MIAMI — Each step of the playoffs, the Oklahoma City Thunder had meticulously set about poking holes in one of the iron-clad truths of playoff basketball: that experience matters.
The way they finished off the Mavericks and Lakers at the end of games, playing with poise when the last two NBA champions did not, it was easy to forget that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are all of 23.
The way they shrugged off losing the first two games to seemingly unstoppable San Antonio and opened the NBA Finals with a stirring comeback against Miami, it was hard to remember that Serge Ibaka and James Harden are only 22.
But then, with the direction of the Finals hanging in the balance and the klieg lights burning brightest, the Thunder did something Sunday they had not yet done in the playoffs.
They acted their age.
They missed free throws, they turned the ball over and missed shots when it mattered most, and they fouled frequently and foolishly. In the end, they could not maintain their poise or a 10-point third-quarter lead, falling 91-85 to Miami, providing the Heat a 2-1 series lead and the chance to win the title without returning to Oklahoma City.
“There’s no excuse for how we played down the stretch because I feel like we are battle-tested,” said Oklahoma City center Kendrick Perkins, who despite being just 27 is in his third Finals in five seasons.
When Thabo Sefolosha’s inbound pass went to the left and Westbrook cut right with 16 seconds left and Oklahoma City trailing by four, the ball instead went straight to Dwyane Wade, whose two free throws sealed the victory.
The miscommunication, coming after a timeout and at such a crucial juncture, was the final frustration of the night for Oklahoma City but it was hardly the only one.
The league’s best free-throw shooting team in the regular season made just 15 of 24 at the line. The Thunder turned the ball over five times in the last 6:46. And after seemingly seizing control late in the third quarter, they twice fouled Miami shooters on 3-pointers. First it was Ibaka, then it was 37-year-old Derek Fisher, who is playing in his eighth Finals, proving that bad-decision making was not exclusively the domain of the young.
“Sometimes when you’re trying too hard, things get a little out of whack,” Fisher said.
Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks, in just his third full season, acknowledged that there were butterflies for the Thunder as they took the court for the series opener. Even Perkins said he was nervous.
The admission was surprising in that the Thunder had not shown their nerve. Though they started poorly, they overcame an 18-point deficit to close out San Antonio, and rallied to win the opener and nearly take Game 2 after digging an 18-point hole.
But for such a young team to challenge for an NBA title is exceedingly rare. The last team with such youth to win a title was the Portland Trail Blazers, who won in 1977 with four starters — Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, Lionel Hollins and Bob Gross — no older than 24 at the start of the season, and only one player older than 27 when the season began.
Youth may also explain away another frustration for Oklahoma City — the foul calls that are not going Durant’s way. No foul was called on LeBron James when Durant missed a potential game-tying jumper in the waning seconds of Game 2 despite James’ locking arms with Durant.
And Sunday was the second consecutive game in which Durant was plagued by foul trouble, mainly as a result of guarding James. It was Durant’s fourth foul, when Wade’s pump fake got him up in the air, that changed the game — even though it appeared that Durant did not make contact with Wade when he came down.
“We kind of got the momentum from there,” James said.
Durant went to the bench with Oklahoma City staked to a 60-53 lead with 5:41 left in the third quarter. Westbrook joined him there after two out-of-control possessions, a move that looked savvy when Fisher’s four-point play pushed Oklahoma City’s lead to 64-54. But with their two best players on the bench, and Harden struggling once again, the Thunder did not score a basket the rest of the quarter.
“It was frustrating,” said Durant, who played poorly in the fourth quarter for the first time in the series, scoring just four of his 25 points. “It’s a tough break for us, man. You know I hate sitting on the bench, especially with fouls. I’ve just got to do a better job next game of staying out of foul trouble.”
Perkins heartily agreed.
“He’s got to be more smart,” Perkins said of Durant. “Some of them were fouls. Maybe the charge (Durant’s fifth foul) was kind of questionable but at the end of the day they’re fouls and he’s got to be smart. We need him on the court at all times so sometimes he may have to give up a layup.”
Just as after Game 2, Durant and Brooks did not criticize the officiating, though Brooks picked up a technical foul in the second quarter.
“I try not to concern myself with the officiating,” Durant said. “There’s going to be some calls they miss. They’re human. There’s going to be some calls that they get right. You’ve just got to play through it.”
The Thunder did in creeping within 86-85 when Westbrook hit a jumper with 1:30 left. But Miami called timeout, and Chris Bosh was fouled diving to the basket after taking a pick-and-roll pass from James and Durant missed a jumper at the other end. Oklahoma City got the ball back again, and Westbrook missed a wide-open 3-pointer that would have tied the score with 29.9 seconds left.
Harden then fouled James with 16.2 seconds left, though it could easily have been called an offensive foul. James made one free throw to put the Heat up 89-85, a prelude to the mix-up between Sefolosha and Westbrook that cemented the outcome.
These were the sort of miscues that Miami might have made in the Finals a year ago, when James shrunk and the Mavericks shredded the Miami defense in crunch time.
“Everybody really felt what it felt like to not feel as confident at certain moments,” Wade said. “Dallas was an unbelievable offensive team and they picked us apart and we weren’t able to regroup. This is a great offensive team and when we feel like they’re picking us apart, our conversation is different. We understand a little different.”
So, too, do some in the Oklahoma City locker room. Perkins sensed how motivated Miami is after last season and he urged his teammates not to take this opportunity for granted. Two years ago, he was one game away from a title with Boston when he tore a knee ligament and watched the Celtics lose Game 7 from the bench.
“We’ve just got to trust each other,” Perkins said. “Tonight I thought we got back to ‘I’ basketball — individual, contested looks all night, shooting over two and three people. They’ll live with that shot. If we make them rotate, make the extra pass, it’s night and day. Hero ball is exactly what we’re playing.”
But for the Thunder there were no heroes, just a team that showed its age.