Halfway to Glory

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It certainly wasn’t pretty, but the Miami Heat won’t care a bit about aesthetics. They’re now in control of the NBA Finals. James, Wade, and Bosh combined for 64 points, and 32 of their teams 45 rebounds, leading the Heat to a hard-fought 91-85 victory in Game 3.

Did I mention that it wasn’t pretty?

The 4th quarter featured an abundance of turnovers (8 from the Heat!), missed free throws from OKC (a major theme of the game), and lots of gritty defense. Just like the previous two absorbing encounters between these teams, Game 3 swung back and forth in the final frame.

A James Harden layup put OKC up 77-76, before two massive 3-point plays, first from Wade, and then from LeBron, gave the Heat a 6-point lead. A brilliant Sefolosha steal on Wade, followed by a Westbrook pull-up jumper, shrunk Miami’s lead to a single point, but more free throws from the Heat kept OKC at bay.

Westbrook then missed an open 3, which would’ve tied the game. With plenty of time still left on the clock, Harden had, for lack of a better word, a major brain-fart, sending LeBron to the line with an ill-advised foul. King James (Yes, I’m definitely cool with calling him that in these playoffs) split a pair of free throws, before OKC ran a play that pretty much summed up the 4th quarter.

Sefolosha went to inbound the ball and might have been speaking his native French to Westbrook, because a total communication breakdown ensued. Westbrook went one way, the ball went the other, and Wade happily scooped it up to seal the game for the Heat. An ugly end to an ugly quarter of basketball—but an absorbing game nonetheless—and one in which the Heat fully deserved to win.

If Scott Brooks is looking for positives to take from last night’s loss, he can console himself with the fact that OKC began the game much better then they did in their previous two—although that was a pretty low benchmark to top. There was no repeat of last Thursday’s 18-2 hole that OKC found themselves in. However, after a decent start by both teams, the Heat broke out to an 8-point lead early in the 2nd quarter. It was largely thanks to LeBron James—who else?

King James (Okay, I’m done) had 16 points and 8 rebounds by halftime—he would finish with 29 and 14. LeBron continued the aggressive play he exhibited in Game 2—driving to the hoop and not settling for outside shots. And just like in Game 2, he got some decent help from his teammates. They finally seem to be clueing in on the fact that he can’t win them a championship on his own.

Dwyane Wade had another good game—he appears to be finding his stride after looking like a shadow of himself in large stretches of these playoffs. Wade’s numbers, 25-7-7, reflect a great all-round effort last night. He was active on the glass, a willing playmaker, and frequently drove and cut to the basket.

Just as crucially, Chris Bosh put in a solid performance. He wasn’t a scoring machine (Miami doesn’t need him to be), but he came up with some huge rebounds at both ends (11 in total), and played great defense. Since Bosh’s return, the Heat have become a much bigger threat on the pick-n-roll, and a much more dynamic defensive presence inside.

And speaking of threats, Shane Battier is now 11 of 15 from the 3-point line in this series, after knocking down both of his shots from beyond the arc last night. Battier is currently giving Serge Ibaka fits—forcing a guy who loves dwelling in the paint to come out and guard him on the 3-point line.

If you predicted that Battier would be hitting over 70% from the 3-point range in the NBA Finals, you’re either a huge liar, or you’re way better at predicting basketball-related stuff than I am. There’s a good chance that it’s the latter.

However, even with another solid game from Battier, and big contributions from the Big 3, OKC were still able to stay within touching distance for the majority of the game. The Thunder actually opened up an 8-point lead midway through the 3rd quarter.

Durant hit a couple of beautiful bank shots after blowing by his defender, to help open up the lead. Just like in Game 2, however, KD soon found himself in foul trouble. Wade got him to bite on his patented shot-fake and Durant was forced to sit towards the end of the 3rd with 4 fouls to his name. The Heat soon took advantage. Battier and James Jones were both fouled on 3-point attempts, which helped Miami get back into the game.

In fact, it was at the charity stripe where the game was essentially won and lost. The Heat managed to get to the line consistently, but more importantly, they actually hit their free throws. Collectively Miami made 31 of 35 free throw attempts—a huge number considering their struggles from the line during these playoffs. At the same time, the Thunder, the best free throw shooting team during the regular season, missed 7 free throws. In such a close game, that was killer for OKC. Durant, normally so reliable from the line, was guilty of missing 2 huge free throws in the 4th quarter.

In a series where the teams are as evenly matched as this one, good execution is essential. Game 3 came down to basic fundamentals—hitting free throws, pulling down rebounds, and protecting the ball in key situations. Miami were better in all those facets and won the game because of it.

Of course, as I mentioned in my preview to this series, it’s easy to become a prisoner of the moment with the Heat—and with playoff games in general. A team wins and they’re sweeping the rest of the series. They lose and they’re done. Or so the narrative goes.

Suffice it to say, I’m resisting the temptation to draw too many over-simplistic and grandiose conclusions from Miami’s Game 3 win. They executed well, played with great intensity, and hit big shots when they needed to. There’s still a long way to go in this series, however.

Kevin Durant was definitely due for a 4th quarter letdown, and Harden had a very poor game by his usual high standards—he had some ugly turnovers and went 2 of 10 from the field. And still, OKC was in the game until the very end. Brooks has made adjustments in these playoffs before and he and his team won’t panic. They made that much clear after going down 0-2 against the Spurs and bouncing back.

Credit Erik Spoelstra’s group, however. No team in these playoffs has bounced back from adversity better than the Heat. Unsurprisingly, they were written off after Game 1, but they’ve played fantastic basketball to win these last two games, and are showing a level of grit and determination that they’ve often been accused of lacking.

So, the Miami Heat lead 2-1 in the NBA Finals. Sound familiar?

Yes, the Heat were leading the Mavericks 2-1 in last year’s Finals and we all know how that turned out. LeBron and company will be highly cognizant of not becoming complacent, as some felt they became last year after Game 3.

Durant, Westbrook and Harden will come out firing on Tuesday in a must-win Game 4 for OKC. Complacency won’t be an option for Miami. Expect more fireworks in a series that is living up to all the hype. 
 
 
Zach Salzmann is an avid follower of the NBA. He was born and raised in London, England, but moved to Canada in 2004. He graduated from Carleton University with a degree in History, which he mostly uses to sound smart at social gatherings. When he’s not watching basketball, much to the annoyance of his girlfriend, he’s watching something else sports related. Follow him on Twitter

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