NBA FINALS: Chronic slow start finally catches up with Thunder
By Homer D. Sayson
16 Jun 2012
ONE of the endearing qualities of the Oklahoma City Thunder is their penchant for comebacks.
But much to the chagrin of their coaching staff and fans, the affable Thunder start games with a puzzling lack of urgency. They stumble off the gates, fall behind deep and early, only to save the day with their thunderous rallies.
In every round of these playoffs, the Thunder have made a habbit of engineering head-shaking, return-from-the grave comebacks. They seem like gluttons for punishment, who need the opposition to pummel them before they pummel them back twice as hard.
Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals was Exhibit A. OKC watched helplessly as San Antonio beat them like a drum and built an 18-point lead. But the Thunder wiped out both the deficit and the Spurs to advance to the NBA Finals.
Exhibit B is Game 1 of the NBA Finals Tuesday night. Playing with polite disinterest early on, OKC lagged behind by 13, unfazed that a world championship was on the line. But, alas, the Thunder rediscovered their spark and merrily went on to destroy the Miami Heat quite impressively, 105-94.
Whether its against the Dallas Mavericks, the L.A. Lakers or the Spurs, the Thunder have been punched hard and knocked down repeatedly this postseason. Yet each time they bite the dust, they rise up swinging. The Thunder don't seem to like starting a fight, but they sure know how to finish it.
The capacity to weather the toughest storms speak volumes on the strength and moxie of the mighty Thunder. The reality, though, is that when a team plays with fire as frequently as these Thunder have, disaster strikes once in a while. Only James Bond escapes peril all the time.
AND that's exactly what happened in Game 2 of the NBA Finals Thursday night. The Thunder lost 100-96 after playing catch-up for 48 minutes and taking too many hits against a quality opponent headlined by the Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
The noise and energy flowing freely from their home crowd at the Chesapeake Enegry Arena did little to coax the Thunder from delivering another lethragic, fightless start. They missed 11 of their first 12 shots, played poorly on defense, and mishandled the Spalding like a bevy of jittery rookies.
Miami, desperate and sinking fast, gladly pounced on the sloppy, sleeping Thunder. With Shane Battier going nuts above the arc, the Heat raced to an 18-2 lead and stretched it slightly to 25-8 at the 2:39 mark of the first quarter.
This time, the Thunder would not recover. No epic comebacks. No resurrections.
OKC stayed down throughout Game 2, and when superstar Kevin Durant missed what could have been a game-tying 7-foot jumper in the final 9 seconds of play, the Thunder were out.
As close as this slugfest turned out in the endgame, the Thunder didn't lose it down the stretch. They lost Game 2 almost as soon as it began. The Thunder's anemic start energized Miami and allowed the Heat to play the game on a much slower, more suitable pace.
"Oh man. That was the game," Durant sighed of the Thunder's plodding first quarter play.
Still, the Thunder kept charging back, and with the clock melting down to 37 seconds, Durant swished a 3 to put OKC dangerously close, 98-96.
But the uprising ran out of time and luck, paving the way for the Heat to complete their theft of the precious NBA Finals homecourt advantage.
MIAMI completed the heist by shooting 47.4 percent from the field (36-of-76), 42.9 percent from 3-point range (6-of-14) and 88 percent from the free throw line (22-of-25). The Heat also controlled the boards, 40-36, and after being ran over by 24 fastbreak points in Game 1, they held OKC to just 11 fastbreak points in Game 2.
Wade shook off his Game 1 funk and bounced back with 24 points while Bosh celebrated his return to the starting lineup with a cheerful 16 points and 15 rebounds. And defensive specialist Shane Battier was huge, firing 17 points with five 3s.
"We played too well in the first 36 minutes to try to let this one slip away from us," said LeBron, who came shining through with a scintillating 32 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists. The reigning MVP sank 10 of 22 field goals and 12-of-12 from the free throw stripe.
Finally, it seems, LeBron is at ease in The NBA Finals. After last year's epic fail, where he shrunk and vanished in the Finals' fourth quarters against the gutsy Mavericks, The King is embracing the big moments now, unafraid to make the big plays and unfearful of failure.
With the Thunder inching to within a whiff of Miami, 94-91 with 1:25 to go, James went to work. Without trepidation, he attacked the hoop and hurled a difficult fallaway jumper that kissed gently off the glass --- Miami 96, OKC 91.
Panned for his alleged reluctance to defend Durant, James guarded the Thunder ace in OKC's final possession. He came up with a stop, rebounded the miss, got fouled, and then nailed two free throws that guaranteed Miami's triumph with seven seconds to go.
How's that for clucth, eh?
DURANT had 32 points on 10-of-22 shooting, but his rhythm and aggressiveness were stifled by five fouls. His sidekick, Russell Westbrook, finished with 27 points but the high-flying point guard was just 10 of 26 from the field, cranking too many shots instead of orchestrating a Thunder offense that stalled with only 14 team assists.
Besides their issues with shot selection, the Thunder also struggled with their shot accuracy. OKC made only 34 of 79 field goals (43 percent), 9-of-26 threes (34.6 percent) and 19-of-26 free throws (73.1 percent).
So instead of heading to Miami with a comfortable 2-0 series lead, OKC is in a 1-1 dogfight. The Thunder need to steal at least one of the next three games at the American Airlines Arena to send the best-of-7 championship back to Oklahoma.
But even without homecourt advantage in a series sliced to five games, the Thunder still have enough wealth of talent to capture the Larry O'Brien trophy.
What they don't have is the luxury of a slow start without paying dearly for it. (Homer D. Sayson)
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