Despite Kevin Durant tip-toeing around the court with five fouls. Despite Russell Westbrook missing 16 of his 26 shots. Despite Kendrick Perkins playing about as effectively as a stone statue from Easter Island.
Despite all that, the Thunder had a golden opportunity to tie the game with nine seconds left.
And then, this happened:
Durant got the ball, made a quick turn toward the baseline and went up for a seven-footer...with LeBron James's forearm in his chest and a referee staring right at the play.
A missed call? On a crucial play late in the game? Absolutely.
But was that the reason the Thunder wound up tied at 1-1 rather than up 2-0 in the series?
True, every play is magnified when the game is close down the stretch, as this one proved to be. Had the ref made the call on LeBron, Durant would've wound up at the free-throw line, where he converted 86 percent of his shots during the regular season and has upped his efficiency to 87.1 percent in these playoffs.
Would those two have gone in? That's impossible to say, though the Durantula did miss two of his six free throws during the game, including one of two with 3:19 left in the game.
Even if Durant had knocked both of them down, the game still would've been tied with seven seconds left to play. Perhaps the Heat go back and score. Perhaps they don't, but the game goes to overtime, and the Heat pull out the "W" anyway. There's no guarantee that the Thunder would've won even if LeBron had been whistled for contact.
More importantly, as Kurt Helin of ProBasketballTalk noted, to pin the result of the game on one call in the last nine seconds is to ignore the importance of the 47 minutes and 51 seconds that preceded it:
Every time a late foul like this happens, I hear my old coach: "If you hadn't sucked in the second quarter it wouldn't have come to this."— Kurt Helin (@basketballtalk) June 14, 2012
As mentioned by so many (including Grantland's Brian Phillips) immediately after the game, the Thunder dug themselves an early hole that proved just a bit too deep to climb out of against a focused and determined Heat team:
It's no good complaining about an iffy late non-call when we started the game down 18-2. Let's get our own house in order.— Brian Phillips (@runofplay) June 14, 2012
And, frankly, there were at least a handful of plays in the fourth quarter on which Durant very well could've picked up his sixth foul and been rendered unavailable for that play to begin with, a point that ESPN's Brian Windhorst was quick to make:
Haven't seen replay of Durant shot. But there were 50/50 calls thru 4Q, Durant came close to 6th foul. Can't rely on a call to decide game.— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) June 14, 2012
Blame the refs all you want, but at the end of the day, the Thunder have nobody to blame but themselves for how this game turned out. They played tentatively against Miami's stifling defense for much of the game and got very little out of their supporting cast—16 points on 5-of-20 shooting between Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka, Derek Fisher and Nick Collison.
The solution for the Thunder? Don't leave it up to the refs next time. If they come to play, from the tipoff to the final buzzer, then they should be able to regain control of this series. They're younger, deeper and more talented overall than the three-man Heatles, who were aided by a few miracles of their own (i.e. Shane Battier's banked three-pointer).
But if the Thunder think they can stroll onto South Beach, saunter through the game and walk away with a win, then they'll be in for a rude awakening.
Missed call or not.
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