With three games having been played in the NBA Finals, here are a few trends to look out for as the series enters its home stretch.
1. Erik Spoelstra is winning the chess match against Scott Brooks: After Brooks’ Oklahoma City Thunder won Game 1 handily 105-94—featuring a dominating second-half performance in which the Thunder outscored the Heat 58-40 after trailing by seven going into the break—Spoelstra went back to the drawing board to figure out what his team can do to gain the upper hand.
So far, the answer has been to punch the ball inside and score close to the basket. It sounds like a solution an elementary school student could have come up with, but in this situation, keeping it simple has worked for the Heat.
After dominating the battle inside the paint for two games, the Heat lead 2-1 with Game 4 looming this evening. In a 100-96 victory in Game 2, the Heat outscored the Thunder in the paint by 16 points, 48-32. In Game 3, the Heat took their paint presence to the extreme, scoring 46 points in the paint and gaining a 91-85 victory. Of the Heat’s 28 field goal conversions in Game 3, 23 of them came in the paint.
The main factor in the Heat’s success so close to the basket is that while the Thunder utilize smaller lineups to keep with the speed of the Heat, that leaves Brooks with only one big man out on the floor, who usually is played by Nick Collison, and then four perimeter players—Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Thabo Sefolosha making up the Thunder’s cruch-time lineup.
This lineup matches up against Spoelstra’s late-game unit of James, Wade, Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, and Chris Bosh. These matchups leave the Thunder at a huge disadvantage because although Collison is a gritty player, he is the third-best post player on the court of the three players who can play down low on the court who are Collison, Bosh, and James.
So, early on in Game 2, LeBron made it a point to go inside and attack from within. Doing so netted him a 32-point performance on 10-22 shooting. Eight of his makes came inside the paint and his furthest make came on a 16-foot turnaround bank shot with 1:25 left in the fourth quarter.
Brooks needs to start with playing the league’s block leader more. Serge Ibaka can make an impact on this series, but needs more than 26 mpg to do so. There is literally no scenario in which Nick Collison should be playing more minutes than Serge Ibaka, or Kendrick Perkins for that matter, let alone in the NBA Finals. The other thing Brooks needs to do takes me to my second point.
2. Kevin Durant guarding LeBron James and LeBron James guarding Kevin Durant: Brooks needs to take Durant off LeBron. The result of Durant having to guard LeBron is that he owns the most fouls in the NBA Finals, and has been on the verge of fouling out of the past two games. No one can stop LeBron. So instead of wasting Durant’s energy on defense and preventing him from working as hard on the offensive end, Brooks should allow Sefolosha to guard James, and stick Durant on Battier in crunch time.
On the other side, LeBron showed his defensive prowess in Game 3 when he defended Durant for the majority of the fourth quarter after Shane Battier drew that assignment in the series’ first two games. In those games, Durant scored 17 and 16 points on 57.9% shooting overall in the fourth quarters of Games 1 and 2, primarily at the expense of Battier. In Game 3, James took the assignment of guarding Durant for the fourth quarter and the difference was night and day—Durant scored only 6 points on 2-6 shooting and was generally ineffective down the stretch, a period when he has been one of the league’s best players in the playoffs so far.
3. James Harden is faltering: Right now, it seems like Harden holds the key to the Thunder being able to come back and win this series. Unfortunately, it also seems like Harden doesn’t know what to do with it. Harden has been nearly invisible in Games 1 and 3, scoring only 5 and 9 nine points in each of those games. He did score 21 in Game 2, but the Heat still won the game.
So far, Harden is averaging only 12 ppg on 41% shooting, well below his averages of 17 ppg and 49% FG% during the regular season that earned him the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award. Harden needs to step up for Brooks, and Brooks needs to figure out how to get him going. Going against the defense of Wade or Battier isn’t easy for anyone, but Harden is talented enough to make an impact on this series. The Thunder are executing just about everything well in this series, but has not been enough against the Heat. If Harden can put together a couple of games of the type that have made him a star in this lead, that could be all that’s necessary to get the Thunder over the hump.