Heat Defend Home Court, Take 2-1 Finals Lead

LeBron James and the Heat did what they had to in Oklahoma City by grabbing a crucial win on the road in Game 2 to send the series back to Miami for a chance to close the NBA Finals out at home. After a defensive battle in Game 3 that resulted in a 91-85 win for the Heat, the league MVP moved his team one step closer to accomplishing the ultimate goal of winning the first title for the big three.

LeBron was once again spectacular with 29 points and 14 rebounds and has all but settled the debate about which superstar is the best all-around player in the league at this point, but the Heat did receive help from a few other key areas as well. First, Dwyane Wade was once again on the attack at the offensive end, and although he only shot a paltry 8-of-22 from the floor, he finished with 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in a low-scoring game where every basket mattered. Chris Bosh still isn’t playing well and had a miserable 3-for-12 shooting night but still managed to chip in 10 points and 11 rebounds. And Shane Battier, who didn’t quite have the same huge impact in Game 3 as he did in the two games in Oklahoma City, still contributed enough to establish himself as the biggest X-factor in this series, hitting every shot he took to finish with nine points. Battier is shooting an astounding 73 percent from beyond the 3-point line in the Finals and continues to spread the Thunder’s defense by knocking down open looks. Another surprise came in the form of James Jones, who added six points off the bench. Udonis Haslem also had six off the bench, Mike Miller had four and Mario Chalmers continued to be a non-factor with just two points. However, the Heat also benefitted from some pretty lackluster play from the Oklahoma City Thunder, especially in the second half.

Dwyane Wade got to the foul line and benefitted from being on the receiving end of a few questionable calls as he made his offensive presence well known in Miami’s Game 3 win.

After sitting out a critical stretch of time in Game 2 because of foul trouble, Kevin Durant once again found himself on the bench early in the third quarter. So despite his 25 points on 11-of-19 shooting to go with six rebounds, Durant had to sit with four fouls and watch as his team’s 10-point lead quickly evaporated into a two-point deficit heading into the fourth. However, given the way that Durant and the Thunder have played in the fourth quarter so far in this series, it would have been ludicrous to count them out, as it seemed like an inevitable fourth quarter rally was coming to help OKC steal Game 3 on the road and revitalize the opinion that even though Miami has home-court advantage for these three games, the series will not be decided without a fight. But then that rally never came. The Thunder, the same team that has outscored Miami by 17 so far in the fourth, never came to life and took control. Instead, LeBron and the Heat were the aggressors, keeping the Thunder at bay with big buckets and even more importantly, free throws. The Heat won Game 3 entirely because of their incredible efforts to make every free throw count. And with the ever-incompetent Joey Crawford at the helm of Game 3’s officiating crew, the Heat had plenty of opportunities to capitalize as they hit 31 of 35 free throws. Oklahoma City, on the other hand, shot an ugly 62 percent from the line and only attempted 24. While suggesting that the referees are rigging the games for LeBron to win a ring (as many are crying out on social media) is ridiculous, it is entirely true that the NBA needs to take a good hard look at the quality of officiating, especially on the league’s biggest stage. When Joey Crawford starts trending on Twitter at the same time as LeBron James and Kevin Durant, it’s not hard to tell that there’s a problem; specifically, one referee who makes every game about himself with an abundance of dramatic and often, inaccurate calls.

That’s not to take anything away from the Heat, however. LeBron James has been steadily improving in the fourth quarter in this series and as a result, Miami has been winning games by a larger margin. LeBron vowed no regrets with this Finals series and is certainly living up to that promise, dazzling spectators with phenomenal performances that are now extending past the third quarter. But at the same time, a team shooting 35 free throws is ridiculous. Wade had a terrible shooting night but because he got to the line 11 times, he was able to make an impact. Nobody wants to see referee-dominated games, especially when that results in Kevin Durant sitting for long stretches of time that have a great impact on the outcome. It was consistently bad on both sides and a few calls were extremely difficult (the foul on James Harden that could have been a charge on LeBron, the LeBron 3-point play that was called a block on Kevin Durant), but most of the major and momentum-changing plays seemed to go right along with the home team. However, although the reffing played a part in helping Miami take a 2-1 lead on the series, it wasn’t the chief reason the Thunder lost Game 3.

The refs were admittedly terrible, but Kevin Durant was the only one who could get anything going for the Thunder on offense in OKC’s Game 3 defeat.

Aside from Durant, no one could really hit shots for OKC. Game 3’s 85 points was the lowest total for the Thunder since Game 2 against the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round and all of OKC’s big names had problems stepping up. Russell Westbrook was 8-for-18 from the floor and finished with only 19 points and five rebounds. James Harden reverted back to his Game 1 struggles by going 2-for-10 to finish with just nine points. He also had six rebounds and six assists, but in such a low-scoring affair, the Thunder needed every point they could get and Harden wasn’t able to deliver with Oklahoma City’s two stars on the bench during the critical Miami run that demolished the Thunder’s 10-point advantage. Scott Brooks coaching was another problem area, as he probably left Kevin Durant and most certainly Russell Westbrook out of the game for too long, giving Miami a lead and momentum heading into the final quarter. It’s hard to completely fault him for that mistake given the way OKC has played in the fourth quarter so far, but nevertheless, Brooks’ rotation strategy let the lead slip through his team’s fingers in a critical Game 3 that would have been a monumental steal.

Heading into Game 4, OKC really needs everyone to step up. Even Durant, who led with 25 points, needs to improve after a Game 3 that saw him only score six points. In fact, LeBron James finally outperformed his younger counterpart in the game’s decisive quarter, tacking on 10 points that kept OKC at bay despite a few late, desperate rallies. Westbrook needs to be more efficient, Harden needs to live up to his Sixth Man of the Year Award again, and everyone but Derek Fisher and Kendrick Perkins needs to increase their offensive output. Fisher had nine off the bench and Perkins finished with 10 points and 12 rebounds, but Serge Ibaka (five points, five rebounds), Thabo Sefolosha (six points on 3-of-8 shooting) and Nick Collison (two points, two rebounds) all failed to back up their big three. The Thunder also need to drastically improve at the free throw line. They’ve shown problems at the line in the first two games of this series but that trouble area came to a climax in Game 3 as the Heat exploited that advantage to defend their home court. LeBron has realized that Oklahoma City has a very hard time stopping him from attacking the basket and if the Heat continue to get to the foul line so often, the Thunder absolutely have to counter that by making all of their attempts. Thabo Sefolosha also has to do a better job of slowing down LeBron or Wade depending on who he’s matched up with. Durant has to stay out of foul trouble and the Thunder have to play like the incredible fourth quarter team we’ve all seen them become. In the end, I still believe Oklahoma City can win this series, even if the pointless 2-3-2 Finals format that favors the away team will make that difficult. OKC has not played like themselves for the majority of this series and are still contending. It might be the youth, it might be the coaching, it might be the reffing, it might be LeBron James’ dominance and it might be a combination of all of those things. But if the Thunder do manage to regroup and play like the stellar team that shocked the Spurs and the world with their improbable run to the Finals, I would not be surprised to see this series go to Game 7.

LeBron James looks poised to win his first title. Will the Thunder bounce back for Game 4?

Advertisements

LeBron James Helps Miami Hold Off Late OKC Rally

The Oklahoma City Thunder did everything they could down the stretch to comeback after trailing for the majority of the night, but LeBron James and Dwyane Wade would not be denied and prevented Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook from grabbing a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals with a 100-96 victory on the road. The Heat’s Game 2 win tied the series at 1-1 and accomplished a feat no one had been able to pull off in nine previous tries: beat the Thunder in Chesapeake Energy Arena.

LeBron James silenced some critics with another phenomenal playoff performance capped off by a  semi-clutch finish, and although his fourth quarter was nowhere near as big or impactful as Kevin Durant’s, the league MVP cleaned up his act at the free throw line and took care of business when it mattered most. LeBron made all 12 of his attempts, including a few critical ones down the stretch, and had key baskets in the fourth quarter for the first time in forever to avoid yet another colossal comeback from OKC. He led the Heat with 32 points and eight rebounds, but I’m not ready to declare him as a clutch player just yet. Because the fact is, he only had six points and one field goal in the fourth, simply making free throws and one bank shot in the process. That’s not good enough against a fourth quarter killer like Durant. In addition to another great performance from LeBron, D-Wade’s big night was just as critical in helping Miami keep its distance, even as the Thunder threatened to pull off the monster upset. Wade finally had an efficient night on the offensive end, finishing with 24 points, six rebounds and five assists. But another key was Shane Battier, the biggest surprise and X-factor of the NBA Finals so far. Battier knocked down five 3-pointers and finished with 17 to help balance out Oklahoma City’s depth. Battier is averaging 17 points in this series after two games and if he continues to knock down open looks, the Thunder will have one more problem to worry about that will be difficult to handle given how much attention OKC already has to pay to LeBron and Wade. And on a related note, Chris Bosh showed why Miami is so dangerous when he is on the floor, putting up 16 points and 15 rebounds to outplay OKC’s defensive frontcourt.

Dwyane Wade finally had an efficient offensive night and gave the Miami Heat a huge edge with a great all-around Game 2 performance.

For the Thunder, Kevin Durant led with 32 points, once again coming alive in the second half. Game 2 showed that no fourth quarter lead is safe in this series, but it was too little, too late for OKC this time around. After being handled for three full quarters, the Thunder have a lot of adjustments to make for Game 3 to avoid coming out slow for the third straight time. Because even though Oklahoma City’s booming crowd helped them surge back into the series’ first two games, the Thunder won’t have that luxury for the next two in front of a hostile crowd that now believes its team can win. Russell Westbrook followed up Durant with 27 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, but once again came out gunning early and missed most of the shots he took took, going 10-for-26 from the field compared to Durant’s 10-for-22. James Harden carried OKC in the beginning and kept them within striking distance with 17 points in the first half, but he only finished with 21 after a second half disappearing act. Granted, Durant and Westbrook started taking most of the shots down the stretch and Thabo Sefolosha saw more time as the Thunder desperately needed stops against LeBron and the Heat, but it was a disappointing finish to what could have been a series-changing performance. After a subpar Game 1, this was Harden’s chance to make a statement, and while he had a good game, it wasn’t enough in the second half to help the Thunder defend their court in their most important home game yet.

After trailing by as many as 16 in the second quarter, OKC worked to chisel away at the double-digit deficit until it was 11 heading into the fourth. At that point, the Durant show started once again and Westbrook’s huge 3-point play cut the lead to four with six minutes to play, but a lucky bank shot 3-pointer from Battier (and yes, it was lucky) helped the Heat retain their composure and avoid a complete collapse. Even so, the Thunder still threatened to steal a Game 2 the Heat had been thoroughly dominating just a few minutes earlier, never saying die, even after Miami built a 98-91 lead with 53 seconds left. Westbrook cut it to five with a quick two and a costly turnover caused by OKC’s full-court pressure led to a clutch Durant 3-pointer to pull the Thunder within two with 37 seconds to go. From there, it looked like LeBron would have a chance to truly prove himself as a clutch performer, but he bricked a three, OKC got the rebound and it looked like the Thunder were about to pull off the massive comeback. But on the inbounds play, Westbrook quickly found Durant who tried to catch LeBron off guard by immediately attacking because he was late to match up defensively. However, this smart plan backfired when LeBron reacted so quickly he was able to get in front of Durant for a controversial, potential game-tying shot that was short on the front of the rim. The shot was seen as controversial because many believed LeBron fouled Durant with his body/elbow, but the no-call may have been the correct decision given the context: in an NBA Finals game with less than 10 seconds to go, it was probably a foul, but because Durant was in such a hurry and rushed the shot, it looked like he was playing for a foul, which a referee will never reward. If Durant had taken his time and put up a regular shot, the ref might have rewarded him with the chance to take the lead at the free throw line. But he rushed his shot and it looked like nothing more than a feeble attempt to draw a foul. After that, LeBron hit two clutch free throws to extend the lead to four and win Game 2 in an arena where no one but Oklahoma City has won in the playoffs this year.

James Harden had a monster first half and kept OKC alive as Miami threatened to pull away, but didn’t have much impact in the second.

Aside from not showing up in the first half, the Thunder had another major problem that was an advantage in Game 1: role player production. Derek Fisher, Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins each went 1-for-5 to finish with two, three and four points, respectively. Nick Collison didn’t take a single shot. And Serge Ibaka, who scored 10 points in the first half of Game 1, hasn’t had a major impact since, finishing Game 2 with seven. Production from role players is just one area that the Thunder need to improve before Game 3. Miami is a tough place to play and Oklahoma City no longer has home court advantage in this series, meaning at least one road win is necessary to prove they are the better team I believe them to be. First of all, they have to start Game 3 on a fast note. The Thunder fell behind by double digits in the first half in Game 1 and repeated the trend by coming out dead flat in the first quarter of Game 2. After falling behind 18-2, the Heat went into the second quarter with a 27-15 advantage. Oklahoma City started the game 1-for-12 and had only five points in almost eight minutes of action. For the highest scoring team of the postseason, 15-point quarters can’t happen, especially against an imposing defense like Miami’s. Durant and Westbrook can’t go a combined 1-for-10 in the first quarter again. Durant and OKC once again impressed by their ability to battle back in a furious rally in the fourth quarter, but if they would come out with that same fire and intensity in the first half, neither of the first two games would have been close. If the Thunder put together four (or even three) quality quarters, Miami has no chance in the fourth. LeBron was finally clutch down the stretch for Miami, but other than a pretty bank shot to put the Heat up by five with just over a minute to play, all he had to do was knock down free throws. If the Thunder actually enter the fourth quarter with a lead, the only way Miami will win is if they can get their crowd riled up enough to bother the cold-blooded composure of Durant and the Thunder. OKC also needs to get out on the break more for Game 3. In Game 1, the Thunder had 24 fast break points but in Game 2 they had major problems in this area.

For the Heat, the only thing they need to do is duplicate their Game 2 effort and hope their defense can contain the Thunder for four full quarters. Because Scott Brooks is a good coach, he will have his players motivated and prepared to come out strong in Game 3. And as good as the Thunder are in the fourth, the Heat need a sizable lead to withstand the inevitable Oklahoma City rally. LeBron needs to continue to play effectively on both ends of the floor and Wade needs to stay engaged on the offensive end. Bosh looked back to normal in Game 2 and if Battier can keep draining 3-pointers in the unbelievable way that he has in the Finals so far, those are two major threats that can’t be stopped with so much attention being paid to LeBron and Wade. However, the Heat can’t get too comfortable; they have benefitted from lackluster first halves from the Thunder so far in this series and although they now have home court advantage, all it takes is one road victory for Oklahoma City to be the favorites again. Miami needs to win both games at home to win the Finals; if they don’t they will really have their hands full with a resilient Thunder team that had no problem rebounding from a 2-0 deficit against the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. All in all, this series is playing out to be every bit as competitive as we’d hoped it would be and although Miami seems to have the upper hand right now with the next three games at home (the NBA Finals uses the ever-frustrating 2-3-2 format), don’t underestimate Kevin Durant and the Thunder. Although LeBron played well down the stretch, he’s not having the impact in the fourth he needs to if the Heat want to outlast Oklahoma City in the fourth quarter of close games.

LeBron James isn’t clutch yet, but he made his free throws and led the Heat to a crucial Game 2 victory to tie the series. Round 1 went to Durant, but Round 2 was won in the end by LeBron.

Kevin Durant Propels Thunder To Game 1 Win

Heading into the NBA Finals, the highly anticipated matchup between LeBron James and Kevin Durant for the right to the title of “best in the world” looked like it would be decided on the court in an epic clash of the titans. After scoring 17 of his game-high 36 points in the fourth quarter and leading the Thunder to a 105-94 victory in Game 1, Durant won the first round.

In their first game of a championship series, there were concerns about how this young and “inexperienced” Thunder team would cope with all the pressure against a Miami team led by the league MVP who’s still stinging from last year’s Finals defeat. But Durant and Russell Westbrook were absolutely unstoppable in the second half, combining for 41 of OKC’s 58 points, compared to the entire Heat’s second half total of 40. Durant and Westbrook also combined for 23 of their team’s 31 fourth quarter points, outscoring the entire Heat’s 21. After falling behind by as many as 13 in the first half, the Thunder once again showed the world how dangerous they can be in the second half, especially in front of a delirious home crowd. Apparent nerves and sloppy play marred the game’s opening minutes as the Heat jumped out to a quick lead thanks to incredible shooting from Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers. Battier knocked down four 3-pointers and finished with 17 while Chalmers added 12, but even these welcome contributions weren’t enough to keep Miami on top, despite the fact that no one but Durant seemed ready to play when the ball went up. Miami went 6-of-10 from beyond the arc in the first half to amass a sizable lead, but the Thunder stormed back before the half and cut the lead to seven heading into the locker room. From there, it was the Kevin Durant show.

Kevin Durant absolutely throttled the Miami Heat in the second half, giving the Oklahoma City Thunder a huge Game 1 victory.

LeBron James led the Heat with 30 points, nine rebounds and four steals while Dwyane Wade struggled, finishing with 19 points and eight assists on 7-of-19 shooting. Chris Bosh also had a rough going in Oklahoma City, scoring 10 points off the bench 4-of-11 shooting. Udonis Haslem only scored four points but also had nine rebounds. For awhile, it looked like LeBron was the best player on the court and that the Heat had a good chance of stealing Game 1 on the road in a building where no one but the Thunder has been able to win during the postseason: Battier and Chalmers were knocking down threes, no one on the Thunder looked ready for the moment other than Kevin Durant, and LeBron was getting to the rim on Durant. But once Westbrook and OKC’s supporting cast woke up and the outside shots stopped falling for Miami’s perimeter shooters (Battier and Chalmers combined for 23 in the first half and only six in the second), it’s no surprise the Thunder went on such a massive run at home. The Heat’s experience on this stage shone through early, but once the Thunder got settled in the nerves subsided and Durant showed why he deserves consideration for the MVP of the playoffs so far.

For the Thunder, Kevin Durant was obviously Mr. Clutch once again, singlehandedly supplanting the Heat by knocking down jumpers and taking the ball to the rim with authority, but there’s no question that Westbrook played a huge part in this victory. Westbrook only had nine points at the half on 3-of-10 shooting before helping turn things around in a critical third quarter run that gave the Thunder a one-point lead heading into the fourth. Westbrook finished with 27 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds while committing only two turnovers. He still shot the ball a little too much (24 shots compared to Durant’s 20), but in Game 1, Westbrook was very close to the ideal point guard and made OKC’s advantage at that position very clear. I said in the NBA Finals preview that Westbrook would need to turn things around and outplay Wade for OKC to better their chances, and that’s exactly what he did. Another important factor was Oklahoma City’s bench and role players. Although James Harden had a very disappointing night with just five points, the Thunder didn’t miss much with everyone making a collective effort to step up, meaning Scott Brooks was able to stick with a defensive lineup in the fourth and didn’t insert Harden into the lineup until there were three minutes left in the game. Serge Ibaka had 10 points and six rebounds. Thabo Sefolosha had nine points and played superb defense on LeBron James in the fourth. Nick Collison rebounded with authority, grabbing 10 boards in addition to eight points. Derek Fisher added six. Kendrick Perkins chipped in four. Everyone on the floor gave the Thunder something and made Kevin Durant’s unstoppable fourth quarter run possible, which is the most important section of the game to take a look at. LeBron was leading all scorers with 23 heading into the fourth, but Durant completely eclipsed him as the Thunder extended their one-point lead and would not let it go the rest of the way. Durant had 17 fourth quarter points, compared to LeBron’s seven. That can’t be the case if the Heat want to contend with this dangerous and young OKC squad. Because as much as everyone keeps saying their inexperience will catch up with them, the Thunder keep finding ways to win with the game on the line. And like it or not, the Heat are actually going to have to outplay this team down the stretch to win a title. Which means LeBron will have to be clutch and take over a game in the fourth like we haven’t seen yet.

Russell Westbrook looked more like himself and flirted with a triple double in OKC’s Game 1 win over the Miami Heat.

For the Heat to win, a lot of improvements need to be made. First, Dwyane Wade has to be more assertive on the offensive end. Scoring 19 points and dropping eight dimes is nothing to sneer at, but the Heat need more out of him, especially if LeBron stalls in the fourth again. Chris Bosh also needs to have more of an offensive presence in Game 2. With Harden only scoring five points, Game 1 was a prime opportunity for the Heat’s big three to outplay OKC’s big three. But only LeBron and surprisingly, Shane Battier showed up ready to knock down shots. The Heat need more than four out of Haslem and they need more than two points out of Mike Miller. Erik Spoelstra said one adjustment he plans on making for Game 2 is going deeper into his bench, but with reserves like the Heat have that seems like it would hurt more than anything. Miami was also out-rebounded 43-35 in Game 1, a trend that needs to change if the Heat want to make this series more competitive. Those rebounds translated into fast break points for the Thunder, who outscored Miami in that category 24-4. Finally, the Heat need to find a way to slow down Durant and Westbrook. The fact that they were able to dominate in the second half was bad enough, but even when Miami’s help defense cut them off, there were wide open bigs waiting under the basket for easy dunks. The Thunder had 56 points in the paint and shot 51 percent from the floor. Miami’s previously stifling defense will have to make a return if the Heat want to avoid coming up short for the second year in a row.

For the Thunder, Game 1 was a big win because they defended home court (once again) and were able to do so while dealing with first-game jitters. Westbrook looked more like himself again after a mediocre series against the Spurs, OKC’s role players stepped up even without Harden leading the charge, and Durant had no problems being clutch on basketball’s biggest stage. All they have to do is continue playing great defense (Thabo Sefolosha in particular), take care of the boards and make sure they limit at least one member of Miami’s big three. Durant and Westbrook will continue to put points on the board, so as long as the defense remains in tact and the role players pitch in where they can, you can count on the Thunder going on big runs in the fourth quarter of close games. As I predicted in the NBA Finals preview, the Thunder took over in the fourth quarter, which is an area that LeBron James or Dwyane Wade need to dominate, even under all the pressure they now face with a 1-0 deficit. Oklahoma City still needs to take care of business at home in Game 2 to ensure they have the upper hand in the series, but unless some drastic changes are made on Miami’s part, the Thunder will continue to overwhelm with more depth, greater focus down the stretch and Kevin Durant’s unstoppable resolve.

Kevin Durant got the best of LeBron James in Game 1, especially in the fourth quarter. This can’t be the case if the Miami Heat want to win a title and avoid another year of criticism.

Heat Beat Celtics, Advance To NBA Finals

After falling down 3-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics were poised to move on to yet another NBA Finals and it looked like the Heat would once again come up short in their quest for a championship. But then LeBron James took over, finishing off Boston with another prolific game at home in the series clincher, which came just two days after propelling his team to a decisive Game 7 with a monumental performance in Game 6. In a 101-88 victory in Miami, LeBron led the Heat back to their second consecutive NBA Finals with 31 points and 12 rebounds.

Credit Doc Rivers and the aging Celtics for contending with this talented Miami team, but LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were too much for the hobbled Boston side in the end. After yet another sluggish start, Wade woke up in the second half and finished with 23 points, six rebounds and six assists. Meanwhile Bosh, whose playing time was limited in Game 6 after returning to action from an abdominal strain, came off the bench and chipped in 19 points and eight rebounds, made even more impressive that nine of those points came off of three huge 3-pointers the riled up the crowd and acted like daggers to a Boston defense that already had its hands full trying to slow down LeBron and contain Wade. LeBron paved the way and Wade’s performance in the second half was key, but Bosh was the X-factor that helped the Heat pull away in the fourth quarter as they outscored Boston 28-15. In fact, LeBron, Wade and Bosh scored Miami’s last 31 points in the game. However, they also got a little help from some role players along the way. Shane Battier, who had been struggling with his shot throughout the series, knocked down four 3-pointers to finish with 12 points. Mario Chalmers had nine and Udonis Haslem added seven as well, making up for Mike Miller’s goose egg.

LeBron James was terrific once again as the Heat advanced to the Finals. Can he keep it up against the Oklahoma City Thunder?

For Boston, the loss was extremely disappointing but in truth, they were outmatched in this series and the Eastern Conference Finals would most likely have been decided in five games if Bosh had been on the floor the entire time. However, the Celtics battled and got a lot out of some aging veterans, which they should be commended for. Rajon Rondo had yet another playoff triple double, leading his team in scoring with 22 points in addition to 14 assists and 10 rebounds. Paul Pierce followed up with 19 points, Brandon Bass added 16 (14 of which came in the first half), Ray Allen had 15 and Kevin Garnett added 14. Every one of Boston’s starters scored in double figures, but the Celtics got absolutely nothing out of their bench. Without Avery Bradley, the Celtics’ bench scoring in this series was up and down, but in a decisive Game 7 on the road, none of Boston’s reserves made any impact with their limited minutes. Ryan Hollins was the only bench player to score for the Celtics, and he only had two points. The Celtics jumped out to an 11-point lead in the first half, which was cut to seven just before halftime. In the second half, Miami outscore Boston 55-35 and the game was tied heading into the fourth. From there, the Heat’s big three took over: Bosh hit two key threes in the corner, LeBron had a colossal three from a few feet behind the 3-point line and Wade finished it off with a three-point play that extended Miami’s lead to 12.

Without Avery Bradley to guard Dwyane Wade and chip in some points, it’s a wonder the Celtics were able to extend the series to seven games. Then again, without Chris Bosh, it’s not surprising the resilient Celtics were able to hang around with Rondo and Garnett playing so well. Although they didn’t quite have it in them to overcome LeBron, Wade and Bosh down the stretch, Boston had a terrific season and certainly overachieved by advancing so far in the East. For the Heat, their dreams of winning a title after assembling the big three are still very much alive. LeBron James continued his streak of dominance by stepping his game up for the final two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, but there should be concern about how well the Heat match up with the Thunder. LeBron is playing out of his mind right now, but unless Wade seriously steps up his game and Bosh continues to produce at a high level, the Heat don’t have the depth to contend with a young and athletic Thunder team that really came into its own agains the San Antonio Spurs. Whatever the case, we’re sure to be treated to one hell of an NBA Finals between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat.

LeBron James led the Heat, but Chris Bosh was the X-factor off the bench that helped Miami advance to their second consecutive Finals.

LeBron James’ Transcendent Night Forces Game 7

Like him or not, the league MVP wasn’t ready to let his team bow out of the Eastern Conference Finals just yet. Because of LeBron James’ transcendent night that had Celtics fans heading for the exits early in the fourth quarter, the Heat took Game 6 in Boston with a 98-79 win, tying the series up at three games apiece and forcing a decisive Game 7 back in Miami. Although the Celtics didn’t help matters by coming out flat, it was LeBron’s 45 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and 19-for-26 shooting night that singlehandedly kept the Heat on top, never allowing Boston to close the gap or give their fans something to cheer about.

LeBron’s stats during the postseason are unquestionable, but after the Heat lost three games in a row to a Celtics team everyone perceived as being old and banged up, the world waited for him to have a truly dominant game. Up until that point, LeBron was dropping just under 30 points a night, but it still wasn’t enough because his team was losing and he wasn’t enforcing his will on anyone. We wanted to see this superstar play with fire and passion, much like Kevin Durant did during the Thunder’s remarkable four-game winning streak to take the Western Conference Finals. And after dropping Game 5 at home, it was do or die time for the Heat. So in Game 6, with all that pressure and the possibility of elimination acting as yet another oppressor to a team that constantly deals with mass criticism and often unwarranted hate, LeBron James gave us one of his marquee playoff performances to send this series back to Miami for a chance to advance to the Heat’s second straight NBA Finals. And it wasn’t as though LeBron exploded in a given quarter or made a huge run to topple the Celtics at home. The MVP’s domination was consistent and thorough all night, spread out through the course of the game, providing his team with big buckets time and again to instantly drain any momentum Boston was trying to build. The Heat took a 10-point lead at the end of the first quarter, with LeBron scoring 14 of his team’s 26 points. Dwyane Wade, who has been criticized of late for his slow starts and generally uninspired play, once again had little to contribute in the first half. But LeBron covered all that up, heading into the locker room at halftime with 30 points and a 13-point lead. He was getting to the rim. He was knocking down jump shots left and right. He was draining 3-pointers. And when he gets going like that and when the jumper starts falling, he’s nearly impossible to guard. Simply put, the Celtics had no hope of containing him.

LeBron unleashed one of his finest playoff performances on the Celtics to force Game 7 in Miami.

It goes without saying that LeBron got some help from his teammates. Wade (slightly) picked up his game in the second half and finished with 17 points, even if it took him 17 shots to get there. Chalmers went 3-for-3 from downtown to chip in nine, Shane Battier added eight and Chris Bosh had seven off the bench. But taking a look at this game from a statistical standpoint and from a morale standpoint, LeBron’s big night was the sole factor that kept Miami’s playoff hopes alive. The Heat once again didn’t get the kind of production the need out of Wade, Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, Battier and even Chris Bosh (if the Heat want to contend for an NBA title, he’s going to have to get back to form pretty soon). But it didn’t matter because LeBron James would not allow his team to falter. It didn’t matter that the Heat had lost 15 of their last 16 games in TD Garden before Game 6. It didn’t matter that everyone was criticizing him for not playing with fire or for simply going through the motions. Because when it mattered most, LeBron let his game do the talking.

For Boston, LeBron’s prolific performance is discouraging, but what’s worse is how flat they came out in a golden opportunity to close out the series at home and avoid a dangerous elimination Game 7 in Miami. Rajon Rondo led Boston with 21 points and 10 assists, but none of the other Celtics’ starters played particularly well. Brandon Bass’ 12 was a nice addition, but Kevin Garnett also scored 12, which is significantly low for this resilient powerhouse who’s been capable of dominating Miami’s interior defense at times. Ray Allen added 10, but the most disappointing performance of the night was definitely from Paul Pierce, who finished with just nine points on an appalling 4-of-18 shooting night. Pierce has risen to the occasion in the past against LeBron, especially during the playoffs, but tonight was LeBron’s night and there was nothing Pierce or anyone else could do to stop it. The Celtics didn’t entirely let Game 6 slip through their fingers as much as LeBron James completely yanked it out of reach. A loss like this is disheartening, but don’t write Boston off just yet; outbreaks of “Let’s go, Celtics” chants at the end of the game might be just the thing they needed to keep their heads after such a convincing defeat. Those chance seemed pointless to the rest of the world, but for Boston, they showed just how much faith the fans have in their team and that can mean the difference on the road. However, if LeBron plays anything like he did in Game 6, or if he finally gets some help from Wade and the rest of his supporting cast, the Celtics stand no chance.

Pierce and the Celtics had better hope they play better in Game 7 in Miami if they want to advance to the NBA Finals. Or that LeBron James plays a lot worse.

Thunder Erase 18-Point Deficit, Advance To NBA Finals

After falling behind by 18 points in the first half of a pivotal Game 6 at home, it looked like Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder were going to head back to San Antonio for a next-to-impossible elimination Game 7. Instead, they rebounded with a monumental second half to win their fourth straight and win the Western Conference Finals in six games over the mighty Spurs. Oklahoma City will take on the winner of Boston and Miami in the franchise’s first NBA Finals since 1996 back when they were the Seattle Supersonics. Durant led OKC to a 107-99 victory with 34 points, 14 rebounds and five assists as the Thunder outscored San Antonio 59-36 in the second half.

It certainly didn’t look like things would play out well for the Thunder in the first half, though. After struggling for three straight games with Thabo Sefolosha shutting him down, Tony Parker made a point of starting off on a strong note. Parker single-handedly gave his team a big lead early on, dropping 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting. Parker had 21 points and 10 assists by halftime. And although he only scored 12 points the rest of the way, his first prolific performance in the first quarter supplied San Antonio with a 14-point lead after one and was the exact spark they needed to get the game started on a good note. Stephen Jackson and Tim Duncan were also terrific in the first half; Jackson knocked down all four of his 3-pointers (in fact, Jackson finished with 23 points and made his first six 3-point attempts) while Duncan was a much bigger force in the paint with 12 points at the half. However, Kevin Durant hit a monumental and impossible 3-pointer at the buzzer to cut the Spurs’ advantage to 63-48 and give his team a little bit of hope of a comeback in the second half. Which is exactly what they did.

Kevin Durant willed his team to victory once again, leading the Thunder in their comeback from an 18-point deficit.

As soon as the ball was inbounded at the start of the third quarter, the Thunder showed why they’ve been undefeated at home in the postseason so far. Oklahoma City went on an 11-2 run to start the third and it looked like a completely different game. OKC’s defense, which had been at the mercy of Tony Parker and superior 3-point shooting (9-of-15) in the first half, suddenly made its presence known again as the Spurs’ perimeter shooters started to cool down. Russell Westbrook, how had been struggling with his shot for the entire Western Conference Finals, picked a great night to elevate his game, dropping 25 points on 9-of-17 shooting to go with eight rebounds and five assists. Durant and Westbrook were absolutely unstoppable in the third, combining for 22 of the Thunder’s 32 points in the period as they cut the Spurs’ lead to just one heading into the fourth quarter.

James Harden had struggled heading into the game’s final period, but he once again gave the Thunder a huge lift in the fourth by making his free throws and knocking down another killer 3-pointer to put his team up six with three minutes to go as the Spurs were threatening. Harden had 16 off the bench, but Derek Fisher’s performance was even more key for the reserves, as his nine points came at critical moments that kept momentum on OKC’s side and helped him live up to his title as a true “Spur-killer.” Serge Ibaka’s 10 points and Sefolosha’s nine were also nice additions that helped this young and talented team advance to the NBA Finals.

James Harden struggled early on but once again cashed in a solid fourth quarter performance to help OKC finish the series off.

For the Spurs, nobody really got going other than Parker, Jackson and Duncan. Parker had 29, Duncan had 25 and Jackson had 23, but other than Manu Ginobili, no one scored more than seven. The Spurs’ depth all but disappeared once again as no one other than Jackson had any success with their shot. Kawhi Leonard put up a measly five points while Gary Neal could only manage seven. Daniel Green only played four minutes and joined Boris Diaw with a goose egg in the scoring column. It also didn’t help that Gregg Popovich shortened up his bench and it came back to haunt them as Duncan, Ginobili and Parker were visibly gassed in the second half. Without their legs, San Antonio’s incredible 3-point shooting in the first half completely disappeared and the Spurs went from 9-of-15 to 11-of-26 by the game’s end. The Spurs missed shots, committed too many turnovers and racked up fouls on illegal screens to forfeit any and all momentum. Parker had a few late layups to allow the Spurs to hang around, but eventually the Thunder finished them off with free throws and the Western Conference Finals ended in six.

After facing a 2-0 series deficit, the Thunder could have rolled over and let their inexperience take over and the veteran Spurs would have advanced to yet another NBA Finals appearance. But Kevin Durant was spectacular, Westbrook and Harden added in key performances here and there and the rest of the Thunder emerged as quality role players and defenders on a San Antonio side that specialized in overwhelming opponents with depth and scoring. Ever since Scott Brooks made the adjustment of switching Thabo Sefolosha on Tony Parker, the Thunder did not lose. And although Parker lit up OKC in Game 6, the Thunder’s defense stepped up big in the second half and held their tough opponent to just 18 points in the third and fourth quarters. Now the Thunder will have the chance to play for an NBA title against the winner of the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat. OKC has now beaten the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs on their path to the Finals, eliminating all three teams that have come out of the West for the last 13 years. Either way, OKC should be an overwhelming favorite to win it all; the Celtics, while resilient, experienced and well-coached, cannot compete with the Thunder’s youth and experience, while the Heat can’t perform in the fourth quarter or overcome how well this athletic and energetic team is playing right now. The Celtics are playing their best ball right now and are still having problems with a Heat team that isn’t. And with the way Durant has played lately, along with Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka and a bunch of constantly improving role players, the Thunder have a clear advantage of whoever they face in the Finals.

The Thunder aren’t satisfied to just make it to the NBA Finals. They want to win it.

Celtics Snag Road Win, Take 3-2 Lead

When the Celtics fell into a 2-0 hole in Miami against LeBron James and the Heat, the Eastern Conference Finals looked like they would be wrapping up early. And even when they defied expectations by defending home court and knotting the series at 2-2, everyone assumed the Heat would just take Game 5 at home and have two chances to finish Boston off. But after a 94-90 win in a pivotal Game 5 in Miami, the Boston Celtics look like a team to be taken seriously again.

Kevin Garnett led the Celts with 26 points and 11 rebounds and Paul Pierce scored eight of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, including a dagger 3-pointer over LeBron James to give Boston a four-point lead with less than a minute to play. Pierce’s big-time bucket was reminiscent of James Harden’s clutch three that sunk the Spurs in Game 5 and helped Boston win its third straight game to take a 3-2 lead on the series. The Celtics never led until the third quarter, when they went on a 15-1 run as the Heat once again went through a dry spell. Miami didn’t have a field goal for more than five minutes and once they fell behind, the veteran Celtics held on to their narrow lead, which was particularly impressive since Boston’s stars were struggling from the field up to that point. Rajon Rondo had only seven points on 3-of-15 shooting, Ray Allen had 13 points on 2-of-9 shooting (he knocked down eight free throws) and Pierce was only 6-for-19. However, Garnett’s brilliance, Pierce’s fourth quarter resolve and Boston’s role players stepping up proved to be too much. Mickael Pietrus had 13 points off the bench while Brandon Bass had another solid performance with 10.

Kevin Garnett had another all-around dominant performance and Paul Pierce came alive in the fourth to give the Boston Celtics the critical road win in Game 5 and take a 3-2 lead.

The Heat tried to get Dwyane Wade going early on and for the most part, it worked, as LeBron and Wade combined for 14 of the Heat’s first 16 points. Unfortunately, Wade was nowhere to be found again until the fourth quarter. LeBron led Miami with 30 points and 13 rebounds while Wade pitched in 27, 14 of which came in the fourth. The Heat also got an initial boost from Chris Bosh, who made his return to action with nine points and seven rebounds in 14 minutes off the bench. Unfortunately for the Heat, Erik Spoelstra didn’t play him much down the stretch as Miami watched a perfectly winnable Game 5 slip away. Although Wade was absent until the fourth quarter and LeBron was dominant until the fourth quarter, they were the only one who put up points for the Heat. Mario Chalmers continued to struggle with his shot and only had nine. Udonis Haslem, who was inserted into the starting lineup, made a poor debut with only three. Shane Battier only put up five and Mike Miller had just three off the bench. In fact, no one scored more than nine for the Heat other than LeBron and Wade. Miami also couldn’t get their hands on a few unlucky 50-50 balls, including one that led to a 3-pointer from Pietrus after Rondo perfectly tipped a phenomenal block from Wade to the wide open man in the corner. And after Pierce’s dagger three, the Celtics hit their free throws and finished off the road win to send the series back to Boston for an elimination Game 6.

The Miami Heat missed a golden opportunity to take back control in this series at home, where they have been nearly unstoppable during the postseason. It’s amazing how much of a difference coaching is making in this series; Doc Rivers is guiding and old and hobbled (but determined and experienced) Celtics team to the Finals while Erik Spoelstra is letting a team with two of the game’s biggest superstars underachieve once again. If the Heat do lose this series, Spoelstra’s job could (and should) be in serious jeopardy. But for now, the Eastern Conference Finals shift back to Boston, where a rocking TD Garden will make things even more difficult for a Heat team struggling to find support outside of LeBron and Wade. Chalmers and Miller need to start knocking down 3-pointers again, Haslem has got to make himself an offensive option and Chris Bosh will need to be ready for extended minutes (Spoelstra’s decision to bench him for the entire fourth quarter of Game 5 was ultimately dumb, but not indefensible; there will be no excuses in Game 6). If Bosh can play like he was before his abdominal injury, he will have a huge impact on the offensive end by putting up points in the paint and on the defensive end by matching up with the formidable Kevin Garnett. But the key to getting such a difficult win on the road in an elimination game will be Dwyane Wade. LeBron James shows up to play every night and has been quietly putting up nearly 30 ppg in the postseason, but Wade has been all too inconsistent in the playoffs this year. When Wade does come to play, the Heat are nearly unstoppable, as evidenced by their two-man demolition of the Indiana Pacers in the second round. Miami needs their supporting cast to step up and knock down perimeter shots and a good game from Bosh would definitely be a plus. But after losing a game where Rondo and Pierce both shot so poorly, the Heat need Wade to go off to force Game 7.

Do LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have what it takes to force a Game 7 in Miami?