ROLE PLAYERS KEY IN HEAT VICTORY
The “Heatles” Big Three Get By In Game 4 With A Little Help From Their Friends
BY LUIGUI BARRAGAN
Photo by Getty Images
The fans took their places inside the American Airlines Arena in time to see the initial tip. There was nothing fashionable about being late to this game. With the Miami Heat up two games-to-one on the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals, Game Four was a crucial tilt for the Heat, who were looking to “stay the course.” Ready to derail them, however, were the “young guns” of OKC who came out firing in the first quarter to the tune of 62 % from the field, making 15 of 24 shots. Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook led the charge with 10 first period points of his own. So far in this series, the Thunder have relied on their offensive prowess to get back into games rather than break from the pack. But wanting desperately to shift momentum back to their side, the Thunder opened up a 17-point lead and before you knew it there were only 21 seconds left in the first quarter.
Looking to stop the bleeding, head coach Erik Spoelstra surveyed the battlefield and then his bench. He knew his front line needed re-enforcement. But where? Which wound would he tend to first? With starting point man Mario Chalmers yet to make a shot after three attempts, Chalmers was handed a towel to wipe-down with, and his customary sideline suit of a t-shirt and practice pants. Meanwhile, 23-year-old rookie point guard Norris Cole was once again tapped on the shoulder and asked to provide a spark. His two three pointers, one at the end of the first quarter and the other at the start of the following frame, fueled the Heat’s 16-0 run to start the second quarter. Momentum was now on the side of the Miami Heat. It took the hometown team a total of four minutes to erase their rival’s double digit lead. So as to not be forgotten, Mario Chalmers re-entered the fight and punctuated the Heat’s offensive onslaught with a three-point play that brought Miami to within one point of OKC at 33-to-32. But it was Cole’s spark that set the Heat a-blaze in Game Four. He played a total of six minutes in this game, scoring eight points on three-of-six shooting. “I love that kid”, said head coach Erik Spoelstra. “He’s got the toughness and the purity that when he gets his number called upon he will have himself ready. He’s a little bit similar to Mario [Chalmers] in terms of he’s fearless, absolutely fearless.”
Mario Chalmers is known as “the little brother” on this Miami Heat squad that is dominated by the presence of the Big 3 [LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh]. James, Wade and Bosh absorb most, if not all, of the media attention. Even opposing teams can get so wrapped up in stopping the mighty trio that they’ll surely forget about “little ‘Rio.” So far, in Games 2 and 3 of these NBA Finals, Chalmers gave the Oklahoma City Thunder no real reason to pay any sort of attention to him at all. Over the course of the last two games, and the first quarter of this one, Chalmers had made only two of his last eighteen shot attempts, making him long overdue for a big night. After bringing the Heat to within one point in the second quarter, Chalmers once again found his spot from behind the three-point line and became the “live option” that head coach Erik Spoelstra was looking for, and that could no longer be ignored out on the floor. To start the second half, the biggest of his “brothers” out on the court sought out Chalmers on three different occasions and little brother didn’t disappoint. With roughly ten minutes to play in the third quarter, James found Chalmers for the basket that tied the game at 52. With the Heat leading 61-to-60, LeBron James fed Chalmers again, this time for a 25-foot three-pointer that gave the Heat some breathing room and a four-point lead. Chalmers scored the next two Miami points as well, assisted by James once again, and helped steady his team in a tumultuous five minute stretch that included nine lead changes amongst the two clubs. But like a true “gamer,” Chalmers saved his best for last.
The Miami Heat entered the final frame with a 79-to-75 lead, but could only manage to score one point in the first two minutes and eleven seconds of the fourth quarter. That’s when the reigning “Sixth-Man-of-Year-Award” recipient James Harden intercepted a pass from Dwyane Wade and charged full-speed ahead with the intent of taking the lead back from the locals. Wade quickly turned up-court, in pursuit of Harden, and did just enough to alter Harden’s lay-up, preventing OKC from forging ahead. Miami’s next offensive possession would’ve resulted in zero points, following a miss by LeBron James, were it not for a volleyball-type tap of the basketball by Heat reserve James Jones. Chalmers recovered the bouncing sphere and mapped out a route to the basket that went through Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook, and Forwards Nick Collison and James Harden. Chalmers’ reverse lay-up gave the Heat an 82-79 lead with 9:43 to play. Forty-six seconds later, Chalmers offered the audience the encore they had hoped for. In true deja-vu fashion, following another miss by James, and another clear-out slap of the basketball, this time by Heat co-captain Udonis Haslem, the ball found Chalmers again, this time perched just behind the three-point line. Chalmers set his feet, squared up to the basket and launched a three-pointer that gave his team, and all Heat fans in the arena, the confidence that he said he never lacks. “He actually thinks he’s the best player on this team,” said Heat guard Dwyane Wade. “You know, that’s a gift and a curse. But tonight it was a gift for us because he never gets down on himself.” Chalmers had now put that confidence on full display for nearly three quarters of an NBA Finals game. “He’s done it time and time again in big games in college [the 2008 NCAA Men's Basketball National Championship Game], big games in the pros,” said coach Erik Spoelstra. “He’s not afraid of the moment. You can’t teach that. He gives us a lift tonight we really needed.” Thanks to the hot hand of Mario Chalmers the Heat opened up a six-point avantage on the Western Conference champions with just over eight minutes to go.
But no hand in the arena was hotter than that of Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook, who finished the game with 43 points, making 20 of 32 shots taken. At one stretch of the fourth quarter, Westbrook scored thirteen straight points for his team. His display of rugged determination, true grit and sheer will tied the game at 90 with just over six minutes left to play. Momentum had parked itself right in the middle once more. Taking all of 17 seconds before it swung again, and this time in favor of Oklahoma City. At 11:16 p.m. local time, LeBron James could not get his quadriceps muscles to do what he wanted them to. Suddenly seized by leg cramps, James’ drive to the hoop with 5:53 left in the final quarter came to an abrupt stop with James losing control of the basketball Derek Fisher picked-up the ball and sped off in the opposite direction, with numbers favoring OKC. Fisher made a straight run towards the basket, only to have his shot blocked by Dwyane Wade. Chalmers picked up the ball and threw an outlet pass to James who was at the other end of the court, having been physically unable to accompany his teammates back on defense. James banked-in a shot from seven feet away, but immediately signaled back to his bench that something wasn’t right. He made one more valiant trip down the floor and, following a Westbrook miss, decided that he wasn’t going to take another step. The scoreboard showed Miami up by two points at the time, but momentum had seemingly made a sharp U-Turn now, and looked dead into the eyes of the team from the Sooner state. A couple of Durant free-throws would tie the score at 92, and prompt Erik Spoelstra to signal for James to re-enter the game. He had only been out for a minute and ten seconds, but during that time his team went 0-for-2 from the field and committed their ninth turnover. The Thunder, on the other hand, now lead 94-to-92. Feeling complete with their leader back out on the floor, the Heat once again pulled even with OKC at 94. James managed to trot up the court following another Westbrook miss with just 3:08 left in the game. Wade held the ball and looked to James for direction. James signaled for Wade to proceed with creating the next offensive play, but Wade had only one thing in mind: to put the ball back in LeBron James’ hands. He managed to do just that with 7 seconds left on the shot clock. James took hold of the ball and signaled Shane Battier to go towards the basket. With one eye on the shot clock and one eye on his defender in front of him, James dribbled the ball closer to the top of the key, but was still well behind the three-point line. He dribbled the ball only three times, looked down to the floor just long enough to gather his thoughts, before raising his head and letting it rip from twenty-four feet out. Nothing but net. These were the type of shots that weren’t going in for James in the fourth quarter of last year’s NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. Those costly misses of a year ago led many to question James’ ability to make a big play for his team, when it mattered most, with the game on the line. Here, in Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals, James’ 24th, 25th and 26th point did a lot to silence his critics and bring a crowd of twenty-thousand strong into a frenzy. And with 56-seconds left to play, James could do no more. Completely exhausted, James was helped off the court by teammates Juwan Howard and Mike Miller. Lebron James could do no more on this night. LeBron James didn’t have to do anymore on this night. His teammates made sure of that. They made sure that his 26 points, 9 rebounds and 12 assists were not in vain. The Heat won their third game in this best-of-seven Finals series by the score of 104-to-98. Leaving them just one win away from their second NBA championship in franchise history, and LeBron James within reach of his first.