When times are bad for Miami, the criticism usually falls on the star players, then Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. The team was blasted after Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, when a unified Celtics squad took down a disjointed Miami group on its home court. The problem, observers said at the time, was that the Heat were not playing like a team — from on-court execution all the way to player chemistry.
But those quick to criticize the Heat for not banding together need to remember the pieces that make up this team. Although LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh took pay cuts to play together in Miami, they didn’t give up enough that management could stock the rest of the team with All-Stars or at least quality players. Team president Pat Riley and Co. filled the gaps with serviceable but un-sensational guys.
The Heat had a chance to regroup and rebuild this offseason, both with the players already on the team and through the draft, trades and free agent signings. They did a decent job. While Miami still struggles with spots four through 12 (or eight, or 10, as playoff rotations don’t run as deep), the Heat have been a better team this season.
Mario Chalmers has posted some excellent games and taken care of the point guard spot, and Mike Miller popped up in vital situations throughout the playoffs. Joel Anthony, Norris Cole and James Jones have all contributed. And Udonis Haslem and Ronny Turiaf are exactly the kind of post presences and proven contributors a team needs.
But of all of the Heat’s adjustments, whether it be developing its secondary players or picking up new help, none has been more important than one player who has taken off in the NBA Finals: Shane Battier.
The Heat grabbed Battier in the offseason after the 10-year veteran finished his second stint with Memphis, where he ended up after a midseason trade from the Rockets last year. Miami needed solid free agents to beef up its supporting cast, and Battier seemed like the perfect fit. He’s an elite defender, considered one of the smartest players in basketball, can drain 3-pointers and has been known as a true team player.
Battier could have been a great extra asset, picking up the Heat on defense and chipping in a few points on offense, where he could help Miami stretch the court by having another outside shooter for when James and Wade took it to the hoop.
But a funny thing happened in Miami this season: dysfunction. While the Heat did shed many of the hurdles that had been a problem before, Battier didn’t slide into the Miami rotation as easily as expected. He ended the year with his lowest points per game (4.8), rebounds per game (2.4), blocks per game (0.5) and 3-pointers attempted per game (just 183) of his entire career. He also shot a career-low 33.9 percent from 3-point range.
What could have been an upgrade for the Heat turned into another case of not knowing how to fit a good player into Miami’s system, or of Battier having trouble adjusting.
But the Heat didn’t just pick up Battier for the regular season. They needed him to get over the hump in the playoffs, too. Now — in the final round of this year’s postseason — Battier has started to show the worth that has made him a solid NBA player for so long.
Taking advantage of matchups against Oklahoma City, the Heat have been able to deploy Battier at the 3-point line, where he’s wreaked havoc on the Thunder defense. He’s been getting the looks he needs, often early in the game, and he’s been hitting the shots, too.
Battier has made 11 of 15 shots from the arc — that’s 73 percent — and scored 17, 17 and nine points in the first three games of the Finals. In Game 3, he only had two shots (both 3-pointers) but hit them both. Oklahoma City hasn’t found a way to guard him, and his otherworldly stroke so far has made the Thunder pay.
Battier’s ridiculous shooting percentage will likely deflate a bit, but he’ll still test the defense by being a perimeter threat. And having Battier contribute on offense now provides more solutions for the rest of the team, as Battier can stay on the floor for key defensive stretches without taking away from Miami’s scoring ability.
Defense is Battier’s real moneymaker. He’s been giving Kevin Durant a literal face-full this series, employing his usual hand-inches-from-the-nose technique on the Oklahoma City star. Even if Battier is not shutting Durant down, he’s distracting him and wearing him out, as Durant has admitted. And every minute Battier is on the court, James, Wade and Bosh can take advantage of other matchups.
Battier now has the opportunity to be in the Finals what the Heat needed him to be all season: a great defender and shooter, as he has been so many times before in his career. Whatever it was that slowed Battier earlier this season appears to be gone, and he has the perfect matchup in the Finals to continue to display his strengths.
The Heat have had plenty of problems playing together and adding new teammates, but the pickup of Battier is as genius as it first looked, even if it took a while to pay off.
Miami’s plan was never to recruit players — of any caliber — to win the regular season. In Battier, the Heat have the perfect person to round out the team and finally capture a title.