The first two games of an NBA Finals that has certainly lived up to it’s billing are in the books. We are deadlocked at 1-1 and the series has everything that comes with a NBA Finals classic series: close games, superstars, clutch shots, loud arenas, and terrible officiating, as usual.
It’s hard to say who has an advantage in this year’s Finals. On the surface, you might think Miami; they’ve jumped out to a large, double-digit lead both games, and any time you can get a win on the road in a playoff series, you’re in good shape. You’re in even better shape if you gained back home-court. Not only that, but every member of the Big Three looked great in Game 2. Chris Bosh was back in the starting lineup, and responded with a gigantic double-double of 16 points, 15 rebounds. Dwyane Wade got sick of all the criticism and attacked the basket relentlessly, scoring 24 on 50% shooting, hitting several clutch shots, including a very tough fadeaway with 2:58 left. Shane Battier showed that his hot shooting wasn’t a fluke, although his bank shot may have been. And LeBron was spectacular, putting up 32/8/5 and his own tough bank shot in the waning minutes to weather the storm on a furious Thunder rally.
On the other hand, you can definitely argue Oklahoma City is primed to steal a road win of their own in Miami. Although Miami has jumped out to leads early, OKC has shown the ability to erase those leads and put the pressure on Miami very easily with their explosive offense and shooting. And you can argue that the missed called on Kevin Durant should have been two made free throws, tie game, overtime. More importantly, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are not going to get in dumb foul trouble every game. The Thunder also got several good looks for guys like Thabo Sefolosha, Derek Fisher, and even Serge Ibaka on open 16-footers and just couldn’t convert.
Both teams have somewhat similar problems. They both have one superstar who is an undeniably better player than his sidekick, but sometimes they can’t make up for it when their sidekick struggles. It was LeBron not being enough to compensate for Wade in Game 1, and Durant not being enough to compensate for Westbrook in Game 2.
Though Westbrook had 27 points and eight rebounds, some, including the incomparable Stephen A Smith and Magic Johnson, have referred to his performance as “pathetic”, and “the worst by a point guard in the Finals”. James Harden was two for two in the second half, finished with 21 points. Durant had 32 and a staggering 55% shooting despite having having shot four fewer times than Westbrook, and being out of rhythm the entire game with foul trouble. Westbrook shot 10-for-26 and never once looked like he was trying to facilitate the offense down the stretch.
Let’s not forget about Wade. In Game 2, Wade corrected his problems stemming from Game 1, but will they surface again through the rest of this potentially long series? In Game 1, Wade settled for 11 jumpers, making only one of them, en route to 7-for-19 and a paltry 19 points. Only five foul shots from Wade, and this is a guy who gets every call and is a top-five talent in this league. He often hung back on the offensive end after he didn’t get bailed out by the refs, leading to a split second where the young and electric Oklahoma City offense got down the court in a flash and embarrassed Miami in transition.
Their respective fan bases are, in summary, frustrated with their shots. Wade, with his shot selection. Westbrook, with the volume of shots he is taking. To me, these problems stem from inherent attitude problems that no matter how much Durant or LeBron supports them in the media, they will always harbour.
Wade is wired like the leader and breadmaker for this team; he’s the one who’s been here the longest and brought LeBron and Bosh to Miami. He’s one who’s been a Finals MVP, and he’s the one who stepped up when it freakin’ mattered in the 2011 rematch against Dallas. He often takes the lead in press conferences, and watching him, I get a certain feeling from him that I haven’t felt since I watched Kobe Bryant in 2003 while he was playing with Shaq. You know where I’m going with this; Robin was jealous of the attention Batman was getting even though at times he was just as instrumental to the team’s success. In Kobe’s case it was purely about public credit. In Wade’s case, it may have something to do with the fact that he’s 30 and once his contract is up, the odds of his body breaking down is very real and someday, Miami might really be LeBron’s team when they decide to part ways with him. Now do I think this is a Shaq-Kobe feud level problem? No. But I am beginning to feel certain elements of it arising in Miami. Wade hasn’t ever seemed as interested or played with the same passion and fire that made him a superstar in the first place these playoffs, except against Indiana when they were about to get embarrassed by the Pacers.
This is the biggest problem with Miami. Some superstars play their best when they are backed against the wall because of the situation with the game turning on them; such as Michael Jordan. He would play his best because his team was down five
in the final minutes of an important game. For the Heat, LeBron and Wade only seem to have this big-game mechanism in them activate when the situation with the media is turning on them. And it doesn’t bode well for them that the only guy in this series that somewhat has that MJ-like quality is on the other team.
But it might bode well for them that that guy is in fact, being held back. By the other guy we were talking about. Here we have Kevin Durant, somebody who if you just give him the ball every time, much like LeBron, your offense will be its’ most successful. He can’t miss from the line, is so long that in transition he can get to the hoop from the three-point line in two steps, and can make threes like free throws. He’s the kind of scorer so explosive that you’ll be watching the game and nothing’s happening, you go get some food from the fridge and next thing you know someone’s yelling at you to turn down the volume because in two minutes, Durant just dropped 12 points and the crowd is going ballistic. Yet Westbrook defiantly played with a selfish arrogance that saw him combine the worst of Wade’s Game 1 with every criticism he’s ever been subjected to for his career: he jacked up bad 20 footers and two footers alike. He didn’t make any effort to share the ball with the red-hot, fourth quarter ace Durant, or the woefully under-utilized and scary-efficient Harden. Watching Durant, Coach Scott Brooks, and even Durant’s mom say the politically correct thing and support Westbrook’s gunning ways is like watching a kid give up his seat on public transit to an elderly person. You know it’s the right thing to do, yet you know they don’t really want to do it.
So right now, you can talk about supporting casts, coaching, or the refs being factors in this Finals series. But in a series with this many superstars, they will ultimately determine the outcome of the series, no matter how bad the refs are or how many open threes Mike Miller bricks. In this case, we’re wondering which team will find a way to unleash their biggest star while mitigating any ego or shot-sharing problems they have with their other star, because whoever does it will win the series.