Above Average Thoughts From An Average Guy
You’d figure after my delayed absence in covering the Heat’s playoff run that it’d be difficult to cover the first four games of the Finals in one linear narrative. And for the most part that’s true. But if there’s one thread that connects the four unique and exhilarating games that have transpired so far, it’s this:
This series won’t be remembered for any one thing, because it wasn’t decided by any one thing.
Throughout the Heat’s 104-98 victory in Game 4, everyone rushed to Twitter to try to say whatever just happened five seconds ago was what turned the tide in the series—at least until the tide shifted after something else happened a few plays later. This is a byproduct of our celebration of the NBA’s rich history. The NBA—and really sports in general—usually boils down to the easily digestible iconic posterized image: Jordan over Russell; Magic’s baby hook; Bird’s inbounds steal and pass to DJ; etc. But the beauty of this Heat-Thunder series—and why, whether it goes five, six, or seven games, it will go down as one of the most well-played, evenly-matched contests to ever take place on the game’s biggest stage—is that, try as we might, one play can’t overshadow it all. Every player on the court has had a moment that’s turned him from hero to goat and vice versa. There has been individual displays of epic heroics and catastrophic mistakes that will serve as footnotes in a larger story. Through four games, and for posterity’s sake in remembering this series, the aggregation of all the little moments is the only way to paint the big picture. Consider:
-On a recent episode of PTI, Tony Kornheiser tried to explain the casual fan’s perception of LeBron James in a way that was incredibly asinine yet probably true: “People hate LeBron, they hate the Miami Heat, and they wanna see him fail. There are two ways you absolve yourself of this: One is you make a last-second shot to win a title… They wanna see him win a title on a last-second shot.”
It seems odd that a guy dominating for four quarters wouldn’t be as impressive as a fluky anomaly simply because the latter can easily be plastered over every highlight reel for the next four decades, but as evidenced by the examples above, Kornheiser’s right: These shots are the indelible images that endure among fans. And regardless of what James might say about tuning out his detractors, I do believe this sentiment has pervaded his game, and it manifested in two critical moments of equal significance and opposite results.
The first occurred toward the end of Game 2. With the Heat clinging to a two-point lead, James basically tried to run down the clock before jacking an awful three-pointer without ever attempting to drive to the basket or have a better three-point shooter come off a screen. It was a hideous sequence that nearly resulted in the Thunder having a chance to win the game at the other end. (They should have had a chance to tie it anyway depending on your view of the Durant no-call on the Thunder’s penultimate possession. For the record: I believe it was a foul.)
The other moment came in Game 4. With James being helped off the court after an apparent leg injury, and with the dearth of information leading us to speculate whether he had cramps or two shattered knee ligaments, a gimpy James re-entered the game. Shortly after the Thunder had taken the lead with a little under four minutes to play, a clearly limited James launched a three and nailed the clutch go-ahead bucket, giving the Heat a lead they never relinquished.
Both shots need to be remembered to truly define LeBron James’s heroics and (admittedly few) flaws this series. If the Heat ultimately prevail, it’s more than fair if that hobbled Game 4 three—despite not being a buzzer-beater or game-winner in the technical sense—becomes his iconic shot. They don’t win that game without it.
(And they don’t win the series without a hell of a lot of other things he’s done that can’t be reduced to a single shot.)
-Dwyane Wade has apparently made peace with the fact that he’s unable to carry this Heat team the way he did in 2006, but having the MVP by his side has mitigated his limitations. Nevertheless, Wade’s contributions are still essential, and his Jekyll and Hyde postseason act continued in Game 1, with a 7-for-19 jump-shooting apocalypse causing the Heat to fade in the second half. Yet with the Thunder prepared to double-team James indefinitely if Wade was unable to do any damage, the wily veteran rose to the occasion with inspired efforts in the next three games. At times this postseason, Wade’s looked like a guy who could have the amnesty clause used on him in the offseason; many other times, he’s provided us with a flashback to the greatness of the Finals MVP in 2006. I don’t know if he’s injured, slumping, or if years of accumulated hits have taken their toll, but watching him adjust to his limitations each series has been a further testament to his tremendous talents and sheer will.
-Chris Bosh’s Game 3 stat-line was atrocious if you just took a cursory glance at the box score (three-for-12 shooting in 37 minutes), but his contributions in a myriad of other ways more than made up for his offensive struggles. He did all the subtle little things that are integral to ekeing out tight wins, such as grabbing 11 rebounds (including four offensive boards), blocking two shots, hustling to disrupt shots on defense, and generally fighting and clawing for every loose or tipped ball. When analysts say the Heat now “grind out wins,” nothing better epitomizes that term than Bosh’s ugly brilliance.
-At times during the Heat’s series against the Pacers and Celtics, Shane Battier was such a disaster that even the mini-midlevel he signed before the season looked like too hefty a contract. But in the Finals he’s done his best Lazarus impression and become everything the Heat hoped they were getting this offseason by unleashing a remarkable barrage of threes. He not only shot 11-for-15 from three-point range in the first three games but almost single-handedly opened up the lanes for Miami by forcing Serge Ibaka and other defenders to the perimeter.
-It’s been an unwritten rule that Mario Chalmers needs to be the Heat’s fourth scoring option (and he often is), but his Game 4 was every bit as special as his Games 2 and 3 were disastrous. After shooting a woeful 2-for-15 in the previous two games, Chalmers’s inexplicable outburst nearly led to a game-high in scoring for Miami. He put up 25 critical points, with the biggest coming on a play in the final minute. With James on the bench and the Heat clinging to a three-point lead, Chalmers took it to the rim for a clutch bucket that turned out to be the final nail in the coffin. Despite the Heat attempting to marginalize the value of depth in the Big Three era, the fact remains that All-Stars will most likely play like All-Stars and cancel each other out, and oftentimes it’s the role players that decide things. The Heat learned this last year watching Jason Terry catch fire and shoot them out of the Finals. On Tuesday, Chalmers gave them a Terry-like game of their own. Maybe Chalmers “iconic shot” will always be his game-tying three against the Memphis Tigers in the 2008 NCAA Championship game, but that was just one play. This was by far the bigger game.
- The referees stayed out of the way for the most part in the first three games, perhaps too often (see Durant, Kevin, end of Game 2). But even the bad calls and no-calls were pretty equitable, meaning they were fair to both times even if it meant getting it wrong. But oh boy did the officials rear their heads in Game 4 (particularly in the 3rd quarter) with some one-sided officiating not seen since Game 2 of the Heat-Celtics series. It wasn’t so much the calls Miami was getting but the calls Oklahoma City wasn’t getting on similar plays. Nearly half of Russell Westbrook’s shots came in the paint, and yet he went to the line only three times.
But it wasn’t 2006. There was no Bennett Salvatore Game. Missed calls and no-calls were a contributing factor, but they weren’t the deciding factor. It’s an easy narrative for anyone looking to discredit a Heat championship, but you’d have to overlook a hell of a lot of Thunder mistakes along the way to attribute this series solely to some shaky refs.
(Not that anyone who loathes the Heat and is wont to believe that David Stern somehow thinks it’s worth a conspiracy to ensure a short series won by the superstar-laden team everyone hates over the superstar-laden team everyone likes plans on escaping their delusional bubble anytime soon anyway.)
-Yes, Russell Westbrook committed a Bill Buckner/Chris Webber/Scott Norwood-esque blunder on one play in the closing seconds of Game 4. That will stick with him for the remainder of his career, regardless of how many championships he ends up with. You know what else needs to be retained in our collective memories of Westbrook’s Game 4? Everything that preceded it in the prior 47 minutes, 47 seconds.
Westbrook did something in Game 4 only Shaq and MJ have done. He was spectacular. He was sublime. He did what it took LeBron James until this year to do: Take the media’s narrative (in this case, the debate regarding whether he takes too many shots, whether he should play more like a traditional point guard, whether he needs to defer to Durant in the final six minutes regardless of the situation) and rather than try to placate the critics and conform to their whims, he changed the narrative. He launched 32 shots spanning all angles inside the perimeter and hit 20, with each being critical to halting any Miami momentum. His stellar overall play, the midrange pull-ups, the drives to the hoop, they were the reason that final foul even mattered in the first place. It was a blowout without everything else he did. It was a loss only in part because of one thing he did.
-Kevin Durant received some unfair foul calls and also committed some inexcusably maddening fouls that he’ll avoid with time and maturity. But his ability to carry his team in the clutch even while in foul trouble was a feat to be admired. His team may have almost instantaneously squandered a 17-point lead in Game 4, but he also put up 17 in the fourth quarter to bury the Heat in Game 1 and 16 points (while playing with the aforementioned five fouls) in the fourth quarter of Game 2. Maybe it’s not the Thunder’s time to cruise through the Finals, but Durant’s given us no reason to doubt he’s ready for the big stage.
-Yes, James Harden’s disappearance has robbed the Thunder of that critical third scoring option these past two games. The NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year has shot 2-for-10 in back-to-back games and has essentially been a complete nonfactor on both ends, getting eviscerated when defending or being defended by James. But it seems like just yesterday that short attention span America was lauding his Game 2 performance, in which he lifted a sluggish Thunder team with 21 points off the bench while getting to the line a team-high seven times, allowing Oklahoma City to stay in the game while Westbrook worked off another slow start and Durant battled foul trouble.
All of the things mentioned are part and parcel of what’s made this series so spectacular. Despite our efforts to come up with a singular defining moment or talking point, it would be a disservice to not appreciate all the intricacies and minutiae of these four games by resorting to the easy, facile “LeBron’s clutch now,” “Westbrook’s a goat,” “Officials!,” “Harden’s M.I.A.,” “Chalmers and Battier knew when to step up” narratives. These are all a part of it, but they’re not everything fans and viewers need to know. When the dust settles on this series, no one thing will have elevated the victor nor doomed the loser.
Even as I emerge from each game in a pool of nerves and sweat, I’m still having a blast. This series can only be defined by one of the famous quotes associated with LeBron that really needs to be applied to everyone on the court:
We are all witnesses.
And it’s been a privilege and pleasure to do so.