Posted Jun 15 2012 9:10PM
MIAMI -- This is feeling like Duke all over again for Shane Battier. He's on a universally detested team, which is gunning for a championship, and get this, here's the really interesting part: He's one of the reasons for that.
He's an off-season pickup who came off the bench ever so unspectacularly most of the year and now doing the unexpected. Dare we say, Battier looks nearly as impressive as Miami's Big Three at times. He is playing out of position, successfully guarding players quicker and stronger than him, and hitting 3-pointers. All the stuff that helps win championships.
"He's making plays offensively and defensively," said LeBron James.
He is the bonus for the Heat as the NBA Finals swing to Miami the next three games, the step-up guy that James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have searched for since forming two summers ago. Until now, the Heat never had anybody from the supporting cast they could rely on game-in and out, but that might be changing, especially if Battier can keep this up.
He goes into Game 3 suddenly as a player the Thunder must respect and notice. Yes, the book on Battier is frantically being rewritten after two games of this series because of the way he's hitting open shots and defending three and sometimes four different Oklahoma City players.
"Everyone notices Shane when the ball goes in," said coach Erik Spoelstra. "We notice everything else, the versatility and everything else. He allows us to play the way we need to, and we weren't able to do that last year. Now we're able to play LeBron at several positions, and Dwyane, and he kind of ties all that together."
Battier has been the Heat's main threat from deep so far, with back-to-back 17-point games, a leap for someone who averaged less than five a game this season. He has guarded Kevin Durant, James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, every position but point guard. He was on the floor for 42 minutes in an NBA Finals game. The acclaim is gushing in for Battier now, but remember, he wasn't like this two months ago, even a month ago. Did anyone see this coming after an unspectacular and somewhat disappointing regular season for him, where he couldn't make an open shot? Where, at age 33 and with 11 NBA seasons behind him, he dropped hints of being just another mildly productive guy off the bench for Miami?
"I'm just doing my part," Battier said. "This is the time when you want to be at your best, and it's working out that way so far."
The shooting, more than anything, is elevating Battier's importance in this series. He was a career 39-percent shooter from three-point range when he arrived in Miami and, with three All-Stars to draw the defense, would be guaranteed to get more open looks than he ever saw in his life. And what happened? Battier's three-point percentage dropped to 34 percent, his second-lowest season ever. Teams left him open and didn't care. They didn't pay the price.
Well, in the three biggest games of his NBA life, Game 7 against the Celtics and the first two of this series, Battier is 13 for 22 from long distance. And yes, we're counting the bank shot he dropped Thursday.
"I owe a lot to LeBron, Dwyane and Chris," Battier said. "They command so much attention. Guys like me, the fourth and fifth option on the floor, don't get a lot of attention."
What does OKC do? Continue to leave him open and see if he can sustain it? That's probably the best strategy, because the general rule is always let a sub prove himself, game after game. And that'll be the test for Battier, whether he can continue to catch and shoot without hesitation and make the shots. And if he misses a few, whether he'll continue to take them, or suddenly freeze and pass them up.
If the shots stop falling, at least he'll have defense. That might be equally important against a team with so many weapons and ways to beat you. The grind on James and Wade is heavy enough on offense, where they must concentrate a healthy degree of energy. So the defensive help must come from Battier, who is drawing charges and taking on all assignments, remarkable for someone who's giving 40 and 50 pounds to bigger players (Perkins) and plenty of quickness for someone who isn't very athletic.
"Going against him in my career, I understood how smart he was," said James. "I understood how competitive he was on the defensive end. He's a big reason why we're here today. He's meant a lot to me, being able to guard guys bigger than him and the top scorers. He did it against Carmelo Anthony, to David West to Paul Pierce and Brandon Bass all the way down to Ibaka and Durant. He allows our team to have so many options defensively."
This is like Duke redux for Battier. Nobody wants his team to win, and yet, here he is, right in the middle the mix, doing his part and more on this championship hunt.
He'd like to clarify something, though.
"People hated us more at Duke," he said.
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