Miami’s Role Players Got It Done

Nearly every game of the 2012 NBA Finals has been decided late in the fourth quarter – and things weren’t looking great for the Miami Heat as things got deeper into the final frame of Game 4.

LeBron James was hobbled with leg cramps and, despite a clutch three with under three minutes to play, required two bench stints late.  Dwyane Wade played through, but appeared to be slowed by some lower back soreness. Meanwhile, on the other side of the court, Russell Westbrook was playing like a man possessed, scoring 17 of his 43 points in the fourth.

Enter Mario “Mother—-ing” Chalmers.

Chalmers answered his point guard counterpart with 12 fourth quarter points (25 in total), including his team’s final five to preserve what was just a three-point, one-possession lead. His numbers were certainly boosted by Westbrook’s ill-advised three-shot foul with five seconds remaining on the shot clock (13.8 on the game clock), but the Kansas alum still had to convert his three crucial free throws to send his team to a commanding 3-1 lead.

On Tuesday, Chalmers filled the Shane Battier role. That is, the secondary Heat player to shine during these NBA Finals and, arguably, play as significant role as that of the Big Three. Battier was held to just one made three-pointer in Game 4, snapping a multi-trey streak in the Finals that had seen him make 11 shots from deep (compared to just four misses) over the first three games against the Thunder.

Earlier in the game, it had been little-used guards Norris Cole and James Jones who helped stabilize a listless Heat squad that seemed to be lacking energy. All of their 11 combined points (in addition to 3-5 shooting from long range) came in a first half that was dominated by Oklahoma City. Cole’s driving lay-up shot late in the first quarter stopped the bleeding after what was a 10-0 Thunder run, while his three at the buzzer of the opening quarter provided some life to his team despite a double digit deficit and sparked a 16-0 Miami run (they never trailed by more than five the rest of the way).

Yes, it’s been the play of James, Wade and Chris Bosh that has gotten the Heat to within one victory of an NBA championship, but every title hopeful needs supporting role players to step up when the situation calls for it.

It turns out that the critics who suggested three players couldn’t win a championship were right; good thing that the Heat’s Big Three have had help.

Warts Begin To Show For Young Thunder

It’s a credit to Kevin Durant and co. that it’s taken as long as it has for the Oklahoma City Thunder to have come under scrutiny and to face legitimate questions about whether they are ready to win a title.

However, after leaving little room for criticism through three rounds of exceptional play and an inspired showing over the first two games of the NBA Finals, the team’s inherent inexperience finally began to reveal itself in Sunday night’s Game 3 loss.

A team’s performance is dictated from the top down and, for perhaps the first time this postseason, the Thunder didn’t get the spark they were hoping for from their franchise star. After owning the fourth quarter through two games, Durant’s foul situation left him timid offensively and looking decidedly out of sorts. He had as many made field goals in the final frame as turnovers (two) and missed his only two free throws of the quarter.

As bad as Durant’s crunch time scoring was, his defensive miscues may have proven more costly. The 23-year-old has gradually allowed himself to be goaded into a primarily one-on-one battle with LeBron James during the series, which contributed to his aforementioned foul trouble (he picked up his fourth mid-way through the third quarter and his fifth with nearly four minutes remaining in what was a six-point game).

That fifth foul was particularly ill-advised, coming on a hard-charging James without offering much resistance to his field goal attempt from in close.

Of course, Durant’s performance wasn’t without its positives (25 points, 11-19 shooting) and, to be fair, it isn’t as though he was the lone blue-clad performer to underwhelm. Late in the third quarter, with OKC still clinging to a nine-point lead, the club committed an inexcusable set of back-to-back fouls on Heat shooters beyond the arc. Over-zealous play on the part of Serge Ibaka and Derek Fisher, who should certainly know better, gave Shane Battier and James Jones six free throw attempts (they converted all of them) and shifted momentum firmly towards Miami.

Westbrook, meanwhile, was another case altogether. After taking a defiant tone after Game 2 in expressing his unwillingness to alter his attacking style of play, the Thunder point guard’s strong resolve continued to cost his club. The UCLA product remained a ball stopper and rhythm killer, failing to get perimeter shooters like James Harden, Thabo Sefolosha and Fisher (combined 8-26 shooting) involved.

That Scott Brooks benched Westbrook for a five-minute stretch of the third quarter indicates that the 23-year-old’s individualism is becoming a problem for his team.

As is the case with so many young teams, turnovers also became a problem late for the Thunder (14 in the game, five in the fourth quarter). While they weren’t as costly as they could have been (Miami actually scored only two fourth quarter points off turnovers), they did rob OKC of a must-score possession with 16.2 seconds remaining and spoke volumes of a team that appears to be growing increasingly unsure of themselves.

To say that the Thunder are blowing the series is both overly simplistic and unfair to both Finals teams. After all, Sunday’s game saw them lose by just a six-point margin to a Heat squad that is playing some of their best basketball of the year (you can’t blame Durant for failing to stop James when no one in the league can do so).

Still, cracks in the Thunder’s veneer are beginning to reveal themselves and they could have significant implications over the rest of these NBA Finals.

The Flawed Pre-Draft Workout Process

“I’m from Oakland. Gary Payton was that kind of person, really competitive. Jason Kidd, Brian Shaw. I feel I have to bring that same thing to the table as an Oakland point guard. I want to compete and I feel I still have to prove myself playing against higher lever guys and I’m happy to have the opportunity.”

This was Weber State point guard Damian Lillard, explaining his decision to run through drills last weekend in Chicago despite being given the option to skip them altogether.

Less than a week later, in a private workout with the Toronto Raptors, who own the No. 8 over-all selection in the NBA Draft, Lillard was literally peerless – that is, he showcased his skills absent of any draft-eligible potential rivals.

So, was this a case of empty, meaningless words from a guy shying away from the same competition he supposedly embraces? Quite the contrary – this was one of the many league-wide examples of the power of NBA agents (in this case, Goodwin Sports Management CEO Aaron Goodwin).

As the logic goes, agents want to avoid exposing their clients to potential direct comparisons that could negatively impact their draft stock and, thus, cost them money. While mitigating risk is sound, sensible business, the flip side is problematic: instead of proving themselves through one-on-one competition, players are limited in what they can showcase and team personnel is limited in what they can learn.

Ed Stefanski, the Raptors’ executive vice-president of basketball operations, has been around the game too long to get too worked up over league business that falls outside of his control, but you can sense his inherent frustration as he struggles to evaluate prospects like Lillard.

“It’s a lot more difficult when the player goes one-on-none, not having any competition against him,” admits Stefanski. “[...] We bring him in, we interview him, we get to talk to him, we get to see the kid, we have a meal or two with him, so that’s probably the main reason we bring him in.”

Two days later, following a solo workout with UNC’s Harrison Barnes (whose agent, Jeff Wechsler, represents former one-on-none’er Kyrie Irving), Stefanski was more direct.

“One on zero is very hard to make any assessment,” says the former Nets and Sixers GM, before acknowledging that the club has seen much of Barnes during his two-year career at Chapel Hill.

For their part, even if the draft prospects understand the intentions of their representatives, it’s not as though they enjoy going at it alone.

Lillard’s decision to opt into the Chicago drills came on account of Goodwin giving him the option. The 22-year-old’s decision to participate looks like a good one in hindsight, as he left a positive impression about his character and work ethic, as well as answering some questions about whether putting up big stats in a weak Big Sky Conference inflated his value.

As ESPN Insider Chad Ford put it on Monday, “Weber State’s Damian Lillard was the real star of the draft combine. He was the best player to agree to do the drills and it paid off for him. Many of the NBA executives in attendance had never seen him play in person before and the rest had only seen him only a handful of times. Lillard shot the lights out, had a couple of terrific dunks in the drills and 3-on-3 play, played hard and was very good in interviews with teams.”

For Barnes, the lack of competition in his workout with Toronto was actually an obstacle to be overcome.

“Obviously, it’s difficult to work out by yourself – your legs are going to go a little bit quicker that you expect them to,” says the Tar Heels standout. “You’ve got to continue to stay positive, continue to grind it out, continue to work hard.”

To summarize, draft prospects are being protected in a counter-intuitive manner that isn’t preferred by team executives or even by the players, themselves (unless, of course, they are paying lip service to their desire for competition in a bid to appear tougher). At a defining time when many clubs are setting a course for the future of their organization, it’s the agents who call the shots.