NBA Finals Game Three Recap

A dream series for NBA fans was bound to produce one stinker of a game. Game 3 smelled of desperation, tension and anxiety. Miami took an all important 2-1 series lead in what traditionally turns out to be the deciding game in the seven-game playoff format. But gosh if it wasn’t a sloppy victory.

Nerves were bound to take over at some point. After both teams executed at the highest of levels in the first two games, it was clear that the Thunder and Heat both knew that the stakes were now raised. The heavyweight fighters had seen the other’s best punches, knew exactly what their opponent was capable of doing. And the best part about it is that both know that they’re equally talented. As tends to be the case in nervous bouts, fundamentals were the deciding factor.

How many times do NBA fans hear that rebounding and free throw shooting win basketball games? It’s a tiresome cliche and yet so often the team that prevails in those two statistical categories ends up going home with rings instead of disappointment. It should surprise no one then that the Heat won the rebounding battle 45-38. They also went an incredible 31-of-35 from the line while the Thunder struggled and finished 15-of-24.

This was not the Thunder team the basketball world is used to seeing.

For the second consecutive game Kevin Durant found himself in foul trouble and the irritation was written all over the Thunder star’s body language. For what seemed like the first time in this year’s playoffs, he began to force bad shots, attempting to get the Thunder back in the game all by himself. He was met by the surprising length of Chris Bosh and his terrific help defense as he struggled to convert baskets that he’s so used to making.

Then there was James Harden. For the third straight game the bearded third of the Oklahoma City Thunder big three failed to make an impact. He finished with an alarming 2-of-10 shooting performance and failed to crack the double-digit mark in points for the second time in the series. What’s frustrating for the Thunder is that there seems to be no particular reason for his recent poor play. So often it’s the slower Dwyane Wade in front of him on defense, a player that Harden should be feasting on with his quick dribble penetration. A chorus that is so quick to blame Russell Westbrook might soon be turning its critical gaze on Harden. And deservingly so.

And then there was Scott Brooks. The Thunder head coach made a bold decision prior to the game to keep Kendrick Perkins in the starting lineup. This despite all factual evidence proving that the Thunder would be far better off without him on the floor. It was a calculated decision with the clear intent of delivering a message to his team that they weren’t going to change their style for anyone. The Thunder way or the highway, if you will.

The message was well received as the Thunder didn’t find themselves with a double-digit deficit heading out of the first quarter for the first time this Finals. Unfortunately for them, it made them incredibly susceptible to Chris Bosh’s skillful cuts to the baskets and the Miami pick-and-roll. He made them pay with a quick six points in the first quarter despite an overall performance that would fall well short of what the Heat will continue to need out of him in this series. His final line was 10 points and 11 rebounds. That wasn’t the last time Brooks would make the wrong decision though.

Any bizarre game needs a bizarre quarter. The third quarter was just that. Both teams turned in poor performances in the first two periods. The Thunder allowed the Heat to stay in the game by failing to protect the rim (the Heat converted only three shot attempts outside the paint in that whole half). Miami allowed the Thunder to hang in the game when they had another opportunity to take a decisive lead. One team would surely come out in the second half and execute at the levels expected of them. Oklahoma City seemed to be the team.

The Thunder immediately turned a halftime deficit into a ten-point lead and looked to be taking over the game after Derek Fisher polished off a four-point play at the 4:33 mark. Right before that though, Kevin Durant was hit with his fourth foul and had to sit nearly the final six minutes of the third quarter. It would turn out to change the course of the game, and possibly the series.

For the final five minutes of the third quarter the Thunder fielded a lineup without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and the results were devastating. They scored only three points after the Fisher four-point play and trailed by two entering the fourth quarter. This young team cannot afford such large mistakes by their head coach when the stakes are so high.

While it’s obvious Durant had to sit because of the fouls, there was no explanation as to why Westbrook wasn’t charged with keeping the Thunder lead. He wasn’t in foul trouble, was having rather a good game up to that point and as any NBA fan knows, he just doesn’t get tired. Miami took advantage of the weak Thunder lineup and got to the free throw line twice after James Jones and Shane Battier were fouled behind the three-point line.

The decision to pair Westbrook with Durant on the bench cost Oklahoma City Game 3.

Durant and Westbrook would rise from their seats and attempt a Thunder rally, but it never materialized. The long period on the bench took its toll on both players and robbed them of their shooting rhythm. Durant, who seemingly never misses free throws, missed a crucial pair in the fourth quarter. Westbrook was only able to contribute four points in the fourth.

Free throws and rebounding. LeBron James accomplished both of those down the stretch. He grabbed four boards in the fourth. He also hit the latest biggest free throw of his career to create a two-possession lead with only 16 seconds left in the game. It’s worth adding that he’s looking remarkably poised and mature when compared with the detached player from last year. Fitting then that his 29-14 line was something straight out of the Dirk Nowitzki playbook. His success as a power forward in this series has many wondering whether the latter stages of his career will see him there instead of the point-forward position he’s played thus far.

Alas, the series heads on to Game 4. Fans can surely expect the high level of play to resume. What team will make the better adjustment though? Can the Heat continue to make the Thunder pay with their small ball lineup? Will James Harden finally realize he’s playing in the NBA Finals? Game 4 will no doubt be the best game of the series. The Thunder can’t afford to fall behind 3-1. The Heat have to capitalize on their momentum in the last two games.

As has been the case so many times in NBA history, it’s now decision time for LeBron James or Kevin Durant. Both have a chance to seize the title from Kobe Bryant as the alpha dog and face of the league. One player will enjoy a year as reigning NBA Finals MVP, while the other will have to deal with a calendar year of critics wondering if he’ll ever really be a champion. Quite frankly, neither can afford the latter.

Give this round to LeBron, but the title is still up for grabs.

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NBA Finals Game Two Recap

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.

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NBA Finals Game One Recap

A game billed as a battle of big threes turned out to be two versus one. LeBron James simply did not have enough to defeat the combination of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in game one of the NBA Finals. Coming off a tiring seven game series against a physical Boston Celtics team, the Miami Heat very much looked like a team lacking the necessary energy it will take to win the title while the Thunder very much lived up to their reputation as a team that never tires.

The first half was interesting. The Thunder came out very apprehensive and seemed unable to score on a tight Miami defense. Whereas the Spurs could not defend against Russell Westbrook coming off pick-and-rolls, the Heat seemed to find a way to disrupt the talented Thunder guard, trapping him with a double team every time he tried to use the play. The strategy worked and caused the Thunder to turn over the ball eight times in the first half. Compared to Miami’s four this was the primary factor in the Heat’s seven point lead at the halfway point.

Miami also looked to exploit the Thunder’s decision to leave Kendrick Perkins in the game for fifteen minutes in the first half despite any hint of a post presence for the Heat. The sluggish Thunder big man struggled to defend against the Heat’s speed and ability to stretch the floor which led to a flurry of Miami three-pointers from Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers. No one doubts Perkins’ heart, but he seems a relic from a different era of basketball. It is no secret that the NBA made the turn into a more European style years ago, what with power forwards who consistently can knock down threes and supremely athletic guards who drive to the basket using their athleticism. Luckily for Perkins, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh decided to not show up for game one.

Bosh and Wade combined to go 6/14 in the first half but were bailed out by the sensational shooting of the Heat role players. When that faucet ran dry in the second half, the poor play of the other two Heat superstars became the narrative of the game. They simply let LeBron James down, finishing a disappointing 11/30 between them.

For all the talk of Dwyane Wade turning the team over to LeBron James, there were several hints that he still believes himself to be the Heat’s best player. On numerous occasions he looked to isolate against the Thunder defense and came up empty time after time. The dirty secret of the NBA playoffs is how little Wade trusts his jump-shot right now and yet Wade continued to shoot ill-advised jumpers, desperately waving his pump fake at Thunder defenders who knew better than to fall for the aging player’s go-to move. It took him 19 shots to score 19 points. On a night when the Thunder struggled to guard LeBron James’ drives, it was especially frustrating to watch Wade sabotage the Heat’s efforts to steal game one on the road.

And don’t let columnists out there turn this into another failure of LeBron James. The three-time MVP was brilliant on this night, finishing with a 30-9-4 line in arguably his best ever Finals game. There was one moment in particular in the third quarter around the 9:00 mark when LeBron looked like he might be slipping back into the funk that has plagued his playoff reputation. The Thunder had just erased a seven-point halftime deficit to take their first lead and James was doing that thing where he hangs around the three-point line looking detached from the moment. He then proved that this is not your 2011 version of LeBron James by converting three consecutive drives to the basket that hushed a boisterous Thunder crowd.

Despite James’ brilliance though, Kevin Durant was even better.

The Thunder superstar finished with 36-8-4 line that included 12/20 shooting along with a highly efficient 4-8 from deep. The Heat had no answer for him in the second half as Durant used several ball screens from Russell Westbrook to take advantage of a number of mismatches. The cold truth is that if LeBron James isn’t guarding Durant every second he’s on the court, the Heat cannot stop him.

Durant comes across as a juggernaut in fourth quarters now. He shot 6/10 from the floor and added a perfect 4/4 from the free throw line to close out the game in the final period. He even did that Kevin Durant thing where he seemed to let his teammates take all of the shots in the first half before eventually throwing them on his back to win the game late.

Watching the Thunder’s play recently, it feels as though he never misses anymore when the game is on the line. The Heat will have to counter by doubling, even tripling Durant and forcing the Thunder’s other players to beat them. It doesn’t help them the Russell Westbrook is shutting up the Skip Baylesses of the world with his great play. He so clearly outplayed his counterpart Wade and was easily the best guard on the floor. He’d finish with an otherworldly 27-8-11 line to contribute to the game one victory.

Nick Collison also added to his reputation as one of the best role players in the NBA by finishing with ten rebounds, five of which came on the offensive glass. When he wasn’t pulling down the boards he was keeping possessions alive with several tips to his teammates and shooting 4/5 from the field.

If game one is any indication, this is going to be a great series. Despite the loss, Miami has to know that this Thunder team is very beatable. They exploited the Thunder’s reliance on pick-and-rolls in the first half by doubling the ball handler nearly every possession. This threw the Thunder’s rhythm off and disrupted the flow of the offense. Serge Ibaka found some success by realizing he could beat this by going to the rim unguarded, but for the most part Miami won that battle. However the Heat, for whatever reason, neglected to use this strategy in the second half and instead began to switch on every screen. The results were disastrous.

Dwyane Wade and/or Chris Bosh need to step their games up in the coming games. James can create so many shots for them, Bosh in particular, that need to be knocked down. The telling plays of the game happened with 1:15 to go in the fourth. Clinging to a five-point lead, Kevin Durant drove to the basket facing a Miami defense that collapsed around him. He fed Collison with a beautiful bounce pass that led to a wide-open dunk. On the ensuing possession, LeBron James did the exact same thing to find Chris Bosh wide-open for a three that would have cut the deficit to four. Bosh bricked the attempt and the Heat’s chances at a comeback disappeared.

Also look for James Harden to play better after he was only able to muster five points. He survives any backlash (for now) due to the win and the monster games out of the other two thirds of the Thunder’s big three.

The coming days will hopefully yield a new level of appreciation for the NBA. So rare is it that fans get to see the two best players in the sport facing off against each other in the Finals. That the title will be either LeBron James or Kevin Durant’s first makes it all the more special an event.

Although one of them has to lose, we all win.

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Explaining Away Frustration In The Miami Heat

The only answers are more questions.  If that makes no sense, good.  It’s exactly the amount of sense the Miami Heat make now that they’re on the cusp of a second unforgivable collapse to an inferior opponent in the NBA playoffs.  Why haven’t the Heat put the Celtics away yet?  How in the world does LeBron James seem to disappear in a game where he put up a 30-12 line? Why doesn’t he impose his will to close out these games?  Are the players to blame?  Is Erik Spoelstra ?  Pat Riley?  Should they really blow it all up and trade Chris Bosh and/or Dwyane Wade next year?  These are just a few of thousand questions I’ve asked myself over the last week or so since the Heat managed to turn a dominant 2-0 series lead into a stunning 3-2 deficit. 

This all bothers me because the Miami Heat should be important.  Historically, the Heat should mark a turning point in sports history whereby we could draw a line of demarcation and tell those who come after us that this was the moment it all changed.  Never before had three individuals with such a combination of talents and skills so willingly flipped “the model” on its head.  They eschewed the conventional wisdom that a GM or franchise alone should have the power to create a team and instead went about accomplishing it themselves.  This made us uncomfortable.  Uncomfortable is a good thing.

Their identity could have been that of the outliers of the NBA or, even better, the villains.  Instead what has evolved is some sort of bizarre identity that is defined only by the fact that it has no identity at all.  The Heat can’t seem to figure out what exactly they want to be and, as a result, struggle when they get into the late stages of the NBA playoffs when teams seem intent on exposing this.  Veterans especially (think: Garnett & Pierce this year or Marion & Stevenson last year) seem to revel in the opportunity of uncovering the fallacy during live broadcasts.  At times they’re a great defensive team, at times they’re breath-taking on the fast break, most times they just fail to live up to expectations

This revelation has its roots in the Heat’s best player, LeBron James.  Since the disaster that was “The Decision” James seems intent on going into full on Tiger Woods/Michael Jordan mode. He basically refuses to take a stance on anything publicly (Trayvon Martin shooting aside) and instead speaks in a well-rehearsed language of saying lots of things without saying anything it all.  While successful at earning money through endorsements, it fails to endear him to any one group of people.  This would not be a problem if he was winning championships.  As you’ve noticed though, LeBron James and this current version of the Heat don’t have any championships.  The result is a disaster in that James comes across as trying to be too many things to too many groups of people. 

The great misconception of this Miami Heat experiment is that America hates villains.  America does not hate villains.  In fact, America loves villains.  As an example, I am a huge fan of late 1990s professional wrestling.  I was a WCW guy and that period is almost entirely known for the great rivalry of the WCW vs. the NWO.  The huge success of that era was predicated on Hulk Hogan’s turning heel into the greatest villain the sport had ever seen.  And you’re never going to believe this, but people loved it! 

I worshipped the sport, tuning in religiously every week as the good guys battled to save wrestling from Hogan and his gang of misfits.  Hogan embraced the new identity of Hollywood Hogan and the sport flourished.  There are more examples of this in sports history: the Miami Hurricanes, the Raiders, the Bad Boy Pistons.  There most certainly exists a place in America’s heart for the Heat to exist as villains, should they so choose.

There is nothing that this country enjoys more than laughing at the failures of hypocrites though.  By choosing to go to Miami and holding what closely resembled a championship trophy celebration in which he suggested that the Heat would win eight titles, LeBron came across to many as though he believed that the titles were already won.  The implication was that the hard work was done with now that the big three finally came together.  This all would be fine, again, if the Heat had won a title last year.

Instead the Heat failed to win a title and, in the biggest atrocity of all, failed to embrace a team identity.  They come across instead as whiny wastes of talent who will never fully live up to their potential.  Once Rajon Rondo made us all aware of the Heat’s tendency to complain to the official’s in transition, Americans had all the ammunition they ever needed to tie what they were thinking in their heads to what was actually happening on the television.

If we must look at facts to attempt to explain the Miami Heat, they do actually exist.  In a sports world dominated by theories and opinions though, this isn’t very popular though.  What’s really going on right now, in a purely basketball sense, is that the Heat inexplicably lost their discipline.  They’re failing to take care of the basketball which couldn’t come at a worse time because the Celtics improbably morphed into a team that doesn’t turn the ball over at all.  The Heat have also been noticeably lazy on their defensive rotations in the last three game (especially 3 and 4).  And finally, they really are griping to the officials during transition opportunities for the Celtics that is allowing Boston to convert easy baskets.  In games that are decided by such close margins, all of these mistakes add up.

For the Heat to avoid a second consecutive playoff collapse they’re going to have to do all the little things better, apologies for the cliche.  They can’t afford lazy passes, they cannot be a second late on defensive switches, and they have to convert their free throws.  In all seriousness, LeBron and Wade missed four free throws in game five.  And guess how many points the game was eventually decided by?  You guessed it, four points.  Avoiding the little mistakes yields great dividends in the final box score.

So please, don’t waste time attempting to surmise once and for all whether LeBron James really has it in him to close out a game like Michael Jordan.  It’s a ludicrous and fruitless endeavor that will never result in satisfaction.  Look at the basketball itself.  More than anything, the Heat might just be unlucky.  That three point attempt Paul Pierce converted in LeBron James’ face at the end of game five was one of the worst shot attempts of the whole playoffs.  It’s incredibly inefficient from a statistical standpoint, but for whatever reason he made it.  You can’t criticize a team for being unlucky.

Instead, criticize this team for it’s failure to craft an identity and not living up to their own expectations

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