Tonight the Heat host the Mavericks once more in Game Two, their final home game before embarking to Dallas for three consecutive (we hope!) games. Game One was competitive, but to be sure, it was not well played by either team. It's much easier to play good defense when the other team is not making any shots. LeBron James' big stat line was impressive of course, but on the whole Miami shot 38.8% from the floor while the Mavs shot 37.3%. So the modest final score was a product of both teams playing solid defense while shooting the ball poorly. Such a performance is not uncommon in a Game One, and I fully expect tonight to be much more aesthetically pleasing despite the same level of defensive intensity.
Here are four key elements that I will be watching for in tonight's Game Two:
1. The temptation of an Archimedes exclamation.
Since invoking the name of a famous dead Greek scientist seems like the kind of thing a nuanced writer might do, and I'm nothing if not an honest hack, my meaning is thus - we as the fans on either side of the spectrum have to be wary about a "Eureka!" type moment after so little basketball has been played.
To clarify, let us consider some of the earlier rounds (particularly from an OKC point of view):
b) Memphis crushes the Thunder in Game One of the quarter-finals - Eureka! OKC has no way of stopping the inside dominance of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, and they will become the first 8 seed to play in the conference finals.
c) Chicago crushes the Heat in Game One - Eureka! The Heat's weakness on the interior has been exposed and the Bulls are practically Finals-bound.
d) Thunder beat Dallas in Game Two on the road - Eureka! OKC has figured out the Mavs and all of their talent and athleticism combined with home court will give them an opportunity to return to Dallas up 3-1.
Do you see how it works? In the playoffs, we think we see these Big Moments all the time; one team figures out how to control the other, and every out-flowing analysis becomes a priori. However, this notion is the exact opposite of what really happens, and that is what makes these seven game series so compelling - it is because teams can and do adjust from game to game to minimize their weaknesses and create previously unused advantages.
So color me cynical when I see so many media personalities take Game One and naturally extrapolate that the next 4-6 games will play out the exact same way. The margin between Dallas and Miami was small in Game One and can easily be reversed. And if Dallas wins Game Two? Be wary of another Eureka! exclamation that will happen as well.
2. Will the Heat give Dirk Nowitzki the drive to his left?
Dirk has a torn ligament in his left (non-shooting) finger. We all know this, and we know that it likely will have little effect on his shooting motion. I have had the opportunity to watch Dallas and Dirk for about 12 games in the playoffs now, and so I think I've come to understand the rhythm for which he is looking. Dirk's first choice is to have two feet of space from his defender and just rise up and shoot. That is his most unstoppable move. He will either make the shot or he will miss, and it is likely he will make more than he misses.
His second choice typically is the dribble-drive, and it is in this place where Dirk's game can get a little dicey. The Thunder were far more effective in guarding Dirk when they guarded him tight on the wings and would not let him simply pivot and rise up. He is still effective off the drive, but his limitations in passing become more obvious. Standing still, Dirk can hold the ball high, scan the court, and make the right pass. On the move though, he has less body control and is more prone to throwing errant cross-court passes. The Heat would do well then to make him put the ball on the floor.
While Dirk's finger won't bother his shooting, it could greatly effect him if the Heat play him for the drive. In fact, I would think that they would beg him to drive the ball to the rim, and especially so by making him go left. By doing this, Miami can test early and often how effective Dirk will be in using his left hand. It does not take much - a pass that is slightly off target or a lay-up that hits the front of the rim, and everything in Dirk's mindset will have to change.
3. Will the Mavericks bench hear the footsteps?
As we saw in the Thunder series, the Mavs have an explosive bench. The combination of Jason Terry and Jose Barea can accumulate 40 points between the two very quickly, and they were a big reason why the Mavs dominated OKC. In Game one however, they both looked off. They looked both rushed and hesitant, and as a result missed a lot of shots we saw them make in the earlier rounds. Peja Stojakovic also struggled, despite good looks from 3-point range. Why?
My speculation is that they heard the footsteps. The Miami Heat have turned into such a good perimeter defensive team that they have begun to give off the aura of a team that can challenge every outside shot and steal every pass. I read this great piece by Beckley Mason the other day, and I thought it was right on the money. Miami has a remarkable closing speed on the perimeter and it caused Terry and Barea specifically to play at an abnormal rhythm and it threw everything off. In their minds, the lunging arms of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade was always a split second away (and they had good reason to suspect it too), so they ended up rushing a lot of their set plays and shots. They never looked comfortable, and as a result a far weaker Miami bench outplayed them handily.
The bench needs to play with more precision, patience, and confidence if they are going to contribute toward a Game Two win.
4. I expect another LeBron James defensive wrinkle from the Heat.
During the second iteration of Michael Jordan dominance, they played the Utah Jazz in the 1997 finals. In Game Three of that series, I watched what was perhaps the most dominating defensive performance of my lifetime. Even the simple statistics don't do the Bulls justice from that game.
The reason I bring up this game from the annals of history is that the Bulls deployed a weapon in that game and series that was in my mind one of the greatest and most memorable defensive efforts I've ever seen. Instead of guarding the Jazz straight up and waiting for Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone to pick and roll them to death, the Bulls took Stockton completely out of the picture by guarding him with Scottie Pippen. Pippen was tall enough and quick enough to guard Stockton from baseline to baseline, disrupted every aspect of the Jazz offense, and as a result the Bulls almost doubled up the Utah point total.
It looked to me like the Heat were borrowing a page from that defensive playbook. By unleashing LeBron on Jason Terry, the Mavs' second-best scorer, the Heat completely took him out of the equation. By the end of the game he was hoisting terrible shots and rendered irrelevant. LeBron proved that he can stay of the best players in the NBA (see: Derrick Rose) and so he is a defensive weapon that the Heat can deploy in a variety of ways.
Because of this, I would not be at all surprised to see James guarding Jason Kidd in the upcoming games. Just like Pippen did against the Jazz, it could completely break the Maverick offense and give them another key win.
bonus: Let me get this out of my system now.
Even though #2 has not yet been played, I'm going to go ahead and make this statement now - I have no idea why the Finals still adhere to a 2-3-2 format. I kind of hate it, and I've hated it for a very long time. The team with the best regular season record is already favored by having one extra home game. Because of the fact that these two teams are by very definition the best two left, the notion that one team can beat the other in three consecutive games is exceedingly small. How small? The host team has only won all three twice in 26 seasons. The original rationale of travel accommodations and cost is long gone. As we've seen, series can be stretched out as long as the NBA deems fit. Also, I can't imagine that cross-country travel between coasts cannot be considerably greater than having a middle-round series between Dallas and Portland or Boston and Miami. The 2-3-2 is completely archaic, creates further favoritism toward the home team, and should be changed to reflect the rest of the playoffs.