Exceptional Free Throw Marksmanship Lifts Heat Over ThunderTeams that shoot .378 from the field and commit nine fourth quarter turnovers rarely win in the NBA--particularly in the NBA Finals--but the Miami Heat relentlessly attacked the basket, drew fouls and were nearly perfect from the free throw line (31-35, .886) in their 91-85 game three victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. LeBron James led the way with game-high totals in points (29) and rebounds (14). He is a skilled passer--even though he only had three assists in this contest--but he is not a pass first player; he is a tremendous scorer who can also rebound like a power forward/center and who can guard almost any player in the league one on one: after three-time defending scoring champion Kevin Durant torched Shane Battier head to head with 11-17 field goal shooting in the first two games of this series, James took the primary assignment in game three and held Durant to 1-5 field goal shooting in the fourth quarter. Durant finished with 26 points overall but he had just four points in the final stanza. Durant's floor game also suffered; he had six rebounds (an acceptable total for a small forward but lower than Durant's average), no assists and five turnovers.
Each team only had three players score in double figures: Dwyane Wade (25 points, seven rebounds, seven assists) and Chris Bosh (10 points, 11 rebounds) supported James, while Russell Westbrook (19 points, five rebounds, four assists) and Kendrick Perkins (10 points, 12 rebounds) helped Durant. Sixth Man of the Year James Harden brought his beard but left his game at the hotel: he shot just 2-10 from the field and finished with nine points, six rebounds and six assists.
Job number one for the Thunder entering game three was to avoid getting off to a slow start and the Thunder were partially successful; in game two they trailed 18-2 in the early going but this time they were only behind 26-20 at the end of the first quarter and they cut that margin to 47-46 at halftime. Considering the way that the Thunder dominated the final three quarters in the first two games, that close halftime score seemed to bode well for them but everything unraveled late in the third quarter. The Thunder led 60-53 when Kevin Durant committed his fourth foul on Wade's drive to the hoop. This is the second game in a row that serious foul trouble limited Durant's minutes; he simply must discipline himself to avoid silly touch fouls. Durant went to the bench and even though the Thunder briefly stretched the margin to 64-54 they squandered most of that lead in a 23 second span by twice fouling three point shooters and essentially giving the Heat six free points.. By the end of the quarter the Heat were up 69-67. After Durant returned at the start of the fourth quarter the Thunder briefly took a 77-76 lead but then they failed to score for nearly four minutes.
Despite Durant's foul trouble, the two stupid fouls and the long fourth quarter scoring drought, the Thunder still had a chance to win--or at least tie the game and force overtime--in the final few possessions but they executed horribly at both ends of the court. The Heat led 88-85 with 16 seconds remaining (and 10 seconds on the shot clock); LeBron James was dribbling the ball near the half court line--in no position to score or make an effective pass--when Harden inexplicably tried to draw a charge and was instead called for a block: as ABC's Jeff Van Gundy said, a player must know whether his team's philosophy in such situations is to give the foul immediately (to save time) or else to play out the defensive possession, secure the rebound and try to score in the final six seconds. James only managed to split the pair of free throws but now the Thunder needed two scores. Thabo Sefolosha then threw his inbounds pass right to Dwyane Wade (Westbrook cut in one direction but Sefolosha tossed the ball in the other direction) and Wade's free throws put the Heat up 91-85 with just 13 seconds left.
The Thunder led the NBA in free throws made (21.3 per game) and free throw percentage (.806) during the regular season but in game three they shot just 15-24 (.625). Although people tend to focus on the final things that happen in close games, the six free throws that the Thunder gave to the Heat by fouling three point shooters in the third quarter provided the final scoring margin. The Heat shot 22-24 from the free throw line in the second half and those numbers are incredible even though they are a bit padded because the Thunder had to foul in the final seconds to get the ball back. "Defend without fouling" is one of the main coaching mantras in the NBA and you can bet that the Thunder players will be repeatedly hearing those words from the coaching staff in the next two days. All of that unnecessary fouling was particularly damaging to the Thunder considering the fact that the Heat shot just 6-34 (.176) outside of the paint in game three, including 3-22 (.136) by James, Wade and Bosh; when the Thunder kept the Heat out of the paint and off of the free throw line the Heat were almost comically inept on offense and that should be a recipe for success for the Thunder because James and Wade have always been erratic perimeter shooters and because the Heat's offense does not usually provide many scoring opportunities for Bosh, who is a good shooter (though he only shot 3-12 in game three).
Statistically, Durant had his worst game of the Finals so far--which is not to say that he played poorly, merely that he did not play as exceptionally well as he did in the first two games--but if you listen to him talk and watch how he conducts himself you know that he is a man and not a fake tough guy: he does not try to pump himself up by saying stupid things or acting outrageously; he just handles his business with class, dignity and humility while offering no excuses when he and his team fall short. Whether he wins his first championship this season or in the future, the NBA is in good hands if he and Derrick Rose are going to be the league's standard bearers for the next decade or so.
Durant's ascension may have to wait one more year, though; this is the kind of game that the Miami Heat repeatedly found ways to lose last season but this time they had the necessary will, resiliency and poise to prevail. It seems like LeBron James is in a better place mentally/psychologically than he was earlier in his career--but we cannot say that definitively until this series is over. LeBron James has been here before; he has had great playoff runs statistically and just last year his Heat enjoyed a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals before losing three straight games to the Dallas Mavericks. What James does--or does not do--in the next two, three or four games is what will be most remembered about his 2011-12 season.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:48 AM