In this series' close games, the Heat and the Thunder have won or lost by their supporting players.
When people talk about basketball, they're usually talking about superstars. The stars are the reason we watch the game. When they win, we sing their praises; when they lose, we proclaim their demise. Throughout the four games of the NBA Finals, which the Miami Heat are leading, 3-1, over the Oklahoma City Thunder, the larger conversation has swirled around four names: LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the Heat and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on the Thunder.
Of course, we should be talking about these players. Their work on the court has been exemplary, almost amazingly consistent. I'm not sure I've seen another Finals series in which all the superstars have played like such superstars. James, for all his perceived faults, is playing the postseason best basketball of his career, putting up solid numbers night after night with no sign of waning. He can still be infuriating to watch—his injury late in Game 4 was more a Paul Pierce than Willis Reed moment, as some were calling it on Twitter—but it's getting harder and harder to ignore his mastery of the court. Wade, whose game isn't as flashy as his running-mate's, is still putting up consistently great numbers even if his shooting is up-and-down, and his passing has been undervalued in the series so far. And while it's easy to bicker about Durant's foul trouble early in the series, the man often looks like a magician when the ball is in his hands and he's had brief stretches in every game, often in the fourth quarter, where it seems he can't miss a shot. Let's not forget Russell Westbrook who, in a 43-point Game 4 performance, played single-handily the best game of his career. It was a performance as wondrous and baffling as Rajon Rondo's earlier in the playoffs against the Heat, an intense and exciting display of talent that will surely go down as one of the defining moments of his career.
But even with Westbrook's masterful work on the court, the Thunder still lost Game 4, 104-98. An electrifying show that should, and usually would, have been enough to put the Thunder over the top didn't cut it. With all the superstars playing at the highest levels, they are basically cancelling each other out. This has made for stirring games in which the teams are trading baskets to the final seconds—except for Game 1, the point differential in the series has hasn't been more than six points. So what has been the deciding factor in each game? What tilts the outcome just enough for one team to emerge the winner and the other the loser?
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It all comes down to the people behind the superstars. The play coming from the bench, as well as the background starting rotation (when you play for Miami and you're not one of the Big Three, you're essentially a bench player) has been the little-noticed key to these games. These are performances that come out of nowhere, maybe only lasting a few minutes, at most a quarter, but producing devastating after-shocks. The performance of Shane Battier, forward for the Miami Heat, has been crucial in the series—especially toward the beginning, when he turned into a three-point-making machine. He scored 17 points in each of the first two games, 10 points higher than his season average, all while playing roughly 40 minutes a game (around the same as James and Wade). On the other side of the court there's the Thunder's James Harden, Sixth Man of the Year, whose Finals trajectory has been the opposite of Battier's. Harden, the player off the bench everyone expected to make an impact, has been non-existent on the court. His shooting has been ragged and flighty, and fatigue (possibly with a dose of inexperience) is causing him to make bad decisions. So far in the Finals, Harden is averaging around 10 points per game, down roughly 5 points from his regular season average. Without Harden stepping up and playing at the level we know he is capable of, the Thunder have little chance of extending the series past 5 games.
The focus that seems to be lacking in Harden may have been transferred over to Nick Collison, a player less skillful but who is playing with an unheralded intensity. His performance in Game 1, where he played almost the entire second half, is responsible for giving the Thunder their only win. He scored 8 points (almost double his regular season average), grabbed 10 rebounds (split evenly between offensive and defensive), and was a constant, sturdy presence on defense when the team needed it the most.
When we look back on this series, digging through all the superstar muck, the player who will undoubtedly stand out is the Heat's Mario Chalmers. That's a sentence I never thought I would write. But with Russell Westbrook playing the best basketball of his life in Game 4, and LeBron James on the sidelines with an injury, the player out on the court who looked like he wanted it the most was Chalmers. His 25 points were the only thing that kept the Heat in the game. And his achievement more impressive because of just how unexpected it was, especially in this series: In the previous three games, Chalmers had a combined 17 points. His turnaround, when his team needed him most, is the type of performance that's essential to a championship-winning team.
For the Thunder to keep this series going, their role-players will have to become more active. They need to realize that they are not the supporting cast, but the deciding factor in their team winning a championship. What's most surprising about all of this is that Miami, the team that in the minds of many NBA fans represents the epitome of superstar-driven play, seems to have understood that to win it all, they needed to reverse-engineer their entire system. It's working, and will continue to work, unless the Thunder does the same.