The NBA Finals are tied 1-1 after the Thunder and Heat split two games in Oklahoma City. With Game 3 set for Sunday night in Miami, five SI.com writers analyze the biggest storylines and surprises so far, examine which team is in a better position and take issue with the criticism of Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook.
1. What is the biggest development from the first two games of the series?
Ian Thomsen: You could say it's LeBron James' proving that he's going to be far more aggressive and productive than he was in the Finals one year ago, though that should not have been such a surprise after seeing how he finished off the Celtics in the last two games of the Eastern Conference finals. For me the biggest story is that it's so wide open. Both teams have strong reasons to believe they should be up 2-0. Kevin Durant could get hot and win two of the next three in Miami, or the Heat could squelch the Thunder's fast break to dominate the home court. Miami and OKC have each developed a foundation for the next few games, and now we'll see who can make the most of those opportunities.
Zach Lowe: The way both teams have shaped (or in the Thunder's case, not shaped) their rotations, and the connected return of Chris Bosh to Miami's starting lineup. The Heat have embraced small-ball, playing with only one big man for about 39 minutes of Game 2. It's a move that makes sense in this series, considering Miami's need for clean driving lanes and good three-point looks, and the lack of any scoring threat from Oklahoma City's big men. The Thunder have stuck with essentially their normal rotation, with some tweaks to get Thabo Sefolosha more time and generally respond to the rhythms of each game. Miami has torched the Thunder's plodding starters, and if Game 3 starts badly, Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks might have to use a quicker hook with one of his big men. Also big: LeBron's nailing a huge jumper and two big free throws in crunch time of Game 2. James' alleged clutch limitations in general have been hugely overblown, but his issues at last year's Finals were real and crippling to Miami. Turning the page early in this series is important.
Lee Jenkins: Miami's blistering starts and Kevin Durant's unbelievable finishes. The Thunder will have to change their approach early in games, whether they insert James Harden earlier, or use Nick Collison more often. The Thunder have wiped away so many double-digit deficits in the playoffs that they are starting to get comfortable in a hole. They have to raise their intensity in the first quarter and the Heat have to do the same in the fourth. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra must continue to get some contributions from his bench, and breaks for James and Dwyane Wade, so they can hope to weather Durant's last-minute surges. Durant and James have been equally spectacular, but at different times, in different ways. Like their teams, James has dominated early and Durant late, with both sides searching for a balance.
Chris Mannix: The Thunder's issues opening games -- they have fallen behind by double digits in the first half of both games of this series and trailed San Antonio by 18 late in the second quarter of Game 6 in the Western Conference finals -- are becoming a problem. They are sloppy and undisciplined and look like a young, nervous team, as opposed to a confident one in the second half. Maybe it's playing at home; maybe the Thunder are so eager to deliver an early knockout blow in front of the Oklahoma City crowd that they overplay. Whatever it is, the Thunder better fix it, fast, because Miami is not the team against which you can fall behind that much and hope to win more than you lose.
Michael Rosenberg: LeBron's playing like he usually does. He was the best player on the floor in Game 2 and the best player on the floor for most of Game 1, until Kevin Durant went all Kevin Durant in the fourth quarter. Oklahoma City is deeper than Miami, and the Heat could not afford a repeat of James' tentative 2011 Finals performance. He may yet have a bad game, but I expect him to explode for at least 40 points in one of the games in Miami. The Thunder cannot keep him from getting to the rim.
2. What has surprised you?
Thomsen: It's that Miami isn't the most explosive team in the Finals. When the three stars came together before last season, the Heat were going to become the most dangerous team in the open floor. But here they are now trying to slow the game out of rightful respect for the Thunder's speed in transition. It's amazing how the identity of Miami has been altered from its original intention.
Lowe:Shane Battier, scoring machine, has to top the list, right? Battier has scored 12 or more points in the last three games after reaching that mark only twice in 65 regular-season games, and his 34 points combined in the Finals represent a huge reason this series is tied. Miami's small lineups (and the resulting increase in minutes) are getting Battier good looks because power forward Serge Ibaka and center Kendrick Perkins are not used to tracking shooters. But you never expect anyone to shoot 9-of-13 from deep over two games, and Battier is 8-of-11 on non-corner threes after shooting just 26.6 percent on those shots in the regular season, according to NBA.com. And those off-the-dribble floaters? Let's just say those aren't part of Battier's day-to-day arsenal. I would hate to think Battier is headed for some (as he likes to say) "regression to the mean," but that's probably on the way.
Jenkins: Battier. The other day, I asked Battier about clutch performance, which is obviously a major theme in playoff series. He said, "I don't prescribe to the hot hand theory. I believe in regression to the mean. A guy is going to be who he is. You are who you are." According to his rationale, then, he can't possibly sustain the streak he's on right now. Battier, who averaged 4.8 points in trudging through the worst offensive season of his career, has suddenly emerged as the outside threat the Heat are always so desperate to find.
Mannix: Two words: Shane Battier. He is a pesky defender even at 33, and his three-point shooting has been an unexpected boost to Miami's attack. Getting many of his minutes at power forward, Battier has held his own against Perkins and Ibaka while changing the game with his perimeter shooting. If he can keep up this pace for the rest of the series, Miami will be tough to beat.
Rosenberg: Battier's performance. The Heat had the right idea when they signed Battier, but for much of the season he looked spent. Now he is hitting most of his three-pointers and looking like the pesky defensive genius we have seen since his days at Duke. The key for Miami is to keep the ball moving to create open shots for Battier (or Mike Miller, should he suddenly get real minutes).
3. Which team should feel better about where it stands entering Game 3?
Thomsen: The Heat have controlled most of the play, and the outcome of the next few games is going to be decided by the terms (like grit and will and passion) that have been impressed upon Spoelstra by Pat Riley. Miami should know how to elevate its game amid the pressures that are sure to arise, but the Thunder will be experiencing them for the first time. It would become a terrific story if the Thunder could overcome their inexperience to not only recover home-court advantage but also win the championship at Miami's expense.
Lowe: Miami gets the edge here after earning a road split, the realistic goal. The Thunder don't have to feel badly for themselves or anything after both games came down to the closing minutes. Oklahoma City has continued to score like gangbusters, putting up 105 points per 100 possessions (a top-five mark) even in its Game 2 loss. The Heat still haven't been able to find their quick-hitting groove in the half-court offense consistently, and fatigue looms as more of a potential hindrance to them than the Thunder. But Miami appears to have settled on a general rotation and philosophy for how to go about this series, and James has carried his splendid play over into the only round in which he has never before played splendidly. It would be helpful if Miller could contribute anything at all, but even if that is not forthcoming, the Heat are in a decent place. Both teams are, really. This should be a classic.
Jenkins: The Heat, and not just because they were the first team to win a game in Oklahoma City in the playoffs, and are now in great position to at least head back there with a series lead. More important, James has clearly exorcised some Finals demons and scaled the psychological hurdles that were in his way last year against Dallas. He's treating the Finals like every other series, and as a result, these two Finals games have been the best of his career. The Heat were not resilient enough to bounce back against the Mavericks when they fell behind. Now they have responded against the Pacers, Celtics and Thunder. They're not the juggernaut we once expected, but they don't get spooked anymore.
Mannix: Have to say Miami, because going home even with three to play on your floor has to be a confidence boost. The aforementioned Battier is playing well, Wade looked better in Game 2 and Bosh looked strong in his return to the starting lineup. Momentum is pliable in this series; a Thunder win in Game 3 can shift it right back in their direction. But for now, Miami appears to be in the driver's seat.
Rosenberg: The Heat. Miami needed a road win and got it. But I don't see anybody in this series winning three straight -- the teams are too close and too desperate. So the Heat will almost certainly need another road victory, in Game 6 or 7, to win the title.
4. At halftime of Game 2, Magic Johnson said Russell Westbrook's performance was the worst he had seen from a point guard in an NBA Finals. Johnson continued his criticism after the game. What do you think of that critique and of Westbrook's play in the Finals so far?
Thomsen: I think it says more about Johnson than it does about Westbrook. I don't pretend to know more about point guard play than the greatest point guard of them all, but doesn't Magic remember the pain he felt when he was condemned by the analysts for playing miserably in the Lakers' seven-game loss to the Celtics in 1984? The mistakes Magic made in that series were more damaging than anything Westbrook did Thursday in what was only his second game as an NBA finalist. Westbrook played a bad half, but he also recovered to bring his team back at the end. The guy is a 23-year-old who has helped take OKC to the Finals ahead of schedule in his fourth year. I have to believe Magic will regret the extremity of his criticism, because in the bigger picture -- taking into account how far he has come and that he's not near his peak -- Westbrook has been outstanding.
Lowe: With all due respect to Johnson, the criticism aimed at Westbrook in general has been too loud for too long. Westbrook was great in Game 1. He started slowly in Game 2, sure, but he rediscovered his Game 1 form in the second half (including scoring or assisting on five of his team's last seven field goals) -- a huge reason the Thunder nearly stole a win. Here's the thing about Westbrook's slow starts: They are more the product of a shaky starting lineup than they are of Westbrook. We too often dole out blame in a simplistic way, looking only at the pull-up 20-footer that he attempted with the shot clock running down and not what led to it. The Thunder's starting lineup includes three non-threatening offensive players -- Sefolosha, Perkins and Ibaka -- whom defenses do not have to guard closely. That leaves Westbrook and Durant, who can become a bit passive if the first cutting/screening action to free him doesn't do the trick. Westbrook is often left to force the issue, shooting jumpers or driving into a packed painted area with no easy passing lane. He takes a few bad shots every night. He misses a few open passing lanes every night. But if you really listed all of his mistakes, a disproportionate number would come in the opening six minutes of each half. That's not a coincidence.
Jenkins: Westbrook is an untraditional point guard and the Thunder knew that when they drafted him. He is a shoot-first point guard, and while he may not be the best facilitator for Durant's individual success, he is one of the most dynamic athletes in the NBA and has helped lead the Thunder to this stage. Westbrook can shoot his team out of games, usually with his quick-trigger mid-range jumper, but then he can bring it right back, usually with his explosive drives. He is only 23, and while he might eventually grow into more of a pure point, it won't happen anytime soon. The Thunder have learned to ride the Westbrook roller coaster, celebrating his fearlessness and tolerating his recklessness. They wouldn't trade him for Mario Chalmers. And Magic wouldn't, either.
Mannix: Criticizing Westbrook is an analyst's favorite pastime. Now, coming from Magic, the criticism carries more credibility, but it's still over the top. Does Westbrook shoot a lot? Yes. And why does Westbrook shoot a lot? Because if he didn't the Thunder would look a lot like the 2001 Sixers. Sure, Westbrook can be erratic. Most 23-year-olds with a limited history of playing the position usually are. But Westbrook was second- team All-NBA this season for a reason. He's a big-time player, and it's likely his presence will be felt before this series is over.
Rosenberg: Magic knows a wee bit more about point guard play than I do. But come on: worst EVER? Westbrook is too good of a player to have the worst performance ever by a point guard in an NBA Finals. That's taking it too far. I suspect Magic meant that he took his team out of his offense more than any point guard Magic could remember, and I get that. Westbrook does that a lot. It's a trade-off for having the ball in the hands of one of the most explosive players in the history of the league. In two years, Westbrook will look more like a conventional point guard than he does now. In the meantime, there will be some ugliness (which looks like selfishness to some) mixed with brilliance.