Tonight's Game Three is fraught with speculation. Will we be seeing the Mavericks and Heat that played for the first 3.5 quarters in Game Two? Will we see the two teams that closed out the game? To be sure, the Mavericks have made a habit of closing out games in artisan style, and many of the Heat's regular season problems resurfaced. It is a pivotal moment, as the winner of tonight's game assumes the pole position.
I fully expect a much more complete game played by both teams tonight. I will be looking for the following four indicators to see who clears this evening's hurdle first.
1. Can Mavs hold an early lead?
There have been few chinks in the Mavericks' armor this post-season, and it would be in error to say that they have struggled holding onto leads in the same way that, say, the Thunder have. However, if you had to choose one thing which they could do better, it is in protecting leads.
In Games One and Two, the Mavs held substantial leads at pivotal moments - early the 3rd quarter in Game One, and a late 2nd quarter lead in Game Two. Both times, not only were the Mavs not able to hold onto those leads, but they gave them up rather quickly. Of course neither one came close to their first round collapse against the Trail Blazers, but it remains surprising that this veteran team, that has proven itself capable of recovery through mental fortitude and execution, would be subject to such careless swoons.
We have yet to see the Mavs and Dirk Nowitzki come up with the type of offensive game that they had against the Lakers or the Thunder, but I am also not sure whether the Heat defense is substantially better than those two teams either. To be sure, the Mavs have struggled offensively against the Heat perimeter-oriented attack, but it is also true that the Heat do not have the same muscle in their front line that the Lakers or Thunder do, either. There should be openings available for the Mavs to exploit them, and because they have not yet done so, I am still optimistic that the Mavs have a great offensive game in store.
2. Will LeBron and Wade continue shooting 3's?
John Hollinger said it, and I agree, that a big portion of Miami's offensive success came from an outlier - namely, the 3-point shooting of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Neither one is a natural long range shooter, and in fact the Heat have two other guys in Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller who are on the team because of their ability to shoot from long range. The pair shot the ball well in Game One and in the 1st half of Game Two, but if you look at the 4th quarter, you can see that the 3-point shot was the team's undoing.
It is difficult to watch how the Heat offense fell apart and not naturally gravitate mentally toward how the Thunder struggled on offense this past season. The Thunder's struggle almost always included an overt dependency on the 3-point shot, a shot that they were not even that competent in making. For sure, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden could hit a hot streak and alter games with their long distance shooting, and so the shot was always a siren's call away. More often than not though, when the team started hoisting shot after shot with little to show for it, the team's offensive competency fell apart because the 3-pointer is not the shot that any of those three guys do the best.
James and Wade are the same way. The duo can do a multitude of things on offense, and the 3-point shot is probably the thing they do least well. They must play to their best strengths - driving the ball and posting up, while drawing fouls - and avoid settling for a shot that can take them right out of the game, as we saw on Thursday. By contrast, the Mavs must continue to put the Heat in a position where James and Wade are content to settle for the long distance shot.
3. Will the Mavs bench show up?
Jason Terry rediscovered his game just in time in Game Two, but for three quarters he was an anathema to what the Mavs were trying to do. Likewise, Jose Barea has not yet found his rhythm from the last two rounds. I think that the main culprit is that the Heat perimeter defense is both quick enough and strong enough to allow the Dallas duo to get to the spots they want to and shoot comfortably. Terry only recently started to adjust in the 4th quarter, where he started looking for the mid-range jump shot instead of attacking the rim. Barea has not yet found his spots.
While the Heat defense is a chronic challenge I think that the Dallas sets in the 4th quarter began to open up some things that will allow the two guards to make some headway. The staggered screens outside the arc allowed the Mavs to do two things:
a) It allowed Terry to turn the corner and get into the lane;
b) It caused the Heat to decide how they were going to overplay the defense.
To the former, Terry was the primary player responsible for overdribbling the basketball right into the teeth of the Miami defense. He continuously tried to take the ball two steps beyond where he was capable, and as a result there were a lot of bad turnovers in the 3rd and 4th (18 overall) that allowed the Heat to get out and run. These turnovers were a big reason why the Heat were up 15 to begin with. It was only when the screens started to give Terry some more space, that he realized his limits. Once Terry started to pull up into a more comfortable shooting range, his touch was rediscovered and Terry's 8 points in the 4th were critical to the comeback.
Also to the former, Barea never figured out this range, and so it will be key for him to run off the same type of screens when he is in the game. He is used to running pick and rolls off the high post, which make use of both this shooting ability (if the defense goes under the screen) or quickness (if the defense tries to go through the screen). Hopefully the comforts of home will give Barea the confidence and assurance he needs to find his offensive game again.
Once these two guards get back on track, then (b) opens up - namely, if the Heat have to decide that there is a position to cede, the Mavs are then a step ahead of the game. And as we saw at the end of Game Two, that is a great place to be.
4. Did the Heat really let one go?
Wade said after the game that they "let one go." I think he is probably right, in the sense that if you have a double-digit lead in the 4th quarter, there aren't too many excuses that a team can use and still hold its head high. They simply stopped attacking the rim late in the game, which was a combination of a passive offense and bad shooting. Also on that point, the Heat fell victim to the same thing the Thunder tend to do late in games - they began engaging their offense way too late in the shot clock. If you watch Dallas run its half-court set, they engage as soon as the ball crosses half-court. They know that if all of their options are to be available, there is precious little time to dawdle. In the NBA, you cannot simply run out the clock; the shot clock is too short and the opposition too good.
This fact of course brings us back to #1 - can the Mavs play from a lead? I ask it again because I suspect that in Game Three they're going to have to, because James and Wade are not going to play a passive 4th again. The Mavs must have higher concentration and execution, particularly in the middle quarters, to be ready to stand strong in the game late.