MIAMI, Fla. — It's come this far by coming back — from an 0-2 series hole in San Antonio, from double-digit deficits almost nightly throughout the playoffs.
But this is unchartered territory, the biggest tests yet for Oklahoma City's basketball team. What the Thunder now must overcome is doubt.
Not doubters. Scott Brooks and Co. know precisely what to do with doubters: Tune them out, stick with the plan and trust the results.
The results have been historic for the second-youngest team ever to reach the NBA Finals. And the list of fallacies they've exposed along the way — that Russell Westbrook isn't a point guard, that this was the Spurs', not the Thunder's, time — is as long as Kevin Durant's arms.
Another one bit the dust here Sunday night. Raise your hand if you still believe Kendrick Perkins (10 points, 12 rebounds in Game 3) has no place in this series. Perk was only the Thunder's most effective player with the ball in his hands. Granted, that says something about what else was going on, but still.
Perk was good in Game 3. He belongs, OK? So does the Thunder.
But can OKC win it all? Its 91-85 loss to the Heat Sunday night stirred some doubt, had to. And they wouldn't be human if the men in Thunder uniforms didn't at least wonder themselves.
“We put ourselves in position to win,” Durant said several times in the postgame, without a ton of conviction.
For the first time in this exhilarating four-year run from 23 wins to the NBA Finals, we saw signs that The Moment may actually be bigger than the Thunder. We saw it in its play, and in the players' eyes.
How can they not wonder after seeing veteran, championship players like Derek Fisher make rookie mistakes, plowing into James Jones beyond the 3-point arc, sending Miami to the line for six free throws in two possessions? When Serge Ibaka does it to Shane Battier you halfway understand. Ibaka gets off the bus trying to block everything and he's spent a week listening to everyone say what a bad matchup Battier is for him. And he's 22.
What happened to James Harden's old-man-at-the-Y game? What happened to his cool playmaking and wisdom even beyond his whiskers? That pass Harden threw into the Nicholson seats with the Thunder down four in the fourth? Who knows exactly what Harden was thinking, but it sure looked like he was going to make certain LeBron wouldn't steal it and dunk it.
At one point Sunday night I turned to Berry Tramel and said, “I've never seen anyone shooting 2-of-9 play this well.” Turnovers on two straight possessions in the fourth quarter made me reconsider.
Much is being made of the nine missed free throws, and for good reason. When a team hitting 82 percent in the playoffs misses 62 percent (5 of 8) during a critical stretch of the third quarter — when Durant misses two that would have put OKC ahead early in the fourth quarter — you wonder if The Moment has checked into this series and created its own mismatch.
I don't believe for a moment that Westbrook is bowed by the criticism. He cares little what you, I or anyone else thinks. But he sure looked unsure of himself on two big, big plays in the fourth quarter — the rushed 3-pointer that could have tied it with 29.9 seconds left and on the inbounds pass from Thabo Sefolosha, when Thabo expected one thing and Westbrook broke another.
With Westbrook, that's rare. That's uncertainty. That's doubt.
And for that, LeBron James and Dwayne Wade and Miami's defensive will and its relentlessness certainly deserve credit. Making championship plays when the other team believes a title is its destiny gets a little tough.
“That's NBA basketball,” Brooks said. “You've got to deal with it. You've got to move on from it. You've got to learn from it. You've got to get better from it.”