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?

Boston Outlasts Miami In Overtime, Ties Up Eastern Conference Finals

And just like that, we have a series again. After the Thunder tied up the Western Conference Finals Saturday night, Boston came out and defended their home court to do the same, outlasting Miami in a 93-91 overtime win in Game 4. Although the contest was greatly influenced by overzealous refereeing (thanks again, Joey Crawford), it was consistently poor on both sides of the ball and ultimately only robbed the audience of a potentially classic overtime battle as Paul Pierce and LeBron James both fouled out in the game’s extra period.

Boston got off to a fast start, quickly building up a 21-9 advantage behind Pierce and Ray Allen and they led by 14 at the break. The Celtics got huge boosts in the first half and the entire game from Allen, who knocked down four 3-pointers and finished with 16 points. Boston also got improved performances out of Brandon Bass and Keyon Dooling, who finished with 11 and 10, respectively. Pierce led the Celts with 23 points before fouling out on an off-the-ball foul against Shane Battier, marking the third time he’s fouled out in the past five games. Rajon Rondo had 15 points and 15 assists and Kevin Garnett finished with 17 points and 14 rebounds. LeBron James once again had a quality first half without getting much help from his teammates, which has been a recurring issue in the past two games and explains why the Heat have had to battle back from double-digit deficits in the second half of their two games in TD Garden. Dwyane Wade went 2-for-11 in the first half and finished with 20 points on a meager 7-of-22 shooting, with one of those misses being a last-second 3-point attempt that would have given Miami the overtime win. Wade had an open look and his poor shooting night certainly didn’t help matters, but Erik Spoelstra should take the majority of the blame for drawing up such a feeble attempt of a play to end the game both in regulation and overtime. I understand the tendency in the NBA to just give the ball to your star player in the clutch and let him pull up for a dramatic jump shot for the win, but how do you not convert down the stretch twice with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the floor?

With LeBron James and Paul Pierce both out of the game, Dwayne Wade missed a last-second 3-point attempt to win the game and gave the Celtics the Game 4 OT win and even the series.

The Heat remained resilient and battled back with Wade and Mario Chalmers stepping up in the third quarter, but couldn’t hold on to a minimal fourth quarter lead after taking momentum back. Chalmers and Udonis Haslem each finished with 12 points but Shane Battier only pitched in six and Mike Miller only had two. LeBron led all scorers again with 29 points and even hit a clutch 3-pointer to tie the game that would eventually send it to OT. But he didn’t get much help from Wade and got next to nothing from his supporting cast for the second game in a row, which meant a win for the home team. LeBron will also have to deal with the criticism of not being clutch because he passed on the last play in regulation (which is absolutely ridiculous since he hit the three to send it to OT and also because he was TRIPLE-TEAMED on the game’s final possession). After a devastating overtime defeat that was heavily influenced by the referees on both sides, the Miami Heat are now under heavy pressure to reclaim the lead against a team that was seen as banged up and broken before the series started.

Like the Thunder, the underdog Celtics stared a 2-0 deficit in the face and beat it into submission with back-to-back wins on their home floor. Now the Eastern Conference Finals are tied and all the pressure is on Miami to prove that the last two games didn’t matter. But unless Wade and Miami’s supporting cast wakes up and steps up on their home court, the overall balance of the Celtics looks like it has what it takes to get the best of LeBron James. Pierce, Rondo and KG are all pitching in while role players like Bass, Dooling and Allen are outshining Miami’s bench. The Heat could really use Chris Bosh right about now, who has been sitting out since the Heat’s series against Indiana in the second round. Many people take Bosh and what he does for granted, and while it was fine for him to sit out with the abdominal strain when the Heat were up 2-0, now that Boston has put the pressure back on Miami, it might be time for him to suit up again. Because this experienced and veteran Celtics team has proven that they have what it takes to win and they have all the momentum heading into a pivotal Game 5 on the road. But unlike Game 4, hopefully the disgraceful refereeing of the NBA won’t deprive us of anything special again.

Keyon Dooling and Boston’s role guys were huge once again for the Celtics, who now have a shot.

Lakers Hit Free Throws, Beat Thunder At Home

Credit the Lakers for swapping roles with the Thunder from Game 2 by coming back from a five point deficit with just under three minutes to play in Game 3. But Kobe Bryant and his team greatly benefitted from an overly aggressive and controlling referee crew (led by Joey Crawford, of course) that awarded the home team with 42 free throws and completely slowed down the pace of the game throughout. There were a total of 70 free throws in this game, a complete travesty for NBA Playoff basketball. But whatever the case, Los Angeles handled business at home, hit 41 of those 42 free throws and breathed new life into this series with a 99-96 win. Oklahoma City still leads the series 2-1, but the Lakers finally got over the hurdle and proved they can beat this offensively powered Thunder team.

Kobe led the Lakers with 36 points (18-for-18 from the line) and made up for his fourth quarter collapse in Game 2 by making so many free throws Game 3’s waning minutes. But the biggest difference in this game, other than the shamefully high number of fouls, was that he finally got some help from his supporting cast. Ramon Sessions, who I criticized in my last post for not showing up at all in the Lakers’ last three playoff games, finally reached double digits again with 12 points. In fact, Sessions, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Ron Artest and Steve Blake all scored in double digits. On the Thunder side of the ball, Kevin Durant led OKC with 31 points and Russell Westbrook and James Harden each added 21. But whereas Los Angeles had six players in double digits, the Thunder only had three and couldn’t get much out of their role players. Serge Ibaka went 4-for-10 for just eight, Kendrick Perkins had six, Derek Fisher had four and Thabo Sefolosha had just three. The Lakers’ supporting cast has been incredibly weak for the entire postseason, so any game where the Thunder’s role players are outplayed by LA’s does not hold a promising result for OKC, no matter how proficient Durant, Westbrook and Harden might be.

Kobe Bryant made all 18 of his free throws as the Lakers made the series 2-1.

For the Thunder, this was a pretty costly loss. Not only did they give the Lakers hope in this series by surrendering that five point lead, but they completely abandoned attacking the basket and settled for numerous contested jump shots down the stretch. Even Harden, who has been OKC’s voice of reason in the past with his incessant ability to get to the rim, settled for a jumper late in the fourth quarter. In a game where the refs completely controlled the tempo by calling so many fouls (including at least three questionable calls on Harden), it was a huge mistake to keep taking those jumpers instead of attacking the basket and drawing whistles from the refs. The Thunder have now shot the ball poorly in the past two games, which is the main reason why the games have been so close. A jump-shooting team can’t afford to miss so many shots on the road, so you combine that with Ramon Sessions’ resurgence and the ridiculous amount of free throws taken in this game and it makes sense why the Lakers came out on top. However, this loss is not the end of the world for OKC either. The Thunder probably would have liked to take Game 3 and go for the sweep today in Game 4, but as long as they get one victory on the road, they’ll have taken care of business in Staples Center and put themselves in position to close the series at home.

Game 4 becomes a must-win for the Lakers and it might as well be one for the Thunder. If the Lakers can defend their home court and tie the series up at two games apiece, this series suddenly becomes competitive again. You can never count out a Kobe Bryant playoff team, no matter how superior the Thunder may appear in the postseason so far. Don’t forget that Kobe’s been in this situation before: The Lakers were down 2-0 to the San Antonio Spurs in the second round of the 2004 NBA Playoffs before winning four straight to advance to the Western Conference Finals. For the Thunder, the worst possible thing would be to let the Lakers take Game 4 and inspire confidence in a supporting cast that has only played one good game in the series so far. If the Thunder hit their shots and the foul count stays low (or at least lower than Game 3), OKC should get a win on the road and finish the Lake Show in five games.

Kevin Durant dropped 31 but the Thunder didn’t get much out of their supporting cast.