“This series is already over.” –Everyone
After watching the Heat get man-handled during crunch time of Game 1, that statement appeared to be actually true for this NBA Finals. The roller coaster ride that is the Miami Heat bandwagon was definitely at the big drop on the track and patrons were bailing faster than Jim Rome ends his interviews with David Stern. The average NBA fan, along with the media, spent their downtime between Games 1 and 2 discussing the shortcomings of the Miami Heat and on how this team will never win the title. The verdict on the 2012 Miami Heat had virtually been handed down after one game in the best of seven series. The Heat are finished and the star-crossed LeBron James just doesn’t have the intestinal fortitude to serve us those heroic moments that he seemed destined to do when he entered the NBA 10 years ago. It’s easy to buy into this shortsighted way of thinking. We are a society that has been bred to carry on life as a fully functioning ADHD patient. Instead of letting outcomes just play out and get determined on their own, we prematurely write obituaries for professional athletes, politicians, and celebrities. I guess it can be interesting, but it can also make for a big waste of time (and money) for people like you and me. You see the beauty of things like professional sports is that watching the outcome take place is so much more enjoyable than predicting it. Don’t get me wrong, I like to make predictions and occasionally will lay a financial wager down on a sporting event or two…sometimes three (I love me some parlays with teasers). However, 70% of the time my predictions are wrong and leave me feeling foolish. Hence the reason my career ambition of becoming a sports gambler lasted about 3 months.
The safe money was on picking the Oklahoma City Thunder to win Game 2. It was safe because, according to everyone, this series was all but over. Wade looks to be running on fumes, James doesn’t want to accept the role of “the man”, and there seems to be absolutely no way to stop Kevin Durant. I honestly had no idea what to expect from the Heat. However, I had a hard time accepting the fact that they would no show in what has become the never-ending sequence of “statement” games they must play in until they actually win a NBA title. Up to this point, in the 2012 NBA playoffs, LeBron and his teammates have risen to the challenge and left us with a feeling that this might be the year. We wrote them off in the series with the Pacers after falling into a 2-1 series deficit and losing Bosh to an injury. LeBron and Wade took the criticism in stride and went on to eviscerate the Pacers in the next 3 games. They ran into a similar situation with the Celtics after blowing Game 5 of ECF at home. Rondo and KG were making a mockery of the Heat. Then Game 6 in Boston happened, which was arguably LeBron’s greatest playoff performance ever. While the writing was on the wall, a Game 2 redemption performance from the Heat seemed a much more daunting task against the Thunder. There simply doesn’t appear to be a chink in the armor of the Western Conference Champions. As previously mentioned, I had no idea what was in store for Game 2 but I knew that if the Heat were going to refuse to lay down then we would all be treated to an epic game…and an epic game it was. Sticking with the same format from my Game 1 post, let me disect just how this masterpiece went down.
The first adjustment Spoelstra makes for Game 2 happens before the game even tips off. Chris Bosh is starting and rightfully so. In theory, the gimmick of making Bosh the scoring punch off the bench seemed to make sense. The reality of it was that they didn’t sign Bosh to a max contract to be a spark plug for the second unit. He has always been a key cog to the success of the Miami Heat. They built this team to operate with the big three generating the bulk of the offense. They will need every bit of that if they plan to outlast the offensive barrage of the Thunder. Early in the 1st quarter it is easy to see that the Heat are going to do whatever they can to attack the paint. It also looks like Dwyane Wade has miraculously recovered from the mysterious injury we were all certain he was suffering from in Game 1. Wade and James are attacking the paint from all angles. Is that a LeBron James post up and a converted bucket to follow? Why yes it is and I can’t remember if the last time I have seen him post up this early in a game. The Thunder are up to their usual antics of starting the game by actually not being aware that the object of playing a basketball game is to score points. It is 20-2 at roughly the midway point of the 1st quarter. To make matters worse, Durant has picked up an early second foul and must head to the bench. Lucky for them they have James Harden checking in who is due for a big night after being rather quiet in Game 1. Right on cue, Harden scores on a series of possessions to prevent this quarter from being a total disaster. During the timeout around the two minute mark, I realize that LeBron hasn’t taken a single outside jumper. On the Heat’s ensuing possession James takes his first jumper…and bricks it. He can’t help himself.
The quarter comes to an end with a highlight block by Serge Ibaka on a dunk attempt from James where he appeared on his way to tearing down the rim. While the quarter ends similar to Game 1 with the Heat sporting a double digit lead, this one feels totally different. The Game 1 lead was built largely on a mirage of open jumpers that were falling for unlikely guys like Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier. The lead in Game 2 was built by the Heat’s big three imposing their will on the Thunder’s interior defense. While Ibaka has recorded his first two blocks of the series, this has to come as a good sign for the Miami Heat. Why? It means they are challenging the Thunder in an area where the Heat are usually very successful. The paint. Ibaka will get his blocks but the increasing FG percentages for the Heat will outweigh those blocks.
I begin to notice in the early stages of the 2nd quarter that LeBron is playing more of natural PF role. He is doing most of his work from the post and doing it well. The Thunder have finally picked up their intensity while feeding off of Harden’s great start. Early in the second quarter Harden is able to bait LeBron into his 2nd foul which forces him to the bench. At the same time Scott Brooks takes the opportunity to create an advantage and puts Durant back in. This happens at the 9:15 mark of the 2nd quarter and the Thunder trail 33-21. Let’s see where the score is when LeBron comes back. Harden continues to rip the Heat , he has scored fourteen of the Thunder’s first twenty five points. The lead gets cut to eight points at the 7:30 mark and Spoelstra has seen enough. He sends LeBron back to the scorer’s table. Coach Spo knows that his squad has the Thunder on the ropes and they need to continue jabbing. Russell Westbrook, in his usual first half fashion, is 1-8 from the field. This team seems to thrive with playing from behind by starting off sloppy and closing with a vengeance. Meanwhile, Shane Battier picks up where he left off in Game 1 and is raining threes. This unforeseen fortune of Battier actually hitting shots is a much needed wrinkle in the Heat’s limited offensive attack.
The 2nd quarter is closing in on the four minute mark. This is traditionally where the Thunder push to gain some momentum heading into halftime. The Heat seem to have different plans tonight. They are now playing a wide open frenetic style that is actually increasing their lead to as much as 17 points. The Thunder finish the quarter with a small run that cuts the lead back to 12 points at the half. Again, the lead is fairly close to what the Heat sported heading into the locker room for halftime of Game 1. But once again it just doesn’t feel the same. Bosh has a double double and Wade and James are getting to the paint at will. This is a different game and a different team tonight.
This is an important quarter for the Heat, especially the start of the quarter. This is where the beginning of the end took place for the Heat in Game 1. LeBron comes out swinging. He is living in the paint early in the 3rd and the Heat are picking up where they left off in the first half. Durant is bringing the effort too. He gets the Heat to commit five quick fouls with 9 minutes to go in the 3rd. He is trying to jumpstart the patented Thunder run all by himself. The problem is that the Thunder are trying to make their run from the perimeter. They aren’t able to put a dent in the lead with this strategy. With Battier bagging his fourth 3 pointer of the game he has officially become the X-factor for the Heat. This is the Battier the Heat envisioned when they signed him. James Harden just missed both free throws. I believe that is one sign that the apocalypse is near. James Jones just hit a jumper. I am pretty sure that, too, is a sign of an impending apocalypse.
The Heat have answered the challenge from the Thunder in the 3rd quarter, but we all know that this isn’t usually a problem for the Heat. All of the questions and doubt derive from the Heat’s ability to manage the most important moment…crunch time. Nonetheless, the Thunder are trying to make the run in the 3rd quarter but the Heat won’t let them break through. The quarter closes with yet another double digit lead for the Heat heading into the fourth.
The quarter starts with a Westbrook jumper. After hitting one of his first ten shots he is now six for his last nine. He seems to always find a way to sneak up on you with 20 points before you even realize it.
Durant picks up his 5th foul with a bulk of the fourth quarter still to play. What’s Brooks going to do? Without hesitation, Brooks goes the “ballsy” route by keeping Durant in the game. He realizes that the Thunder are not going to cut into this double digit lead without him. His strategy pays off immediately. Durant scores five quick points and keeps the Thunder well within striking distance. They are down eight points with eight minutes to play. While the Thunder keep chipping away at the lead, the Heat appear to be getting most of the calls tonight.
Harden shakes Bosh out of his thong and finishes at the rim to cut the lead to six points. The demons in the Heat’s closet are currently knocking at the door. The pressure is mounting and the Heat are doing everything they can to keep some distance in their lead. And when I say everything I mean everything. Battier has just banked in a three pointer from the top of the arc. However, Durant immediately answers with a three of his own. The lead gap is now only four points. If the Heat blow this one they will have a tough time recovering from this loss. While he hasn’t been an actual ghost in the fourth quarter, LeBron seems to be getting the ball out of his hands more often this quarter. Just an observation. Battier nearly gets the charge call on Durant. That would have been his 6th foul and curtains for the Thunder’s chances. The Thunder keep attacking and now have the lead down to three points with 2:28 to play. That must feel like 228 minutes for the Heat right now.
LeBron nails a ridiculous step back jumper with 1:30 to play. That’s a signature shot from him if the Heat hold onto this lead. Which is exactly seems to be what is going to happen after Wade drops a dime to Bosh to push the lead back to seven points with :54 to play. The Thunder’s first loss at home is seconds away. After a couple of made free throws Wade weaves himself through a press but loses the ball to Derek Fisher. The Heat are scrambling to get back as Durant finds himself open for a three pointer that cuts the lead to two points with 37 seconds to play. Ho….ly…..Shit!!! What just happened? After a James missed three point attempt the Thunder get a crack at tying the game or even taking the lead. The play goes to Durant he drives to the baseline while being hounded by James. He puts up a step back jumper that comes up short. There is controversy on whether James fouled him. I honestly didn’t see anything that warranted a call in that situation, but any Thunder fan right now feels they just got jobbed on that no call. James wraps up Game 2 by sinking two free throws that puts the game out of reach for the Thunder. LeBron finished the night going 12-12 from the free throw line (that is not a misprint).
We are set up for what should be some legendary games over the next 7 days. Any doubt that the Heat lacked the stones to go toe for toe with the Thunder in their back yard has been put to rest. The Heat had to make a number of adjustments to win this game, but the most important adjustment was the mental one. They had to eliminate that doubt that they were being showered with by everyone. Are the Thunder in trouble? Absolutely not. They just didn’t do as good a job of attacking the paint as the Heat did in this game. Which will be the ongoing theme to winning this year’s NBA Title. Now the newly formed doubters for Oklahoma City Thunder will crawl out of their holes and for the next 48 hours tell us how Westbrook and Durant don’t mesh. If you hear this, just tune that shit out. Let the players dictate the narrative going forward. Game 2 was the counterpunch from the Miami Heat. Sunday has the makings of something special. You know why?
“This series just started.” –Me
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