NBA finals Game 4: LeBron, Heat play through pain to reach brink of a title

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One year ago, the Miami Heat were ahead 2-1 in the finals against Dallas and up 9 points in Game 4. Then they learned some very painful lessons.

This year, the Heat were again up 2-1 and this time were down 94-92 with four minutes remaining. Adding to their woes, LeBron James was on the bench after having to be carried off the court with quad cramps.

But this time Miami turned out to be the ones teaching the lessons of execution under pressure — they put together a 12-4 run to close the game run that included a dramatic three by a gimpy LeBron, Mario Chalmers stepping up, plus both Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade making plays. The Thunder had Russell Westbrook and not much else and that was not enough.

The result was a 104-98 Heat win that has Miami up 3-1 and now one win away from an NBA championship.

This series feels over and it may happen Thursday night in Game 5. The Thunder locker room after the game was painfully quiet, their body language was that of a team that just took a blow to the gut. Dejected doesn’t do it justice. They looked defeated. They are learning hard lessons— ones Miami learned last year — and while they will not roll over, you could sense they know how this will end.

The Heat have matured and talked about taking nothing for granted.

“There will be an incredible amount of noise on the outside and we need to stay focused on the moment,” Spoelstra said. To a man every Heat player said something similar about not losing focus — it’s a lesson they learned the hard way last year.

Game 4 started out with a desperate Thunder team racing out to a 13-3 run behind a Westbrook, who Wade described as “playing on another level.” He started fast and finished fast, ending up with 43 points on just 32 shots. He blitzed the Heat defense and they had no answer because his jumper was falling, especially when he could get to the elbow.

“We missed some chippies, ones we normally make, and they came out from a ferocious intensity,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of the start.

But the Heat closed that gap in the second quarter and it was a tight game the rest of the way. Kevin Durant added 28 points but no other Thunder player broke into double digits. That is where the game was lost. Once again James Harden was just bad — 8 points on 10 shots with twice as many turnovers (4) as assists (2). The Thunder cannot win without him, he is their X factor.

Westbrook was not perfect — he made a bad foul late. Miami was up three with 13 seconds left and 4 seconds left on the shot clock for Miami when there was a jump ball. When Chalmers won the jump ball Westbrook fouled him instantly, thinking he had to, not realizing the Heat had to rush a shot. Chalmers hit the free throws and that was pretty much it.

“It was just a miscommunication on my part,” Westbrook said of not knowing the shot clock. “Nothing I can do about it now.”

Some fans will smack Westbrook around online for that play, but they miss the point. Without his monster night the Thunder are not even close in this game.

Oklahoma City lost a game by inches — a block here, some of Durant’s threes falling (1-for-5), Thabo Sefolosha missing a wide-open corner three late, any of that changes the game. The Thunder made it to the finals, but they have been out-executed down the stretch the last three games. Coaches like to call it a hit-or-miss league and right now the Thunder are missing late and the Heat are making. Miami is getting balance — Chalmers and Wade had 25 points each.

Miami players can smell it now. The Thunder will not roll over but it will be a real test to see what kind of emotion they can play with on Thursday night.

Miami is gutting out, grinding out wins. That’s what champions do.

James Harden reveals he’s playing through ankle injury

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
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James Harden didn’t lead the Rockets in scoring in their Game 4 win over the Thunder yesterday.

He didn’t even rank second – or third.

Nene, Eric Gordon and Lou Williams each outscored Harden, who scored 16 points on 5-for-16 shooting, including 0-for-7 on 3-pointers.

What happened to the Houston star?

Calvin Watkins of ESPN:

Houston Rockets star guard James Harden said he has been hobbled by an ankle injury that occurred in Game 3 of this first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Harden made the revelation to ESPN’s Lisa Salters after the Rockets’ 113-109 Game 4 victory on Sunday afternoon.

“It was pretty tough; we don’t make excuses,” Harden said in a news conference when asked about his health. “We just try to go out there and get the job done. You build trust, and trust in your teammates all year long. When there’s moments like this, guys step up and they did tonight. We have another opportunity in a few days to go out there and win on our home court, and we’re going to have to get off to a really good start.”

Many players are grinding through injuries this time of year. Is Harden’s exceptionally bad? There’s no way of telling from the outside.

But he didn’t look quite right in Game 4, and if he’s hobbled, that opens the door slightly wider for Oklahoma City to come back from its 3-1 deficit.

Video Breakdown: Rockets launch Eric Gordon from 3-point range against Thunder in Game 4

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The Houston Rockets beat the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday, 113-109, and now the series heads back to Texas with the Rockets in the lead, 3-1.

Houston and OKC played a weird game, with Nene scoring 28 points off the bench for the Rockets and serious mischief in the final moments. The end of the game included a purposely missed free throw by Steven Adams that allowed Russell Westbrook to grab a quick 3-pointer and a missed call when James Harden shoved Alex Abrines out of the way like an NFL tackle.

While the Rockets didn’t shoot a stellar percentage from 3-point range — just 31.5 percent — they still knocked down 11 buckets from deep. Part of that action was a play run for Sixth Man of the Year candidate Eric Gordon that included a little semi-Pistol action, and a stagger screen that allowed Gordon to work his way free.

I picked this play to go over this week because it exemplifies just how committed to the 3-point shot the Rockets are. Plus, Gordon ran around three screens just to get this one bucket, which is always fun to see.

Watch the full video breakdown above.

Jimmy Butler on Marcus Smart dustup: ‘He’s not about that life. So, he’s calming down’

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Marcus Smart and Jimmy Butler had to be separated during the Celtics’ Game 4 win over the Bulls after Smart pushed Butler, who was hounding him defensively in the backcourt.

Butler:

As far as the Marcus Smart situation goes, he’s a great actor. Acting tough, that’s what he does. But I don’t think he’s about that, and I’m the wrong guy to get in my face. So, he needs to take it somewhere else because I’m not the one for that.

Was that their first run-in? Butler:

That’s the first time. Last time, too. We’re not going to sit here and get in each other’s faces like that. Like I said, he’s not about that life. So, he’s calming down.

The Bulls, who’ve lost two straight to allow Boston to tie the series 2-2, is angling for any edge. Butler tried to intimidate Smart on the court, and the Chicago wing might actually rattle the too easily shakable Smart with his postgame comments.

The irony: Some might say Butler, who did come up hard, lost touch with his roots as he entered stardom. I don’t buy that, at least not majorly.

But even if both – or neither – are posturing to any degree, this will be a matchup to watch in Game 5.

Remembering former NBA official Jess Kersey, who passed away Saturday

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Jess Kersey, who officiated more than 2,200 NBA games, including being part of 19 NBA Finals, passed away over the weekend, losing his battle with cancer at age 76.

Kersey was a well-respected official who feared nothing. Maybe the most remembered image of Kersey is him trying to break up a fight between Mitch Kupchak and Hakeem Olajuwon, essentially trying to tackle Olajuwon with his head in Olajuwon’s chest and his arms wrapped around him. Kersey got in the middle of everything if that was what was required.

Our thoughts go out to the Kersey family for their loss.