Game 7 Rewind Part 1 of 3: Battier is Like Mike

21 06 2013

One of the underrated parts of champions is the performance of their role players.

And why wouldn’t it be?

An organization has a symbol or image that gives people something to picture when thinking of that team. When it comes to an individual player-heavy league like the NBA, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will easily come to mind when thinking about how and why the Heat have been so successful the past two years during their championships. And deservingly so.

However, just as is the case with any team of any league of any sport, there was much more to these championship than their best players’ outings during the past two Finals. LeBron’s monster 37 points and 12 rebounds showing in Game 7 will never be forgotten when people reminisce about these champions.

But as I said, there’s so much more to it than this one guy. This “more” is the role players. The players that don’t worry abou the attention or the ability to do what they want—the players that contribute in their specific role in order to give their teammates the best chance of winning each game.

What was the “more” in last night’s ever-so-decisive Game 7 of the NBA Finals?

Shane Battier pulling a Mike Miller.

During last year’s NBA Finals, Battier was in the starting lineup serving his role as a spot-up shooter and filling that role more than perfectly. Going 9-for-13 from three-point range in his first two Finals games and becoming the Heat’s greatest contributor to stretching the floor, Battier consistently made his shot throughout the series and played a key role in guiding his team to the top. Who knows if LeBron and Wade would have had the breathing room to create their own shot if Battier hadn’t have been sitting on the outside ready to fire.

However, another shooter decided to appear for the Heat’s closeout Game 5 121-106 victory who had been all but irrelevant up to that point. After going 0-for-3 from deep in the first four games and racking up a total of eight total points, Miller caught fire. No really, he was heat. Miller shot 7-for-8 from deep and had himself 23 big points in the biggest game of his career. No one saw it coming. Not one person. (Well, so I assume.)

Screen shot 2013-06-21 at 1.54.37 PMDuring this year’s NBA Finals, Miller found himself in the starting lineup for the latter part of the series, serving his role as a spot-up shooter and filling that role more than perfectly. Going 9-for-10 from three-point range in his first three Finals games and becoming the Heat’s greatest contributor to stretching the floor, Miller consistently made his shot throughout the series and played a key role in guiding his team to the top. Who knows if LeBron and Wade would have had the breathing room to create their own shot if Battier hadn’t have been sitting on the outside—with one shoe or two shoes on, didn’t matter—ready to fire.

However, another shooter decided to appear for the Heat’s closeout Game 7 95-88 victory who had been all but irrelevant up to that point. After going 6-for-19 in the first six games and racking up a total of 21 points, Battier caught fire. No really, he was heat. Battier shot 6-for-8 from deep and had himself 18 big points in one of the biggest games of his career. No one saw it coming based on his 20 percent shooting (20-for-80) from deep in the playoffs up until this Game 7.

I’m describing these out-of-nowhere performances to help you understand just how important these out-of-nowhere showings are, especially for a Heat squad that requires quality shooting to surround the always attacking James and Wade. The naysayers can point out that the Heat only won because they had players like Miller, Battier and others not named LeBron/Wade/Bosh during the past two championship runs playing out of their minds. In a way, they got “lucky.” I mean, was it fair that Battier scored back-to-back 17 point games during last year’s Finals? How could the Thunder have prepared for that? Was it fair that Mario Chalmers exploded for 19 points in Game 2 while being mostly irrelevant for the majority of the other games in the Finals? How could the Spurs have prepared for that?

I used to be one of these naysayers that looked upon these players as inconsistent rather than “stepping up.” (Now, whether or not my distaste for the Heat played a part in this is for another time.) But what these outbursts represent is the “more” championship teams will always need. They need players to step up onto the big stage, put on their “big boy pants” as Gregg Popovich likes to put it and make an uncharacteristic impact that betters the team and gives them the edge. It’s not luck; it’s trust. It’s trust from the coaches and their stars that when the lights are shining brightest and the defenses are schemed to clamp down on the superstars, the “more” of the team will find a way to give that extra and unexpected push to the finish line.

Whether it’s been Miller or Battier, these shooters have been that “more” the past two years that has pushed this team toward becoming a dynasty.

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The Key Removal

21 06 2012

Even though the Finals are player-heavy led by none other than LeBron James, the two head coaches have played a significant role in leading their respective team this far into the postseason. The coach that is one win away from becoming the fourth active coach with a ring (Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers, Rick Carlisle) made one particular change late in the Eastern Conference Finals that carried over into the NBA Finals. A bold change.

For anybody that watched the Dallas Mavericks during their pre-championship years… remember Erick Dampier? Remember the man that did “so much more” than the “stats” could show by setting solid picks and tipping the ball out but ultimately failed to live up to expectations? Well, the Heat have had their own “Erick Dampier” for almost as long.

Joel Anthony.

The UNLV undrafted center came into league with little anticipation since his only notable statistic was his 2.9 blocks per game compared to his measly 5.2 points and 4.1 rebounds during his last year in college. He was brought into to do one thing – protect the rim. However, after a rookie year in which he would average a career-high 3.5 points and 3.9 rebounds, the starting center position seemed to slowly but surely open up for the Canadian.

This current season has provided Anthony with the most starts of his career as – just like Dampier – he has a defensive presence (I guess?) on the floor that can’t be captured by some numbers. But let’s do something wild with him and actually look at his numbers. This season, he has averaged 3.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game. That’s bad. This shouldn’t be a surprise, though, because he is one of the most undersized centers in the league standing one inch taller and five pounds less than LeBron James. Yeah, he is only 6-9 and 245 pounds. And because they just signed him to a 5-year, $18 million contract, they are stuck with No. 50.

So how has coach Erik Spoelstra utilized Anthony on the biggest stage in the game?

He has played 2 minutes so far. In the NBA Finals. That’s it.

As teams get deeper into the playoffs, rotations become thinner; every player that steps on the court is expected to produce in some way for their team. The Heat’s 4-year little big man had only been averaging 3.2 points, 3.2 rebounds and 0.9 blocks in the playoffs and failed to do the one thing his team expected of him (blocking shots), making him a liability on the court. If he played meaningful minutes against the Thunder, they would be feeding right into Scott Brook’s system, allowing Serge Ibaka to sag off his offensively handicap opponent and roam the floor as he so badly wants to do.

So, Spoelstra made the smart but tough decision. Cutting off all minutes for a player that he has backed up all four years the center has been with the organization had to be difficult for the 41-year-old coach. But he did it for the well-being of the team.

By going small with Shane Battier in the starting lineup, who has found a magical touch from behind the 3-point line, as a second small forward and keeping Anthony on the bench for 99 percent of the games’ minutes so far, the NBA’s league-leading blocker can no longer be the force he has been all year long. Ibaka’s regular season average of 3.7 blocks is down to 2.0 in the Finals, including only one in Game 4.

Miami has had role players find a way to perform at a level they never reached during the entire season. This is a key reason to their success against Oklahoma City – the ability to have Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole play unlike themselves. Can Joel Anthony play unlike himself? No. This man has scored double digits three times this season and only eight times in his entire career. That is someone that knows his designated role and couldn’t imagine himself doing anything more than just that. The Heat need players that can forget their role and produce like James Harden, the man formerly known as Sixth Man of the Year. Without the capability to explode onto the scene like many non-Big 3 Heat players have done in the Finals, Anthony shouldn’t be on the floor, and Spoelstra has made that happen.

Since this is a change of removing someone from the rotation rather than implementing someone, most won’t realize it has even happened. But just as the emergence of Battier has been unquestionably crucial during the Heat’s success early in the first quarter and throughout the series, it couldn’t have happened without with Joel Anthony.

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Harden To Swallow

20 06 2012

And just like that, the NBA Finals will be coming to a close in the near future and the young Thunder seem to be getting younger by the second.

The Miami Heat remained calm and overcame a 17-point first half deficit to take down the Oklahoma City Thunder 104-98 and take a commanding 3-1 series lead. Even though LeBron James (26 points, 12 assists, nine rebounds) and Dwyane Wade (25 points, two steals, two blocks) continued to play as superstars are expected to play, this victory was brought to you in part by Mario Chalmers. The former Kansas Jayhawk looked like he was playing in the national championship again with 25 points and three 3-pointers. Additionally, he put in five of these points in the last minute of the game when LeBron was on the bench with a cramp. (Didn’t that cramp seem more like a broken leg by his facial expressions – just me?)

Yet again, this team had one of their non-Big 3 play out of their minds and confuse NBA analysts. Shane Battier carried this load during the first two games in which he strung together two consecutive 17 point games. Game 3 was a combined effort between four players. Tuesday showed us the little brother finally playing at a level that stopped his teammates from yelling at him as he scored five times the amount of points he had in Game 2 and Game 3 combined.

On the other side, the much more deflated team doesn’t understand where James Harden has gone. Seemingly nowhere to be found on most offensive possessions, the Thunder’s spark off the bench shot 2-10 from the field and only put up eight points to go along with four turnovers. His lackluster play was epitomized during one of the Thunder’s final possessions. After receiving a pick,  Harden was staring right at a wide open 15-footer but decided to just dribble in place for a long second, looking like a middle school basketball player trying to figure out if he can shoot that far yet. This possession ended like it started – with a two possession deficit.

Other than his contrasting 21 points in Game 2, the Sixth Man of the Year is averaging 7.33 points on an abysmal 24.4 percent shooting. That’s worse than what Ramon Sessions produced against Harden’s team. Ouch.

It can’t be more evident that this team goes as the Beard goes. For the most part, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook get theirs. Yes, I would say Westbrook got plenty Tuesday with his 43 points on 20-32 shooting. But the flow of the offense falls flat without the ball consistently going through Harden’s hands. He adds a crafty element that his team’s pure scorers just can’t seem to add like he can. Without his involvement at the end of games, their offense becomes blatantly obvious for defenses to figure out.

The bearded man’s disappearance from this series has not only been the biggest disappointment for all fans of the eurostep (if they actually are out there), but it also might be one of the main reasons Oklahoma City will go home without anymore games to play until the 2012-2013 season.

No doubt about it, this series is over. How have we gotten to this point? Because the Heat have put together a spark comparable if not equal to the Harden that we have become so intrigued with. Shane Battier. Mario Chalmers. Norris Cole. Yes, Norris Cole. It is as if these three have collectively taken on Harden’s role while Harden has played like each of these players in three of the four Finals games. How is Scott Brooks supposed to prepare for a team that has men scoring 10 and 15 points above their normal average? He can’t. The six stars in these Finals all had their fair share of “x-factor” titles that they received prior to the start of the series. Up to this point, though, this has been about an odder trio than the Bobcats Big 3 and a scoring punch off one team’s bench that has misplace his gloves.

This is why the Heat are up 3-1. This is why LeBron and Wade can penetrate and kick it out with faith that their teammates can actually make plays. This is why the Thunder look lost at the end of games since their best ballhandler doesn’t know what to do with the rock anymore. This is why LeBron James will soon get his ring.

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Surprise Battier Party

16 06 2012

No one else in these 2012 NBA Finals has shot the ball from distance as well as Shane Battier. He has gone 10-13 from behind the 3-point line while averaging 17 crucial points in the first two games. Without Battier’s sudden blistering hand, the non-Big 3 Heat players would only have 27 points (nine in the Game 2 win) so far in this series.

This lights-out shooting leads to a misconception about the Miami Heat. This is not “the Shane Battier that Pat Riley envisioned when the Heat brought him in this offseason” as ESPN.com – and many others – said in their analysis.

The 33-year-old Blue Devil hasn’t averaged double-digit points in his last six seasons and his highest points per game came back in his 2001-2002 rookie campaign when he averaged 14.4 points. He has only broken the ten point mark two other times in his career. Clearly, he has made a career out of making 3-pointers, especially when his team needs it most. But he is operating at an almost inhuman level of efficiency by shooting 70 percent from deep.

So, why would Miami’s organization expect this type of systematic scoring from Battier? They didn’t.

Regardless if this level of contribution was anticipated, he has come up big on the biggest stage while helping the Heat split the first two big games. Can he continue to perform like this? Probably not. However, as long as this celebrity team gets just enough from Battier and the rest of the players not on $100+ million contracts to get three more wins, all criticism about this team not being a “team” won’t matter anymore.

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