Russell Westbrook was often erratic but electric. Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant played up to potential and LeBron James was LeBron James. Although Oklahoma City Thunder sixth man of the year winner James Harden struggled mightily, his ineptitude wasn’t the problem in his team’s 4-1 series loss. While Oklahoma’s big three never played great as a whole throughout the Finals, they didn’t necessarily play bad, either. Westbrook (27 points per game during series) and Durant (30.6 during series) supplied plenty of scoring but Thunder coach Scott Brooks was never able to counter the Miami Heat’s role players in the best of seven National Basketball Association (NBA) finals.

Forward Shane Battier averaged 17 points in two games at Oklahoma City’s noisy Chesapeake Energy Arena, helping Miami split the opening two games. By the time the Heat got back to American Airlines Arena, the threat of Battier, who connected on nine three-pointers in the first two games, was enough to open up the lanes for Wade and James to drive the Heat to a Game Three victory.

When Game Four rolled around, it was casual whipping boy Mario Chalmers who came alive with 25 points that pushed the Heat to a 3-1 series lead. And when Miami was presented with a closeout opportunity in Game Five, guard/forward Mike Miller (23 points, seven three-pointers) was one of three other Heat players to score in double figures alongside Miami’s trio of Wade, James and Chris Bosh.

Take away a meaningless 11 points from Derek Fisher in Game Five’s blowout loss and 10 points from forward Serge Ibaka in the Thunder’s opening victory and Oklahoma City never received a double-digit scoring performance outside of its Big Three from games two through four. Ibaka, who managed three double-digit scoring outputs against the Spurs in the previous round including an 11-for-11 shooting night in which he totaled 26 points, was never a threat to the Miami defense. While swingman Thablo Selofsha, architect of a 19-point, six-steal, six-rebound game against San Antonio, averaged just 3.6 points on the road in Miami.

Combined with Harden’s struggles, Oklahoma never stood a chance with Westbrook and Durant piloting the team.

While James (28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, 7.4 assists during the Finals) was busy securing his first NBA Finals MVP trophy, Miller, Chalmers and Battier were taking turns sucker-punching Oklahoma City and the undermanned Thunder never recovered.

Role players make the difference in the NBA playoffs. Never has a champion been crowned without receiving a significant performance from one of its “other” players. While the Thunder blasted their way to a Finals appearance, the lack of a fourth or fifth scorer shackled the team’s chances of overtaking a suddenly potent Miami attack. It wasn’t the only reason why Oklahoma City was defeated, but it’s a problem the team will have to address if it expects to get over the hump next season.

Stephen D. Riley

Special to the AFRO