Game 3 of the NBA Finals falls to the Miami Heat as they defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder for the second straight game 91-85. Now, the Heat are only two games away from winning their second Larry O’Brien Trophy in franchise history and can potentially do so without needing to even go back to Oklahoma City to do so, as the next two games are at American Airlines Arena. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a step back, and look at the four things we learned in Game 3.
Miami Wanted The Game More/Inside Attack Was Outstanding
I’m not trying to say that the Thunder’s hearts weren’t in this game; I’m trying to say that Game 3 meant more to the Heat Sunday night. They attacked aggressively for the third straight game these Finals and played off of each other in the 1st quarter. The way this team scores inside, driving into the paint, is absolutely outstanding. No one, I repeat, NO ONE, can contain LeBron James when he lowers his head and gets to the basket. He used his body to clear lanes, create space, and even threw in JUMP STOPS for goodness sake* to score at the rim.
The Heat were an amazing 10-14 in the paint in the first, with 20 of their 26 points coming from there. OKC was playing Matador defense, saying “OLEY!” seemingly anytime a Heat player tried to drive early on. Eventually, the Thunder would clog holes and try to make stops where the Heat were hitting their shots, but attacking the rim is the biggest strength Miami has going for them. Instead of going away from it late in the game, we continued to see LeBron drive and make shots inside.
*Brian Windhorst of ESPN’s Heat Index tweeted that the whole floor vibrated after LeBron’s play, he’s that huge a force.
The 3rd Quarter Was Where Game 3 Was Decided
I know the Thunder were within one point of the lead with 1:30 or so left in the forth after the great Thabo Sefolosha steal on Dwyane Wade, but the whole course of this game, and now potentially this series, switched in the middle of the 3rd.
Oklahoma City was on fire to begin play in the second half, while again, the Heat looked to be struggling to keep up with the young guys and their motors. At one point, OKC scored on six straight possessions, while Miami was getting desperate. The Thunder had cut off all heat drives to the basket, or were making the Heat work as hard as possible to find any open space. Oklahoma City went on a 16-5 run and took a 10-point lead. The fans were drained, Miami was looking for any answer possible and started taking shots from the outside. At that midway point in the 3rd, they had only made THREE shots from outside the paint!
But with 5:41 left in the quarter, Wade drove baseline and was able to draw a questionable foul on Durant, except this was KD’s forth foul and he had to be subbed out, just before everyone was starting to sense he was about to take over*. About 40 seconds later, Westbrook was subbed out to take a breather, leaving James Harden**, Derek Fisher, Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins, and Serge Ibaka out there to try and create any offense. The Heat took advantage, going on a momentous 15-7 run and re-taking over control of the game, thanks to not one, BUT TWO fouls on Miami three point shots, where Shane Battier and James Jones made all six free throws. Free throws were the friends of the Heat all quarter long as well, as they went an amazing 13-14 from the charity stripe in those twelve minutes alone. Meanwhile, the Thunder managed to only go 6-10 from the line in that span. Speaking of free throws…
*Huge momentum killer there. Also, how after 66 games where KD only got 5 fouls three times, does he pick up five in two straight NBA Finals game? The refs need to lay off of him and stop with the tick tack calls.
**Who had his new worst game of the entire playoffs, looked lost out there at certain points, was 2-10 shooting for only nine points and had HUGE turnovers we will mention later.
The Whole Balance of Free Throw Shooting Is Off In This Series
OKC was the best shooting free throw team in not only this regular season, but in these playoffs as well, heading into the NBA Finals. Yet, through three games they have missed seven, seven, and nine free throws in the series* and it’s come back to bite them bad. Not to mention, Durant, who is as good as anybody in getting fouled and going to the line, only got four attempts all game and missed two of them.
Miami is hitting their freebees and that is an incredibly important part of championship basketball. Going 31-35 Sunday night was out of this world not only because they converted on those shots, but because they did so when they struggled to score from the field. The Heat only shot 38% from the floor tonight despite all their success on the inside and were a poor 4-13 from beyond the arc. Those free throws won them this game, plain and simple.
If OKC doesn’t get their mind right at the line, it’s going to continue to be one of their biggest problems as they now have to come from behind to win the NBA Finals.
*Shooting 70% from the line won’t cut it when playing in close games for a championship and the other team is shooting 85%.
The 4th Was Never As Close As It Actually Seemed Or Felt
Yes, OKC cut the lead to one in the last minute and a half in the game, but at least to myself, it felt like Miami was going to do whatever it took to get the win on either side of the ball all quarter. This was a really good defensive game or a really sloppy offensive game, however you want to see the glass. Both teams brought it on D, forcing a combined 23 turnovers, but the 4th was where this all really manifested. Midway through the quarter, the Heat had ended a stretch of 12 possessions with seven turnovers, but managed to enforce a similar pressure OKC. The Thunder nearly matched their game total in giveaways in the last 12 minutes*.
Miami also held the Thunder in check in two very key stat areas late in the game. They won the rebounding margin in the 4th by a +7 mark, limiting any second chance opportunities for the Thunder**, and stopping all OKC’s three point attempts as well***.
Oklahoma City also seemed to cough up the ball at the worst possible times. There were two specific instances that truly made things difficult, and then impossible for the visiting Thunder to come back to win. The first being James Harden’s two straight turnovers on two straight possessions, the latter of the duo leading to a fast break where LeBron made a crushing three point play AND Durant picked up his 5th foul, pushing the lead to seven****. Then, on an out-of-bounds play with the Thunder barely clinging to life down four with 15 seconds left, Thabo throws the ball away from Westbrook, confused on which way the point guard was cutting. Game was as good as over from there.
*8 turnovers heading into the 4th, 6 turnovers in the final quarter. I’ve watched a lot of OKC basketball this year and that was the sloppiest stretch I’ve seen from them that I can recall off the top of my head. Only one word I can think of to describe their performance there: sloppy.
**OKC had only two offensive rebounds in the 4th, both coming well before crunch time and with one being a half second before a shot clock violation.
***0-3 beyond the arc, including Westbrook’s wide open potential game tying shot with 0:29 seconds left.
****If we thought people critiqued Westbrook after his Game 2, Harden should watch out, because for someone who is supposed to be the cooler head bringing up and controlling the ball late in the game, he made some TERRIBLE decisions down the stretch. He was awful, and OKC cannot have him repeat that performance at all this series again. If somehow Miami had chocked away that lead, people would be back to critiquing Wade like after Game 1, but when you win, you don’t have to worry about the talking heads.
For any Thunder fan that is worried being down 2-1 to the Heat, remember, Miami had this same lead last season against the Mavericks and then lost three straight. But, then it was the Mavs who were playing at home, and LeBron was about to begin his 4th quarter choke jobs. I sincerely doubt we see that happen again with him playing like the MVP he is. The Thunder’s goal now is to ensure this series gets back to their house and to be in a position where they can be tied up going into Game 5, the single most important game of a series of seven. Miami has the control right now and looks to be in the right frame of mind to keep things that way. We’ll see if they can do so Tuesday night for Game 4.