Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Heat-Thunder: Game 4 preview
With Game 4 at hand, the Thunder-Heat series could take some interesting turns. Our writers weigh in with another Finals edition of 5-on-5.
1. Who has been the most outstanding player of the Finals?
Israel Gutierrez, ESPN.com: The proper answer is LeBron James, who has been the attacking, fearless player we all expect. But compared to expectations, it has to be Shane Battier. I mean, 73 percent 3-point shooting? And 40 minutes a game? And playing out of position? That's outstanding.
Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: James. I would have given it to Kevin Durant if he could have delivered in the fourth quarter of Game 3 one more time, but LeBron's overall play just squeaks him ahead of KD. The defense has been solid but not spectacular. However, his rebounding has stepped up and he's doing the majority of his damage in the paint -- exactly what people have been begging him to do.
Rob Peterson, ESPN.com: James. In his first Finals, the Spurs crushed his Cavs and there was nothing he could do about it. In his second Finals, he was strangely passive-aggressive and the Mavs crushed the Heat's spirit. In this, LeBron's third Finals, he's been everything we've expected him to be, which is an unstoppable force when the chips are down and when there is a chip to be won.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: C'mon. There's only one right answer for this question. I won't know for sure until I actually read this 5-on-5 in full, but I will be shocked -- SHOCKED -- if any of the respondents did not name James here.
Justin Verrier, ESPN.com: Since Erik Spoelstra, despite his impressive closeout on Russell Westbrook's 3-point heave at the end of Game 3, doesn't technically fit the "player" requirement, the only answer is one LeBron Raymone James. According to ESPN Stats & Info, James is the first non-center since 1969 to average 30 points and 10 rebounds in the first three games of the Finals, and his unmatched defensive versatility has been invaluable in gunking up OKC's high-powered attack.
2. Who has been the most disappointing player of the Finals?
Gutierrez: James Harden. It's not just his lack of scoring or playmaking. He just hasn't impacted games the way he has in the past, and definitely not how he did in the San Antonio series. Oh, and on a floor with experienced floppers, he's the floppiest.
Harper: Harden. Nearly 12 points per game off the bench isn't bad for most role players, but Harden hasn't been much of a factor in this series. His job is to get in there and slice up a defense, but the Heat have done a good job of keeping him out of the paint. They also aren't letting him get free for many outside shots, and it has taken away his effectiveness.
Peterson: Harden. He was such a prominent presence for the Thunder throughout the postseason and now he's disappeared. The Thunder survived his five-point Game 1 and he nearly brought the Thunder back in Game 2, but going 2-for-10, as he did in Game 3, isn't going to cut it. He's going to need to dig deep into his beard and find the mojo he had in the Western Conference finals.
Stein: Harden is the obvious answer. But don't forget to credit Miami's withering perimeter D for its role in Harden's struggles. Foul trouble was a justifiable alibi for The Beard's quiet Game 1, but the Heat's ability to smother OKC's pick-and-rolls is why the struggles continue.
Verrier: Harden, I guess. You want to cut him some slack because his role is more structured and his opportunities are more limited than either of his superstar compadres, but efficiency is supposed to be his forte and two ghastly shooting nights ain't gonna cut it. He seems to be trying harder than ever to draw fouls, almost to the point where you wonder if he's overcompensating for his shooting woes, but his free throw attempts and accuracy have both dipped since the Lakers series. Maybe the refs took notice?
3. Who has been the surprise of the Finals?
Gutierrez: Strange answer, but it's Spoelstra. He said after the conference finals that Doc Rivers helped him become a better coach, and he looks the part in this series. He stuck with Battier despite a size disparity. His substitutions are making much more sense. And he has made strong adjustments since Game 1. It's surprising given the flak he took during the ECF.
Harper: It can't be anyone other than Battier, right? He's shooting 73.3 percent from 3-point range in this series and has a true shooting percentage of 101.4 percent. He's also not shying away from shots at all. He almost has that Eddie House thing going, of releasing the shot before the pass even gets to him. He's trying to put the dagger in OKC at all times.
Peterson: Battier. All of a sudden a guy who was signed to take some of the defensive pressure from LeBron and Dwyane Wade has turned into Ray Allen. Battier has missed only four of his 15 3-point attempts and needs to be accounted for on offense. I don't think if he fades, the Heat fade with him, but even if he returns to being an average shooter, he's been the biggest surprise so far in the Finals.
Stein: Even a longtime Battier fan like me can't sit here and try to claim that I ever envisioned him shooting nearly 75 percent from the 3-point line through three games. Nor can you sit here and echo the claims about how "this is exactly what Miami signed him for" ... because no one shoots like this.
Verrier: LeBron. His impressive performance thus far isn't a total shocker, given the way he tore up the Heat's first three opponents (he's the postseason leader in PER by a comfortable margin). But there's palpable morbid curiosity in these fourth quarters, and so far, James hasn't provided any ammunition. To dip into the stats packet again, James has actually been better than Durant in the clutch: 11 points (3-for-5), 5-for-6 free throw shooting for LeBron; 3 points (1-for-6), 0-for-0 for KD. Surprising, eh?
4. What has been the surprise of the Finals?
Gutierrez: Two things: First, that James can be the most effective rebounder while guarding Durant and fighting off Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. Second, that the Heat have maintained this desperate approach despite having a tendency to get complacent.
Harper: Miami figuring out it needs to live at the basket. This is a team that allegedly can get to the basket whenever it wants, and yet it's frustrated a lot of people by taking long jumpers. This series, 46 percent of the Heat's attempts are in the restricted area. That number was around 42 percent in the regular season and 36 percent in the playoffs before the Finals started.
Peterson: I refer to this TrueHoop post by Henry Abbott, where some (not Henry) suggest the Thunder, in essence, "try harder." When you get to the Finals, you're facing a team that's as battle tested and as determined to win as you are. Effort isn't the reason. Execution is. That's why winning an NBA title is no fluke: The best team usually wins. It still surprises me people don't know this.
Stein: The tale at the free throw line. OKC's struggles and Miami's newfound clutchness at the stripe are a script-flip that I don't remember anyone predicting coming into the Finals either.
Verrier: That after watching the Thunder zoom past them in Game 1, the Heat have slowly tightened their grip on the series. Things could have and still may swing the other way, even with a 2-1 lead, as Miami learned last year. But so far, the Heat -- despite their injury woes, (relative) advanced age and shallow bench -- have done all the little things OKC hasn't to take control of this series.
5. Who wins Game 4?
Gutierrez: Heat. A win here essentially gives Miami control of the series. With that much at stake -- not that they couldn't recover from a loss -- this feels like a game the Heat won't let get away.
Harper: OKC evens up the series. The Thunder should be able to figure out how to keep Miami further away from the hoop in this game, and that will turn the Heat back into more of a jump-shooting team. If we're having a shooting contest between the teams, I like OKC's odds of pulling out the victory.
Peterson: Heat. They were up 2-1 against the Mavs in last year's Finals before it all went wrong. You can be assured they remember the pain of choking away a championship. I expect them to play with urgency and win Game 4. Not easily, but the Heat will win.
Stein: Thunder. But my best justification for that guess, er, prediction is that this still feels like a long series to me. OKC has to win Game 4 to back up that suspicion, but this series also has an anything-could-happen-next feel. So buckle up.
Verrier: Miami. Last year's 2-1 lead began slipping away at this very moment, so you gotta think that the Heat, despite their insistence that they've put the past in the past, will key in on this game more than most. ... Or maybe they'll press too hard and finally lose another of these close ones. Too tough to say definitively, but the guess here is the Heat.