NBA Finals Game 4 preview: Here are your 6 keys to the game
BY MARK POTASH Twitter: @MarkPotash June 19, 2012 1:54PM
Updated: June 19, 2012 4:07PM
MIAMI — LeBron James is on the spot heading into Game 4 of the NBA Finals tonight at American Airlines Arena. When isn’t he? Every moment is a ‘‘moment of truth’’ for LeBron. Must be tough.
But he’s not alone. The NBA’s 2-3-2 format for its championship series, the most awkward in professional sports, puts everybody on the spot in every game, rarely more than in Game 4.
If the Oklahoma City Thunder falls behind 3-1 in the series tonight, it faces a daunting battle against history, even with two games at home. No team has recovered from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals.
But the Heat has little margin-for-error, too. If it loses tonight, at 2-2 it gives up whatever precious momentum it had and has to win Game 5 at home on Thursday to avoid having to win two road games to win the title. There’s never any comfort with this format.
Tonight’s game looms as a turning point of a series with no definition. With home-court advantage and a 2-1 series lead, James and the Heat can take control with a command performance against a team showing all the signs of being a first-time Finals player. On the other hand, the favored and overall more-talented Thunder has crept closer and closer each game to the rhythm and pace that got it here. The question is whether Durant, Russell Westbrook & Co. will find it before it’s too late.
With so much at stake, the heat is on everybody. Here’s a look at five participants who should be feeling it the most:
1. LeBron James, Heat guard/forward/center
Through three games, James is having a Finals befitting a three-time MVP. His numbers so far — 30.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists — exceed Michael Jordan’s worst Finals performance (27.3, 5.3, 4.2 in 1996), which is a start. Now he has to take the next step and stay as aggressive and play as well as he has to finish the job.
2. Russell Westbrook, Thunder guard
The ultra-talented Westbrook’s most notable flaw has become an issue in the Finals: he has an on-off switch but needs a dimmer. The Thunder can live with his hot-and-cold stretches, but at some point he has to realize he’s in the NBA Finals and not Rucker Park. This is where Phil Jackson or Pat Riley make a difference.
3. Scott Brooks, Thunder coach
If he continues to keep this team on automatic pilot, it is likely doomed. Sure, the Thunder is here because it does what it does and never backs down from its aggressive nature. But every championship team needs a fine touch. Last year, the Mavericks beat the Heat because Rick Carlisle tweaked his lineup and rotation in Game 4. The Thunder is going to have a hard time winning this series without adjustments that keep Durant out of foul trouble and fine-tune Westbrook’s all-out approach.
4. Kevin Durant, Thunder forward
He’s having the series everybody expected — 31 points on 57 percent shooting — with one problem that is making a difference: foul trouble. He either needs to back off the LeBron challenge or find a way to defend James without getting in foul trouble or allowing James to score at will. That might be the ultimate challenge in this series, but Durant has shown the ability to learn: Against San Antonio in the Western Conference finals Durant had 12 personal fouls in the first three games, but only three in the next three games.
5. Shane Battier, Heat forward
If the Heat is going to continue to get so little out of Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller, Battier is likely going to have to maintain his red-hot niche-role performance, which includes off-the-charts offensive efficiency — he scored 43 points in this series on 19 shots, hitting 11-of-15 three-pointers. Battier is good enough and smart enough to make a contribution in every game. But it’s asking a lot to keep up his current offensive pace.
6. Erik Spoelstra, Heat coach
He should have everybody rooting for him — how many former video coordinators who never played in the NBA have won NBA titles? But Spoelstra actually is in the most unenviable position of all — even if the Heat wins it all, he’ll still be the guy who babysat the Big Three to a title. Spoelstra’s curious rotation tweaks might be inexperience or simply the difficulty any coach would have finding the right pieces to go with Big Three. But regardless of the talent he has, in a series this close he will make a difference, one way or another.