After game three of the NBA Finals, a reporter asked Dwyane Wade if the Miami Heat would rather be behind in games because they seem to play better and rally around their defense. Wade simply said, “No.” But when he defined why they go on spurts when down, he called it desperation. When you’re down by 10, if you don’t get desperate, you can let the game get away from you.
In the third quarter, the Thunder took a one-point deficit and turned it into a nine point lead within a span of just over five minutes. With the chance to go up double digits, Russell Westbrook threw a pass away which turned into a Wade dunk. Then, Westbrook tossed up a long three-pointer that missed which turned into one-out-of-two free throws for Wade. What looked like an eleven-point lead, was all of a sudden just a six-point one. The momentum was over.
The NBA Finals has been a treat to watch if you’re a fan of uptempo, highly athletic basketball games. The Miami Heat and Oklahoma City play some of the most aethestically beautiful basketball that you’ll see in 2012. In fact, my theory on why the officiating seems so bad is because the players are too fast. The officials are trying to interpret things they might not be seeing. That’s how big, fast, strong, and talented these guys are. They’re causing the referees to guess.
In game one, the Thunder ran away from the Heat in the fourth quarter and looked like a team ready to embrace its championship status. In game two, the Heat were able to stop the fourth quarter momentum and hold on for a victory to tie up the series. Yet, after game two, the feeling was that the Thunder let one slip away and the Heat were thanking their lucky stars.
Game three was a different story and maybe this describes home court advantage best. During game three, LeBron James and company looked more focused and hungry. After winning game two, they took away home court advantage from the Thunder with the ability to win the series on their home court. The Thunder looked like the Heat did after the first two games. Kevin Durant was in foul trouble for most of the game which took away from his aggressiveness. He still scored 25 points, but had five turnovers to go with his five fouls. In games one and two, he looked like an assassin. In game three, he simply looked like the second best player on the court.
The Heat didn’t retake the lead until just before the end of the third quarter. Wade found James in the corner for a three-pointer that didn’t look like it wanted to go in but did. In what shows a maturation of the Heat offense, outside of the four three-pointers the team made, they only made one other shot that was outside the key. Every other basket was in the middle, or the paint. My JV basketball coach used to say the money was in the middle. He even used a Monie Love reference and started to sing, “Money in the middle,” like one would sing the chorus to Monie Love’s song. (Shot chart from ESPN.com.)
The best chance to for the Thunder to retake the lead came with just under two minutes left in the game. Wade brought the ball up with Thabo Sefolosha defending him full court. Wade took his time bringing the ball up with his normal Dwyane Wade stride, which looks like that of someone whose legs hurt. Sefolosha tipped the ball, but Wade didn’t seem bothered. But then, Sefolosha stripped him and reverse dunked right in his face. Wade seemed to take it personally and immediately put up an unnecessary jumper that missed and Westbrook nailed a jumper that cut Miami’s five-point lead down to one.
My immediate thought was why Wade was handling the basketball and not James. James has been the lone killer in the series for the Heat. He’s been their ace. Whenever they’ve needed a basket, they’ve asked him to take it to the basket and he’s been unstoppable. But much like when the reporter asked Wade about playing from behind, I simply think they are less “desperate” when playing with the lead. The Thunder never got closer and the Heat closed out the game, winning 91-85.
The focus of this series has been on LeBron James and Kevin Durant and for good reason. I even hinted at it in our Finals Preview. Fans are going to determine who they believe is the best player in basketball based on which team wins this series. After watching three games, one thing is clear to me: when it comes down to important possessions, both of those guys need the basketball. As good as Westbrook and James Harden are for the Thunder, they aren’t Kevin Durant. And as good as Dwyane Wade has historically been, James is simply the better choice because he can do so much more, including not settling for jump shots. Keyshawn Johnson once said, “Just give me the damn ball.” James and Durant need to do the same.
Game four is Tuesday night and the Heat can go up 3-1 with a victory. The Thunder need to get it back to even if they want to make sure they go back to Oklahoma City.