MIAMI – On the night the Miami Heat eliminated the Boston Celtics to advance to the NBA Finals, Shane Battier received a voice mail from his old college coach at Duke, Mike Krzyzewski.
Coach K's message: "Be a [expletive] in the Finals."
The Oklahoma City Thunder can vouch that Battier has followed his coach's orders. Through the first three games of the Finals, Battier has made 11 of 15 3-pointers (73.3 percent) while averaging 14.3 points.
With the Heat leading the Thunder 2-1 in the series, Battier also is close to fulfilling another of Coach K's wishes: Two more wins and he'll become just the second Duke player under Krzyzewski to win an NBA championship. Of the more than 50 players Krzyzewski has sent to the NBA during his 31 season as Duke coach, only Danny Ferry (with the San Antonio Spurs in 2003) has won an NBA title.
Battier has built a reputation as a tough, defensive-minded small forward during his 11 NBA seasons. But when Chris Bosh was sidelined for nine games with a lower abdominal strain in the previous two rounds of the playoffs, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra asked Battier to start at power forward – and even guard some centers.
Battier played well enough that Spoelstra kept him in the starting lineup even after Bosh regained his usual spot in Game 2 of the Finals. His shooting has given the Heat a big boost in all three games, the last two of which they've won. LeBron James called Battier the Heat’s “key guy.” Miami made just five shots outside the lane in their Game 3 victory, and Battier had two of them, a pair of 3-pointers late in the second quarter.
“He’s our only guy that's making perimeter shots,” James said.
Battier credited two factors for his sharp shooting in the Finals: the spacing of Miami's offense; and his own "clean living."
"It’s a make-or-miss league," Battier said. "It’s the NBA Finals. There is no holding back. If you got the shot, take it, let it fly. The worse thing that can happen is you miss."
Battier has also made it difficult for Thunder big men Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison to guard him. But on the other end of the court, Battier has the challenge of sometimes defending Perkins, who outweighs him by close to 50 pounds.
“I’m pretty sore,” Battier said. “I will have plenty of time to rest a couple of weeks from now. Fatigue and all that good stuff isn’t an issue.”
Perkins isn't happy his teammates have been slow to recognize when he has Battier on him. “It’s disturbing,” Perkins said. “We actually don’t throw the ball inside at times and make him pay for him guarding me. It’s disturbing at times. But at the end of the day, if I don’t get the ball, I need to hit the offensive glass to make them pay for putting a smaller guy on me.”
Battier has guarded everyone from shooting guards like Kobe Bryant to centers in his NBA career. He doesn't care about his position, all he worries about is making the right play, whether it's hitting the open 3-pointer or finding a teammate with a pass.
"Whether it's a preseason game or the Finals I’m going to do what it takes to win,” Battier said. “I want to come in here and impact the game in a positive way. It can be a different way every single night. Some nights it will be shooting. Some nights it will be defense. Sometimes it will be a loose ball or two.
"That’s the way I feed my kids and my dogs – make good things happen on the basketball court."
Battier has never been this close to an NBA championship, though he thought he would have made it to the Finals before now. He played with Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady when the Houston Rockets were projected to become a power in the Western Conference. Instead, injuries to Yao and McGrady kept the Rockets from ever truly contending.
Battier still wonders if he would already have a championship ring if Yao had stayed healthy.
"That’s probably the only thing I lament in my career," Battier said. "It would have been fun to see how far we could’ve taken those teams with Yao healthy. We did amazing things considering the injury problems that we had. First, I feel terrible for Yao. There is not a better ambassador for the game than Yao, a better teammate, a better guy."
Battier is now 33 years old and two wins shy of winning his first NBA title. He did win the NCAA championship his senior season with Duke in 2001.
"It was a long time ago," Battier said. "The thing I remember when the clock hit 0:00 wasn’t the celebration and the trophy ceremony. It was the fact that you went through an unbelievable trial for me with my closest friends and came out on top. The experience is something I will take with me for the rest of my life.
"I don’t need a ring or trophy to remind me of that. I know what it took."
Two more wins and Battier will become just Coach K's second player from Duke with an NBA title – and the first Duke player ever with NCAA and NBA championships. Which would he consider sweeter?
“I will tell you if it happens,” Battier said.
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