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.
“I’m too close to it right now,” he said after a pause. “I’ll reflect on the journey a few weeks from now when I’m in flip-flops on a golf course with a stogie and a beer. Right now, all I can think about is Game 3.”
Battier talks about “the journey” a lot. He is the Heat’s most introspective player, along with Bosh. Battier graduated from Duke with a degree in religion. He plays the guitar. His answer to his poor shooting season was faith in “the law of averages.” His approach to basketball is cerebral: Angles. Positioning.
This was Battier’s response when asked about playing in his first Finals: “When I saw the Finals logo on the court, I remembered back when the NBA used to be on CBS, and when I see the cursive of ‘the Finals’ writing, I think about how the logo used to have a little quill.”
Probably not your standard answer, that one.
Said James: “Going against him in my career, I understood how smart he was.”
As coach Erik Spoelstra put it: “All the details mean everything to Shane, and that’s been contagious to this group.”
Battier’s 17 points in each of the first two Finals games have drawn broader attention, but the team’s appreciation was already his.
“Everybody notices Shane when the ball is going in. We notice everything else before that,” Spoelstra said. “His versatility, the defensive plays he makes, the leadership. He allows us to play our roster the way we need to, and we weren’t necessarily able to do that last year. And so now we’re able to play LeBron at several different positions, and the same with Dwyane, and he kind of ties that all together.”
Spoelstra is saying what Houston general manager Daryl Morey used to say about Battier with a one-word nickname. Morey called him “Lego” because, “When he’s on the court, all the other pieces fit together.”
Battier is not as fast or athletic as most NBA colleagues but has forged a long, successful career from willpower and study.
His immersion into basketball was for him an escape.
At his high school, Detroit’s Country Day School, he was the only student whose father was black and whose mother was white, and there were years when he felt more ostracized than accepted by either culture.
“Everything I’ve done since then is because of what I went through,” Battier said in a 2009 New York Times profile. “What I did was alienate myself from everybody. I’d eat lunch by myself. I’d study by myself. I sort of lost myself in the game.”
Today, Battier is married to his high school sweetheart with a son who just turned 4 and a girl who is 1. Life is good. His dad will be here for Sunday’s game, on Father’s Day.
“My dad was never my basketball coach but being a good teammate, working hard, being consistent, believing in yourself — those were all things he taught me,” Battier said. “When Big Ed raised his voice because you didn’t help your teammate up, you helped your teammate up. I take that with me to this day.”
Battier also takes with him the harder lessons, such as those years feeling caught between black and white, not feeling accepted.
Maybe that is why what he feels right now, to be not only accepted but embraced, is mostly appreciation.
“You feel fortunate just to be in the NBA,” he said Saturday. “It’d be special to be a part of a championship, but it really is about the journey, and the people. Aside from the parade and the ring you get, the real satisfaction would be succeeding with a group. I don’t care if it’s tiddly-winks or hop-scotch, if you can say you’re the best it’s about a journey that only you and your teammates understand.”
The journey has reached as far as any in basketball can: the NBA Finals.
The easy narrative nationally will continue to be whether LeBron or Durant will get his championship ring first, but no player is happier to be where he is right now — or more thankful — than Shane Battier.