Miami Heat 104, Oklahoma City Thunder 98 (Miami leads series, 3-1)
Of course Russell Westbrook drops 43 brilliant points in Oklahoma City's Game 4 loss, keeping his team from getting blown out by double-digits along the way. And of course Westbrook — or some combination of Westbrook and the either silent or unlistened-to Thunder coaching staff — put the game away for Miami by intentionally fouling Mario Chalmers with 14 seconds left in the contest and just five seconds on the Heat shot clock. Of course LeBron James develops a debilitating leg cramp in the fourth quarter to gut through for a massive three-pointer, and of course he had to sit the last minute with that leg cramp or else the Heat would have been playing four on five. Of course, the Thunder played four on five for a good chunk of the game with Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha or even, surprisingly, James Harden out there.
What isn't an "of course" is the way Miami is now up three games to one in this series. A decidedly one-sided three-game winning streak in a series that most saw as a back and forth affair that would result in teams trading off win after win. Of course, we said before the series we wouldn't be surprised if either team won in four or five very close games, because the actual numbers behind the wins wouldn't represent how close the games actually were. And, of course, after just four games and a week later, we've forgotten all about that.
[Related: Injured LeBron James hits big shot to help beat Thunder in Game 4]
What matters now is the substance of Game 4. How Mario Chalmers helped put Oklahoma City away with smart drives and accurate finishes from long range. How the Heat managed to keep the Thunder off the free throw line — not because the NBA's Manhattan offices want to see a quick series win for Miami, but because the team most of you like the least in these Finals happens to be a fantastic defensive outfit. And that LeBron James started endless Heat possessions just 15-feet from the hoop while posting up, winning half the battle right there. And that the Oklahoma City Thunder, with either two or seven days left to play in their season, could pull off something special here; should they peel off the comeback.
This was Miami's win, though. The Heat started slow, playing terrible ball (despite good effort) on both ends before the ball started moving and the helpers started helping. Norris Cole came out of nowhere to score eight points in less than eight minutes. Chalmers started his movement toward a game-tilting 25 points on just 15 shots, and LeBron was masterful in picking off his teammates both in half court and transition on his way to a game-high 12 assists — as many as he combined for in the Finals' first three games.
Yes, the Thunder had their missteps defensively, but the Miami spacing was so good that even when James had to sit with those cramps late in the fourth quarter, the Heat looked dangerous just running a screen and roll with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Two All-Stars, mind you. Helped by a point man that dropped 25. The Heat made it work.
And now it's Oklahoma City's time to make it work.
You can expect all you want. That Russell Westbrook's return to earth after scoring 43 points in Game 3 will be made up for by James Harden's eventual return to All-Star level play. Harden has shot 2-10 from the floor in both Game 3 and Game 4, and though you'd like to assume that his return to his averages is in the offing, nothing is guaranteed in a one, two or even three-game sample size.
The game of inches cost OKC as well, with several of Kevin Durant's three-pointers (he missed four of five) spinning in and out, and Serge Ibaka looking to be just this close to rejecting a couple of Miami makes in the paint. The Thunder are going to cringe while watching this tape. Knowing that Westbrook's brain freeze may not have meant a lick with just a few inches to the left, or a few inches to the right. Tough night.
These things happen night by night, though. There hasn't been a legitimate blowout in this series, a rarity for NBA Finals and something you usually see even when two equally-talented giants square off in a seven game run. Unless the Thunder come out completely dispirited in Game 5, it's hard to see that blowout taking place on Thursday — and considering what we saw from Westbrook and Durant in their postgame presser, we're not expecting the Thunder to bow out quietly.
Which means we're likely due for another close one in Game 5, even if I just reminded you that we probably shouldn't be looking at any potential facet of this series as likely to happen in the future. The Thunder can take a close one. Then it's another one, in Oklahoma City. Then, potentially, another one in Oklahoma City. The trick, as we've known for years, is to take things one game at a time. But if OKC takes Game 5 …
This is how these close games go, because the notch in the belt doesn't always mean as much as you'd presume to think. This game was nearly decided on the whims of LeBron James' dehydrated and malfunctioning painful quadriceps muscles. It was nearly decided as one of the great scorers and shooters of his and any era saw his bombs spin out. Or the NBA's leading shot-blocker fail a couple of times to get his fingertips on a shot attempt. Or, sadly, on the unquestioned star of the game making a terrible decision at the worst possible time.
Close games. There could be none of them left, because these two squads may have exhausted that supply four contests into it. There could be one more of them left, as Miami pulls out its first championship with LeBron James as its leader. There could be three left. There could be two. We kind of want three.
This sort of series, with these sorts of teams involved, deserves as much. If things end on Thursday, though, in either a blowout or a nail-biter, understand that we've been given all we can ask for already, in just a week's time.
What a run. What a Finals, despite that 3-1 difference.
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