One of the weird things about sports is that a player can become a scapegoat after a close loss even if he's the one who puts his team in a position to win in the first place. LeBron James has dealt with that criticism constantly over the past few seasons. Now, after a 104-98 loss in Game 4 to go down 3-1 in the NBA Finals, Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder will experience the same.
With 13 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and the Heat up 101-98, James Harden tied up Udonis Haslem for a jump ball after an errant Dwyane Wade shot. However, the shot didn't hit the rim, which meant that the Heat would have to get off a shot within four seconds if they were to win the tip. In a bit of luck, Mario Chalmers gained possession off the tip after a very nice directed deflection from Shane Battier. That's when Westbrook made his big mistake by intentionally fouling Chalmers as if the shot clock had been turned off. Instead of facing a desperation shot from the Heat and a potential chance to tie the game in the final seconds, the Thunder went down five points after two free throws.
Westbrook, for his part, took all the blame in his post-game press conference. In the wake of the event, many observers noted that OKC head coach Scott Brooks might have failed to communicate the rules to his team, but ESPN's Ric Bucher claimed on Twitter that he saw Brooks tell his attentive team — including Westbrook — about the shot clock. It seems as if Westbrook simply had a lapse of judgment and memory in the moment.
It's a shame, too, because before that foul he put in one of the greatest performances of this season's playoffs. In 45 minutes, Westbrook scored 43 points (20-of-32 from the field, or as many made field goals as the rest of his team combined), dished out five assists, and grabbed seven rebounds. Westbrook has earned a great deal of criticism for his score-first tendencies and extreme aggressiveness, but this game showed why that approach has helped him become a perennial All-Star. With his customary mix of lightning-quick drives and mid-range jumpers, Westbrook had the Thunder in this game until the final moments. That he failed in those moments shouldn't be forgotten, but it also shouldn't completely overshadow what he did in the game.
The Thunder will look at the tape of this game and ask a lot of questions about their performance: James Harden had a particularly poor night, they shot 3-of-16 from three-point range, etc. But in this game (and much of the series, for that matter), a few different bounces or breaks might have determined the outcomes. As Kelly Dwyer noted on Thursday night, it's been a great series despite the 3-1 lead for Miami. At this moment, OKC might bemoan the situation in which they find themselves. But they should also remember just how close they are.