Tahlequah Daily Press

Sports

June 20, 2012

Feet to the fire

Game 4 loss puts Thunder's title hopes on the brink.

MIAMI — Oklahoma City was more than OK at the start. At the end, not so much.

The Thunder got an epic performance from Russell Westbrook. They ran out to a huge early lead. They watched LeBron James get carried off the court in the fourth quarter, and took the lead shortly after he departed.

Somehow, it still wasn't enough in Game 4 of the NBA Finals.

Even after getting 43 points from Westbrook, 28 more from Kevin Durant and staking itself to a 17-point lead by the time the first quarter was over, Oklahoma City is now officially on the brink. James finished with 26 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers each scored 25 points and the Miami Heat beat the Thunder 104-98 in Game 4 to take a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven title series.

"I can guarantee this," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "We have fight in us."

Game 5 is in Miami on Thursday night, where James and the Heat can capture the NBA title that they were assembled to get two years ago.

History says the Thunder are now in deep, deep trouble. No team in NBA history has rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the finals. No team has even forced a Game 7 in the title series when faced with that scenario.

Westbrook took 32 shots, as many as James and Chris Bosh tried combined. He made 20 — half of Oklahoma City's field goals on the night — and finished with seven rebounds and five assists as well. For a guard who struggled many times against Miami, it was a breakout night that the Thunder desperately needed.

"I thought Russell was terrific tonight," Brooks said. "The guy played relentless. He was aggressive. He kept us in this game and he gave us a chance to win."

Said Heat forward Shane Battier: "The kid brought it. He's taken a lot of heat in this series, but he's not the reason why the game turned out the way it did tonight."

There was one huge blip in Westbrook's night, and it was a play that helped the Heat seal the outcome. After a jump ball with 17.3 seconds remaining, Westbrook fouled Chalmers even though the Thunder would have gotten the ball back because there were less than 5 seconds on the shot clock. Chalmers made both free throws, the lead was five, and Heat fans in the sold-out building knew their team was moments from a 3-1 series lead.

After hearing the whistle, Westbrook took a look at the scoreboard and held out his hand, a look of disbelief across his face.

"Just a miscommunication on my part," Westbrook said. "Nothing I can do about it now."

Durant's mother grabbed her son by both arms as he walked off the floor, hugging him and then using her right hand to turn his face back toward her, trying her best to console the scoring champion. It was a night when the Thunder ran out to a 33-16 lead to buck a trend of slow starts, where Durant and Westbrook were scoring at will, and where Durant threw the Heat an early curve ball by opening the game guarding Chalmers, the Heat point guard.

Perhaps he should have stayed on Chalmers, given how good he was in the second half.

For the final 16-plus minutes, the Thunder were reduced to playing 2-on-5 basketball. Serge Ibaka made a jumper with 4:46 left in the third quarter, cutting Miami's lead to 68-66.

After that, it was either all Westbrook or all Durant, all the time.

"We just have to stay together," center Kendrick Perkins said. "It's not over."

Sure, the stars were superb, again, just not superb enough to take down Miami. After that Ibaka jumper, no other Thunder player besides the team's two superstars scored a point.

"It's not disappointing. It's just, it happens that way," Brooks said. "Russell had a great game. We were going. We were going with him. He was making terrific plays at the basket. He was attacking, he was getting into the teeth of their defense and made basketball plays."

Sixth Man of the Year James Harden struggled yet again, shooting 2 for 10 for the second straight game, though he did finish with 10 rebounds. Nick Collison scored six points, but the other three Oklahoma City starters — Ibaka, Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha — combined for a mere 13 on 6-for-16 shooting.

"We're going to stay aggressive, keep trying to find guys," Westbrook said. "Guys are going to stay confident."

Westbrook was amazing. Durant was great. Everyone else was nearly nonexistent, at least offensively.

And if the Thunder don't figure out a way to do something no NBA team has ever done throughout the rest of this series, James will finally get that ring he's spent nine seasons chasing.

"We're going to keep fighting," Durant said. "Frustrating to lose like that. But we're going to keep fighting, man. That's how we've been since I got here."

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