OKLAHOMA CITY – The Miami Heat’s lead was down to 4, the shot clock was at 5 and Shane Battier was about to set a screen for Dwyane Wade at the top of the key. But he slip-screened, backed up, got his hands ready, set his feet and let the ball fly.
“I was just trying to get it on the rim, to be honest with you,” explained the do-it-all forward. “The shot clock was low, (Kevin) Durant was in my face, and I was just trying to get that ball on the rim so that we could get an offensive rebound.
“The basketball gods were smiling.”
As they have been for Battier since the moment the NBA Finals tipped off Tuesday night. Despite the fact that he hadn’t connected on four-plus 3-pointers in consecutive games in roughly five years, Battier has gotten off to a sweltering start during the Finals by knocking home 9-of-13 from distance.
Moreover, Battier has averaged 17 points against the Thunder thus far, more than the defensive demon’s combined averages of 6.0, 3.8 and 7.0 points against the Knicks, Pacers and Celtics, respectively.
In a series billed as a matchup of teams each boasting a “Big Three,” Battier has become a timely fourth scorer for the Heat and the primary reason they are headed home for Games 3, 4 and 5 of the NBA Finals with a split in their hip pocket.
After playing in over 900 NBA games, Battier is making the most of his first Finals appearance. In the process, he has helped to make life easier on Miami’s stars.
“We want to spread the floor out,” Heat forward Chris Bosh said. “But if they’re coming off of Shane, Shane practices that shot all the time. He’s a very good 3-point shooter; he’s going to let it go without hesitation.
“We need him to take those shots. We need him to take them and make them. It really opens it up. It puts pressure on the defense and makes them think about it a little bit more, and eventually we can start attacking, get free throws and layups. And I think we just did a great job of mixing everything up and just giving them different looks with the same plays.”
And as critical as Battier has been offensively, he’s been equally or more important on the defensive end.
“He’s a big part of why we’re here today and competing for a championship,” said MVP LeBron James, who is averaging 31 points through the first two games. “He’s meant a lot for our team, he’s meant a lot to me. Being able to guard guys as well as the top scorers – he did it against Carmelo Anthony, from Carmelo Anthony to David West to Paul Pierce to Brandon Bass all the way down to (Serge) Ibaka and Kevin Durant. He can guard multiple positions and allows our team to have so many options defensively.”
Although Battier hasn’t been able to stop Durant, he has made him work harder by denying him and getting into the versatile and nearly unstoppable 6-11 sniper before he touches the ball.
“He’s just too good to let him catch and operate, he is,” Battier said. “You just try to make him work a little bit for the catch and hopefully it’ll wear on him.”
And when Battier cannot deny Durant the ball, he makes sure to obscure his vision by putting his hand in Durant’s face as the three-time scoring champion launches his shot. Asked about Battier’s tactic between Games 1 and 2, Durant said, “I absolutely hate it.”
Battier – and the Heat in general – are trying to be as aggressive as possible without fouling the Thunder. However, that is easier said than done against a team like Oklahoma City, which also boasts rim attackers Russell Westbrook and James Harden and thrives at drawing fouls on a regular basis.
“It’s a fine line,” Battier said. “Every game is different because you have to understand how the refs are calling the game, you have to understand the players you’re playing against. These guys are elite foul-drawers, so you really have to stay disciplined and concentrate really every possession, because if you have a mental lapse, they’re going to shoot free throws. That’s how this team really, really beats you. You have to just have amazing discipline mentally against elite foul-drawers.”
If Battier can continue to make his phenomenal, focused and driven play from the opening two games even close to a regularity throughout this series, Miami instantly becomes much, much more potent than it had previously been in the playoffs. If anything is certain, it’s that make or miss, Battier will keep shooting the basketball.
“It’s the Finals,” said Battier. “I’m not saving any shots for Summer League – I’m too old for that anymore. Like all the shooters on the team said, ‘Just let it fly, let it fly.'”
With one win down and three to go, Battier and his teammates also are aware that they are still a long way from their ultimate goal.
“It’s a long series, and after Game 1 the hyperbole was that ‘The Heat had no idea what to do with the speed of OKC,'” Battier said. “I don’t know what the storyline is going to be for Game 2, but we know that every game is its own beast and you have to play amazingly disciplined and tough to win the Finals.”
Jeremy Bauman is a 2011 graduate of Indiana University and the newest writer for SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter.