MIAMI — The Miami Heat are absolutely terrifying closing out games.
That’s something my colleague Matt Moore said Tuesday night as the Heat steamrolled past the Mavericks in the final five minutes of Game 1.
But that’s also something no one on this planet was saying four months ago. At that time, it was about how Miami couldn’t close. It was all about how they were something like 2-17 on shots with the game within a possession in the final minute. It was all about their sub-par record in games decided by six or less.
Now look at them. Closing games like they’re Mariano Rivera. Amazing how talented people committed to their craft and willing to work hard can, you know, improve and stuff.
They’ve found an incredible rhythm and a superior confidence in what they’re doing. All five players walk to the same beat in those crunch time minutes. LeBron has sort of elevated himself to the closer role for the Heat, handling the ball and finishing out games. But still there’s nothing about who should be taking the shots or who should be controlling the offense. It’s just about getting it done.
And lately, man have they been getting it done.
The Thunder, on the other hand, struggled to finish. Against the Mavericks, they struggled to finish in a historic manner in Game 4. Most of the reason, the experts figured, was because of bad execution, forced shots and Russell Westbrook. The consensus was that because Westbrook was doing a poor job getting the ball to Kevin Durant, that the crunch time Thunder offense fell apart. If Westbrook would simply quit ball-hogging and defer entirely to KD, the problems would be solved.
But what about that buzzword Erik Spoelstra loves to use — trust? Whether you believe it or not, the Thunder are sort of similar to the Heat in that two offensively gifted stars that absolutely are deserving of having the ball in crunch time are on the floor together and have to work in concert to be successful. As players Westbrook and Durant are pretty different from LeBron and Wade, but in theory, the idea of two gifted scorers together is similar. It’s not as easy as just getting the ball to KD and moving while he drills shots. It’s not as easy as just letting Westbrook attack wildly. It’s about playing together even in those difficult moments.
And that’s what caused some issues for OKC in the postseason. Fan and media saw a bullish, stubborn point guard trying to do too much on his own while his superstar teammate waited for the ball. It never was that simple, but once the machine of sports chatter got cranked up, there was no stopping it. Clearly though, it didn’t really work because the Thunder didn’t win. My point is though that you can’t just tell a player like Westbrook to step entirely aside in big moments.
Which is why I found this quote from Dwyane Wade on Wednesday so applicable to the Thunder.
“Obviously myself, Chris and LeBron are going to be the focal point of the offense at the end,” he said. “You can see guys getting more comfortable in their roles. Normally I was the guy here in Miami that at the end of games I always had the ball in my hand. So it took me time to get comfortable with that and get comfortable saying ‘all right, LeBron, you take it.’ And that’s part of wanting to win and wanting to do whatever it takes to win. That’s another part of putting pride and ego aside, figuring out what’s best for the team.”
The Heat, for all the criticism aimed at them all year, have absolutely sacrificed. They aren’t selfish. It’s about winning by whatever means necessary. There isn’t any talk among them about who should take this shot or that shot. No talk about the box score and that LeBron took nine more shots than Wade. It’s about winning. No alpha dog battles. That team said they were going to sacrifice and do whatever it took to win. Well, they’re three wins away now and it looks like their plan is working.
That didn’t come overnight though. That came through a lot of hard work. And a lot of failure. Here, it’s better if LeBron says it.
“It comes from failure throughout the season,” he said. “Having games where we felt like we could or should have won and we just didn’t execute … Once we figured out how we were going to do it together for the better of the team, we started to close games out, figure things out, figure out certain sets that would work for us in late-game situations.”
Said Erik Spoelstra: “It took time. I think the more time you’re in these experiences, and we have been in a lot of close games, particularly in the playoffs, the more confident the guys get.”
One thing is for sure: The Thunder definitely have now had some games where they felt like they should’ve or could’ve won and didn’t execute. During the regular season though, remember how impressive the Thunder were in close games? They had a really good record in two possession games. They easily could’ve been a 45-win team but instead won 55 because they were 8-2 in overtime during the regular season and won a bunch of games by two or three points.
Still, they’re a bunch of 22-year-olds. And it showed some in the postseason. LeBron and Wade have been there and done this a bunch of times. They understand what it takes to win and why you fail. It took them some time to figure that out even this year, but it’s coming together now. That’s why it really does baffle me when people actually ask, “Should the Thunder trade Russell Westbrook?” So instead of letting these young players fail, experience and grow together, just trade him and hope that fixes it?
I go back to Sam Presti’s quote the other day. Improvement isn’t a result of time elapsed, but it’s actually what’s been accumulated, what’s been experienced within that time. The Heat experienced a crapton of stuff this season. It was a crash course in playing together and figuring out what works and what doesn’t. And really, considering the circumstances, I’d say they’ve done a pretty remarkable job. As Wade was willing to step aside for LeBron to finish things out, Durant needs to be flexible to do the same for Westbrook. And vice versa. There always has to be a balance. That might’ve not been the vision two years ago when Westbrook was pegged to be Durant’s point guard mate for the future, but with him maturing into a bonafide superstar, it’s reality. You’ve got to make room for two at the table otherwise nobody gets to eat.
Before last season started, because of all the animosity built up over “The Decision” and the Heat in general, a lot of people labeled the Thunder the “anti-Heat.” They weren’t a group of stars that copped out to chase a title. They were built from the ground up, as if there’s some kind of strange admirable quality to that. For all I care, the Thunder can stay the anti-Heat. But in terms of learning how to co-exist in big moments and play together in order to reach a common goal, maybe Oklahoma City needs to embrace the dark side and be a little more like the Heat.