The Mavericks pushed the Heat to the brink of elimination in Game Five. In what will likely go down as the best game of these Finals, Dallas and Miami finally got their respective offenses in gear and traded blows for 48 minutes. Each team showcased what makes it so special - the Mavericks, with their set offense mastery and outside shooting, and the Heat, with their collective team speed, athleticism, and unselfishness.
One of the key aspects to any great game is the contrast in styles - that one team performs in a way fundamentally different from the other. With Dallas, they rely heavily on the team's collective ability to read a defense, make the right pass, set the right screen, and hit the first available shot. With Miami, they work best when Dwyane Wade and LeBron James are free to improvise and allow their supernatural offensive skill-sets to take over. It is because their styles are so different that makes the games so compelling. As a result, we got a great game and the best 4th quarter of the series.
Here are my random musings from Game Five:
1. Dallas plays 4th quarters better than anyone
I've read through the game threads of both the Mavs and the Heat during these games, and it is always interesting to pick up on common themes that show up, and more precisely, when they show up. For example, in just about every game thread where Dallas had to come from behind in the 4th quarter, there is a sudden eerie calm that shows up amidst the normal panic that you would expect. Somebody comments that now Dallas has them right where they want them, and the tidal wave grows as Dallas mounts its comeback. Time and time again the Mavs have been able to come back on teams these playoffs, and have justly earned the right to be seen in such a light. In fact, Dirk missing a jumper at the buzzer (Game Three) or the Mavs losing a large lead in the 4th (Trail Blazers Game Four) are seen as an anomaly. In 2011, the Mavs come back on everyone.
So it was a strange thing come the 4th quarter of Game Five that Dallas actually found themselves in the lead. After continued great ball movement and shooting from everybody who got on the court, Dallas was up by five points with just over six minutes remaining. Surely a lead, combined with Dallas' laser-like focus in the last six minutes of games, meant that a Game Five win was all but assured.
However, something funny happened. Dallas let up defensively, and for the briefest of moments we got to see how well the Dallas defense has played this series. We got to see this reality because for about two minutes, they eased up and lost focus defensively and we witnessed the tidal wave they had worked so hard to hold in place. Miami rolled off nine straight points, consisting of fast sets, brilliant passing, layups and dunks, and finished with a Wade 3-pointer flourish. Dallas, in control for much of the game, suddenly found itself trailing by four points. Miami had started circling the Mavs like sharks circling chum.
Since we witnessed the Thunder's Five Game series against the Mavs, we know how Dallas responds in these types of situations:
- The ball goes to Dirk
- The Mavs get to the free throw line
- The defense gets stops
- Their shooters step up
- Dirk immediately got to the free throw line on the next possession, pulling the team to within two. In total, he finished with eight points in the quarter, 6-6 from the free throw line, and his baseline dunk gave Dallas the lead back and they never relinquished it.
- The Mavs went 6-6 from the free throw line the rest of the game.
- The defense only allowed Miami to score four more points over the next 3:38.
- Jason Terry and Jason Kidd combined for three huge 3-pointers. Terry and Kidd both hit a three out of a planned set, and Terry iced the game with a dagger three with 33 seconds to go.
2. Did LeBron come up big?
Much was made after the fallout of the Heat losing Game Four. LeBron James managed to score only eight points in the game, zero in the 4th. In Game Five, LeBron once again performed well the role of facilitator, but the Heat needed more from him and he needed more from himself. LeBron finished game five with a triple double - 17 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists - which was impressive. However, is this a big game? Was this a "now or never!" game?
I think that the only way to answer the question is to ask a better one - did James give the Heat what they needed? That's what the best of the best do - they look at their team's performance, figure out what isn't working right, and they then go fix it. That's what James did against Chicago when he took on the challenge of stopping Derrick Rose, all the while hitting clutch shot after clutch shot. That's also what he did against Boston, scoring 11 points in the 4th quarter of Game Four, propelling the team to an overtime win, and then following up that game with a 33 points performance in Game Five. Those were big moments.
Now, here was The Moment. The Heat were staggering, Wade was sidelined for a spell with a hip contusion and Miami needed an offensive focal point. More than mere point production, I felt like this was the moment when James had to show his team that he was willing and capable of carrying them when they needed it, because later on in the game, they would need it.
A triple double. In a finals game. That is really impressive. Why did it feel like it was not quite enough? Why did it feel like he left something out on the court, even while watching his buddy Wade hobbling and wincing, leaving everything on the court? LeBron's game reminded me of last season, when James was being openly challenged as coming up small in Game Five against Boston. He responded in Game Six with...you guessed it...a triple double - 27 points, 19 rebounds, 10 assists. However, he also almost managed a dubious quadruple-double, because he also had nine turnovers. Despite the impressive numbers, most fans and pundits came away from that series thinking one thing - LeBron had already checked out.
Funny phrase, that.
Here is the stat that says the most to me about whether a player is dialed in, in big moments: 4th quarter free throw attempts. At the end of the day, an injured Wade was crashing his body into defenders to draw fouls and manufacture points, desperately trying to keep his team in the game. Wade finished 10-12 at the free throw line, almost half of Wade's final point total.
In a game after scoring eight points and shooting 2-4 from the free throw line, LeBron James finished Game Five 1-2 from the charity stripe.
Paper or plastic? Cash or credit?
3. Who did come up big?
a) The one guy whom I'm sure Miami fans have come to love to hate - Jason Terry. He played as good as any time in this year's playoffs. He made open shots, contested shots, 3-point shots, and free throw shots to keep Dallas in front. He also ran the offense beautifully, making critical passes to open men, the biggest of which included the assist to Dirk for his 4th quarter slam dunk.
He challenged Miami and LeBron James publicly. Many scoffed. Terry said that he had the ability to hurt the Heat, even after a sub-par performance in Game Three. LeBron James smirked. And yet, there he was in Games Four and Five, making the biggest plays at the biggest moments. The Mavs and their coach, their star and their Hall of Fame point guard, are a no nonsense bunch. But they trusted Terry, even as he was proclaiming silly public statements and at times deserving to be benched. Terry was the catalyst for the Mavs' wins in Games Four and Five.
b) Jose Barea has had a rough Finals, and I certainly wondered if he was just not cut out for playing against the aggressive perimeter defense of the Heat. Mavs coach Rick Carlisle shocked everybody by defying this public convention and inserting Barea into the starting line-up. It goes to show that he has come into his own as both a great tactical and personnel coach, because the effect was palpable. The Mavs offense started to open up in Game Four, thoroughly outplaying the Heat and only struggling because of missed open shots. In Game Five, in the Mavs' final home game of this season, Barea got even better. He finally stopped over-dribbling and looked for the outside shot, hitting 4-5 3-pointers. He stopped playing overwhelmed, and tallied five assists against a single turnover. In sum, the smallest guy on the court, like the rest of his team, figured out how to deal with the Heat defense.
4. What to expect in Game Six?
The Heat are backed into a corner in a way that they have not experienced, led by a supreme player who may or may not know how to play with aggressive desperation. The Mavericks are in close-out mode once again with a formula in place that no team has solved.
Let's all take our talents to South Beach and find out how this ends.
Game 6: Sunday night in Miami at 8PM EST