Thunder hope to seize the moment, take pivotal Game 3 in South Beach
MIAMI -- What if experience turns out to be overrated? What if the young Thunder fail to realize the trouble facing them in Game 3 of the NBA Finals Sunday night?
They've been outplayed in the opening halves of both games while yielding homecourt advantage to the Heat. Oklahoma City has never been under so much pressure as it tries to win at least one of the next three games here in order to return West for two potential games on its own floor. But Kevin Durant did not sound overwhelmed.
"We learn quickly," said Durant. "We've been doing that for the last four years, kind of been learning on the job. It's no different."
Could it really be so simple? Maybe all they need is to involve Durant offensively in the opening half. They've given up big leads in the early minutes of their last three games, despite winning two of them against the Spurs (to finish the Western finals) and the Heat in Game 1. "We just have to play harder to start the games," said Durant. "We're doing it a little too late. We watched the film, first 10 minutes of the game, we're kind of relaxed. It was tough to watch, go to the film and look at it and say, 'Wow, did I really just do that?' It falls back on me as a leader.
"So I have to start the games out with a lot of intensity, no matter if I'm making shots or missing shots, no matter if I make a bad defensive rotation. I've just got to start off with a lot of energy."
The Thunder must ignore Miami's advantages of experience and local support in order to win in a championship environment they haven't encountered until now. Durant seemed to think the booing will help his team focus on a faster start.
"The best thing about being on the road is you have to come together as a group even more," he said. "We do it a lot at home, but we have to come together even more because everybody in the stands is against you. It's fun kind of being like the villain on the road."
James hasn't appeared to enjoy being the villain over the last couple of years. He is hoping that a victory in this series will begin to change the negative reception he hears away from home. At the same time, he must observe the criticism Russell Westbrook has been absorbing and empathize while also being glad that he isn't the one under attack for once.
Westbrook had a poor opening half in Game 2 that contributed to Oklahoma City's instant 18-2 deficit, and he's shooting 40 percent while attempting eight more shots than Durant over the two games. It is not a winning formula, but Westbrook has been unapologetic.
"I'm not making no adjustments," said Westbrook, a 23-year-old point guard who is finishing his fourth NBA season. "Regardless of what anybody says about how I play, it doesn't matter. I'm going to play my game regardless of what happens.
"Definitely, there's always room for improvement, always room to get better. But the style of play that I play with, that's not changing."
That's promising news for the Thunder. The worst response by Westbrook would be to react passively or indecisively. It's because he attacks fearlessly that the Thunder have been able to reach the Finals so early in the development of their roster.
"It's not deserving at all," said Durant of Westbrook's criticism, "because without him we wouldn't be here at this point, and people don't recognize that. Everybody thinks he should be a traditional point guard like a (John) Stockton or a Mo Cheeks. There's a lot of people that cannot be like Russ, either. We need him to play the way he plays.
"Of course he's going to make mistakes, and we're all going to make mistakes. But the best thing about Russ is he comes to work every single day. That's what you guys don't see, is how hard he works and how much he wants it. That's what I love about him. He doesn't care what people say, he's going to play his game and we need him to play his game, and we'll go from there."
One thing Durant doesn't want to hear is the patronizing idea that he and the Thunder shouldn't expect to win this series, and that instead this should be the experience they endure on their way to winning in future years. "That's the one thing I hate is when people say that," said Durant. "Nothing is guaranteed. With the way this league is going, so many great teams, you never know. Injuries might play a factor the next few years or whatever. I really can't say that or be that arrogant to say we'll be here next year for sure or the next few years for sure. We've got to take advantage of this moment."