Miami Heat's role players making a difference
JAIME C. HARRIS Special to the AmNews | 6/27/2012, 5:33 p.m.
When the Miami Heat walked onto their home floor for Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night, they were clutching a 2-1 series lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder primarily due to the amazing exploits of LeBron James.
The 6-foot-9, 250-pound James, who has played every position at some juncture during the Finals, was averaging an otherworldly 30.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and four assists in 44 minutes per game. Moreover, the leading vote recipient for the NBA's 2012 All-Defensive Team was matching his reputation as the best defender on the planet by tenaciously pressuring the Thunder on the perimeter and using his muscle to be stout on the low blocks. Yet it was the Heat's role players, most notably forward Shane Battier, who made the subtle difference in the Eastern Conference champions holding a one game advantage.
With Game 5 taking place tonight (Thursday) in Miami, it was imperative that the Thunder's secondary personnel--particularly Sixth Man of the Year award winner guard James Harden and 6-foot-10, 245-pound forward Serge Ibaka, a First Team All-Defensive Team honoree like James--dramatically increase their production for their squad to positively shift the tide of momentum.
The 33-year-old Battier has been exceptional on both ends of the court in the first three games of the series. After averaging only seven points on 36 percent shooting in seven games versus the Boston Celtics in the conference finals, the 11-year veteran from Duke was a wildcard, attaining a 14.3 points-per-game average against the Thunder on a sensational 14-19 from the field (73.7 percent), including an extraordinary 11-15 (73 percent) on 3-pointers.
In contrast, Harden and Ibaka have struggled offensively. After posting 18.5 points per game on 49 percent shooting against the Spurs in the Thunder's previous series, Harden has fallen off sharply in facing the Heat, putting up an average of only 11.7 points in three contests and an ugly 41 percent shooting.
Ibaka has been a non-factor when the Thunder possessed the ball. The big man from the Congo was providing a mere 7.3 points per game, almost a five-point differential from the 12 points per game he contributed against the Spurs.
The ridiculous, short-sighted criticism of Russell Westbrook from fans and media has detracted from the line of reasoning that the Thunder's secondary players must step up.