2012 NBA Finals: Miami Heat Beat Thunder At Their Own Game, Free-Throw Shooting
The game’s opening quarter followed an all-too familiar formula. The Heat jumped out to an early, 10-4 lead. Like each of the first two games, Miami led after the first period.
Thanks to a Russell Westbrook three-pointer, the Thunder were able to trim the Heat lead to a single point by halftime. The teams headed into their respective locker rooms with the home team leading, 47-46.
If the first two games of the series were any indication, the Thunder had the Heat exactly where they wanted them. In Games 1 and 2, the Thunder outscored the Heat by an average of 13 points in the second half.
True, those first two games were played in Oklahoma City, but even on the road it appeared as if the Thunder could feel comfortable going into the half down just one point. Only the Spurs and Bulls boasted better regular season road records than the Thunder. Also, less than two weeks earlier, the Thunder had shocked the Spurs on their home court.
Throughout the regular season, Miami posted an impressive home record of 28-5, tied with San Antonio for best in the league. Though the Heat came in to the game with an 8-2 home recorded these playoffs, Miami infamously lost to the Celtics in South Beach for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. The Heat also barely survived Game 2 of that series at home (despite Rajon Rondo’s 44 points, ten assists and eight rebounds, the Heat outlasted the Celtics in overtime).
However, things began to go south for the Thunder a little more than a minute earlier. With 5:41 remaining in the third quarter, Durant picked up his fourth foul and would be benched for the remainder of the period. With Durant sidelined with foul trouble, the Thunder were outscored 15-7.
That 5:41 stretch would be really costly for the Thunder. They only scored seven points over that stretch, but even worse, four of those points came from a Fisher four-point play; the other three points came from free throws. In other words, the Thunder made a grand total of ONE field goal in the final 5:41 of the third quarter.
While the Heat deserve a great deal of credit for attacking the basket and earning many of their trips to the line, the Thunder also gave them a few easy opportunities. In back-to-back possessions, the Thunder fouled three-point shooters Shane Battier and James Jones. Battier and James calmly sinked all six free throws. Before the free throws, OKC held an eight-point lead; after the free throws, Miami’s deficit was trimmed to just three points (65-62). In the third quarter alone, Miami made 13 of 14 free throws. Oklahoma City earned 11 trips to the line in the quarter but could only convert on six of them.
All season long the Thunder were known for their extraordinary free-throw shooting. For the past three seasons, Oklahoma City has ranked first or second in that critical area. Despite the team’s recent success at the charity stripe, missed free throws killed the Thunder’s chances in Game 3. The Thunder shot just 62.5 percent from the line. In contrast, the Heat easily outperformed their seasonal average by shooting 88.6 percent from the stripe. Not only did Miami shoot a far better percentage, but it also got to the line 11 more times than its opponent.
Free throws were definitely one of the biggest deciding factors of the game. Even Durant, who’s a career-88 percent free throw shooter, missed two consecutive free throws in the fourth quarter.
James Harden, the 2012 Sixth Man of the Year, struggled offensively for the second time in three games. Miami’s defense was swarming, especially in the second half, where it held the usually explosive Thunder to 39 points. Harden was limited to just 2-for-10 shooting in the game.
With five minutes remaining in the third quarter and Durant already sidelined with foul trouble, Thunder coach Scott Brooks elected to rest Westbrook for the rest of the quarter. It was a risky move, because Harden would be relied upon to fuel the Thunder attack with the team’s top two scorers sitting on the bench.
Harden would not live up to the task. During the final five minutes of the quarter, the bearded one contributed just two points on 0-3 shooting (all missed jump shots). Brooks clearly had confidence in the third-year pro from Arizona State and for good reason. Harden had a terrific season; he just wasn’t on his game tonight, and that’s putting it gently.
In the fourth quarter, James and Wade began to take over. The two superstars scored 13 of the Heat's final 15 points. Even as Miami extended its lead to 86-79 with 2:18 to go, Oklahoma City showcased its resilient spirit. The Thunder roared back with six points to cut the Miami lead to 86-85.
After Chris Bosh converted on two free throws, the teams traded scoreless possessions. Then, down 88-85, Westbrook missed a wide-open trey - a three-pointer that would have knotted the game at 88 points apiece. After three Heat free throws and a couple of Thunder turnovers, the game was officially in the books: 91-85, Heat.
With the win, the Heat retained the home-court advantage they gained Thursday night after stealing Game 2 in Oklahoma City. Games 4 and 5 will also be played in Miami. For the Thunder to have any chance of winning the series, they must win at least one of the next two games in Miami. If Miami wins both, the Heat will become the 2012 NBA champions.
If the Thunder split these next two games, the series will shift to Oklahoma City with the boys from South Beach leading three games to two. If against the odds, Oklahoma City wins the next two games on the road, it will have a chance to close out the series in Oklahoma City on June 24.