After Shane Battier signed with the Heat last December, he couldn't begin to imagine the things he'd be asked to do in the Finals. When he wasn't almost singlehandedly staking Miami to early leads with his three-point shooting, the 33-year-old Battier (6'8", 225 pounds) found himself guarding everyone from the Thunder's long-limbed Kevin Durant (6'9", 235) to speedy Russell Westbrook (6'3", 187) to burly Kendrick Perkins (6'10", 270). Of the last assignment Battier says, "It's kind of weird because I'm a stretch four playing out of position and giving up 50 pounds."
And, not surprisingly, loving it.
Miami was leading Oklahoma City 2--1 in no small part because of team president Pat Riley's pursuit of Battier, who deeply wanted to play for a contender, having never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs. After signing a three-year, $9 million deal, he spent the lockout-shortened season working overtime to earn the respect of teammates who had been galvanized by their Finals collapse last year. "All they talked about was the Dallas series, and I was on the beach somewhere watching the games with a margarita," Battier says. "It was tough to be one of the guys without having that tremendous experience that forged the team and ultimately made this team different—and I think tougher—this year."
To fit in, Battier had to adapt. He had spent his previous 10 seasons spotting up around the stationary low-post presences of Pau Gasol, Yao Ming and Zach Randolph, but with Miami he has to be more mobile because the offense is more fluid. He's had to develop a different style of defense as well. "My strength has always been to make adjustments, to take away strengths [of opponents], even if it goes against the overall game plan," says Battier, who was a three-time NCAA defensive player of the year at Duke. "Here, the system trumps all. More often than not the answer is, 'Well, this is the way we've done it for 20 years.' I say, 'O.K.'"
The key difference has been coach Erik Spoelstra's insistence that Battier hold his ground against larger opponents like Durant and Perkins, when Battier's inclination would be to draw contact, hit the floor and hope the refs whistle an offensive foul. (He did step in and draw a key charge in Game 2 after Durant beat James on a drive.) And no one can say that Battier hasn't learned to get open in the new system: In the first three games he made 11 of 15 threes, including eight of 10 in the first halves.
But like all smart players, Battier has had to prove his toughness. During a recent interview Riley interrupted him. "Stop being so intellectual," his boss ordered half-jokingly. "Primal players, not intellectual players."
"Hey," answered Battier with a grin, "how did the first man survive? He said, 'You know what? Instead of chasing buffalo all over the globe, I'm going to plant some seeds in the ground....'"
"No," said Riley. "He screamed."
"'... and I'm going to have a constant food source,'" continued Battier.
Riley nodded and said, "After dragging somebody else by their hair."