"We just gotta make sure we know that we are in the Finals, and value the ball, possession by possession," Perkins said Sunday night after Miami beat his team 91-85 to take a 2-1 lead in the series.
The Thunder could have won Game 3. Perkins knows it. Oklahoma City led Miami by 10 points with 16 minutes left, but from there:
• The Thunder fouled three-point shooters on consecutive possessions. Has that ever happened in the history of basketball? Nobody should ever foul a three-point shooter. How does it happen on two straight trips down the court? What the Thunder did is like getting drunk and accidentally trying to make out with your cousin. Twice.
• Durant, who has been so good in fourth quarters, was awful. He missed four of six shots, committed two turnovers and missed both of his free throws. He also picked up his fifth foul when he tried to get between LeBron James and the basket -- something men have been trying for years, without success. Blame the refs if you want, but Perkins, Thunder coach Scott Brooks and guard James Harden all said bluntly that Durant has to be smarter about when he fouls.
• Russell Westbrook watched from the bench for a few minutes because Brooks had pulled him. Brooks said he did it "to kind of calm him down," and maybe Westbrook needed that. But what is this, anger management class? I keep waiting for Brooks to tell Westbrook to turn his chair around and "think about why I'm disappointed in you."
This is not a new story for Oklahoma City -- Brooks benched Westbrook for a much longer stretch during a crucial game in last year's playoffs -- but it is new for the Finals: a coach benching his star point guard, who happens to be his second-best player, because of youthful exuberance.
• The Thunder committed five fourth-quarter turnovers, and as Perkins said, "It wasn't forced turnovers. It was careless turnovers on our part."
Hey, if you love basketball, you have to appreciate what the Thunder have done the last few years. Durant and Westbrook are usually a joy to watch. But road victories are precious in the NBA Finals. When you have a chance at one, you have to seize it. The Thunder just drilled for oil, hit it, and drank it. Oops.
Miami has figured out how to play the Thunder. It won't work in every game, because Oklahoma City is so good. But Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said before the game that it would be won "at the line of scrimmage," and Miami made sure to pound the paint, attack defensively and keep the Thunder from sprinting to 100 points.
And still, Oklahoma City had a beautiful chance. The four Heat starters who are not named LeBron shot a combined 14-for-44, for 46 points. Dwyane Wade committed four turnovers in the fourth quarter alone, including another awful one as he took the ball upcourt in the final minutes. (A little heads-up, Dwyane: That Thabo Sefolosha fellow might look charming, but he is trying to pick your pocket.)
James has been the best player in this series, which should surprise nobody. He is the best player in the league right now, and he did a terrific job guarding Durant in the final quarter -- which he could do because he avoided foul trouble. But Wade and Chris Bosh struggled Sunday, and the Heat still won. That is a bad sign for the Thunder, because in Game 4 or 5 -- maybe both -- Wade and Bosh will hit their shots.
Miami did two things really well Sunday. The Heat hit free throws -- 31-of-35 for the game, while Oklahoma City made just 15-of-24. And the Heat successfully kept Oklahoma City out of transition -- the Thunder had only 12 fast-break points -- and challenged the Thunder in the halfcourt. It worked.
"We got back to 'I' basketball -- individual, contested looks all night, shooting over two and three people," Perkins said. "They'll live with that shot. But when we make them rotate, when we make the extra pass, it's night and day."
Perkins used the phrase "value the ball" over and over. He knows what his young teammates can't fully grasp right now: That ball can be taken away from you at any moment. When he played for the Celtics in the 2010 Finals, Perkins tore up his knee in Game 6 and had to miss Game 7. If he had played, maybe the Celtics would have won. He'll never know. But he will always wonder.
NBA success is not just about talent. Imagine a team with Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Sefolosha and Jeff Green. Pretty impressive, right? Well, those guys played together in 2008-09. They won 23 games, because they didn't understand how to win in the NBA yet.
The Thunder figured out how to win in the regular season, and then in the playoffs. But there has been a pattern in these Finals. In Game 1, the Thunder fell behind early and Brooks said he thought the moment got to his team a bit. In Game 2, the Thunder fell behind 18-2 at the start. And in the second half of their first road game of the Finals, the Thunder buckled.
Durant and Westbrook will learn. They are too talented and care too much. But will they figure it out in time to win this series? In the end, the most telling comment about the Thunder did not come from the Thunder stars -- it could not have come from the Thunder stars. It came from Bosh, who said, "Really, every day we remind ourselves. We think of that pain that we experienced last year." The Thunder haven't felt that kind of pain yet. And that may be the difference in this series.