OKLAHOMA CITY – When Shane Battier announced he was taking his talents to South Beach, there was no sitdown with Jim Gray, no sideshows and no announcements about a parade route.
But if the free-agent signing of Battier was not quite so audacious, it was a move that was much like Battier himself – understated, smart and sensible.
And it is those ingredients, along with some deadeye three-point shooting and dependable defense, that may be the difference between Miami’s Finals failure a year ago and a championship this season.
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The Heat took a step toward that goal Thursday, evening the series at a game apiece after their wire-to-wire 100-96 victory over Oklahoma City.
It was a game in which LeBron James found his nerve down the stretch, Dwyane Wade displayed verve after soaking up questions about his demise and Chris Bosh returned to the starting lineup with a flourish.
But standing in the background, laying the foundation, was Battier, who sank five three-pointers and spent much of his nearly 42 minutes on the court setting screens, taking charges, moving the ball and otherwise pestering Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
“That’s when everybody notices Shane Battier is when the ball is going in,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We notice everything else before that: His versatility … the defensive plays that he makes. It’s the leadership. All the details mean everything to him, and that’s become contagious to this group.”
Battier joked recently that he felt like Ringo Starr joining the Heat this season, a change after spending his entire career in Memphis and Houston. Each time James sneezed, he marveled, it became a trending topic on Twitter.
Then he amended his analogy.
“I like to consider myself the guy who carries the equipment,” he said. “But I’ll tell you what, that guy never paid for a Guinness in England.”
His new circumstances, free beer or not, have taken some getting used to for Battier, even as he knew they were part of the bargain for a player desperate for a championship who had never advanced past the second round in the playoffs.
Battier’s greatest value is as another versatile defender, which as Wade pointed out, no longer forces him or James to defend the other team’s best player all the time. A meticulous note-taker, Battier is often found studying his personal scouting reports before games.
But what Battier was not used to was getting constant questions – during the worst three-point shooting season of his career – about whether he would consider altering his quirky jump shot. And there were frustrations that, as a consummate team player, came with the Heat reverting to “Hero Ball” – four players standing around watching James or Wade try to score.
But recently he is settling in, as if he’s determined not to squander his first real opportunity to win a title. In the last two games against Boston – which Miami had to win – and the two games in the Finals, Battier has made 17 of 29 three-point shots.
“We’re not the best passing team in the history of basketball, and I’ve let people know that on my team,” said Battier, who is much more willing to criticize his team’s play than Spoelstra or James. “So I’ve gotten some good passes. I told those guys if you give me good passes I’m going to make some shots, and I’ve gotten some very good passes in this series.”
And some very good fortune.
Just as Miami did in the opener, it jumped to an early lead – 18-2 this time – before Oklahoma City surged in the second half. But Battier helped hold off the Thunder when he banked in a 26-foot three-pointer just before the shot clock expired to give Miami a 90-83 lead.
“The shot clock was low, Durant was in my face. I was just trying to get the ball on the rim and maybe get an offensive rebound,” Battier said. “The basketball gods were smiling.”
Perhaps, then, it was a reward for all the little details Battier attended to Thursday. For a player who spent all but six minutes and 10 seconds on the floor, he showed once again the folly of tying a player’s impact to the box score. Battier, who had 19 points in the opener, scored 17 points and had one rebound, one assist and no steals, turnovers or blocks.
But there he was contesting Durant’s three-pointer that might have brought Oklahoma City within two with 1:18 left. Earlier, after getting knocked down trying to draw a charge, he jumped up to tip a rebound to Wade, who started a fastbreak that ended in a Bosh dunk. He set a screen that paved the way for James to drive to the rim, he drew a charging foul on Durant early in the fourth quarter and very nearly drew Durant’s sixth when he was called for a block.
That had to be galling for Durant, who a day earlier had made a rare acknowledgement – that Battier’s habit of placing his hand in a shooter’s face, rather than trying to block his shot, was irritating. It was an admission Kobe Bryant never made.
“Yes,” Battier said with a fist pump when Durant’s disclosure was relayed to him. “Someone finally admitted it.”
This type of playful acknowledgement has also made Battier stand out thus far in the Finals off the court, where the seriousness of the circumstance and the gravity of the questions have a way of sucking the life out of the party.
If others often stick to their cliché playbook, Battier has stuck to his identity. There appear to be few subjects who don’t elicit a grin, a quip or a self-deprecating crack. Even though Battier knows full well how difficult it is to reach this stage, he still appears intent on enjoying himself.