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June 20, 2012
Playoff Prospectus
On the Verge

by Kevin Pelton

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at Miami 104, Oklahoma City 98 (Miami leads 3-1)
Pace: 87.9
Offensive Ratings: Miami 119.0, Oklahoma City 110.9

So much for slow starts dooming the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals. In Tuesday's Game 4, the Thunder dominated the early going with energy at both ends, taking a 15-5 lead before the Miami Heat settled into the game. After one quarter, Oklahoma City had rung up 33 points and a 14-point advantage.

Nearly all that good work was undone during a stretch of less than four minutes, as the Heat answered with a 16-0 run to cut the lead to one. From there, we had us a game, as neither side led by more than seven points over the final 38 minutes. Ultimately, just as the previous two outings, Miami made slightly more plays down the stretch, and now the Heat is a game away from a championship.

For most of the night, the Heat was carried by the able shoulders of one LeBron James. With Kevin Durant switching off of James to avoid the early foul trouble that has plagued him in recent games, James went to work in the post against smaller defenders Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden. In displaying the way his back-to-the-basket game has come together over the last 12 months, James forced the Thunder defense into a choice between equally unpleasant options. Either Oklahoma City could play James straight up and let him get to the paint to score, or bring a double team and watch James find teammates on the perimeter.

In a different manner, James controlled the first half of this game nearly as much as he did Game 6 in Boston with his scoring. James handed out eight assists in the first half alone in addition to scoring 10 points and grabbing six rebounds. He ended up a rebound shy of a triple-double, and his 12 assists were one shy of his season high, regular season or playoffs.

James wasn't a dominant figure in the fourth quarter, when he scored just two baskets and settled too easily for perimeter shots. In fact, he wasn't on the court at all for nearly two of the last five and a half minutes because of cramps that struck him midway through the period. While James did manage in the interim to hit the three-pointer that put Miami ahead for good with the game tied at 94 and 2:50 to play, it was up to the other Heat players to take the team home. The Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh pick-and-roll started working just in time to sandwich two crucial buckets around James' three.

The more unlikely hero, however, was Mario Chalmers. After missing all three shots he tried in the first quarter, Chalmers dropped to 2-of-18 since Game 1. Chalmers was getting good looks against a Thunder defense trying to keep Miami's stars out of the paint, and from the second quarter onward he took advantage. Chalmers made nine of his next 12 shots, scoring 25 points to tie his playoff high. These weren't all open threes, either. Chalmers used a pick-and-roll to get to the rim for a layup with 44 seconds left that pushed the Heat's lead back to two possessions.

At the other end, Russell Westbrook was doing everything possible to keep Oklahoma City in the game. From the early stages, Westbrook had his pull-up jumper falling, and after halftime he began getting to the rim at will. Time and again during the fourth quarter, Westbrook just put his head down and got to the basket for contested layups. He finished with a stunning 43 points on just 33 shooting possessions, essentially all of them on two-point baskets. Westbrook did not make a three and somehow got to the free throw line but three times.

Westbrook's quick scores allowed the Thunder to stay within a possession of Miami. Westbrook's last bucket came with 40 seconds remaining and the Heat up three. All Oklahoma City needed was a stop to take control with a chance to tie. The Thunder came agonizingly close to getting it before key breaks went against them. A Wade miss landed in the hands of both James Harden and Udonis Haslem, leading to a jump ball--the best possible outcome for Miami with just 0.8 seconds showing on the shot clock. Due to the tie-up, the shot clock was reset to five seconds. Oklahoma City had a chance to win the tip, but Shane Battier snuck over to deflect it into the corner, where Chalmers recovered. Westbrook, thinking the shot clock had actually reset to 14 and that the Heat could nearly run out the clock, immediately and incorrectly fouled. Chalmers made both free throws, Durant missed a three on the other end and that was that.

To get back into this series, the Thunder has to find more sources for scoring. Durant (28) and Westbrook combined for 71 of the team's 98 points and 51 of its 82 shot attempts. Serge Ibaka was relatively quiet, scoring just four points, but the real issue here is James Harden's cold snap. Harden missed eight of his 10 shot attempts and scored just two points in 18:32 after halftime. Part of the issue may be how much Harden is having to defend the bigger James. Scott Brooks may be overreacting a bit to Durant's foul trouble. Putting Sefolosha on James when the starters are on the floor makes sense, but when Oklahoma City's stopper is on the bench--which was entirely too long in the fourth quarter--the Thunder ought to put Durant back on James and let Harden focus more energy on the offensive end. That also has the benefit of cutting back on James' post-up opportunities.

With Derek Fisher giving Oklahoma City nothing offensively (zero points and one shot attempt in 22 minutes), Brooks might want to explore some additional alternatives on the perimeter--namely Daequan Cook, who was a spark in the conference finals but has played a total of six minutes in this series. Because the Thunder is playing so much smallball, it's putting a lot more pressure on the team's guards to play heavy minutes, and Fisher and Harden both reacted poorly in Game Four.

By contrast, suddenly it's Miami that looks like the deeper team. Besides the contributions from Chalmers, James Jones played well off the bench. The Heat was +8 in his 20 minutes, which included significant chunks of the fourth quarter. Rookie Norris Cole unexpectedly came through with his best effort of the postseason after returning to the high-top fade he sported at Cleveland State, knocking down a pair of threes and scoring eight points during the Miami run in the first half.

With three consecutive wins, the Heat has all the momentum. Yet it's worth remembering the thin margin that has separated these teams throughout the series. Oklahoma City led as late as the 4:20 mark before a disastrous stretch with four empty trips (with two turnovers and two missed outside shots) and three scores by Miami at the other end. With a few adjustments, the Thunder has every chance to extend this series on Thursday.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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