A Game 2 win by the Miami Heat was ever so close to going up in flames. The Heat, holding the lead the entire game, were up five and coasting to an inevitable victory when they came out of a timeout with 48 seconds to go. Dwyane Wade received the inbounds pass and attempted to glide past Thabo Sefolosha and Derek Fisher. The aging veteran Fisher, like he’s done so many times in his career, came up with a huge play in a big moment and forced a turnover.
Scrambling in transition, Kevin Durant knocked down a three to net his 26th point of the second half and set up a very nervous moment with the lead now cut to two. When LeBron James missed a poorly selected three of his own on the ensuing play, the whole world seemed to know what was happening next. Surely Durant would add to his legend and convert the game-winner. Surely the Heat would lose game two in devastating fashion for the second consecutive year. Surely LeBron James would be scapegoated again for a bad Miami loss.
Not on this night.
Durant caught a quick pass from Fisher out of the timeout because James wasn’t ready for play to resume. Unfortunately for the Thunder, he received it in an awkward position on the court and forced a leaning shot that missed. The replay clearly showed that he was fouled by James on the play, but like the gentlemen in stripes had done so many times on this night, they missed the call. And that really was the theme of game two. Poor officiating put a black eye on what was otherwise a very exciting game.
Kevin Durant picked up his second foul fairly early in the first quarter and was forced to take a seat. He eventually would earn his fifth foul with about 10:30 to go in the fourth. Credit should be given to the Heat for making a concerted effort to get LeBron James in the paint with a clear intent of achieving just that outcome. In the NBA Finals though, fans and analysts alike expect Durant to be given more leeway than he was. The officials hit him with a number of cheapies and the Thunder struggled mightily. If not for the first half heroics of James Harden (17 first half points), the Thunder may have been down by an insurmountable margin instead of the 12 they trailed at the break.
Unlike Game 1 when the Thunder took over in the second half, Miami refused to relinquish control of their double digit lead. Dwyane Wade and LeBron James continued with their first half mission of pounding the ball inside and there seemed to be little Oklahoma City could do to stop the elite Miami slashers. The LeBron James America has dreamed about for years finally arrived and schooled Durant with an emerging low-post game. And give all the credit in the world to Wade. Rumors circulated on Twitter all afternoon that he put in an extremely hard workout today on his mid-range shooting after a poor performance in the opener. It showed as Wade unleashed a number of difficult baskets that silenced the aggressive Thunder crowd on various occasions. The Heat needed someone else to step up and Wade answered the call. He finished with a 24-6-5.
And let us not forget Chris Bosh either. Though rather quiet in the second half, Bosh had a double-double before halftime with ten points and rebounds apiece. It was crucial for the Heat because six of the first-half rebounds came on the offensive glass. Answering Coach Erik Spoelstra’s call to the starting lineup, Bosh was a difference maker on this night and finished with a valuable 16-15 line. No doubt Spoelstra will continue to give him all the minutes he can handle as the Thunder have yet to counter the small ball lineups that have been so effective for the Heat.
Speaking of small ball, it’s necessary to point out that Scott Brooks deserves a lot of criticism for his insistence on playing Kendrick Perkins when he so clearly has a negative impact for the Thunder. Everyone knows Perkins was brought in to counter Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, not LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. He’s too slow on rotations, too useless on the offensive side of the ball. Though a flawed stat, Perkins finished with a game-low -16 plus/minus rating. It is not hyperbole to say he’d been the worst and most ineffective player thus far and that he should see minimal, if any playing time the rest of the series. His replacement Nick Collison had an immediate positive impact on the game every time he hit the floor and fits better into the style of the series.
So many times in the NBA Finals, it is the role players making big plays that we remember. Bill Simmons calls them irrational confidence guys. We remember them all by their nicknames. Big Shot Bob, The Jet, and soon we might have to add the no-stats all star. For those unfamiliar with the moniker, Shane Battier made a reputation early in his career for being the first player highlighted by the advanced stats movement in basketball. He was a cult hero for years in the sports dork circles although never breaking through in the playoffs.
Through two games in these finals, he might be the Heat’s team MVP. Battier finished Game 2 with 17 points on 6/8 shooting that included an astounding 5/7 from deep. One three in particular, a rushed banking heave to beat the shot clock with 5:07 to go in the fourth, stymied yet another Thunder comeback attempt. He’s now hit four or more three-pointers in his last three playoff games going back to game seven against Boston. It’s the first time he’s achieved that feat in his entire career. Talk about great timing.
The tone of the game overall had a much different feeling than Game 1. Neither team was able to get comfortable. Again, blame the officials. The Thunder in particular had to completely adjust their offensive philosophy as a result. So successful in game one using the pick-and-roll, the Thunder largely had to abandon their main offensive weapon because of Durant’s foul trouble. They simply could not risk him getting nailed for his sixth foul while setting up Westbrook on their go-to play. James Harden and Russell Westbrook were forced into driving, but only Westbrook was able to find any success in the second half. Harden would finish with only 21 points after scoring 17 in the first two periods.
There is no doubt that the game was a wake up call for the Thunder. Too many times in these playoffs they’ve gotten away with poor starts in the first half of games only to pull out a great comeback in the second half. The Mavericks, Lakers, and Spurs all witnessed this happen. It’s a great sign that the Thunder never feel like they’re out of a game, but it’s simply not the calling card of a mature team. They have to do a better job of not putting themselves out of games early because these Heat actually have the ability to punish them for their poor play, as evidenced tonight.
Going forward, look for a number of things. First is the Perkins issue. It can’t be reiterated enough how little he should play in the coming games. Second is whether Wade and Bosh can continue to answer the call for the Heat. They’ll have to at least match their great play tonight if the Heat want to have a legitimate shot at actually winning this thing. Third, James Harden has to do a better job of showing up for the entire game. He no showed in Game 1 and only had an impact in one half of Game 2. For a guy that is rumored to be worth max money, he has to live up to that reputation. Finally, the Heat have to continue to embrace their offensive philosophy of getting the ball down low once the fourth quarters start. In both games they’ve found success for three quarters before going into an isolation-heavy offense in the final quarter. They got away with it tonight, but let’s just say it’s not exactly efficient.
This will never make national headlines, but on this night LeBron James out-clutched Kevin Durant. It was LeBron who hit the clutch free throws that iced the game after Durant’s missed a potential game-tying shot. This series has more than lived up to expectations thus far. The only way it could possibly get better is if we are blessed with an overtime game or two in our future. There is no doubt the series will go at least six games. At the end, one great player will have his first NBA title.
It’s still unclear if it’s Heat or Thunder in the forecast though.
Heroic effort by Tyson Chandler here, oh by the way.
Your front runner for ROTY.
Mr Big Shot will now proceed to demand the ball in all clutch situations the rest of the year, even if Chris Paul is on the court.