The Philadelphia 76ers were reminded of their limitations when they finally lost in the second round of the playoffs. Sixers fans like myself know that the sky isn't really the limit, as more needs to be done to take the next step. Meanwhile, although the Oklahoma City Thunder are much further along than the Sixers, the NBA Finals are proving that they still have a long way to go as well.
The sky really might not be the limit for the Thunder, given what the Miami Heat and their own flaws have done in these NBA Finals. Game 4 on June 19 provided the harshest lesson yet for Oklahoma City, as it blew a big early lead and didn't have enough in the final minutes yet again, en route to a back breaking 104-98 loss.
For the first time in the series, the Thunder were the hottest team in the first quarter, building a lead as high up as 17 points. And within the blink of an eye, they coughed up all of it to start the second quarter, with Norris Cole of all people giving the Heat a lift from the bench. Then the ice cold Mario Chalmers started heating up and wound up with 25 points, while LeBron James and Dwayne Wade did their usual damage.
Normally, the Thunder would use Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden to balance this out - but only Westbrook showed up. Yet again, Westbrook shot the ball far more than the true face of the franchise in Durant - this time with 32 shots to Durant's 19. Unfortunately, coach Scott Brooks couldn't very well make Westbrook stop - as if he had tried already - since he was the only one keeping the Thunder alive.
A spurt of 13 straight points from Westbrook brought Oklahoma City back to life in the second half, yet no one else could get the Thunder over the top to take the lead. Harden certainly couldn't do it, as he blew an easy shot for the lead early in the fourth, which allowed the Heat to build a cushion again. Then Durant barely had a shot to work his fourth quarter magic, because Westbrook continued to take most of the shots.
With no one able or willing to make Durant shoot more, Harden turning into a huge liability and Westbrook having no choice but to take all the shots, the Thunder teetered on the edge and finally fell off. Even when James came down with painful leg cramps, he still couldn't be stopped from hitting the three-pointer that gave the Heat the lead for good. Then when Oklahoma City made one last rally, a late and unnecessary foul was committed for the second straight game to help Miami wrap it up from the free throw line.
The Thunder are technically far ahead of schedule in reaching these NBA Finals, so maybe they were due to hit a wall. Teams that overachieve quicker than usual do tend to do that, which the Sixers ultimately did two rounds earlier. They finally skidded out of the playoffs because they weren't ready to go further, and that may be the fate of these Thunder as well.
Oklahoma City can't force Durant to take over, make up for Harden's disappearing act, stop Westbrook from taking so much responsibility or stay disciplined in the final minutes anymore. It avoided these traps for so long - perhaps longer than it should have - but these flaws are now costing it big in the NBA Finals.
As such, this series has become less of an opportunity for a championship and more of a painful learning experience for Oklahoma City. Last year's finals provided the same harsh lesson for the Heat and they are now turning out all the better for it - so maybe that will give the Thunder hope for the future if or when the ugly end comes.
Robert Dougherty is a life-long Philadelphia resident and 76ers fan.
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