Heat are their own worst enemies
OKLAHOMA CITY — LeBron James blew past Kevin Durant, then James Harden, neither quick enough or sturdy enough to slow his powerful jaunts to the basket. Then Chris Bosh answered Durant’s dunk by taking a pass from Dwyane Wade and coolly sinking a 3-pointer. Nobody in a white uniform could seemingly locate, let alone stop, Shane Battier or Mario Chalmers.
The implication, shortly after they broke a sweat in the NBA Finals, was clear to the Heat: This is going to be easy.
James can talk about his new-found peace of mind, the rest of the Heat can profess lessons learned from the embarrassment of last year’s Finals, and they can point with pride to the survivalist gene that kicked in when they got off the mat against Boston.
But the character of the Heat, who they are deep down, remains unaltered. The hubris James, Wade and Bosh carried down the catwalk two summers ago — not one, not two, not three… — has gone on the down low, but it hasn’t gone away.
And so, with the chance to seize an early lead and sew some doubt in a green Oklahoma City team, the Heat squandered that opportunity along with a 13-point lead and lost going away, 105-94.
The loss is hardly disastrous, something Miami knows well after winning the opener at home against Dallas last season, but its chore of winning a title just became harder.
After playing a splendid 23 minutes, with crisp ball movement leading to wide-open shots and not allowing the Thunder opportunities to run, everything came to a screeching halt.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Battier said.
It is also one that is asked with increasing frequency for the Heat. The turning point of last year’s Finals came when James and Wade celebrated their 15-point fourth-quarter lead in front of the Dallas bench. The Mavericks launched a furious comeback that lifted them to a title.
When the Heat cruised to a win over Boston in the opener of the Eastern Conference finals, James was whipping behind-the-back passes and laughing at the histrionics of Kevin Garnett (though it’s hard to blame him for that). The next thing Miami knew, it was in a seven-game fight for survival.
This time, when the going was easy, it was back to Hero Ball for the Heat. Instead of moving the ball from side to side, or James getting into the teeth of the defense and spotting the open man — something he did exquisitely in Game 7 against Boston — the offense was four guys standing around watching another guy take jump shots.
When the shots did not fall, the defense did not get back, and much like Boston did with Rajon Rondo, Oklahoma City took advantage. The difference is the Thunder aren’t running a geriatric fast-break. They were flying. Oklahoma City had 15 fast-break points in the second half to the Heat’s none.
Most often, it was off misses by Wade, who finished with 19 points on 7-of-19 shooting, and struggled mightily to defend Russell Westbrook.
The biggest problem wasn’t so much the missed shots — Wade has those types of games — but that he actually didn’t have a problem with them.
“Sometimes the game goes to where guys attack a little more, especially when the ball is [with] me and LeBron, we attack a lot and it’s not as much swing-swing, and that’s good for our team,” Wade said when asked why the ball stopped moving.
Apparently, those glass-less glasses that James and Wade wore together to the interview podium didn’t allow them to see the problem with any clarity.
“We got good shots for our teammates,” Wade continued. “I thought we got good shots for ourselves. Obviously, we just need to make more. I wasn’t disappointed in the shots we got.”
It’s this kind of thinking, along with another poor fourth-quarter showing by James, that is at the heart of questions about the Heat. It’s as if all the heady, together plays they made Saturday night against Boston were purged from their memory bank.
Battier called the second half the “least intelligent” half of basketball that Miami has played in two months, though it hardly seems like two days have passed since the Heat were playing like this against Boston.
Because Miami hasn’t outgrown these types of performances, it makes the Heat look like a team that doesn’t want to be coached, isn’t capable of being coached, or doesn’t have a capable coach.
Or, perhaps, all of the above.
So, for as transcendent a talent as Durant is, and as dynamic as Oklahoma City can be, the first night of these Finals seems to be a reminder that this series will be no different than the past two years have been.
For all the distaste that exists for the Heat, their worst enemy is the one looking back at them in the mirror.