The American Airlines Arena was brought to a panic-stricken hush when the league’s three-time MVP LeBron James was ominously carried off the court with 4:05 remaining in Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night. The Miami Heat were up only by two points and fending off a rabid attack from Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook, who was in the midst of a relentless display of will en route to a game-high 43 point performance. Instead of joining in the arena’s angst, Heat point guard Mario Chalmers grabbed Dwyane Wade by the jersey and gave his captain an impromptu pep talk.
“Find me,” Chalmers recalled saying to Wade in the huddle. “Let’s get this win.”
With James on the bench nursing a cramp and with all eyes on D.Wade coming out of the timeout, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra didn’t exactly draw up a play for Chalmers. But that’s the way the oft-maligned Heat point guard envisioned the final play of Game 4 to be. And sure enough, Wade found him and Chalmers ended up scoring Miami’s final five points to hold of Westbrook’s onslaught to help the Heat defeat the Thunder 104-98 and take a commanding 3-1 series lead in the Finals.
No one on the Heat receives more verbal thrashing from fellow teammates than Chalmers. Though the mistake-prone point guard has it coming, Chalmers has become the scapegoat for James, D.Wade and Chris Bosh. But after delivering the final dagger in the final minute of Game 4, it’s the maligned Chalmers who is being praised for a job well done by Miami’s Big Three. “Mario has that thing, that thing called heart,” Wade said in the postgame. “No matter how tough we are on him, he actually thinks he’s the best player on this team, and that’s a gift and a curse. But tonight, it was a gift for us because he never gets down on himself. We don’t win the game without what he did in the fourth quarter.” Chalmers had 17 points combined in the first three games of this series. He lit up the league’s three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant, who was assigned the task of defending the Heat point guard to avoid foul trouble, for 25 points on Tuesday, tying his postseason career-high and matching Wade’s point total in Game 4.
The Heat’s role players stole the show from the Thunder’s Big Three on Tuesday. Westbrook scored 17 of his 43 points in the final period, but Chalmers answered with 12 points of his own, including the Heat’s final five of the game. He scored 19 in the second half, helping Miami rally from an early 17-point deficit to take control after halftime. But Chalmers wasn’t the only player outside of James, Wade and Bosh, who contributed to the Heat’s decisive Game 4 victory.
Heat reserve point guard Norris Cole gave Miami a much needed spark in the first-half when the Thunder ballooned their early lead to 17. Cole provided relief for Chalmers and helped to steady the Heat until James and Wade got going. He hit a 3-pointer and then opened the second quarter with another to ignite a 16-0 run for the Heat.
The Heat’s role players played with a greater sense of urgency than the Thunder’s. Before the start of the Finals, OKC’s bench was distinguished from that of Miami’s. Led by the NBA Sixth Man of the Year, James Harden, the Thunder’s second rotation was described to be as dangerous as their starters. But from the tip-off of Game 1, OKC’s bench has been a non-factor in the Finals. Harden played 37 minutes Tuesday, including the entire fourth-quarter, and shot a dismal 2-for-10 for eight points, while committing four turnovers. He only scored nine points in Game 3.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, in the 11 minutes with Harden on the bench on Tuesday, the Thunder shot 57 percent from the field and did not commit a single turnover. In the 37 minutes with the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year on the floor, OKC regressed and shot 46 percent and committed 11 turnovers. It was the second consecutive game that the Thunder was outscored with Harden on the court, after he had a positive plus-minus in each of the previous seven games. Games 1-2 plus 15. Games 3-4 negative nine. If Harden keeps playing at this subpar level, Thunder head coach Scott Brooks might be forced to bench him.
With Miami up three with 17.3 seconds remaining, Miami forward Shane Battier probably made the most crucial play of the game when he tipped a jump ball out to Chalmers and was sent to the line after Westbrook mistakenly fouled –his only blemish on Tuesday night– Chalmers along the sideline. Although Battier, who scored only four points on 1-of-4 shots from three, wasn’t able to contribute offensively as he previously did in the first three games, his final tip proved to be the difference in Miami winning and preventing the series from being tied at two games apiece.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how deep a team’s roster is, what wins games is heart and the unwavering desire to not let one’s teammates down. The Miami Heat reserves know their role very well.
Photo: All U Can Heat