The NBA Finals are the stage on which special players might lift a team, but sometimes they can also be a time when a special team might lift a player. When both are happening at once, you have Shane Battier.
Most of the story lines are big, loud and obvious as the Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder break a 1-1 series tie with the first of three consecutive games in Miami on Sunday night. It is LeBron James and Kevin Durant dueling to see which superstar gets to be a champion first. It’s Chris Bosh back from injury, rejoining James and Dwyane Wade to make the Heat’s Big 3 whole again.
Battier is the quiet phenomenon, flaring across these Finals like something that is amazing to see but that you also fear will disappear — a shooting star. The longer he can last in that role without blinking out, the likelier Miami’s title hopes.
This cannot be happening, can it?
Battier is not supposed to be starting and averaging 17 points a game in his first career Finals, fueled by scorching 9-for-13 accuracy on three-point shots.
Almost 34, he is supposed to be a role player off the bench; that’s why the Heat signed him in the offseason. Past his best days, he is supposed to be coasting into his career’s winter by now, even admitting with easy self-deprecation that if he were to write a book, it would be called Didn’t You Used to Be Shane Battier?
The Heat players other than LeBron, Bosh and D-Wade have a nickname for themselves, and what it lacks in originality it makes up for in accuracy.
“We actually call ourselves ‘The Other Guys,’ ” Battier said Saturday after a practice, smiling.
And he was just another of them, and far from the most prominent of the other guys, until now, until his performance in these first two games makes you tempted to say the Big 3 might have added a fourth.
Battier had the worst season of his NBA career in terms of shooting percentage.
“Terrible,” was his word Saturday.
Turning it on
As the playoffs began, he was a nonstarter who continued to shoot poorly and matter minimally in the first series against the Knicks. He started four games in the next series against the Pacers (because of Bosh’s injury) but shot even worse, averaging a tepid 3.8 points. He started throughout the conference finals against the Celtics and began to find his shooting but still shot poorly overall, offering little indication of what was to come.
Now, two games into the Finals, even with Bosh back in the lineup, Battier has proved too valuable to not start. He is enjoying more attention and adulation than he has received probably since 2001, when he won a college championship and national Player of the Year honors with Duke.
The pro career that followed has been solid (known mostly for stout defense) but without the stardom suggested by his college days or his being the sixth overall pick in the NBA Draft. He never made an All-Star team, and 10 years spent playing in Memphis and Houston meant the spotlight was never really bright even on occasions it found him.
Now he’s on the biggest stage, basking in the celebrity glow of the Heat’s Big 3, and being asked to explain why he’s making all those crucial three-point shots.
It’s too much to process, now, anyway. I asked Battier on Saturday what the past week or so has been like for him.