The key to the NBA Finals may lie beyond the arc and beyond the stars.
In predicting the outcome of the NBA Finals, much ink has been spilled in billing Kevin Durant versus Lebron James –a matchup of superstars, with the title of world’s best on the line. There’s a reason for that. Basketball is a game of stars. The best players usually belong to the best teams, carrying them –burdens on the backs of giants. But what if I told you that the key to this much anticipated finals matchup laid beyond the stars? What if I told you that names like Battier, Chalmers, and Miller might ultimately decide if the golden trophy goes to South Beach or to the Southwest?
Because that’s exactly what I’m telling you. At the end of the day, once Durant, James, Westbrook, and Wade have exchanged blows in the newest episode of Star Wars, the box scores will reveal that the performance of role players truly decided the difference. If the Heat is to rise, the three pointers must fall. And Battier, Chalmers, and Miller must be the ones to step up in the clutch.
Several analysts have accused the Oklahoma City Thunder of being a team that lives and dies by the jump shot. However, if the playoffs are any indication, that shoe is being worn on the other foot. The Heat, not the Thunder, have found feast or famine based on how they fare beyond the arc.
As the playoffs progress, the Heat are jacking up more threes than they have all season. After averaging 15.6 three-point attempts per game over the shortened season, that number has climbed to over 19 in the playoffs. The number of those shots that find their way into the basket have largely determined whether the Heat win or lose this postseason. In their twelve wins, Miami averages a respectable .3635 shooting percentage from behind the line. Their losses have been a much different story. In each loss, they’ve lost the three-point percentage battle, averaging a shooting percentage of .2167 –nearly 15 percentage points lower than their winning average.
Think that’s an obvious correlation? Think again. For the Thunder, who supposedly live and die by the three-pointer, they fared better against the Spurs (another great shooting team) when shooting worse beyond the arc. In two losses to San Antonio, Oklahoma City averaged a three-point percentage of 43.1. In four consecutive wins, the average dropped to 39.9%. They found other ways to win –even when San Antonio was winning the three-point percentage battle.
Miami has not found such a formula, and despite the much-earned attention given to Lebron James, the games have largely been determined by names farther down on the roster: Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, and Mike Miller. When these players are hot, the Heat is scorching through the competition. When they’re not, both the shots and the team fall short.
In the 2012 playoffs, the difference in their numbers and the fate of their team are startling:
|Player||3-Point Performance in Wins||3-Point Performance in Losses|
|Shane Battier||23 made, 65 attempted, 35.4%||4 made, 18 attempted, 22.2%|
|Mario Chalmers||22 made, 50 attempted, 44.0%||3 made, 19 attempted, 15.8%|
|Mike Miller||17 made, 43 attempted, 39.5%||7 made, 21 attempted, 33.3%|
And in the case of the importance of the three-pointer, Lebron can’t rescue his teammates if their shot goes cold. His three-point play doesn’t seem to change the outcome of the game; he’s shooting 28% in playoff wins and 27% in playoff losses.
These two juggernauts met twice during the regular season, and this narrative seemed to play out just as I’ve predicted it will once again. Obviously, the varying performance of Lebron James and Kevin Durant were paramount in deciding which of their teams won. But they weren’t alone. The performance of the Heat’s long-range shooters proved to be a huge x-factor between victory and defeat. In Miami’s loss to the Thunder, Chalmers and Battier combined for only four threes. In their victory, they hit six of thirteen.
What Miami should truly fear as they head into this series is that, against this streaking Thunder team, the Heat’s best shooting night may still fall short. The Thunder just rattled off four wins in a row in which the Spurs shot 43% from behind the arc and 45% from the field. How did they do it? Despite losing the three-point battle, the Thunder shot over 50% from the field in those wins.
That spells trouble for Miami. Good shooting performances from the opposing team has been their downfall. In six playoff losses, the opposing team has shot 40.7%, 41.2%, 50%, 43.4%, 37.8%, and 42.7%. A team featuring Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and the streaking Serge Ibaka can eclipse those numbers easily. Their lowest field goal percentage against the Spurs was 42%. Their highest was 56.4%.
If it comes down to a shootout, the Oklahoma City Thunder of the wild, wild west have to feel that they have the advantage –no matter what names are stitched into the backs of the opposing jerseys.
But those names do matter. Lebron James, much to media delight, will be a huge factor in this series. But we, as human beings, often fail to see beyond the stars. Sometimes, the beauty of the sky, and the beauty of the game, requires a telescope –it requires closer examination. Enjoy the duel between Durant and James, the point guard battle between Wade and Westbrook, and the competition for best third wheel between Harden and Bosh. But don’t forget to see beyond the stars.
Chances are this series will go beyond those stars that take the court on Tuesday night. Both teams have their fair share of players with astronomical amounts of talent. Their collisions will deservedly garner the bright lights, the attention, and the accolades. But don’t be surprised if the game turns on a shot from the corner –an open look for Battier or Chalmers as the seconds tick down.
If those shots fall, the Heat will rise. If those shots ricochet off of the rim, shaken by the vibrations of the yells of raucous fans and the notorious Thunk of a brick, then, upon the hardwood, both the ball and the Thunder will roll.