The Miami Heat flipped the switch. When you’re the two-time defending NBA champions, you’re allowed to.
After a Game 3 that Miami let slip away and a Game 4 that felt too close for comfort, the Heat gathered itself late in Wednesday’s Game 5 at home, clamping down defensively and finding Brooklyn’s weak spots on the other end in order to secure a 96-94 win. The conquest ended Miami’s Eastern Conference semifinals series with the Nets with the champs taking four games in five tries, with LeBron James once again acting as the catalyst on either side of the ball.
James scored 29 points in the win, but it was his defense on Nets All-Star Joe Johnson that helped the Heat come back from what was an eight-point fourth quarter deficit. Johnson had previously gone on an 8-of-9 run from the floor in the second half, but LeBron’s tight late-game perimeter defense helped force Johnson into several bad looks and one crucial turnover in the fourth quarter’s final minutes.
James had been treating Johnson with relative kid gloves prior to the game’s deciding quarter, strangely playing the Nets swingman to drive the ball instead of shooting, but as was the case late in Game 4, LeBron’s rigid perimeter hounding kept Brooklyn away from good looks.
And the Heat, as is their custom, capitalized when it counted most.
Sharpshooter Ray Allen missed his first six three-pointers before splashing his first with 32 seconds left in the contest, giving the Heat its first lead of the second half. Watch:
Miami big man Chris Bosh continued his wily perimeter ways as well, nailing 4-of-6 3-pointers in the contest and rescuing countless Heat possessions as a smallball Brooklyn lineup collapsed on penetration from both James and Dwyane Wade. Bosh entered the contest after having missed 12-of-16 treys in the second round, but both his presence (Brooklyn was clearly unnerved and attempting to cover him in the corner) and touch from outside were a devastating factor in Miami’s win.
Meanwhile, Wade cut and curled his way to a 2014-playoff-high 28 points. The two-time defending Heat champions finished off broken plays, took to the post against several defenders, and was constantly moving in a bit of a throwback game for the player Miami selected in the 2003 NBA draft. Finishing with “only” three assists, the shooting guard turned into the sort of all out scorer that Miami needs when James goes into a gun-shy mode offensively, as was the case at times on Wednesday night.
With that said, LeBron was far from hesitant when it counted most.
Though he bricked one needed free throw late in the contest, James earned all of his 17 free throw attempts, making 15 on the night. He finished with a team-high 29 points, and though that wasn’t enough to top the game-high leader in points in Game 5, James did stop Johnson’s 34-point night from turning into something more devastating for Miami.
Johnson was an absolute killer for Brooklyn from the perimeter in his team’s final game of the season, and his touch and smarts (and especially footwork) are to be credited, but it was also obvious that James was defending him improperly as Joe racked up the points. Whether Johnson grew tired as the game went on is irrelevant – James crowded him on the perimeter and used his length and hops to contest jumpers down the stretch, an approach that LeBron passed on utilizing earlier as Joe flung in jumper after jumper in the minutes approaching crunch time.
Paul Pierce (who hit some tough long range jumpers, finishing with 19 points) and Deron Williams (who needed 16 shots to score 17 points) attempted to spread the floor as Brooklyn coach Jason Kidd kept with his super-small lineup, but Miami had the matchup advantages. The Nets may have made their late-regular season hay working with smaller lineups, but Miami has won two championships with this approach, and this second round series was rock solid proof regarding who is more adept at this style of ball.
That’s not to Brooklyn’s discredit, as isolation moves for Johnson or a small-ball lineup featuring this rotation would have probably set the world on fire some seven years ago, but this is Miami’s era, and not Kevin Garnett's (who ended the season shooting 1 of 3 in his final 2014 contest) or Pierce’s time. The Heat may have left things uncomfortably close at times, and they may have flipped that proverbial switch, but that’s what champions are allowed to do.
Especially when you have a two-way wonder like LeBron James to fall back on. Players like him tend to help, when you choose the “lights-off-lights-on” approach.
- - - - - - -