MIAMI — We all know who’s playing at peak level in these NBA Finals, a list that starts with LeBron James followed closely by Kevin Durant, despite missing that Game 2 shot and the foul trouble.
But who needs to shift to a higher gear? Well, the complexion of the series can change, even drastically,if one or more of the following raise their game:
1. James Harden. Clearly and correctly, stopping Harden has been a priority for the Heat, and they’ve done so in two of the three games. Make that 2 1/2 games, because Harden didn’t do much damage in Game 2 after the first half. And the only question now is who’s to blame for turning the Sixth Man of the Year invisible. Is it coach Scott Brooks? Shane Battier? Erik Spoelstra? Or Harden?
“It isn’t any defense that I haven’t seen before,” said Harden. Maybe his issues are due to Brooks being slow to insert Harden into the flow? Or maybe, the guy just isn’t getting it done so far.
2. Mario Chalmers. At different points in the three games, Chalmers got chewed out by Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Which means, things are normal for Chalmers, who’s easy to bully because of his nutty decisions. Besides that, he’s just plain bricking it right now. Chalmers gets plenty of open looks playing alongside the Big Three and is Miami’s best percentage 3-point shooter. But this is easily his worst stretch of the postseason: 2 of 15 shooting in his last two games with four turnovers and four assists.
That said, Chalmers is also the one role player who can score 20 points and take the big shot. And since the only other option at the point is Norris Cole, well, it’s Chalmers by default.
3. Kendrick Perkins. Without another big body to lean against, Perkins appears to be a bad fit for OKC in this series, even though he’s coming off a 12-rebound Game 3. At times OKC is more fluid with Nick Collison on the floor. When Perkins plays, he also gives Miami a chance to put James on him, essentially giving James a rest since Perkins isn’t a scoring threat.
4. Serge Ibaka. He called out James and questioned the defensive abilities of the All-Defensive First Team member, but has Ibaka lived up to his reputation? You could argue Ibaka’s shooting from the elbow has been more helpful than his interior defense, especially his help defense on James, who has lived in the paint. The next time Ibaka makes a big stop in this series will be the first.
5. Russell Westbrook. Felt almost guilty putting Russ on this list, because he hasn’t been as poor as Magic Johnson and others have said. Westbrook is simply being himself, a viciously talented scorer who needs shots and who doesn’t make teammates better. Still, being benched by Brooks, whether that was the right move or not in Game 3, was quite an indictment against him. How often does a coach pull that kind of move in a championship setting?