One win and the Thunder are going to be feeling pretty good about themselves. Kind of hard to process, considering what’s gone on the last three games as the Thunder have gone from favorite to feeble.
That’s why they have to look at tonight’s game in Miami as a unique situation, mutually exclusive from the other four games already played. Sure, this one has more consequence to it — lose and you’re out — but it also has all the upside.
Win and you’re in.
So, just for a second, wrap your mind around the fact Game 5 stands alone. Win and everything changes. No team has ever rallied from a 3-1 Finals deficit. Yeah, OK. But that’s misleading. After all, seven times teams have come back from 3-1, just not in the Finals. In addition, a Game 5 victory assures a championship trophy will be given out in Oklahoma City, a place where the Thunder have lost just once in 10 games this postseason.
Win tonight and you can really talk pressure.
Because it’s off at this point, at least as far as from the Oklahoma City side. Once considered the Finals favorite after knocking off San Antonio and then winning Game 1 against Miami, the Thunder are now just considered a Finals newbie. Too young. Too inexperienced. A team whose time will come. Just not this year. Not yet.
Listen, no one’s confusing a 3-1 hole as a good spot. Certainly it would be better to be up than down, but winning three in a row isn’t out of the question. The Thunder have already done it once this playoff season, but that’s for later.
Because Game 5 has much larger implications.
A win tonight, where the pressure is on the Heat to close, not the Thunder to survive, means a microscope on LeBron James. It means a trip back west to Oklahoma City and it means at least one more game in front of the home fans.
Look what it’s taken to get to this spot:
Miami’s Shane Battier playing his best offensive basketball since he wore Duke blue.
Super-criticized Mario Chalmers having the game of his life in Game 4, scoring 25 points when he had a total of five in the two previous games.
A no-show from super-sub James Harden the past two games and Kevin Durant not exactly living up to superstar status.
One of those things changes in Game 5 and it’s back to Oklahoma City Sunday.
This Thunder team hasn’t exactly been doing things the easy way. First defending champion Dallas, then the Lakers and then a San Antonio team in the Western Finals.
No solace in a 3-1 deficit, but there has to be some reassurance that the Thunder can say they let not one, but two games get away in South Beach. Game 3, the Heat shot 38 percent and won, but the Thunder were undone by a no-show from Harden and the rest of the Thunder bench. Game 4 was another 2-for-10 shooting performance from Harden and also the absenteeism of Durant, who didn’t have a rebound until the fourth quarter and didn’t seem involved while Russell Westbrook carried the day.
That’s why there’s no pressure on the Thunder. They have yet to really hit Miami with their best shot.
Remember when the Spurs were the team to beat? Winners of 20 in a row, San Antonio was not only the best in the league, it was ahead 2-0 on the Thunder. Signs don’t exactly point to the Thunder playing without pressure at that point, but they do suggest this young team isn’t one to fall apart.
Now it’s been three losses in a row to Miami, but unlike the series against the Spurs where the Thunder clearly needed to make adjustments to figure out Tony Parker and Co., Game 5 doesn’t have any of those concerns.
Tonight will be about whether the Thunder can figure themselves out, starting with Durant. No one has been more able to digest pressure than Durant who has already made three game-winning shots this postseason. Figure he takes Game 5 upon himself to not just limit James and the Heat, but to show he can carry a team.
Harden doesn’t need to play better. He needs to play like himself, the kind of talent who won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award.
Something will change if James lifts the championship trophy tonight in Miami. Sentiment toward him will shift. Finally a winner.
And that may work in the Thunder’s favor. The urgency is on the Heat to start celebrating tonight, not the Thunder to keep playing.
Win Game 5 and not so suddenly things will change.