Everything in life is a learning experience. Unfortunately for the Oklahoma City Thunder, they need to grow up fast and learn on the job right now.
Everything in life is a learning experience.
Unfortunately for the Oklahoma City Thunder, they need to grow up fast and learn on the job right now.
LeBron James and the Miami Heat entered the NBA FInals with the reputation for fourth-quarter failures, but it's been the youthful Thunder who have stumbled down the stretch.
The Thunder have shown a lot of maturity for young players already, but they have retreated back to some bad habits at the worst time.
Intensity has been high during the 2012 NBA Finals, and in those cases every possession is critical and the smallest mistakes make the biggest difference.
Take James Harden's missed lay-up in the fourth quarter on Tuesday night that would have given the Thunder an 81-80 lead. Oklahoma City had blown a big early lead and fell behind by double-digits before surging back again and now Harden had nothing but the basket in front of him.
Harden must have heard footsteps from the defenders trailing the play and missed the go-ahead chip shot. A few dribbles later and the Heat were up six.
Russell Westbrook carried the Thunder for much of Game 4 and finished with 43 points, but an ill-advised foul in the final seconds helped Miami ice the game.
Harden continued a miserable series by going 2-for-10, including that crucial miss late and Kevin Durant shot only 9-for-19 in Game 4 after tremendous fourth-quarter performances earlier in the series.
The Thunder also have been careless with the ball down the stretch of these games and bailing the Heat out in the final seconds. Oklahoma City has had a chance to win all four of these games against the Heat, but closing the deal has been a problem.
The youth of the Thunder is what makes them great — and the biggest reason why they're in the NBA Finals — but it also could be their biggest weakness. Mistakes are magnified on the biggest stage and the Thunder can no longer afford them with their backs against the wall.
Durant, Westbrook, and Harden have thrived in such situations before, rallying from 2-0 down against the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, but these are three straight elimination games — if they get that far — where the pressure increases each time.
Sure, there will be immense pressure on James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat to close out the Thunder in Game 5 so as not to return to the hornet's nest of an area in Oklahoma City.
One could even argue the pressure is more on the Heat because of James' quest for his first title and the "Big 3" joining forces for not one, not two, not three, not four .... championships.
However, Wade has won a title already and James is playing in the NBA Finals for the third time. This is not new territory to them.
Durant and Westbrook and the rest of the Thunder are here for the first time — perhaps sooner than anyone expected considering the battle-tested Lakers and Spurs they had to get past in the West — and the young guns need to play like wily veterans now.
No team has ever rallied from 3-1 down in the NBA Finals to win, but the way the Oklahoma City Thunder can shoot, this is the type of team that can do it if they get on a roll.
James passed the buck too often in the 2011 NBA Finals and he watched the Dallas Mavericks celebrate. He has not played tentative this time around and looks to shut a lot of critics up once and for all.
The Thunder need to match that intensity and play aggressive — yet controlled — in the final minutes if they want to keep their season alive.
The NBA lucked out after an ugly lockout and an abbreviated 66-game regular season and the loss of a superstar (Derrick Rose) early in the postseason to get an intriguing finals matchup.
A case could easily be made that Miami and Oklahoma City are unquestionably the best two teams in the league with the three best players in the league on the floor.
No matter what, a superstar will win his first title and a coronation as the game's preeminent player will take place.
It also could be the start of a long, classic rivalry between two future Hall of Famers duking it out each year for their place on top of the NBA mountain. All NBA fans should take a second right now to dream about many Thunder and Heat battles over the next decade.
This is hopefully the first of many chapters in an epic novel of basketball greatness.
The only question left is whether it will be LeBron's long-awaited coronation as a true king or will Durant and Westbrook carry the Thunder to an unprecedented comeback?
Follow Paul Jannace on Twitter at @pjscribe.