MIAMI — In the end, three plays by three players in the final 35 seconds cost the Oklahoma City Thunder a shot at victory in Game 3.
Each grew worse than the previous one, but all three permitted precious seconds to trickle off the game clock and provide the Miami Heat ample opportunities to seal a comeback 91-85 win on Sunday night inside American Airlines Arena.
“We gave ourselves a chance to win,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “That's what you want to do on the road. The game was basically anybody's ballgame that fourth quarter. … I really believe that a small play here or there really could have helped us.”
The three that sealed the Thunder's fate stood out like a black eye — which is exactly what they'll be should Oklahoma City fail to find a way to climb out of the 2-1 deficit it now faces.
Those plays characterized the Thunder's collapse in the final 16 1/2 minutes, a span that saw OKC blow a 10-point lead by scoring just 21 points on 7-for-25 shooting while turning it over six times.
The decisive string started with Russell Westbrook when the Thunder trailed 88-85 with 47 seconds remaining.
After LeBron James missed a 15-foot fadeaway, Westbrook corralled the rebound and raced the other way. He started on the right wing before using a Kendrick Perkins screen to squirt to the left side of the court. When the Heat cut off Westbrook's driving lane, he passed to Kevin Durant. But Durant immediately fired the ball back to Westbrook, who had floated to the left corner. Westbrook went up for a potential game-tying 3 but had to pass to Thabo Sefolosha while in the air after Mario Chalmers closed out with a textbook contest.
Sefolosha shoveled a pass right back to Westbrook on the left wing, and when Chalmers got shielded off by Sefolosha, it left Westbrook all alone for 3-point look.
Westbrook took one dribble in, aimed and fired.He hit back rim and had his shot bounce off with 31 seconds left. Heat forward Shane Battier rebounded the miss to close out the Thunder's first costly play.
“We were trying to attack quickly in transition,” Brooks said. “If we had something, try to score quickly and it was a scramble play. It was a broken play. He had a wide-open 3. Russell made some big shots for us all year. I had no problem with that shot.”
What will haunt the Thunder in its film meeting Monday is how Westbrook missed a wide-open Perkins on the roll following his ball screen. Ordinarily, Perkins isn't the guy you want to pass to seeking points, especially not in the final minute. But on this night, Perkins was phenomenal, scoring 10 points with 12 rebounds and even going 4-for-6 from the foul line, a place where all his more reliable teammates struggled.
The sequence summed up quite adequately how the Thunder uncharacteristically panicked in crunch time, with controlled offensive flow being replaced by chaos.
James Harden then followed Westbrook's oversight with an even bigger one.
After the Heat got the ball to James to bring the ball up the court, Harden pressed up on James with unnecessary aggression. Westbrook, stationed five feet from Harden, barked to his backcourt mate to relax, to avoid fouling. There was a six-second differential between the shot clock and game clock. Fundamental defense and a stop would have given the Thunder the ball with another chance to tie.
But Harden, however questionable as it was, fouled James.
James missed the first but made the second, bumping Miami's lead to 89-85.
That's when the most costly trip of the night occurred.
This time, it was Thabo Sefolosha.
Following a timeout, the Thunder inbounded the ball 16.2 seconds left. But after the Heat denied an entry pass to Durant, Sefolosha tried to inbound the ball to Westbrook. The two had a misunderstanding. Sefolosha tried to deliver a bounce pass to where Westbrook stood following his screen for Durant. But Westbrook darted toward Sefolosha as he made the pass.
The ball went right to Dwyane Wade.“The side out-of-bounds play,” Brooks said, “just turned it over.”
Three plays. Three players. Thirty-five seconds.
There went Game 3.