In yet another tense and tightly contested NBA Finals game that demanded sharpness and swagger, the Thunder were overmatched against a team with a reputation, deserved or not, for crumbling in the clutch.
Yes, it was the Heat, still bearing the scars from a year ago in this same setting, who seemed smarter. Or maybe Miami was less sloppy. Regardless, the Heat seized control of the series with a 91-85 victory that OKC will certainly regret if the championship goes to Miami.
Sure, Kevin Durant did develop early foul trouble on a few calls that were, let's say, debatable. He had to sit in the third quarter when Miami made its rally. But that was the only part of the game beyond OKC's control. Everything else, they did to themselves. At times they looked like five LeBron Jameses, circa June 2011, on the floor.
"We have to realize we're in the NBA Finals," said Kendrick Perkins, the only OKC player with previous June experience along with Derek Fisher. "It's not like this was the first game of the series. It's the third game. It's just about playing basketball. There's no excuse for what we did down the stretch."
In the second half, OKC missed seven free throws. Had nine turnovers. Missed defensive switches that bailed out the Heat, who only shot 37.8 percent for the game and still won. Twice they fouled Heat players in the act of shooting 3-pointers, which is something they teach you not to do in Defense 101.
Russell Westbrook had to be pulled by Scott Brooks after a series of sloppy possessions. And when OKC had a chance to cover for its sins, Westbrook clanged an open, game-tying 3-point attempt with 30 seconds left.
"You've got to learn from it, you've got to get better from it," said Brooks.
Whatever happened to the team that navigated through the West playoff minefield? Even Durant was guilty of taking a terrible shot, a runner against James in the final minute that wasn't even close. After his 17-point Picasso in the final quarter of Game 1, this was the second straight game Durant, guarded by James, didn't have an answer in the fourth. After missing a short jumper near the buzzer in Game 2 -- OK, there was some contact -- Durant missed four of six shots in the fourth and scored four points.
But remember, after Thabo Sefolosha picked Dwyane Wade clean in the open court, OKC was down one point with 90 seconds left.
"We put ourselves in position to win," said Durant. "We missed some shots."
And a few other things as well.
This situation now calls for an emergency leadership conference, and you can imagine Fisher and Perkins will share their past experiences with Durant, Westbrook and James "2-for-10" Harden. Both played on veteran teams with Hall of Fame teammates, and they know how costly a single slip-up can be in the Finals.
"We need more from everybody," said Perkins. "For some reason, we got back to individual basketball, with shots being contested. We played in spurts but not 48 minutes.
"We've got to understand you don't get this opportunity very often. Guys may not see this again in life."
Yes, that would be a shock to the system of a team built to last, mainly because the core is as young as it is talented. But Perkins is right. Unless OKC develops a seize-the-moment attitude, their time might be next year. Might.
Adjustments for Game 4 are necessary, and not just the mental ones. The Thunder repeatedly took shots to the gut, as Miami made a habit of wearing out a path to the rim. Especially James, who muscled his way to 29 points and 14 rebounds.
There must be a way to get more consistency from Harden, who has shot poorly two out of three games, a percentage that doesn't spell success for OKC.
The decision-making must improve from Game 3 where, as Perkins said, "we turned it over and it wasn't forced. It was just us being careless. We're in the Finals. We have to value the ball."
Above all, the young and frisky Thunder must value the moment and position they're in. OKC and Miami are close and these games will be closely contested. They're going down to the final half-dozen possessions, or fewer, where only the mentally strong survive. The series is not over, and your gut says the Thunder didn't suddenly get dumb overnight. But lose Tuesday, and they're staring at a bind that'll require nothing but mistake-free basketball.
"This was disappointing, especially after going through a tough San Antonio team," said Perkins. "At times we could've gotten down on ourselves then, and we didn't. I feel we are battle-tested after playing against teams like the Lakers and Mavericks and Spurs. We've got to show it every night."
Or else, it's good-night.
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