Taking the Miami Heat's home crowd out of the game has never seemed particularly difficult. One decent scoring run by the opponent in the second half often is all it takes for apathy to set in for the slick-haired, well-tailored patrons — and that's not even counting Pat Riley.
The Oklahoma City Thunder created just that mood Sunday in the third quarter of Game 3 of the NBA Finals. Spurred on by the energy of Thabo Sefolosha and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder opened up a 10-point lead and had their eyes on stealing a crucial road game in a series knotted at one game each. A few in the crowd tried to muster a "De-fense!" chant several times, but for the most part the cheer sounded hollow, as though someone pumped extra noise through the public address system to compensate for the shortage of actual, human passion in the arena.
With LeBron James as the catalyst, the Heat answered their fans' indifference with four minutes of near-flawless basketball. The game remained close until the finish, when the Heat walked out with a 91-85 win, but the Thunder's opportunity had been lost in that debilitating third quarter finish.
The Thunder had come to bury James. Instead, they presented another reason to praise him.
Beginning with James' floater with 4:18 left in the third to cut the deficit to eight points, Miami put together a grueling run that saw them finish the quarter ahead by two points. They forced James Harden to miss all three shots he took in the quarter, with the Thunder's star sixth man finishing the game 2-for-10 from the field. They capitalized on two boneheaded fouls by Serge Ibaka and Derek Fisher, granting Shane Battier and James Jones six free throws, and rode a rejuvenated Dwyane Wade's aggressive play back within a single point with 1:30 left in the frame. Then James came in to complete the comeback with a 3-pointer to give the Heat the lead, which they would maintain for all except 21 seconds in the fourth quarter.
Three games into the Finals, the Thunder have a serious defensive dilemma on their hands. They cannot defend James and Wade without some type of help by Ibaka or Kendrick Perkins, yet they cannot defend Miami in a spread floor with Ibaka and Perkins on the court. The conundrum has caused confusion for Ibaka and Perkins, normally capable help defenders, who are rotating late or fouling due to poor positioning. They are uncertain whether to step in against James on a dribble drive or stay home on Battier, for instance, and often they do neither. Although Miami only hit four 3-pointers in Game 3 and Battier was held to a series-low nine points, the Thunder's mistakes in fouling Battier and Jones in that pivotal stretch in the third quarter came as a result of their continued inability to challenge Miami's long-distance shooters without fouling.
Slow starts have plagued the Thunder, but a double-digit lead well into the third quarter was enough to convince much of the American Airlines Arena crowd that Sunday's game was essentially in the books. After splitting the first two games, the Thunder need at least one win in Miami to assure the series returns to Oklahoma City, but this opportunity represented more than that. A victory for the Thunder in Game 3 would have signaled that Game 2 was the aberration, a fluke stemming from one blown call in crunch time.
Moments after the final buzzer sounded on Sunday, though, the conversation surrounding James on the airwaves already was changing. The focus, for once, was on his 29 points and 14 rebounds, and the countless ways his unstoppable forays to the hoop placed the Thunder in all sorts of defensive predicaments. Not only do James and the Heat now believe they can win the championship — which, in all honesty, they had to doubt somewhat after they lost Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals to the Celtics two weeks ago — but the rest of the world is starting to believe it, too.
Doubt is widely assumed to be the most effective weapon against James, an otherwise impervious player. The Thunder had a chance to plant that seed in James' mind again with one commanding close to the third quarter on Sunday. Instead, they may have instilled in James a greater confidence than he ever had before.