Thunder Folds: Why Oklahoma City Flopped in the NBA Finals

I carefully worded the title of this article.  I did not want to state that the Thunder “lost” the NBA Finals, insinuating that it was simply handed to the Miami Heat (and that the Heat did not necessarily “win” the title).

But the Thunder’s disappearing act in the NBA Finals merits some examination.  Even if it is a brief examination.

The Thunder did not lose because of foul discrepancies (that was previously covered).  They did not lose because of “inexperience”; they were competitive in four of the five games.  They did not lose because of the no-calls in Games 2 and 3.

If anything, one has to wonder — where did James Harden go?  With the exception of a solid Game 2 performance and the focal point of the non-call (and subsequent foul committed by him) in Game 3, Harden was missing in action.  The NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year played like the 12th Man on the Bench for much of the NBA Finals.  Here are his numbers:

  • Game 1: 5 points (2-6 FG; 1-2 3PT); 4 fouls
  • Game 2: 21 points (7-11 FG; 2-3 3PT)
  • Game 3: 9 points (2-10 FG; 0-4 3PT); 4 fouls
  • Game 4: 8 points (2-10 FG; 1-5 3PT); 5 fouls; 10 rebounds
  • Game 5: 19 points (5-11 FG; 3-8 3PT)

Of course, you could point out that Harden had a good game in the closeout win for the Heat.  But, most of those points game in the fourth quarter — 11 points on 4 of 5 shooting; 3-for-4 from beyond the arc.  By this time, the game was already decided and the final quarter was a formality.

The Heat needed Harden’s production earlier, but he failed.  During the first three quarters (as the Thunder were digging deeper into a hole), The Beard was 1-6 shooting for 8 points…0-4 from three-point land.  OKC really could have used those points.  For example, Harden’s three missed 3-pointers in the third quarter led to seven Heat points (a James layup; Bosh three-pointer; and two Mike Miller free throws).

While seven points is still manageable, consider that the Thunder missed out on potentially nine points.  In other words, that is a 16-point swing.  What could have become a 14-point deficit [Harden’s first 3-point attempt in the third] first became 19 points; then a 22-point deficit [after Harden’s second miss in the third would have brought it down to 16].  Huge difference.

This is not to suggest that Harden is the reason for the Thunder’s failure to win the NBA Title.  One cannot simply place blame on one person, in particular someone as vital to the Thunder’s run to the Finals as Harden.  However, the Thunder needed Harden to play like he did earlier in the season and the playoffs.  Without that normally reliable production, the Thunder was silenced in Miami.

Again, maybe even with Harden’s normal production, the Heat still win.  Additionally, remember that the Thunder won Game 1 without Harden’s typical numbers, and were still in Games 2, 3, and 4 regardless [though Harden was his productive self in the controversial Game 2 loss].  But, it is difficult not to look at Harden’s “flop” and not wonder where this series would be had he put up better numbers.

In the same vein, look at the Heat and who stepped up.  With the exception of Game 3, a player outside of the so-called “Big Three” stepped their game up.  In Games 1 and 2, Shane Battier contributed 17 points in each contest in Oklahoma City.  Mario Chalmers put in 25 points in the Game 4 win in Miami.  And, in the series clincher, it was Mike Miller dropping 23 points including seven three-pointers (in fact, all seven of his made field goals were 3’s).  Heat role players stepped up; Harden (though not necessarily a “role player”) did not.

One final note: I hate the 2-3-2 format for the NBA Finals.  The format makes sense for baseball, giving its protocol for playing on consecutive days.  But the implementation of such a format in the NBA Finals is ridiculous, especially considering that all other rounds use a 2-2-1-1-1 format.  I think the 2-3-2 in the NBA gives an advantage to the team with the lesser record.  Indeed, over the past ten seasons, the team with the “lesser” record (and therefore occupying the three middle games of the series) has won at least two of the three games eight times.  The two exceptions are the Los Angeles Lakers beating the Magic twice [in three games] in Orlando in 2009, and the San Antonio Spurs in 2007 sweeping the Cleveland Cavaliers in four games, including both in Cleveland.  This pattern holds true even if the team with the “lesser” record loses the series [e.g. 2010 Finals between the Lakers and the Boston Celtics].

Would Oklahoma City had comeback and won the Finals had Game 5 been played in OKC?  I am not going to speculate that far.  But, the Thunder would have had a better chance to at least win Game 5, if not win the series.  Losing Game 4 was gut-wrenching for the Thunder because they jumped out huge early on, but ended up wasting away Russell Westbrook’s 43-point performance.  But they could have at least returned to OKC and that rowdy crowd for a good pick-me-up [see the Thunder’s bounce back at home after the beatdown they received from the Spurs in San Antonio in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals].

A home game could have benefit the Thunder, especially since they had the better record [spare me the “it is only a one-game difference” argument; one game is the difference between being in the playoffs and being in the draft lottery].  But, it is not as though the format is new, so the Thunder needed to play the hand they were dealt…they folded.

In the end, big ups to the Miami Heat and LeBron James.  I guess I can no longer call James a King Without a Crown…though I may anyway since, to paraphrase Shaq, James “couldn’t do it without [Wade].”  Nah…I’ll give James his due.

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