MIAMI -- If the Thunder are right, and if they're able to make good on their promise to break through in Game 4 Tuesday night, then this NBA Finals will be on its way to fulfilling its promise. It can become one of the most entertaining showdowns in recent memory, but that won't happen unless Oklahoma City responds to the elevated play of the Heat and LeBron James.
In short, Kevin Durant must find a way to attack in Game 4 without incurring the foul trouble that limited him in the Thunder's losses in Games 2 and 3. He must do what Danny Granger and Paul Pierce were unable to do in the previous two rounds: challenge James at both ends while staying on the floor.
"I always want to be a guy that does it on both ends, a two-way player, and that's what you have to do on both ends is play hard as you can," Durant said. "LeBron is a tough guy to guard. Everybody knows it. But I'm going to play my hardest and try and play smarter. Hopefully I'll put myself in that position again, and I'll do a better job."
Durant was benched for the final 5:41 of the third quarter in Game 3 following his fourth foul. Point guard Russell Westbrook soon joined him, and together they watched as their backups surrendered a 15-3 run to give Miami a two-point lead heading into the fourth. There has been widespread criticism of coach Scott Brooks' substitutions, and part of the Heat's comeback can be traced to Oklahoma City's fouling of three-point shooters that gave Miami six free throws during its surge. But none of those issues is as important as Durant's fouling. As leader of the Thunder, he must stay on the floor to carry their championship hopes.
Oklahoma City won't be able to overcome Miami unless Durant has his way. Durant is averaging 31 points while shooting 57.4 percent from the field, yet those spectacular statistics haven't been quite good enough. His foul troubles have neutralized him in key stretches, and Miami's shifting defenses have kept the ball out of his hands. OKC isn't going to win this series so long as Westbrook is attempting more shots than Durant, and so far in the Finals, that's been the case. Westbrook has been unfairly blamed for hogging the ball. In reality, he has taken it upon himself to play aggressively to compensate for the lack of better options.
The fundamental problem for the Thunder is their failure to overcome and punish Miami's nearly singular defensive focus on Durant. For three games, he has seemed on the verge of seizing command, and now there is no time left to waste. Durant's teammates must find a way to increase his touches and enable him to attack James, because the series is currently being played on LeBron's terms. It is LeBron's play around the basket that has ushered the Heat to a 2-1 series lead.
"Obviously we looked at all five of his fouls 1,000 times in the last 12 hours or so," Brooks said of Durant's foul trouble in Game 3. "He's only been in this position, I think, two other times in the regular season. ... We might have to change a few things up, but he's an aggressive player at both ends of the floor. He has to put himself in a position to get fouled, also. He has to be able to get to that free throw line just as much as he's giving them free throw opportunities."
Durant is correct to insist that the Finals are more than a showdown between the two best players in the game. But much of the responsibility naturally falls to them. Durant must raise his game in order to supply his team with the same kind of inspirational leadership that James is providing Miami. For OKC to triumph, Durant must win his matchup, or at the very least, offset James' unmistakable impact.
Let's be clear: It's not as if Durant is playing poorly. All things considered, he is making a much greater impact for his team than James did for the Heat during their Finals loss in 2011. But all of the secondary questions besieging the Thunder -- including whether Serge Ibaka should play for Kendrick Perkins in the fourth quarter -- should be resolved if they're able to play through Durant for an entire game. If he is able to build on his efficiency through the first three games while increasing his production and staying on the floor, then Durant should be in position to even the series before Game 5.
"I'm going to shoot until my arm falls off in the fourth," Durant promised. "That's what I do. I don't care if I miss it or if I make it. I believe in myself. I really don't care what people say on the outside or how many points I post in the fourth or what big players have done in the past. All I do is worry about myself. I'm going to keep doing what I do. I've got 100 percent confidence in myself that I can do it, and when the fourth quarter comes around next time, I'm going to be as aggressive as I can."
That's what his Thunder teammates need to hear. If Durant is able to stay on the floor and play with that unshakable self-confidence, then the pressure will shift unto James to offer a response. At which point, this may become a Finals to remember, after all.