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Steve Aschburner

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The Heat and Thunder have lived up to the billing in a Finals that seems destined to be great.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Thinking big about what's left in these Finals seems right


Posted Jun 15 2012 5:36PM

OKLAHOMA CITY -- About a half hour after the Thunder's 100-96 loss in Game 2 to the Miami Heat, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook stood shoulder to shoulder to shoulder as a throng of cameras, microphones and their wielders poised for their next big move.

The Big 3 of OKC sit next to each other in the locker room, no prima-donna empties between them for egos or elbow room. They all happened to emerge from the shower room in swift succession.

So for several awkward minutes, maybe 40 or so media members stood silently in a crush at one end of the room and looked up, down and everywhere except at the backs of these fellows engaged in synchronized dressing.

As the three OKC stars tugged on shirts, looped pre-tied ties and (take your pick) fluffed their beards or fished for nerd glasses in equal, deafening silence, you could imagine thought bubbles popping up over each of their heads, comics-style.

With Westbrook, it could have been something like: "Who? Me?"

Yeah, you. Don't focus on the 27 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in Game 2, numbers boosted by participation (41:41) rather than proficiency. Focus on the 26 shots and your helter-skelter-at-120 mph-play in the first half that earned a serious verbal TV spanking at halftime from the greatest point guard in NBA history, Magic Johnson.

With Harden, the thought bubble might have been: "That's more like it."

And it was, Thirty-five minutes rather than 22, 11 field-goal attempts and 21 points rather than the six and five of Game 1. And the Thunder probably need more from Harden still, in court time, in scoring.

Finally Durant: "I'm not saying nothin'."

Or maybe: "I might have missed one of the free throws anyway."

If one of those was his thought bubble, it probably popped up first out on the floor, with about eight seconds left after he missed from seven feet away. Durant's chance to tie, at 98-96, got thwarted on the left baseline when LeBron James Video raked him with his left arm -- contact first to the chest, then the leg -- and didn't elicit a whistle. It probably would have had it happened like that earlier in game and on the wing. But not then, not there, and Durant -- who scored 26 of his 32 points in the second half but almost missed two twice from the line -- took the high road later.

"I missed the shot," he said more than once, owning the shot that fell short, absorbing it, probably filing it for future reference over the 10 or 12 days.

That's the best part about Thursday. It's 1-1 now, The Finals shifting to Miami for the middle three games and compressed to a best-of-five series. The thunderous rah-rah inside Chesapeake Energy Arena gives way now to the noooiiissse of AmericanAirlines Arena, and for a dozen different reasons, the NBA and its fans have what could be an instant classic revving up.

There is, has been and figures to be something for everyone in this matchup. For old-school NBA fans, a pace that feels like the 1980s. For professional second-guessers, scratching their heads over Thunder coach Scott Brooks' determined use of Clydesdale center Kendrick Perkins against an opponent that mostly turns to thoroughbreds as bigs.

There is simple drama in the first-draft perceptions of the two teams, villains vs. heroes, Miami as evil empire, Oklahoma City as new likeable kids on the block. There is a storyline -- LeBron James and his chase of a championship ring -- that began years ago and might continue for years to come.

The league's Most Valuable Player took his forceful game right into OKC's grill Thursday, lowering his shoulder and daring any of them to stop him. No one of them did, it almost always takes two or three, except for that instant when James soared high and Serge Ibaka risked a broken arm meeting him a foot or two above the rim for a block.

There is suspense: Which Westbrook is going to show up, and will his help outweigh his hurt? There are surprises, from veteran Shane Battier's heavy contributions in minutes and points, spacing the floor by hitting nine of his 13 3-pointers through two games. He's pestering Durant or anyone else he defends because, well, who says James is the only Heat player desperate to win a ring?

There are tales of return: Chris Bosh from serious injury to significant X factor. Derek Fisher is back on the biggest stage after the most trying season of his career, going all the way back to the lockout crisis. There is a tale of redemption, too, now that Dwyane Wade has reminded everyone that he's not dead yet. He scored 24, with a cut-and-jumper at 2:58 that bailed out a Heat possession and got them up again by seven.

There is the irrationality and spittle of emotions, with Miami guard Mario Chalmers getting yelled at by half of his teammates and coaches, from tip to buzzer most nights. Makes you think it might do Westbrook some good to be loaned out to the Heat, just to get blistered by James, Wade, Bosh and the rest.

There are numbers: Miami's 18-2 lead, then 25-8. Fifteen points in the first quarter for the Thunder that came within two of the lowest post-shot clock output in Finals history. James' 12-of-12 from the line. OKC's first playoff loss after nine home victories. Bosh with his first double-double in two months. Durant's 68 points in the first two Finals games of his life. James' fifth game with 30 points or more in a row.

There are mistakes: Westbrook rushing and forcing, Brooks probably using too much Perkins, too little Nick Collison. And there is math: Since the NBA went to its 2-3-2 Finals format in 1985, only two home teams (Detroit in 2004 and Miami in 2006) have won the middle three games. So this likely will be going six or seven. In which case Miami had better take two of the three, because no road team ever has won the final two.

For all of the above and more, as far as thought bubbles went, you hoped that Durant, Harden and Westbrook at some point shared one big one as they dressed side by side by side in defeat. You wanted James and Wade and the rest of Miami's squad to think the same thing too, having grabbed a game in OKC and headed home for more of the same.

The thought bubble of the night: "It's on."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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