MIAMI — Bad decisions. Panic-induced play.
Who were those masked men? What happened to the Boys of Poise who belied their age? What happened to the ahead-of-its-time Thunder team that threatened to win an NBA championship long before its appointed time?
The Thunder lost to the Heat 91-85 Sunday night in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, not because the good guys couldn't throw a foul shot into Biscayne Bay, and not because LeBrawn James again played a he-man game, and not even because foul trouble again found Kevin Durant in what is becoming a recurring theme.
The Thunder lost because despite playing 40 minutes of solid basketball, it lost its mind through a stretch of the third quarter and its poise through a stretch of the fourth.
Guilty as charged, said the man at where the buck stops. “We've just got to own up to it and get better,” said Kevin Durant.
If these NBA Finals don't go the Thunder way, Game 3 will be long remembered. The Thunder could have won this game. Should have won this game, even, since it played the hot pants off Miami, notably two-thirds of the Heatles.
The Heat shot just 37.8 percent overall and made just five of 31 shots outside the paint. No way should you lose a game like that.
But the Thunder did. It suddenly looked like the team that history says can't win. Too young. Too inexperienced.
The Thunder had proven otherwise until Sunday night. Until a series of bad decisions after OKC took control in the third quarter:
* Durant biting on a Dwyane Wade pump fake with 5:41 left in the third quarter, resulting in Durant's fourth foul. You've got to stay down, Kevin. Got to. Non-negotiable. I know you're competitive, but you can't risk a foul that sends you to the bench for half the third quarter.
Without Durant, the Thunder's 60-53 lead withered away in less than five minutes.
“I'm just trying to play aggressive on both ends, and unfortunately I'm getting some fouls called on me,” Durant said. “But I've got to play through it.”
* Four straight bad plays centered around Russell Westbrook. A bad-pass turnover and a charging foul, sandwiched around wild or long shots after the offense stagnated. You can't do that, Russell, because it appears the constant criticism you endure is starting to reach your coach ...
* Scotty Brooks sat Westbrook with 5:01 left in the quarter, apparently to settle him down or teach him a lesson or offer Westbrook up as some kind of sacrifice to the gods.
Whichever, this was not the time.
Westbrook can be maddening, but a timeout and a stiff lecture or a pat on the back is the way to go. But Brooks dropped capital punishment on his own team by playing without both of its stars for the last five minutes of the third quarter.
Derek Fisher replaced Westbrook and produced a four-point play with 4:33 left, to give the Thunder a 64-54 lead. But the Heat outscored OKC 15-3 the rest of the quarter.
“Russell had a bad stretch of about three or four bad possessions,” Brooks reasoned. “I took him out to calm him down and put him right back in the game.”
Except Westbrook didn't go “right back in.” He sat out five minutes, and the Heat took control. The Thunder missed all eight of its shots in the final 4 1/2 minutes.
“Coach's decision,” Westbrook said. “Got to live with it.”
Or die with it. This isn't New Jersey in February. This is Miami in the NBA Finals. The Thunder can't play any significant stretch without either Westbrook or Durant.
“Frustrating,” Durant said. “I just hate sitting on the bench, especially with fouls.”
* With a nine-point lead, the Thunder committed dunderheaded fouls on consecutive possessions – Serge Ibaka fouled Shane Battier on a corner 3-point shot and Fisher fouled James Jones in the exact same spot. The Heat made all six foul shots, and the OKC lead melted to 65-62 in less than a minute.
But as bad as those decisions were, they weren't embarrassing. The Thunder in the fourth quarter melted down.
The Thunder has not always played wisely in its ascension from Baby Boomers to NBA contenders. But the Thunder rarely has panicked.
It panicked down the stretch Sunday night, and not just at the foul line, where the team of pinpoint foul shooting (an NBA-high 80.6 percent) made just 15 of 24.
After LeBron's two foul shots with 7:11 left wiped out OKC's last lead, the Thunder went six straight possessions without scoring.
The Thunder did not get good shots, and the final two possessions in the drought were humiliating. First, James Harden threw away the ball, afraid that LeBron was about to swipe a pass for Durant.
On the next possession, Westbrook threw a wild pass that Durant miraculously saved at midcourt, only to have Harden fumble away the ball on a drive.
It's to the Thunder's amazing resolve that it rallied and had a chance to tie on Westbrook's 3-point try in the final 30 seconds.
But maybe only an NBA title will wipe out the scene of the panic attack that engulfed the Thunder.
“We've got to do a better job,” Durant said. “It's not like they're forcing us to just turn the ball over.”
Nope, but the Heat did force the Thunder to look something totally different than what we're used to seeing. And that makes the rest of these NBA Finals awfully dicey for the boys who once were poised.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.