- J.A. Adande, NBA
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- After two games, it's clear what will determine the outcome of the NBA Finals. It's down to a single word. It's a word that's playing out of position, being used as a noun instead of a verb, but it's the only one that fits the requirement: go.
This is all about which team has more go. Neither the Miami Heat nor the Oklahoma City Thunder has a dependable post-up option, someone you can clear out, drop the ball to and say, "Have at it." So it's incumbent to get to the basket, to use the dribble to get inside. To go.
So far, the telltale statistic has been points in the paint. The Thunder won that category 56-40 when they prevailed in Game 1. The Heat had a 48-32 scoring advantage inside when they won Game 2.
But the reason this game was pushed to the waning seconds before Miami escaped 100-96 is the Heat lost their go for much of the fourth quarter. Their offense seemed to exist in an imaginary arc 20 feet from the hoop. It was the only quarter in which they were outscored in the paint. (The Thunder scored 14 points on 7-for-12 shooting; the Heat scored 10 on 5-for-7 shooting.)
And the reason the Thunder will get at least the one victory they need in Miami over the next three games to bring the series back to Oklahoma City is that the Thunder are the team with more go from beginning to end. Although LeBron James' go went away in the fourth quarter (more on that later), the Thunder's main
issue is calibrating their one player who might have a little too much go. Deep into the night, in conversations with everyone from fans to sports writers to former players, the same questions kept coming up. What's the deal with Russell Westbrook? Why did he dig the Thunder into a 17-point hole by missing six of his first seven shots? Why did he take 26 shots to Kevin Durant's 20?
I won't hang this on Westbrook because at least he was going to the hoop. Eight of his 10 field goal attempts in the first half came from within 15 feet. He didn't have any turnovers in the first half, and only two for the game, while dishing out seven assists.
Sure, he could use a little more discretion. But Westbrook already showed he could scale back during the Western Conference finals. Miami's defense in Game 2 looked similar to the Spurs' approach in that series, with big men stepping up off the screens to jam Westbrook, so it will be up to him to revert to the settings he used to beat San Antonio.
Meanwhile, Westbrook's 18 second-half points helped bring the Thunder back into the game. He never stopped going, including the time he fearlessly went at LeBron on the fast break, drew contact while shifting the ball to his left hand, and made the layup for a three-point play.
Durant kept going as well, even after he was called for his fifth foul 90 seconds into the fourth quarter.
He drove to the hoop, took to the air and threw down a dunk over Shane Battier. Later, Durant went strong while Battier planted himself for a charge and contact ensued. It was almost as though Durant wanted to test his growing stardom, to see whether the officials would dare foul him out. Finally, after what seemed an epoch later, the whistle blew and the call went against Battier. Blocking. Instead of heading to the bench for good with his sixth foul, Durant was headed to the free throw line for a pair of foul shots.
Battier was a little surprised that Durant had not been deterred. Was it youthful ignorance on Durant's part, I wondered?
"Just being aggressive," he said with admiration.
"I tried to keep my team in it," Durant said. "They believed in me, and we had a chance."
You know who else was being aggressive? Battier.
When he was open and the ball came his way he didn't hesitate to shoot. He made 5 of 7 3-point attempts, the last one a bank shot he was entitled to because at least he wasn't afraid to shoot. And when the Thunder did get to him before he could get off a jump shot, he did what he had to do and drove to demonstrate a little midrange game. Nothing spectacular, just someone who knew exactly what to do.
"I've been playing basketball for a long time," Battier said.
Lately, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has been playing Battier a long time. Thursday night Battier logged more than 40 minutes for the fifth time in the past 10 games, dating back to the finale of the Pacers series two rounds ago. Before that point Battier hadn't played as much as 40 minutes in a single game the entire season. The higher the stakes, the more coaches go with the guys they can trust. It's the reason Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski played Battier every single minute of the two Final Four games in 2001. Eleven years later, with all of that mileage on Battier's body, and his current coach is making a similar demand with the championship within reach.
Battier was the most go player on the Heat on Thursday night. Next was Dwyane Wade, who was thrilled to have fewer point guard duties and more chances to operate from the side than he did in Game 1. That resulted in 24 points and five assists, three field goals in four attempts in the fourth quarter, and a nice feed to Chris Bosh for a dunk.
Then there was LeBron.
Before we go any further, let the record show that Durant missed a short jumper (with contact from LeBron on the way up) that could have tied the score with 10 seconds left, while LeBron was fouled after grabbing the rebound and made two free throws that sealed the game with 7.1 seconds remaining. Had the places been reversed, the basketball world would have screamed, "Durant's clutch, LeBron isn't" and there would be no further analysis.
But this game would not have come down to singular plays if LeBron kept going the way Durant and Westbrook did. LeBron's shot chart showed he made three baskets in the paint in the first quarter, two in the second quarter, three in the third quarter and none in the fourth. He often seemed more intent on setting screens than grabbing the ball and getting to the basket. On one possession he went to the corner, then allowed Mario Chalmers to come to his side and stand between him and the ball handler, Wade.
LeBron's last field goal was a 15-foot bank shot from the left side, going away from the hoop. His last field goal attempt was a 3-pointer after no attempt to get inside, an errant shot that missed and gave the Thunder one last crack at the game.
The player who's the hardest to keep from getting to the basket had ceased to go to the basket. He wasn't the same player, which is why the game didn't have the same feel after Miami dominated the first quarter.
Spoelstra was asked whether he felt lucky to get out with a win after outscoring the Thunder in only one quarter. He slowly dragged his hand over his face, then said, "Now, we don't feel lucky. I think this postseason and everything we've been through has shown that this group has a resourcefulness, a resolve, a resiliency."
But do they have enough go? The championship that would alter so many of their lives depends on it.
Team with points-in-the-paint advantage has won first two games of Finals.