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1. Oklahoma City defending like it's about 9:30 Eastern on Sunday, June 19 in 2012.
For a spell, there, Oklahoma City was playing some pretty impressive defense. To start the third quarter of Game 3, after the team failed consistently to keep a Miami Heat team that couldn't shoot straight from out of the paint, the Thunder utilized a quick and forceful defense that saw much-maligned center Kendrick Perkins covering an impressive amount of ground along the way. The Thunder went on a 14-2 run in just under 4 1/2 minutes of play, and seemed to be well on their way toward regaining home-court advantage in this tough series before Kevin Durant's foul trouble forced coach Scott Brooks into a pair of decisions we hope he regrets.
Save for fatigue and the brilliance of LeBron James either adapting or finding that outside shooting stroke again, there's no reason why the Thunder can't refer back to this stretch for goodly chunks of Game 4. The eventual adjustments on Miami's side would be obvious — moving without the ball, quick cuts and drives and dishes as the Thunder attempts to defend a pick and roll attack that isn't anything like what they had success in stopping against San Antonio — but the Heat don't often make the obvious adjustment until it's too late.
Then again, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is as aware of the Thunder's 14-2 run as any of us, so it's possible he'll have already instructed his team to assume away and adapt accordingly. Holy lord, do I love the Finals.
2. That Dwyane Wade Game, contributed every so often
To start, let's ensure that we're all aware that Dwyane Wade's relative struggles have little to do with him acting as a sort of sullen, inconsistent millstone. As Eric Freeman noted the other day, the man is still averaging 23 points per game, and a combined 9.6 assists/rebounds and 2.9 steals/blocks. Forty-six percent shooting, as well, which is good by modern standards and great considering the pain that Wade is clearly in.
That doesn't mean he still can't rise above, take in a couple of backdoor plays or reverses and come through with the sort of sparkling 30-point output that would make the Heat just about impossible to guard if LeBron approximates his usual output. The schedule has lightened somewhat, with the Heat now playing its fourth game in nine days following the seven-game Eastern Conference slogfest against the Boston Celtics, and with Thabo Sefolosha looking to help and dive into passing lanes in the Thunder's newly activated defense, Wade could work his way into a throwback game of sorts.
We're just hoping the poor dude doesn't throw his back out along the way.
3. Kevin Durant, shooting until his arms fall off
Make note that this isn't a LeBron-styled, "I have to be more aggressive" warning. This is Durant pointing out that he'll do the same in Game 4 as he's done for most of the series. Mainly, act as his team's startlingly great go-to guy in the final 12 minutes of the contest. Twelve minutes that, unless a blowout rears its ugly head, he'll likely play all of.
The "most of" caveat you read above refers to Durant's less than stellar play down the stretch in Game 3, when he missed 4 of 6 shots, clanged two free throws, and turned the ball over twice in 12 minutes of play. OKC can live with four missed shots and two missed free throws, you get the impression, but only if Durant is shooting 6-10 overall and 5-7 from the line in the fourth. Durant hasn't sat for a single minute in the fourth quarter in this series, and put up a combined 33 points on 11-19 shooting with seven rebounds in the first two fourth quarters of the Finals.
What's more important here, even with the Thunder coming off a relatively strong start to Game 3, is that Durant has to understand that he's not Michael Jordan in his early 30s; patrolling the game and waiting to pick his spots. The Thunder were a fantastic offensive team in the regular season and a just about legendary one through the first three rounds and first two games of this postseason, piling up incredible per-possession stats. Most of that came with Durant acting The Destroyer from the get-go; because while we understand that even young legs have to be mindful of pace, the Thunder can't very well work from yet another early hole that could very well lead to a just-about unrecoverable one: A 3-1 series deficit.
4. Referees, ye gods
Call or no-call, Heat or Thunder, weekday or weekend, the referees can't catch a break. It's the function of a very tough sport to call technically correct, mixed with the unending unwritten rules, and to those who have a dog in this fight the refs appear to be tilting the series in whatever direction you think some mob-run offshore maritime vessel has previously decided.
It's all a load of garbage, of course, but that doesn't mean the pressure doesn't build with these referees game in and game out. And though Game 4's referees (Scott Foster, Mike Callahan, Bill Kennedy) want nothing to do with it, they could very well shape this game in the image they've decided, on the fly and after much pressure from the NBA to get everything perfect, to create.
It's up to the teams, following the establishment of that particular avatar, to react and take advantage.
This means Kendrick Perkins either setting the moving-est moving screen you've ever seen, over and over, or barely touching a Heat guard in a screen and roll. Depends on what the refs establish. This means Dwyane Wade potentially partying like it's 2006, and putting his head down and getting to the line. This could mean Wade having to put together a drive and kick game for the white-hot Shane Battier, mindful of a referee crew that isn't calling a thing on the inside. It could go either way, and either team has to make sure they take that either way and turn it into their best way to win.
This relies, almost solely, on in-game adjustments that we can't possibly foresee even in the hours leading up to Game 4. And that, my friends, is why these Finals are so damn great.
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