Heat Build Huge Lead, Hold off Late Thunder Rally to Even Finals at 1-1Game two of the NBA Finals almost looked like a replay of game one, with the Miami Heat again building a big first half lead only to watch the Oklahoma City Thunder storm back in the second half, but this time the Heat held on for a wire to wire 100-96 win to even the series at 1-1. LeBron James led the Heat with 32 points--establishing a new NBA Finals career high for the second game in a row--and he also had a good floor game with eight rebounds and five assists. James shot 10-22 from the field and 12-12 from the free throw line, significantly better in both categories than his career Finals averages. Dwyane Wade added 24 points, six rebounds and five assists and Chris Bosh--inserted in the starting lineup for the first time since his return from an abdominal muscle strain--had a strong double double (16 points plus a game-high 15 rebounds). Shane Battier scored 17 points for the second game in a row. He has shot 9-13 (.692) from three point range in the first two games of this series, spreading the court to provide driving lanes for James and Wade.
Kevin Durant led the Thunder with 32 points and he now ranks third on the all-time list for most points scored in the first two games of a player's NBA Finals career (68, just behind Allen Iverson's 71 and Michael Jordan's 69). Durant shot 12-22 from the field overall but he only had six points on 3-9 shooting in the first half and his floor game was subpar as he amassed just three rebounds and one assist. He committed a couple silly fouls that landed him in foul trouble and that seemed to affect his aggressiveness in every aspect of the game except for scoring. Russell Westbrook finished with 27 points, a team-high eight rebounds (starting center Kendrick Perkins also had eight rebounds) and a game-high seven assists but, predictably, he received a lot of postgame sniping from the talking heads. Westbrook only had two turnovers but he shot 10-26 from the field, so instead of blasting his ballhandling his critics highlighted his shot selection--but the problem with that narrative is that there is a difference between taking bad shots and just shooting poorly. Yes, Westbrook took a couple questionable shots but that is true of every single player in the NBA who averages more than 20 ppg (and many of the less productive players as well); Westbrook's real problem in game two was that in the first half he inexplicably missed several point blank shots, shots that he normally makes. It is ridiculous to criticize an explosive point guard for penetrating all the way to the basket just because the ball rolled out instead of falling through the hoop. Westbrook made the same moves and attempted the same shots in the second half but in the final 24 minutes he made a much higher percentage of his shots and, not coincidentally, the Thunder got right back into the game. James Harden kept the Thunder alive in the first half with 17 points but he only scored four points in the second half. No other Thunder player scored more than seven points; will the people who screamed after game one that LeBron James needs more help now make the same plaintive plea on Durant's behalf?
Miami started the game with an 18-2 run that essentially decided the outcome; it is not realistic to expect to win after spotting a good team that kind of advantage in the NBA Finals. The Heat led 51-34 late in the first half but Miami's half court offense is still quite erratic--that "clown car" offense is a major reason that the Heat often have trouble executing well enough down the stretch to maintain a lead: whenever they slow the game down and try to work the clock they have a lot of empty possessions that result in poor shots or turnovers. The Heat were still up 98-93 with less than 45 seconds remaining when Wade did his best Michael Jordan impersonation--not the Jordan who won six championships but rather the Jordan from 1995 who, after taking a year and a half off to play baseball, turned the ball over late in Chicago's game one Eastern Conference semifinal loss to Orlando. Wade's blunder resulted in a Durant three pointer and then after James bailed out the Thunder by settling for--and missing--a three pointer the Thunder had a chance to tie or possibly even win the game. The Thunder ran a nice out of bounds play and fed the ball directly to Durant on the left block but he missed a short running shot with less than 10 seconds left. Replays clearly showed that James hooked Durant's right arm and should have been called for a foul but during the postgame press conference Durant quite correctly refused to criticize the referees and instead said that the reason the Thunder lost is that they fell behind by so much so early in the game. Many teams say that they are "no excuse teams" only to make plenty of excuses after they lose but the Thunder truly live by that mantra--and Durant is quite correct: the Thunder lost because of all of the shots that they missed in the first quarter, not because of one shot that Durant missed just before time expired.
Durant's miss and the Heat's victory will likely prevent most people from noticing that James once again did not have a great fourth quarter, scoring six points on 1-3 field goal shooting. If the Thunder had won this game, we would rightly be questioning why James can be so passive late in games after being aggressive for three quarters--but the Heat survived and James did score four crucial points that helped preserve Miami's lead: He hit a tough bank shot from the left wing to put the Heat up 96-91 at the 1:25 mark and then after Durant's miss he grabbed the rebound and made the two game-clinching free throws with seven seconds remaining.
The same people who just got finished saying that the Thunder are too talented for the Heat and that James needs more help to win a championship will now likely place most if not all of the blame squarely on Westbrook. Magic Johnson knows a lot about playing the point guard position but it is far from clear that he is a student of the sport's history; at halftime he boldly declared that Westbrook had just played the worst half a point guard had ever played in the NBA Finals--but Westbrook's only first half "sin" was that he missed several layups after blowing by Wade and anyone else who tried to check him. Westbrook played below his normal standard in the first half but only in the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader's universe of nonstop hype, hyperbole and noise does that mean that Westbrook played worse than any point guard in NBA Finals history. Dennis Johnson was a natural shooting guard who, like Westbrook, converted to point guard at the NBA level; Johnson won the 1979 Finals MVP and earned induction in the Hall of Fame but he missed every single shot that he attempted in game seven of the 1978 NBA Finals. Technically Johnson was still a shooting guard at that stage of his career but the Sonics did not have a true pass first point guard, much like the Thunder do not have a true pass first point guard. There are plenty of examples of point guards, combo guards and other guards who had worse halves in the NBA Finals than Westbrook did in the first half of game two--not to mention that right after Magic Johnson made his ill-considered remark Westbrook bounced back to have an outstanding second half and flirt with a triple double!
No Heat player has consistently been able to stay in front of Westbrook in the first two games of this series and if that continues to be the case then he will finish plays at the rim and the Thunder will eventually prevail. When Scottie Pippen and Kobe Bryant were the second best players on their championship teams they repeatedly received most of the blame for any losses while Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal respectively get most of the credit for any wins and that storyline is repeating itself now with Durant and Westbrook: when the Thunder win we mainly hear about Durant's greatness (and he is truly great, just like Jordan and O'Neal were) but when the Thunder lose we mainly hear about all of Westbrook's supposedly fatal flaws. The good news for Westbrook is that it would not be surprising to see Durant and Westbrook lead the Thunder to multiple championships; the bad news for Westbrook is that even after Pippen won six titles and Bryant won five titles the media still often found (or made up) reasons to belittle their accomplishments.
As the series shifts to Miami for the next three games it will be interesting to see if the pattern continues to hold that the Heat build big leads only to fade down the stretch; if the pattern is broken it is more likely that the Thunder will get off to better starts than that the Heat will close more strongly: there is no reason that the Thunder cannot do the same things early in games that they do late in games but the Heat's inconsistent half court offense will always be a problem late in games when fatigue sets in and it is more difficult to score in transition. On paper, the Heat have the advantage now because they can clinch the title by winning their home games but history shows that it is very difficult to sweep the middle three games in the 2-3-2 format; the 2004 Pistons and 2006 Heat are the only home teams to accomplish this (oddly, three road teams have swept the middle three games: 1990 Pistons, 1991 Bulls, 2001 Lakers). The likelihood is that this series will return to Oklahoma City with the Thunder having the opportunity to win the championship in front of their home fans.
The two most important team statistics in this series are points in the paint and fast break points: those numbers are impacted by offensive execution (particularly shot selection and turnovers), defensive transition and post play. The Thunder dominated both categories in the first game and won going away despite their slow start; in game two the Heat outscored the Thunder 48-32 in the paint, while fast break points were almost even (11-10 in favor of the Thunder). Perhaps the Thunder will utilize the Durant-Westbrook screen/roll play earlier in the upcoming road games to jump start their offense; that action and the pin down action with Durant receiving the ball on the move on either wing have both been deadly in the second halves of both games and there is no reason that those plays cannot be effective at the start of the game.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:15 AM