Perhaps the biggest critique of the Miami Heat has been their lack of a consistent identity. Questions surrounding this team have included whose team it is, if Erik Spoelstra is really the man for the job, if they are 'too small', and if LeBron James would show up in the Finals.
After Game 3, the answers to those questions are slowly beginning to unfold.
First and foremost, LeBron James has finally carried over his regular season and playoff dominance into the NBA Finals. James has been nothing short of spectacular, attacking the rim in relentless fashion, rebounding and defending like the imposing specimen he is, and making good on his claim that he would leave behind no regrets in his third trip to the NBA Finals.
But more than just the greatness of LeBron James, this Miami Heat team has seemingly matured in a major way, and it starts at the top. Despite many criticisms along the way, Erik Spoelstra has been out-coaching Scott Brooks. After testing out various switching schemes on defense in Game 1, Spoelstra made a simple adjustment. As many thought he would, Bosh returned to the starting line up. Shane Battier was also assigned the match up of Kendrick Perkins. Miami's most experienced defender has had the luxury of playing the roamer and exaggerating help defense, because Perkins isn't exactly a threat to Miami on offense. It also seems as if Spoelstra's 'small ball' tactics are bothering Scott Brooks even more so than Gregg Popovich's did against San Antonio. Sure Spoelstra has better athletes than Pop, but his arrangement of match-ups has yet to be challenged by Scott Brooks.
Say what you want about Spoelstra, but he's winning the coaching battle.
Although I picked Oklahoma City in 6, I recognized Miami's inevitable favoritism because of their experience on this stage. Still, I felt Oklahoma City had stared experience in the face through the playoffs and would be more than ready for their first big test. Instead, the last two games looked more like a puny little brother nervously and perhaps foolishly challenging the likes of their older brother. I say nervously because we have seen things uncharacteristic of this OKC team. Things they can control such as free throws (shooting 70 percent in the Finals versus NBA's best 81.2 percent in the regular season) and not valuing the basketball has made for more empty possessions down the stretch than we've seen from the Thunder in these playoffs. No doubt Miami's defense deserves credit, but I think we will see an even more feisty, more prepared little brother for Game 4. Keys:
- Scott Brooks must take Kevin Durant off LeBron James, at least for the first half, so he can keep his best player on the floor and out of potential foul trouble. Let's see if he manages match ups differently for Game 4.
- Oklahoma City has to make shots to have a chance. Simple, but true. Been their means of operating thus far.
- Chris Bosh must continue to anchor the paint. He has made winning plays from offensive rebounds to bailing out LeBron James on several Durant drives in Game 3.
- The Miami lay up show in the first half of Game 3 can't happen for OKC. Must turn them into jump shooters.
- James Harden or Russell Westbrook must provide better support for Durant. If all three can get going, I think they win the game.
As ESPN's J.A. Adande mentioned in his commentary after Game 3, you would have to be a fool to count out the Oklahoma City Thunder. I think we will see a more comfortable Thunder team in their second Finals game on the road. No one captures lightning in a bottle like the Thunder. No team in the NBA can get hotter. Is tonight a must win for Oklahoma City? I think so. However, like ESPN's Skip Bayless, I would not mind seeing what this team does with their backs against the wall, because nothing can be more threatening than a little brother on the brink of desperation.