What frustrates its players and fans most in Oklahoma City is not getting blown out of the NBA Finals. They may be down 3-1 in the series but every game has been close — in total points it is Heat +5 though four games. That’s it.
But it didn’t feel like that in the Thunder locker room Tuesday night.
You could hear a pin drop. This was a team with dejected body language and quiet speaking voices — they looked like a team that took a punch to the gut.
Because they did. The Thunder were up 17 in Game 4, they were ahead by 2 with four minutes left and LeBron James on the bench, and they couldn’t close it out.
“We missed some good shots, some wide open shots…” Serge Ibaka said of the fourth quarter in a quiet Thunder locker room Tuesday night. “When you miss some good shots, there is nothing you can do.”
We tend to want to find people to blame on the losing team, but that’s not fully appropriate here because the Thunder feel like a young team learning another hard lesson on what it takes to be a champion. A lesson the Heat learned the hard way last season.
You can try to blame Russell Westbrook because of his late bonehead foul, but if not for his stellar play and 43 points, the Heat would have blown this game open by 20.
James Harden has taken criticism and he has not been himself — the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year couldn’t even execute a breakaway layup in the fourth quarter of Game 4. He’s trying to get others involved and is turning the ball over. He’s in his own head.
As he should, coach Scott Brooks has his young star’s back.
“James has put us in a position to be where we are,” Brooks said after the game. “He had a tough shooting night, but he competed, he battled, he fought, he defended. He was guarding one of the best players in the game. I don’t judge a guy’s game on shots, on makes and misses. This game is about makes and misses.
“Some nights you’re going to make those, some nights you’re going to miss them, but your effort has to be there. I love James’ effort and that’s all I judge him on. If he wasn’t playing hard, yes, I would have taken him out earlier and sat him and put somebody else in. We have a standard of play and effort-wise I think everybody lived up to it tonight.”
The Thunder haven’t played poorly, but they haven’t played well enough. They haven’t adjusted to the Heat’s rotations, their role players are not stepping up like the Heat’s, and the Thunder are not getting enough out of one of their big three.
It’s not a fatal flaw, it’s growing pains. Which suck for Thunder fans and players. But teams and players have to learn how to win in the NBA and OKC seems to be getting one final lesson.