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June 22, 2012
Playoff Prospectus
Crowning the Heat

by Kevin Pelton

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at Miami 121, Oklahoma City 106 (Miami wins 4-1)
Pace: 95.5
Offensive Ratings: Miami 129.2, Oklahoma City 108.8

At some point during the third quarter, the clinching game of the 2012 NBA Finals turned from a basketball competition to a coronation. Despite being outplayed and outshot, the Oklahoma City Thunder had managed to stay within seven points in the early stages of the third quarter. Then the Miami Heat ripped off a 19-1 run and turned what had been a close game and series into both a runaway victory and a celebration of a team that has been equally maligned and hyped over the nearly two years since The Decision.

More than any other trait, patience has paid off for Miami. Over the last two seasons, the Heat has been prematurely crowned champions as many times as its formula has been written off. Such snap overreactions are the danger of a Twitter world where "what have you done for me lately" has given way to "what have you done for me this second" and sometimes even "what will you do for me."

Miami's unique path to the title had something to do with this. The Heat became the first team in NBA history to win three series they trailed. In each of the previous two--the conference semifinals vs. Indiana and the conference finals against Boston--Miami lost multiple games in a row, inevitably creating doom and gloom in the media. But the issue goes beyond that. Even before the playoffs, broadcasters speculated on the air about how the Heat might respond to a loss early in the playoffs.

If Miami ever paid attention to such talk, it never showed along the way. Instead, guided by Erik Spoelstra's borderline-hokey motivational tactics, the Heat kept about the business of playing hard and learning to work together. In Game 5, that process reached nirvana. The stars that couldn't play together, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, complemented each other. The overrated non-star, Chris Bosh, delivered 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting. The washed-up role players Miami signed in free agency, Shane Battier and Mike Miller, made the Thunder pay with open threes all night long.

Another of those manufactured debates, whose team this really is, looks silly in the wake of this playoff run. With Wade inconsistent and possibly ailing physically, James seized the Heat offense and made it his own. As in Game 4, James ran the Miami offense from the low post using a combination of skills unlike any we've seen before. What player has ever combined the size and strength that allow James to overpower single coverage with his court vision and ability to make the right pass to shooters in rhythm?

If anything, James was possibly even better at setting up his teammates than in Game 4. Time and again, he would force the Oklahoma City defense to commit to him before dishing to the perimeter. That strategy was perfect on a night where the Heat's shooters couldn't miss--the team was 14 of 26 beyond the arc, tying an NBA Finals record. Miller alone made seven three-pointers during an incredible performance given his difficulty even walking much of the game. Seven of James' season-high-tying 13 assists led to three-pointers. Three more resulted in layups and dunks.

While he was doing this, James also found time to score 26 points on 23 shooting possessions and grab 11 rebounds (four of them offensive) for his second triple-double of the series. Oh, yes, he also spent all night defending the league's leading scorer. Let there be no question that, until further notice, this is the NBA's best and most valuable player, a one-of-a-kind treasure to be enjoyed as long as he remains in his prime.

On the other side, the Thunder learned the limits of patience. At some point, when the problems are real and the sample size big enough, such reluctance to change becomes stubbornness. Such was the case with Scott Brooks in this series. In fairness, the Oklahoma City starting five actually played even in the third quarter, and Miami's big run came after Brooks removed Kendrick Perkins and went small. Nonetheless, it was inexplicable that Perkins played more than Nick Collison at the conclusion of a series where, per John Schuhmann, Collison was a +13 and Perkins a -25. (Serge Ibaka, at -42, was even worse.) In Game 5, Perkins missed three of his four shot attempts, committed five fouls in 20 minutes (the only thing that limited his minutes) and had a negative plus-minus during all three stints he played.

The one major adjustment Brooks and his coaching staff made in this series backfired in spectacular fashion. Moving Kevin Durant off James defensively created the opportunity for James to feast against smaller defenders Thabo Sefolosha and especially James Harden. With Sefolosha missing in action much of Thursday night (he played nine minutes, and just 3:41 after halftime), Harden was left on an island nearly all evening.

The way the Heat played and shot the basketball in Game 5, none of this would have mattered anyway. Over the course of the series, the story is different. Since three of the Thunder's four losses came by single digits, the way Brooks distributed playing time may have been the difference between losing in five and taking the series back to Oklahoma City.

Like Miami a year ago, the Thunder can use this loss as motivational fire heading into next season. Still, the prospect of what might have been will surely trouble Oklahoma City for some time to come.

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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