In Game 2 of the 2012 NBA Finals, the Miami Heat finally proved they can finish a game on the road. Now, the Oklahoma City Thunder need to prove they can start a game on the road, because in a series suddenly tied 1-1 heading to Miami, the Thunder did a pretty terrible job of starting both games at home.
Winning in the NBA is not usually predicated on how teams start games but how they finish. In Game 1, Kevin Durant and the Thunder were able to overcome a 13-point first-half deficit by systematically overpowering and outplaying LeBron James and the Heat. Oklahoma City outscored Miami 58-40 in the second half, shooting 57 percent from the floor in the fourth quarter as the Heat tried—and almost failed—to stay with the Thunder down the stretch.
In Game 2, though, it really was about how the Thunder started, missing open shots and opening up the lane for Miami to get easy buckets. The Heat sprinted out to an 18-2 lead that was extended to 25-8 less than 10 minutes into the game.
From the 2:19 mark of the first quarter until the final whistle, Oklahoma City outscored Miami 88-75 and still lost by four. Everyone is talking about how it finished, but the start of Game 2 is Scott Brooks' biggest concern, as he told reporters after the game:
It's tough to make up 17 points. I like the way we came back and fought and made it a one-possession game at the end, but when you get down 17, too many things have to happen well for you and perfect for you (to win).
I give our guys credit that we did fight and come back but we can't—we can't—afford to have, two games in a row, in the first six minutes we are down 10 or 12 points. We've got to come out better.
Despite the slow start, the Thunder did have chances to steal back Game 2 just like they did to open the series. Durant surely wishes he had another chance at the baseline post-up on LeBron with 10 seconds to go and a shot to tie the game.
"I was open and I missed the shot," said Durant. "I've got to make shots for my team."
Durant wanted a foul. Fans wanted a foul. Analysts after the game cried about the no-call on James, as replays showed he clearly put a forearm into Durant's midsection as the sniper rose to shoot.
By the letter of the law, James probably did foul Durant, but in that situation there is no chance any NBA referee would blow his whistle on that type of foul, on that specific player, even with Durant shooting the ball.
LeBron is simply not going to draw a whistle there. Durant knew it, and he surely hopes if the roles are reversed later in the series, he gets the same no-call.
The complaint, of course, is that two free throws would have tied an epic Game 2 with seconds to go, creating a last-second winner for Miami—imagine that drama—or an overtime session that every basketball fan in the world would have been excited to watch.
Alas, there was no call on James, Durant missed the shot and LeBron—who did not shrink away in the fourth quarter of a finals game on the road, as many expected—grabbed the loose ball and calmly sunk two free throws to ice the game for Miami.
In the aftermath, a downtrodden Durant maintained that the Thunder will bounce back.
"We've got to just stay positive," said Durant. "That's the whole deal."
They also need to stop putting themselves in those situations.
In Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, the Thunder were down 14 points at the end of the first quarter, trailing by as many as 18, before an epic comeback secured the win.
In Game 5 of that series, the Thunder started the game trailing 8-2 and fell into a seven-point hole before storming back to take the lead. (Note: It was actually the Thunder who pulled out to a 14-point second-quarter lead before squandering it in the third quarter.)
In Game 4, there was another early eight-point deficit before rallying back into the game.
There have been solid starts for OKC, too. In Game 3 of the WCF—a must-win for the Thunder—they bolted out to an 8-0 lead, setting the tone for what ended as an absolute blowout, changing the course of the series and helping them get to the NBA Finals.
Clearly, the Thunder are capable of quick starts—they just need to hit their shots. Oklahoma City was just 5-of-25 from the field in the first quarter of Game 2 against Miami, three of which came from James Harden. Russell Westbrook, who ended the game with 27 points on 10-of-26 shooting, started just 1-of-7 from the field with two personal fouls in the first quarter.
Westbrook was a different player in the second half, scoring 18 points to go with Durant's ridiculous 26 (on 9-of-13 shooting from the field), but unlike in Game 1 when the Thunder were able to come back and win, the effort from OKC's big stars was too little, too late.
Really, both teams have to enter Game 3 satisfied the series is tied given the way both games unfolded. The Heat and Thunder should both feel like they let one game slip away—one early and one late—which further serves to illustrate how closely matched these two teams are.
Whichever team wins each of the next five games—if fans are lucky enough to see a seven-game series—will certainly have to start and finish stronger than the other.