Posted on: May 21, 2011 2:49 pm
Edited on: May 21, 2011 2:57 pm

Meet LeBron James, Heat Closer

LeBron James has become the closer for the Heat as they look to take a 2-1 series advantage in the Eastern Conference Finals Sunday against the Bulls

Posted by Matt Moore

The questions began being asked as soon as the smoke from the Miami Triad's hyper-celebratory introductory event had cleared, literally. When you've got three All-Stars, three of the top ten players in the NBA (as of last season anyway) on the same team, the question's pretty natural. You expect them to be in the playoffs, which means close games, which begs this query:

"Who's going to take the last shot for the Heat?"

It was a storyline that continued throughout the season, particularly when the Heat were clanging last-second shot after last-second shot. Their biggest Achilles' heel throughout the year has been figuring out how to get the guy who needs the ball an opportunity to win games. It wasn't just figuring out which of James or Wade, (and sure, Bosh, why not, even though no one thought of him as closer) should be the one handling the rock, it was about how to set them up, whether to run the pick and roll, where they should attack and when. It was a mess. Consistently, from the beginning though, the Heat had their story to the press: "Whoever has the best opportunity." It wasn't who was open, it was about whoever had the best opportunity. They kept that message up. When LeBron James struggled more than the others in knocking down shots at the buzzer or late in games, the popular opinion rose to the unknown. "It should be Dwyane Wade," they said, "he's been the guy in Miami for years and has a ring! This is Wade's team!" Which is ridiculous, of course. Wade may have that ring, but he and James are on equal footing. Still, with all the bricks LeBron had made in the final seconds throughout the year, they could have built a university to study the question of who else should get the ball besides him.

Then a funny thing happened.

LeBron became "The Closer." 

His last real failure in the clutch was against Philadelphia, having his final shot blocked by Elton Brand that would have helped the Heat sweep the Sixers. Huge failure that it was, it took the Heat a whole other 48 minutes of play time to finish off the Sixers, who were outmatched from the start. But that blocked shot echoed the same storyline. "LeBron isn't clutch." And let's be clear, that wasn't some media-conceived fairytale. James was terrible in the final moments of games decided by five points or less. He shot just 43.6 percent in those situations. To put that in perspective, Mo Willilams, James' running mate in Cleveland had a similar number of attempts and made more.  He was simply not good in the biggest of moments. It seemed like that regular season calamity was going to carry over into the postseason, and if that was the case, how were the Heat going to advance? 

Except then in the Boston series, when the Heat needed James most, he absolutely dominated the closing stretches of games. While Celtics fans trusted in James' failures to repeat themselves against the team many felt made him "quit" the year before, James took over... on both sides of the ball. His defense fueled his offense and his offense fueled his defense. James closed out the Celtics by scoring ten straight points.  The steal and slam off of Paul Pierce was the exclamation point. The drive-by layup was simply the underline or highlight or some other editing mechanism on a statement already etched in black ink. 

But sure, James had one good game. Could he do it again?

Then in Game 2 versus the Bulls, it was once again James stepping up. He vanquished Paul Pierce, the Celtics' closer in Game 5. In Game 2, he guarded the MVP Derrick Rose, who did not score as the Heat put the game away.  And on the other side, James scored nine of the Heat's final 13, including pull-up threes and dagger jumpers. And when James gets that jumper falling, there's simply no way to stop him, the same as it is with Derrick Rose most times. 

ESPN dug through some numbers and found that James has used over 52 percent of the "clutch" possessions for the Heat in the playoffs. His PER in those situations, per 36 minutes is over 40. If you're not familiar with the statistic, the baseline is 15, anything over 20 is great. James' is a 40. He's not just producing efficient shooting, he's doing it all. Dwyane Wade may be able to pull off the same kinds of circus shots, but James' overall production is off the charts, and as unbelievable as it may sound given their positions and reputations, James is a better three-point shooter, especially lately. 

But the best part of this partnership is that Wade won't be demanding the ball. As long as Wade wins, he's happy. And he's seen enough of James to trust him to put the ball in the basket, even from the perimeter. James' three-pointer is often criticized as we demand that he use that insane athleticism and huge frame to drive time after time, but the reality is that James has shot a decent 34 percent in the playoffs. That's not great. What is great? James is shooting 50 percent from the arc in his last three playoff games. As he told the Miami Herald, there's a time when he trusts it, and he's got Wade's support to trust his outside shot. 
“Early in the game, we didn’t want to settle for those outside threes,” James said. “It was there late [in Game 2] and [Mike] Bibby set a good screen for me. The shot was there, so I took it.”

James pushed the Heat’s lead to five with a midrange jumper. No apologies this time. James’ late-game offense tipped the series’ momentum in Miami’s favor.

“LeBron was really big down the stretch and hit the shots we needed,” Wade said. “He also guarded [Derrick Rose]. His three was really big. That’s why we put the ball in his hands. He’s going to make the big plays.”
via LeBron James embraces role of closer for Miami Heat - Miami Heat - MiamiHerald.com.

It makes a certain amount of sense that this switch has occurred. The first act of James' career foretold an unstoppable stream of MVPs and championship rings, the next "Greatest Ever" candidate.  Then that script flipped and he wound up as the questioned "quitter" who failed in the clutch, didn't shake the other team's hand after a series loss, failed time and time again and then bailed on his squad for nicer weather and buddy buddy teammates. He was the un-clutch villian everyone loved to root against and rejoiced when he confirmed their belief in his failure. Now he's flipping it again, dominating down the stretch on both sides and playing phenomenal basketball. The series is tied 1-1, and despite a blowout in Game 1, looks every bit the long, grueling series everyone thought it would be. In a series like that you need someone who can take over the game late, to have that guy who you look to. After a season of uncertainty as the Heat tried unsuccessfully to answer that question, it appears they have the solution.

LeBron James is the closer, and if he continues to play at this level late in close games, the Heat are going to be nearly unstoppable.

(Now watch Chicago win a close Game 3. It's been that kind of series, that kind of year.)
Posted on: May 19, 2011 6:38 pm

The Haslem Effect

Udonis Haslem was the difference maker in Game 2 for the Heat, and it wasn't just in the ways you noticed or would expect. 

Posted by Matt Moore

When coach Eric Spoelstra elected not to change his roster actives for Game 2, we were... less than impressed. How were the Heat going to manage to mitigate the huge rebounding advantage with the same roster? What of course we weren't counting on was Udonis Haslem rising from Spoelstra's training table like Frankenstein and destroying the Bulls like Taj Gibson did in Game 1. It wasn't just the kinds of plays you'd expect from Haslem in terms of rebounds and defense, though. Haslem made smart veteran plays... you know, the kinds of plays the Heat were counting on from Haslem all year prior to his injury. 

Check it out.


Here in the first half, James takes a pull-up jumper from the top of the arc. In a great example of how the bounces literally went Miami's way, the rebound doesn't carom straight backwards, where Noah is (left center), but instead bounces to the left.


Haslem manages to make the grab while Noah's still blocking out the weak side. Carlos Boozer's doing approximately what you'd expect him to be doing. Nothing. 

Haslem lands, and whereas Joel Anthony and his stone hands have a high probability of losing the handle on an attempted pass or gather, or even Dampier or Ilgauskas who would immediately attempt to tap the ball in over Noah's length, Haslem manages to move the ball down and sideways. Yes, you're never supposed to bring the ball back down in such a situation, but with the Bulls' length and ability to challenge, it's not a bad idea. Especially when you consider that there are four Bulls within a foot of Haslem and their backs are all facing the perimeter. Boy, I hope there's not a hyper-athletic superstar with incredible explosion hanging out after he just took a jumper. 

Because, you see, with Boozer just now starting to close on Haslem, and the Ball whizzing literally right by his head, that would mean that such a 6-8, 285 lb. freight train would have a clear shot at the lane to capitalize on Haslem's savvy play. 

Oh, yeah, LeBron James


But it wasn't just there that Haslem did work. Controlling the glass was a problem for the Heat, but while the Bulls still ratcheted up 17 offensive boards, the majority came in the first half, and the percentage was much lower in Game 2. In particular, Taj Gibson wasn't a demon on both ends for the Bulls. 

Taj Gibson was a monster in that game, making all the key plays and adding 3 offensive rebounds among his seven total. In Game 2, Gibson had 1 offensive rebound, making his rebound total... 1. Haslem was partly why.  Here's an example. 


C.J. Watson takes a three here in the second. It's deep enough that there's a pretty solid chance the rebound's going to go wide to the left side of the basket, where Taj Gibson's waiting to collect. Haslem comes in helping off of Asik and identifies the angle. He's gonig to have to get between Gibson and the rim without already having position.


Haslem makes contact to put a body on him, and let's face it, this looks like a hug. The initial bump to Gibson's right side moves him just to the side enough to allow Haslem to slide in between him and the rim as the rebound comes off.

Haslem slides off of Gibson's right side to where he's parallel to Gibson, both players facing the baseline. 

Haslem turns, slipping under and up Gibson's right side, avoiding a foul call, and snares the rebound, immediately securing it low as opposed to keeping it high as the other Heat centers would be more likely to do. 

Haslem was the biggest difference maker in Game 2. Spoelstra relied on him heavily, playing him nearly to the bone. His conditioning will be tested in Game 3, but with three days rest, that may be enough time for him to recover. While the Heat may not have a player with enough size to keep the Bulls off the glass, they have a player they can count on to outsmart the Bulls' raw athleticism off the bench, giving more opportunities for the Big 3 to be the deciders in the game. 
Posted on: May 19, 2011 1:02 am
Edited on: May 19, 2011 1:24 am

Derrick Rose's non-MVP 4th

Posted by Matt Moore

It had to catch up with him at some point. Derrick Rose entered Wednesday night's Game 2 as the league leader in usage in the playoffs. If you're not metric-inclined, put simply, Rose was responsible for more possessions than any other player in the postseason, being in control for 35.7 percent of all the Bulls' possessions. That's a heavy load to bear. And in the fourth quarter against the Heat in Game 2, it caught up with Rose. 

The MVP finished just 7-23 from the field, harassed and bothered both by the Heat's double-teams on the perimeter and at the rim where the help defense was helped tremendously by, you guessed it, Udonis Haslem. But especially bad was his fourth quarter, in which the Bulls scored just 10 points, while LeBron James scored nine. Here's Rose's fourth quarter.


That's it. 2-4 free throw shooting, three assists, 0-4 from the field. The shot chart is equally unkind to DRose.


Yeah, 2-10 at the rim. Rose admitted post-game, "I missed a lot of shots I normally make tonight." Rose chalked it up to "one of those games." Which is partially true. But the Heat were much more determined to shut off Rose's perimeter pass-off options while maintaining their attack on Rose at the same time. The Heat spent less time on help defense at the elbow during Rose's drives and more time doubling on the perimeter, switching up coverage, and attacking the rim. They forced Rose to make hyper-aggressive moves toward the basket and challenged him hard there, making tough shots tougher. Rose can hit those tough shots. Making them that much tougher was enough to cause that 2-10 layup count. 

Rose was even missing free throws.

We've yet to see the MVP Derrick Rose in this series. The Bulls' offense has lived on offensive rebounds but at some point, they need to not need three tries to score. Haslem started chipping away at the Bulls' work on the offensive glass and the result was the Bulls being unable to score, again, just ten points in the fourth for the top seed in the East.

The best player for the Bulls had a bad night, with some help from the Heat on that front. Unless the MVP gets back on track, it's going to be an uphill climb for the Bulls. One can only feast on bench play and glass work for so long before your stars have to make a play.  
Posted on: May 19, 2011 12:19 am
Edited on: May 19, 2011 5:39 pm

LeBron James, Udonis Haslem deliver 1-2 punch

Miami Heat forwards Udonis Haslem and LeBron James combined to put away the Chicago Bulls in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals. Posted byudonis-haslem Ben Golliver.

In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Miami Heat had zero answers for the Chicago Bulls in the second half. In Game 2, they had two: a likely suspect and a pleasant surprise. 

With the game tied at 73-73 with a little over four minutes to play in the final period, Heat forward LeBron James scored nine points in a little over three minutes to send Miami to an 85-75 victory, and even the series at 1-1. 

James' burst wasn't unlike the 10-point run he used to close out the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals, in that he visibly gained confidence after hitting a three-pointer, instantly switching into attack mode. Two perimeter jumpers and another one close in from James pushed Miami out of Chicago's reach, as the Bulls were unable to execute offensively down the stretch, scoring just two points in the final 7:15 of the fourth quarter.

Even after that run, and a 29-point, 10-rebound, 5-assist, 3-steal box score line, James wasn't in the mood to take the credit. Instead, he singled out reserve forward Udonis Haslem.

"He definitely gets the game ball tonight," James said in a post-game interview. "He came in with his energy and effort rebounding, finishing plays around the basket, made some shots when they were making a run in the third quarter that really helped us."

Because of a long-term absence due to a foot injury, Haslem's contributions this season have been far more of the off-court leadership and heart variety rather than the on-court muscle that he's known for. Prior to Game 2, Haslem had played just six minutes combined in the playoffs, including four minutes of garbage time at the end of Game 1. 

Wednesday night was a different story, though, as Haslem clocked 23 huge minutes off the bench. If he looked winded at times, understand that was the most minutes he had played since Nov. 19, 2010, nearly six months ago. 

There was a look in his eye," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told the Associated Press. "I knew it was time."

In Game 1, Chicago's bench mob ran rampant. In Game 2, they were neutralized by Haslem's energy and paint presence. Fatigued or not, Haslem was everywhere, particularly in the third quarter. On Sunday, Miami looked flat and out of sync to start the second half, and that was clearly their undoing. On Wednesday, Haslem was more than enough spark to make the difference, combining two highlight reel dunks, a mid-range jumper, five rebounds and a blocked shot to provide Miami's biggest bench contribution since James Jones went off in Game 1 of the semifinals against Boston. He finished with 13 points.

No play was bigger than this dunk in transition, in which he powered up and over Bulls point guard Derrick Rose in transition, only to land softly into a reverse somersault. 

Want a quick laugh? Try to imagine any other Heat reserve making that play.

With Chicago's offense on life support for most of the game -- Rose needed 23 shots to score 21 points, the Bulls shot 3-20 from deep as a team, the Chicago Tribune reports the Bulls scored a franchise-low 10 points in the fourth quarter -- the Heat didn't need the full fury that James and Dwyane Wade are capable of delivering.

Instead, the James / Haslem one-two punch was more than enough to send Chicago reeling into Sunday's Game 3 in Miami.
Posted on: May 18, 2011 8:01 pm

Erik Spoelstra elects for same roster in Game 2

Erik Spoelstra keeps same inactives as Game 1 vs. the Bulls. Which is not genius. 

Posted by Matt Moore

The definition of insanity as termed by Albert Einstein is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

In a very short sample, Erik Spoelstra looks pretty nuts.

Spoelstra announced before the game that Erick Dampier, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Dexter Pittman would all be inactive for Game 2 vs. the Bulls. This after the Bulls pulled in 19 offensive rebound against the Heat's fronctourt which featured Jamal Magliore who has hardly played this season and 6-9 Joel Anthony. Spoelstra acknowledged that offensive rebounding killed the Heat in Game 2, but instead chose to pin it on mental errors, focus on effort. Which makes tons of sense, except for the fact that this move means that players who are not adept at combatting the Bulls' size, length and offensive rebounding ability, as evidence by the massacre on the glass in Game 1, will have to somehow change the outcome of Game 2 under the exact same circumstances.

Yes, the Heat need to try harder. Yes, they need to have more focus. Yes, they have to mentally adjust. But it also would have done no harm to activate either Dampier or Ilgauskas and deactivate either Magliore or Juwan Howard. Spoelstra can still rely on Joel Anthony in that situation, but hope for a spark from someone with legitimate size. Instead, the coach is carrying the banner of "Keep Calm, and Carry On." In the regular season, that's confidence. In the playoffs, that refusing to make key adjustments. Spoelstra will once again have to hope his three stars can save him from questionable decisions.  
Posted on: May 18, 2011 7:42 pm

LiveChat: Heat-Bulls Conference Finals Game 2

Join us at 8:30 p.m. EST for Game 2 of the Heat and Bulls' Eastern Conference Finals. We'll discuss such groundbreaking topics as:

  • Is Jamal Magliore actually alive?
  • Is Omer Asik the second coming of Thor?
  • Will LeBron's head cold force him to... do absolutely nothing differently?
  • Tom Thibodeau can't actually yell like that the whole time, can he?
All that an more, join us at 8 p.m. EST.

Posted on: May 18, 2011 2:44 pm
Edited on: May 18, 2011 2:47 pm

LeBron James dealing with cold prior to Game 2

LeBron James suffering with a cold before Game 2 against Bulls

Posted by Matt Moore

Lebron James told reporters after shootaround Wednesday before Game 2 against the Bulls that he's dealing with a head cold. From ESPN

"LeBron is also battling a cold ahead of tonight's Game 2. Said it has been bothering him for 3 days."

James obviously has a history of vague conditions developing at the, ahem... wrong times, such as his unspecified elbow injury last year against the Celtics. It's interesting that James developed this cold after a subpar Game 1, considering he told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that he couldn't sleep before the game
"If I'm back home, just try to get in the gym," he said of how he otherwise handles sleepless nights and mornings. "I know they wouldn't allow me to come in here at 5 o'clock in the morning, so I decide to watch film."

"It took me about an hour and half to get back to sleep. It's exciting," he said just before noon. "I'm a little sleepy now, but I'm excited about the opportunity tonight. It's going to be fun."
via Miami Heat: LeBron James can't sleep before facing Chicago Bulls in NBA Eastern Conference finals - South Florida Sun-Sentinel.com.

So before Game 1 of the Conference Finals, James couldn't sleep and instead got up and watched film, putting more stress on his body. Then after a languished loss to the Bulls, he develops a head cold. That's LeBron for you, taking a tense situation and finding a way to make it worse. That said, there's no flu or significant illness here, and it certainly won't keep LeBron out. But he probably should have kept it to himself, just to avoid the avalanche of accusations that he's once again making excuses.

Always James, always drama.
Posted on: May 18, 2011 11:35 am
Edited on: May 18, 2011 2:03 pm

Playoff Fix: Heat try and outrun Bulls in Game 2

Posted by Matt Moore

One Big Thing: The Heat have to somehow peel the Bulls off the offensive glass, with a crowbar if necessary. Joakim Noah, in particular, has been a pest on the glass. The Heat must put put a body on him or he's going to continue to make life miserable for them. The big question here is whether Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will adjust his roster, putting bigger bodies Erick Dampier and Zydrunas Ilgauskas on active roster or stick with his speed approach of Jamal Magloire. He can talk about it being effort, but expecting Magliore who didn't play hardly at all in the regular season to come in and keep one of the best offensive rebounding teams off the glass was a critical, and obvious, mistake. If the Bulls claim a huge margin in extra possessions in Game 2, the Heat are going to face a similar fate.

The X-Factor: Kyle Korver didn't have to do much damage in Game 1 and he was only 1-3. Thing is, the Bulls did do a good job when he was on the floor of getting him moving off-ball and finding opportunties for him. If Game 2 turns into more of an offensive slugfest, even a little bit, Korver could be a swing factor for the Bulls. Miami has to spend so much time with help defense off of Rose that opportunities are going to be there for Korver. He's just got to knock them down. If Thibodeau elects to keep his defensive units on the floor, though, and Keith Bogans is still hitting jumpers, Korver won't be needed. But it's nice to have him in your back pocket just in case.

The Adjustment: The Heat were unprepared for the Bulls' defense, despite having played it three times in the regular season and a version of it in Boston just days before. They started out with the right tone, but then let Chicago set the tempo for the rest of the game, particularly the third quarter. Miami's transition offense is better than Chicago's transition defense, because of the athletes they employ. But their halfcourt offense is not better than Chicago's offense, barring some magical coaching adjustment, which, let's face it, no one sees happening. As a result, the Heat have to get back to pushing the ball whenever they can. If they continue to settle in the halfcourt and eventually resign themselves to isolation sets against two and sometimes three help defenders, they're doomed.

The Sticking Point: Luol Deng won his matchup with LeBron James. Which is almost inconceivable until you realize how good a job Deng has done historically against James. But the fact remains, if Luol Deng is better than LeBron James, the Heat will not win. The Heat's formula is really that simple. If they don't get 100 percent James or 100 percent Wade, the game is over, no matter how much Chris Bosh contributes. Game one proved that already.
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com