MIAMI — Russell Westbrook was having such a brilliant game. It was like he was waving one of those giant foam fingers at those who have criticized the way he plays, except it wasn’t the index finger that was sticking up.
He scored 43 points, making more field goals (20) than anyone else in any game in the last two seasons. He attacked the basket, while also shooting an incredible 9-for-12 from mid-range. And he carried his team late, scoring 17 points in the fourth quarter, including two buckets in the final two minutes to keep it a one-possession game.
He was doing it like he always does. There were no attempts to be the traditional point guard that he isn’t. No apologies for taking 32 shots in 45 minutes.
Yeah, he took 13 more shots than Kevin Durant. But that had a lot to do with the way the Heat were defending the league’s leading scorer, denying him all over the floor. And when he was shooting 63 percent, who’s going to complain about that?
It was a huge performance in the most important of games. Win and this is a 2-2 series, with two of the three remaining games in Oklahoma City. Lose and the Thunder are facing a 3-1 deficit that no Finals team has ever overcome.
Then, the brain cramp. A mistake that may have cost his team the game they so desperately needed.
After Westbrook’s drive made it a 101-98 game with 40.5 seconds left, the Thunder had maybe their best defensive possession of the game. They trapped Dwyane Wade on a pick and roll, they cut off Mario Chalmers‘ lane to the basket, and they forced Wade into a tough baseline runner with two seconds on the shot clock that didn’t hit anything.
Udonis Haslem and James Harden grabbed the rebound at the same time and with :00.8 left on the shot clock. With the jump ball call, the shot clock was reset to five seconds. Still, the Thunder were in a good position. Even if the Heat controlled the jump ball, OKC just needed to defend for five more seconds and they’d get a chance to tie the score.
Neither Haslem nor Harden controlled the jump ball. Harden tipped it a second time toward the baseline, where Shane Battier outhustled Durant, tipping the ball to teammate Chalmers on the left wing. And once Chalmers controlled it, the shot clock started.
Chalmers put the ball on the floor with three Thunder defenders between him and the basket and no teammates in position to score. Again, five seconds of defense were all the Thunder needed.
And then, there was Westbrook, darting toward Chalmers from the left elbow and grabbing him around the arm.
It was arguably the worst foul of the season.
The Thunder knew there were five seconds on the clock. “Guys were on the floor and guys that were on the bench pulled everybody together and reminded everybody that there was five seconds on the shot clock and not to foul,” Kendrick Perkins said afterward.
“Just a miscommunication on my part,” Westbrook added. “Nothing I can do about it now.”
The Thunder were 3-for-15 from 3-point range at that point. So it wasn’t likely that they would have sent the game to overtime if they were down only three with 10 seconds to go. But they never got the chance because Chalmers converted both of his free throws, and one more after Durant missed a three. Final: Heat 104, Thunder 98.
“That wasn’t the reason we lost the game,” Perkins said of the foul. “There wasn’t no single play in the fourth quarter that lost the game.”
So how do we look back at Russell Westbrook’s Game 4? Without him, they get blown out. But the foul …
The foul was dumb. There’s no other way to put it. It brought back memories of Josh Howard‘s timeout call in Game 5 of the 2006 Finals on the same end of the same floor in the same arena. That one also kept his team from getting a good chance to tie (the Mavs had to go full court in 1.9 seconds) and also put the Heat one win away from a championship.
Brilliant performance. Brutal mistake. And Westbrook continues to be a lightning rod for controversy.
“Let me get this straight,” he said. “What you guys say doesn’t make me happy, make me sad, doesn’t do anything. It’s all about my team and us winning a game. I don’t have a personal challenge against you guys, and it’s not me against the world. It’s not the world against me. It’s me and my teammates trying to win.”