OKLAHOMA CITY — LeBron James went to the line with seven seconds left and calmly made two free throws.
That’s what people will take from this game. You know, the night James went off, proved his Finals manhood and showed he was clutch in the 100-96 victory.
Something different for the Heat, but the same old problems for the Thunder.
Oklahoma City fans might want to pin this one on the referees getting lock-jaw on a final possession where it looked like Kevin Durant was fouled, but really Thursday wasn’t about his finish, it was about his start.
Want to know why the Thunder lost Game 2? It’s easy. Oklahoma City has to figure out a way to play better earlier, not later, and it has to start with Durant.
It’s been an issue, yet there hasn’t been an urgency to focus and talk about it because the Thunder have won. But here’s the deal: For the third time in the last three home games, the Thunder reveled in rock-n-roll, extended, elaborate introductions that would be considered lavish by boxing standards.
It’s done nothing to get them going when it counts.
Thursday, the Thunder shot 5 of 20 as a team in the first quarter.
“We just have to come out better,” coach Scott Brooks said. “We missed some shots. We had chances for offensive rebounds and we gave them too many easy shots.”
Yes, Durant has saved the day three times this playoff season with winning shots in the final seconds, but he was way late to the party in Game 2.
Durant made just one shot on three tries in 8:20 of action in the first quarter. Largely ineffective as the Thunder fell behind 18-2, he also had two fouls and a turnover in the quarter. He then went 2 of 6 in the second quarter for four points in 9:22 of action.
Durant had 10 points on perfect shooting in the third quarter and 16 more points in the fourth, the kind of thing worthy of getting palm branches waved in your general direction if you win, as was the case Tuesday when he had 17 fourth-quarter points in the Game 1 comeback victory.
But there was no smiling after Game 2, even after Durant scored 32 points. This time the Thunder lost because their go-to elixir of aggression, youth and want-to wasn’t enough to cover up their recurring virus.
Down double digits against the Spurs in Game 6. A 13-point hole in Game 1 against Miami, all forgotten because the Thunder rallied. Not Thursday, though. Miami got up big again – as many as 17 in the first quarter. The Heat led by 12 at the half and by as much as 13 with less than 10 minutes left.
“That was the game,” Durant said. “We can’t start off down 18-2. We got some good looks. We missed a few chippies, lay-ins. We’ve got to correct it. We’ve got to just stay positive, man. That’s the whole deal. We’ve got to come ready Game 3.”
Things go all different ways in a series, and in a series like this one where both of the first two games have been close, adjustments will be made by both teams. The Thunder have figured out how to play late, but the hard part has been what happens early.
“We play aggressive basketball and we didn’t do that to start the game,” Brooks said. “I won’t even look at the last minute. I’m going to focus on the first 6-8 minutes of the game.”
We all know the Thunder didn’t come out aggressively early. Brooks admitted it. Durant said the same. But instead of just saying it, they need to do something about it. Someone asked Brooks if he would consider shaking up the starting lineup. Now, that’s just silly, but it may take more than just a do-better talk from the coach to solve the situation.
The Thunder are dealing with a legitimate flat tire and they have to figure a way to do more than put patches on it. The best bet would be to get Durant going early and let the rest of the pieces fall into place.
“It’s tough, but I have got to stay aggressive,” Durant said. “I tried to keep my team in it. They believed in me and we had a chance. We had a chance, man. It’s tough to lose that one.”
The Thunder came back again, getting a chance to tie, but Durant’s seven-foot jumper missed, there was no foul called, and that was it.
After Game 1, the Thunder players, the Heat players, the coaches and even the guys pushing the brooms in the bowels of Chesapeake Energy Arena said the Thunder won because they just played harder in the second half. No holes in that story. Led by Durant, the Thunder dominated Tuesday night in the fourth quarter. But he was strangely absent for the middle two quarters, taking only four shots.
On Thursday, he was missing in the first half, off on 6 of 9 field-goal attempts.
“It was just me,” Durant said. “I’ve got to make shots for my team. I’ve got to stay positive. Keep working.”
Four quarters of Durant and the Thunder aren’t dodging questions about missed calls. More importantly, they aren’t talking about missed opportunities.