Haslem, Anderson Huge For Miami In Game 3

LeBron James has been dominant in the Eastern Conference Finals and has managed to make life miserable for Paul George and the rest of the Indiana Pacers. The four-time MVP is averaging 29.3, 7.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists and a couple of broken hearts during the series and is living up his lofty resume.

Things are so easy for James that he joked after Game 3 that he might start using his right hand to shoot instead of his left.

“I think they might try to take away my left hand in Game 4,” James joked with the media. “So I will shoot it with my right.”

All joking aside, it’s the shooting of Udonis Haslem and Chris Anderson that has been the difference in this series. Sure, Dwyane Wade’s 18 points in Game 3 were big. You can also argue that Chris Bosh sticking three 3-pointers had a big impact on the game due to the spacing it provided James and other players to work with in the paint. But those two players are given big contracts with the expectation of impacting games. Anderson wasn’t even in Miami’s training camp last Fall and Haslem just cracked the starting line-up late in the season.

Roy Hibbert has loomed large for most of this series. He scored a career playoff-high 29 points in Game 2, snagged 10 rebounds and got into the head of James and forced him into two costly turnovers at the end of the game.

The ironic thing is it was Anderson and Haslem who managed to get Hibbert out of Game 3.

Hibbert was doing an odd two-step dance move during most of Game 3 as he struggled to decide if he should stay in the paint where he’s comfortable or follow the man he was guarding out near the 3-point line. Haslem was routinely given open looks from outside the paint and he went 6-6 from the field in the first half. He finished with 17 points while going 8-9 from the field.

The other player Hibbert had to guard at times, Anderson, has now made his last 16 field goal attempts and has made every field goal he has attempted in this series.

“Just [Haslem] hitting those shots really made us have to think on defense, ‘Who do we guard?'” Roy Hibbert confessed after Game 3. “Do we guard the paint or do we have to go out to the shooters in the corner?”

A big reason why things are opening up for Haslem and Anderson is because James is either cutting through the paint or sticking to the perimeter. He’s either dragging another defender with him or he’s giving Hibbert pause on if he should leave the paint to guard his man or stay to possibly help.

“I made a conscious effort to get down in the post tonight, to put pressure on their defense,” James said. “The coaching staff wanted me to be down there tonight, and my teammates allowed me to do that.”

You can count this utilization of James as one of the many brilliant coaching moves that Erik Spoelstra has made so far in this series.

“It was something we wanted to get to just to help settle us and get into a more aggressive attack,” Spoelstra explained. “We wanted to be a little more aggressive, a little more committed to getting into the paint and seeing what would happen. LeBron was very committed and focused not to settle.”

This small tweak allowed Miami to outscore Indiana 56-32 in the paint. It also allowed the Heat to shoot 54.5 percent against a Pacers defense that held opponents to a stingy and league-leading 42% from the field during the regular season.

Miami matched the highest scoring output in a quarter during this season’s playoffs with 34, broke the franchise playoff record for points in a half (70) and fell one point short of tying the third-highest point total in a playoff game in franchise history.

Miami prevented Indiana from playing their brand of smashmouth basketball and instead smashed them in their mouths on their home court.

“I think we have to do a better job of helping Paul [George] out,” Hibbert conceded after the loss. “LeBron (James) can’t get five or six dribbles to get a post move. … We have to make adjustments. He’s obviously a low-post threat, but we have to make adjustments.”

“If you’re not perfect guarding them, they’ll do what they did to us tonight,” Pacers head coach Frank Vogel added. “Sometimes when you are perfect with your coverages, they still find a way to make baskets. But we didn’t have a great defensive night.”

The Pacers were hardly perfect in their coverages as they were slow rotating to Haslem, Anderson and Bosh on the perimeter. They also were slow rotating back into the paint when James or other players cut into it.

But, even with that being said, you still have to stick your shots when you’re open. Kudos to Haslem and Anderson for rising to the occasion and making their shots which helped to put Indiana’s defense in a rough spot.

If Miami’s relatively unknown duo of Haslem and Anderson are able to keep their hot shooting going then Miami will be able to advance to the NBA Finals with relative ease.

Game 4 Won’t Silence Westbrook’s Critics

As all the cool kids like to say nowadays, haters gonna’ hate.

It seems that during the NBA Finals it became fashionable to pick on Russell Westbrook. Not just for his horrible fashion choices, but because he was shooting more in the NBA Finals that he did during the regular season.

Hopefully Westbrook’s play in Game 4 of the NBA Finals will silence his critics and all the haters.

Westbrook started the game 3-3 from the field and scored six of Oklahoma City’s first 13 points of the game while dishing out an assist. His strong play helped the Thunder roll to a 13-3 lead and forced Miami to call a timeout to stop the bleeding.

Yes, Westbrook got a little shot happy midway through the first quarter, but for the most part he was the player who gave Oklahoma City a chance to secure a much-needed win for Oklahoma City in Game 4 of the NBA Finals.

One of the things that swung this game in favor of Oklahoma City early in the game was Miami’s inability to rotate or switch when a pick was set for Westbrook. Throughout the first quarter Westbrook was able to burst by a stunned Miami defender who had been blindsided by a pick and shoot uncontested 17-footers that easily found the bottom of the net.

Westbrook set up shop at the elbow and made jumper after jumper over the course of the game. Then, when Miami’s defense started to collapse on him, he used his speed to get to the rim for easy buckets.

Miami fought back from some early adversity and rallied from a 17 point deficit in the second quarter. How did OKC stop the rally? Westbrook fed Durant for a bucket and on the next possession he fed Harden for a big three while Dwyane Wade was crumpled on the court.

Westbrook then hit a big jumper near the two minute mark of the second quarter to push OKC’s lead to 45-42. He had 16 points at that points while going an efficient 8-14 from the field.

“Russell (Westbrook) is one of the best point guards in the NBA,” Scott Brooks raved to ABC after the first quarter. “He attacks the basket. He’s a winner. He plays the right way and I’m proud of the way he started this game.”

Just when Miami appeared to be running away with the game in the fourth quarter, Westbrook scored 13 straight points for Oklahoma City and tie the game at 90 with six minutes remaining.

Westbrook played all 12 minutes in the fourth quarter while scoring 17 points. The best part is he went 7-9 from the field during the final quarter.

Throughout the game it seemed as if whenever Oklahoma City was making positive things happen it was Westbrook who had his hand in his teams strong play.

All this to finish with a game-high 43 points.

Sure, there’s a learning curve that Westbrook is currently going through, but he’s one heck of a young point guard who is just learning how to play the position. Fans just need to be patient through the growing pains he is sure to go through at times.

“It’s not deserving at all because without him we wouldn’t be here at this point, and people don’t recognize that,” Durant explained to the media this weekend when he was asked about the criticism being directed at Westbrook. “Everybody thinks he should be a traditional point guard like a Stockton or a Mo Cheeks. There’s a lot of people that cannot be like Russ, either.”

Westbrook’s teammates fully support him so it’s not like he’s going to change the way he plays. Nor should he.

Granted, Westbrook had his share of mental mistakes in Game 4 and he had nearly twice as many field goal attempts as Durant, but the positives far outweighed the negatives.

Hopefully his strong play in Game 4 will force fans to stop drinking the Haterade when it comes to assessing Westbrook and how he plays.

Oklahoma City’s Calm Under Pressure

The Oklahoma City Thunder possess all the traits of a championship-caliber team.

They’re explosive and athletic at both ends of the floor. They defend with skill and tenacity; have an elite shot-blocker in Serge Ibaka, and solid role players like Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha.

Of course, in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, they possess three of the greatest shot-makers in the game today.

Perhaps the most underrated, and dangerous, aspect of the Thunder’s game, however, is their supreme confidence level. This team is cold as ice in the clutch.

No team absorbs the opposition’s best punches, flips the switch, and keeps their composure when all seems lost, better than OKC. Time and time again, against the Spurs in Game 4, Oklahoma City weathered the storm.

San Antonio came out firing at the start of the game, while Oklahoma City missed their first seven shots. Did they panic? Of course not.  They simply went on an 18-5 run to end the quarter.

At the start of the third, Manu Ginobili took over the game and the Spurs put together a 23-9 run—but still no panic from the Thunder. Durant stepped up and Oklahoma City led by nine at the quarter’s end.

In the fourth, the Spurs once again attempted to seize the game by the scruff of the neck—going on a 13-2 run and getting within two points of the Thunder.

Oklahoma City’s response: James Harden hit two massive 3-point shots, including the game’s biggest basket—dropping the trifecta with Kawhi Leonard draped all over him, to put the Thunder up by five.

This team simply doesn’t waver off course.

Against the Mavericks and Lakers, they were down late in games and hit massive, momentum-shifting shots to win. Durant did his best Michael Jordan impression in Game 4 of this series, hitting 18 points in the fourth, but if he’s not feeling it (and that’s rare), Harden and Westbrook are more than ready to take the big shot.

The Big 3 of Oklahoma City epitomizes the fearlessness this team. Miss or make, it doesn’t matter—nothing fazes them. Last night Westbrook turned the ball over, and missed jump shots on consecutive possessions, but his confidence level never faltered.

He followed up some poor possessions by draining a ridiculous 20-footer. Westbrook never seems bothered by his failings. Sure, he makes some poor decisions at times, and will continue to do so, but he never loses confidence in his game. Scott Brooks realizes that Westbrook will live and die by the jump shot—but it’s a risk that’s worth taking. We may pick apart his game, but we cannot question his character.

Harden also seems immune to fluctuations in confidence. He wasn’t at his best against the Lakers—looking tired after having to defend Kobe Bryant for long stretches—and in the first game of this series he struggled. But like Westbrook, Harden seems to have selective amnesia. He followed up Game 1, with a 10-13 shooting performance in Game 2, and has been clutch ever since.

Last night, Harden took two of the biggest shots in these playoffs thus far. A three-pointer, that became a four-point play when he was fouled by Manu Ginobili, and the aforementioned game-clinching shot.

Before the series began many, myself included, pointed to the Spurs’ experience and veteran know-how, as a reason why they would prevail over a young Thunder team. The Spurs were playing unbelievably great basketball—some of the greatest we’ve ever seen—and maybe the Thunder, as young as they are, just weren’t ready for the Finals yet.

But perhaps we overlooked the fact that the Thunder don’t worry about outside perceptions—they don’t feel like they’re too young and inexperienced. They just go out and play their game. If they feel pressure internally, they don’t’ show it externally.

Experience and championship pedigree go a long way in the playoffs. No team as young as the Thunder have won an NBA title. But no team has looked as supremely confident as Oklahoma City —as unconcerned with external pressures.

They’re young, skillful and talented, but their tranquil state of mind, in the biggest moments, might just be their biggest strength.