Russell Westbrook couldn't seem to make a shot and the fighting Shane Battiers couldn't seem to miss.
The Thunder deficit kept climbing, even without LeBron James and Dwyane Wade getting hot, and Game 1 of the NBA Finals appeared in jeopardy.
But there's something we ought to have learned by now about this team. It plays with style and with joy. But the Thunder also plays with a fierceness.
These guys are gritty.
Down 13 points in the second quarter, the Thunder kept clawing and eventually won going away, 105-94 over the Heat to put Oklahoma City three wins away from an NBA championship.
“About halfway through the fourth quarter, we were thinking we were putting ourselves in a position to win, and then they just went away,” said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. “That's what they do. That's what they do. They keep on coming. They're relentless.”
That's almost exactly the same description Spoelstra used for Westbrook, who kept missing shots in the first half but never lost his zeal.
Westbrook is a fanatical player, and when he finally found the basket, he produced quite a game: 27 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds.
Westbrook made just three of 10 first-half shots but made seven of 14 in the second half. He didn't make an outside shot until 7:15 left in the game, when a 17-footer finally rolled in.
But Westbrook, just like his team, keeps playing.
“The thing about Westbrook, he'll just keep on coming,” Spoelstra said. “So it doesn't matter — time, score of the game, or what just happened in the play before. He's going to continue to be relentless, and we have to match that relentlessness.”
With five minutes left and the Heat still within striking distance, 89-83, Miami gave Westbrook the ultimate respect. It shifted LeBron James over to him.
Good idea. But with Wade on Kevin Durant, Westbrook passed to KD for a 20-footer that made it 91-83.
“I just know I can do a lot of other things other than score the ball for this team,” said Westbrook. “At the start of the third quarter, that's when we started playing our game, started being aggressive, rebounding the ball, just playing Thunder basketball.”
Durant had a monster game (36 points, 17 in the fourth quarter), and three of his down-the-stretch baskets came off Westbrook passes.
This is the kind of point guard play everyone has been clamoring for Westbrook to produce, even though he often has. It wasn't all Westbrook's fault that Durant had only 10 shots through three quarters. Scotty Brooks said Durant needed to work harder for his shots, especially since LeBron didn't guard Durant full time, as expected.
If Durant isn't shooting and Westbrook isn't making, the Thunder is an easy out.
“We kind of was nervous, I guess,” Durant said. “That's something, it can't happen next game or the rest of the series.”
But nervousness, the Thunder overcomes. Just like in Game 6 against the Spurs, when OKC wiped out a 15-point halftime deficit, the Thunder gets rolling.
“We showed a lot of toughness in that second half,” Brooks said. “Really battling and fighting for every possession.”
Credit Westbrook. A point guard who commits just two turnovers while dishing 11 assists in 42 minutes against the Heat's array of demon defenders is a heck of a ballplayer. Throw in a 27-point night, and Westbrook's Finals debut was quite memorable.
So was the Thunder's.
“We just wanted to continue to keep playing,” Durant said. “It's a long game, and every time our coach was just saying play harder, play harder. And that's what we did.”
The Heat showed its hand — letting LeBron play rover much of the game to jump over on Durant or Westbrook on a whim — and now the Thunder can counter, with the blessing of a one-game lead.
And the knowledge that as fun and exciting and thrilling as it plays, it also plays with grit.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. 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.