MIAMI — The Oklahoma City Thunder's three stars have combined to score 201 points through three games of the NBA Finals.
The Miami Heat's best three players in this series have scored 202 points.
It's true. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden have been outscored by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and … Shane Battier.
Not quite the battle of the big three we envisioned at the outset of this series, is it?
But that's become the Thunder's reality, and the reason being has to do with Harden pulling a vanishing act. The reigning Sixth Man of the Year has sputtered out of gate in his first trip to the Finals, and it's a leading reason why the Thunder is trailing the Heat 2-1 entering Tuesday night's Game 4.
“I think a lot of it's what they're doing,” said Nick Collison. “They're defending him really well.”
Harden entered this championship series averaging 17.6 points in the postseason. He had connected on 45.2 percent of his field-goal attempts.
Against the Heat, Harden has averaged 11.7 points on 40.7 percent shooting. He has registered as many fouls (11) as he has assists.
“He's their most efficient player when you let him get to his whole package,” said Battier. “We just have to keep making him work. Keep him off the foul line and try to keep running him off the 3-point line.”
Battier, behind some coldblooded sharp shooting, has supplanted Heat forward Chris Bosh as the third wheel to the Heat's hard-to-stop attack. But with Bosh surprisingly taking on more of a bruiser's role on the low block, his hustle, coupled with Battier's shooting and Harden's subpar play, has turned this series into the Heat's big four versus the Thunder's big two.
“We know he's a big part of their team so we just try to keep him from going off,” said Heat guard Mario Chalmers.
Miami has been able to control Harden like no other team. And not just in the playoffs. This has been a yearlong occurrence. Harden has been held to less than 10 points only six times this season. The Heat has now done it twice in six days.
“They're defending him well,” Collison said. “They're really getting out and ‘hedging' ball screens. They've done that (before). We knew that coming into this series. That's something that they're good at.”
The Heat's defense is hounding Harden, making things tough by blowing up ball screens and aggressively attacking Harden in the pick-and-roll. Miami has prevented Harden from either turning the corner or resorting to his preferred method of splitting the screen and driving into the paint.
Miami players and coach Erik Spolestra fancy themselves on saying Harden is simply missing shots. The truth is the Heat's defense has taken Harden right out of the Thunder's offense.
“The way the games have gone he hasn't had as many opportunities as he usually does,” Collison said.
Miami's small lineup is causing Harden most of his problems. Because the Heat refuses to play a true center, Miami has a quartet of athletic wing players and agile big men in Battier, James, Bosh and Udonis Haslem to aggressively meet Harden beyond the arc on ball screens. They're funneling Harden sideways and forcing him to pass off instead of allowing him to attacking with a head of steam.
“That's the Heat's DNA, they always do a great job on pick-and-roll situations,” said Durant. “Just making guys get off the basketball, and James is a good passer so things are going to open up for him. We got to try to get him more involved. He'll be fine … We got to help him out.”