Three-Pointers: Heat stave off Warriors with a little help from LeBron James
The Heat and Warriors played a Game of the Year contender on Wednesday in Oakland, Calif. After an early Miami surge and a relentless Golden State comeback from a 21-point third-quarter deficit, the defending champs pulled out a 111-110 victory behind LeBron James' near triple-double (36 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists) and game-winning three-pointer with 0.1 seconds remaining.
• A finish worth staying up for. Twenty-six of the league's 30 teams played on Wednesday, but none put on a show quite like these two. I'll cut to the chase: If the most basic appeal of professional basketball lies in seeing supremely talented players doing remarkable things, then the final minutes of this game made for an incredibly satisfying indulgence.
With less than a minute and a half remaining, Andre Iguodala looked stuck at the elbow with his defender close and the shot clock strangling his possession. He rose in response to hit a very tough shot -- one likely forgotten given all that came after -- that gave the Warriors a rare lead at 105-104. James, as he is ought to do, responded in kind. James dribbled up the court casually, checked by Iguodala until a screen brought him the smaller Klay Thompson on a switch. He waved off his teammates, drained the clock and brought Oracle Arena to a collective groan by burying a three-pointer. It wasn't the most dynamic display of James' talents, but it showcased the best player in basketball at his most inevitable.
The show went on -- first with a pull-up jumper by Stephen Curry (29 points on 14 shots, seven assists, five rebounds) and then a drawn foul by James, stars against stars in a game down to its last gasps. It's hard to ask much more of two teams this engaging than a one-point game with less than a minute remaining, but Curry took it upon himself to deliver something extra. There was so little time left that Golden State could have had the last word, but in operating from a position of disadvantage (Miami led by one, 108-107) Curry rightly opted to go early. He didn't even need a screen to send Mario Chalmers into a daze. He went from hesitation move to crossover, pulled back to the three-point line with another crossover, shed Chalmers on yet another hesitation move, drew contact on the way to his hoop and connected on the go-ahead layup with 14.6 seconds left.
Then, when all was done, he shimmied. Get it, Steph:
If Curry's and-one finish had marked the end of this game, it still would have been tremendous. His bucket was the final word of the Warriors' dramatic rally, after all, without centers Andrew Bogut and Jermaine O'Neal in the lineup. Any win over the Heat is a good win, but this kind of comeback under these circumstances would have been quite a statement as Golden State heads into the All-Star break.
Regardless, it was by James' hand that all such talk was rendered hypothetical. Shortly after Curry's free throw gave Golden State a 110-108 lead, James stood some 40 feet from the hoop with nine seconds on the clock and the full defensive mettle of Iguodala in his path. He nursed a calm dribble, never much moving as if he might attack the rim. Then came the hard bounce to his left, the full step-back and the fading release -- all of which made for an exeedingly difficult shot by most any standard but LeBron's.
So it ends. James' shot drew curtains on the game at 1 a.m. ET, long after entire time zones of NBA fans had turned in for the evening. They have no idea what they missed.
• The Heat put a Warriors weakness on full display. This game felt like a series of fragmented matchups, as neither Miami nor Golden State was so consistent in its execution to set defining lines. Still, one of the more interesting subplots was the Heat's swarming defense of Curry -- an even more aggressive approach than Miami typically employs. It's not uncommon to see Chris Bosh and the other Heat big men go well above the three-point line to help contain a high pick-and-roll, but on Wednesday, Miami threw committed double teams Curry's way whenever possible. Even the savviest creators in the league can get overwhelmed by Miami's defensive pressure at times, and in that first half, that was exactly what happened with Curry. The Warriors' lead guard had trouble gaining any playmaking traction against wave after wave of Heat help, and he managed just three shot attempts to go along with his three turnovers in the first half.
Phasing out such a potent scorer for a half is a significant accomplishment, but also an exploitation of a Warriors weakness. Golden State tends to drift into ill-advised shots if Curry is inconvenienced -- tough mid-range jumpers for Klay Thompson, isolation attempts for Harrison Barnes (who actually put together a nice game, with 14 points in 30 minutes) or some other means of undesirably improvised offense. Miami baited that habit throughout, though by late in the third quarter, Golden State had settled into a nice flow of extra passes and open shots.
Given how often these issues crop up, it's a bit troubling that it took the Warriors so long to stabilize. The non-Curry Warriors shot only 36.6 percent in the first half, all while their point guard was double- and triple-teamed. They busted out of that funk in a way that turned the game in the third quarter, but Golden State needs to have more accessible contingencies when opponents overload on Curry.
• The full Michael Beasley experience. Dwyane Wade was sidelined with a sore left foot, leaving room for Beasley to resume a role in Miami's rotation. He wound up playing 24 minutes, many at the expense of Shane Battier, in a move that gave life to the Heat's offense when it needed it most. Beasley has his flaws, but he also brings a dash of dynamism to a role otherwise occupied by players like Battier and the aging Ray Allen -- useful players both, though not exactly equipped to make a quick drive against a stilted defense. Beasley's best plays featured just that, and his 16 points on 11 shots helped diminish the impact of Wade's absence. Unfortunately for Beasley, his influence on the game didn't end there. By the fourth quarter, Golden State was targeting Beasley as a defender whenever possible, an effort that yielded points more often than not. It honestly didn't take much; the Warriors didn't even have to get Beasley on the move or put him in a position to make difficult decisions, as his base one-on-one defense made for a liability in itself. It's worth mentioning that Beasley was still a net positive overall, though the body language of his teammates and coaches betray their exasperation with his defensive work.