It would have been a real shame if, after having watched a solid two months of playoff basketball, that the Finals ended up in a Miami Heat rout over the Dallas Mavericks. The Heat are more talented, more athletic, have a better defense. They arguably have three of the best four players on the court at any given time. Oh how so close we came to such a reality.
Really, the Mavericks had their excuses laid out before them. Their finely crafted German Machine, engineered by Holger Geschwinder (who in a different reality might be a wonderful James Bond villain - "More finger push-ups!"), was breaking down before our very eyes. Thirty-two years old, torn ligament in his finger, and now a sinus infection pushing his temperature to 102 degrees...Dirk Nowitzki had his excuses. He and the team could have easily decided, "We're too short-handed. It isn't fair, but we can't beat this team." They could have done that. They were trailing once more in the 4th quarter, this time by nine. We've seen lesser teams give in. The Heat could have likewise said, "This team is wobbling. It is time for the knockout punch." Miami could have ended this series with a strong, or even competent, final quarter.
That might have, and easily could have, been reality. We the sports fans seldom get treated to a full portion of drama in finals, be it in baseball, football, or the NBA. We could have been satisfied with less. We could have been satisfied with the Heat assigning themselves to the great set-up punch, all but ending the conflict. We could have eased ourselves into the reality that Dallas was simply not quite good enough.
Fortunately for us, the Heat did not and the Mavericks were not. And the waterdance continues.
In a game that felt more like a war of attrition, there is more that was disjointed than fluid. Here are a few random musings about how Dallas outlasted Miami.
1. Coaching adjustments
Mavs coach Rick Carlisle seemed to have gotten caught a bit flat-footed in Game Three, where he stayed with Jose Barea far too long and was not able to get a consistent offense going until late in the game. This time out, he made some radical shifts. They were the kinds of shifts that a lot of teams probably could not handle. Carlisle shuffled his starting line-up, moving DeShawn Stevenson to the bench and Barea to the starting point. Also, Peja Stojakovic, a complimentary long distance shooter who has had zero impact on the Finals, was moved behind Brian Cardinal in the rotation.
It might not seem like much, but consider this - several times throughout the Thunder's post-season run, plenty of people clamored for Scott Brooks to alter his starting line-up, specifically by swapping James Harden in for Thabo Sefolosha. Brooks refused to do it, stating that he had coached his kids to be able to rely on their rotations, and if he started to undermine those boundaries, even if it seemed like a good idea at the time, it posed the risk of shaking the team's concentration overall. I think that Brooks was actually right on this approach, and I say it as an older fellow who understands one thing about youth - they need boundaries to operate within, whether they realize it or not. A man's perspective at 32 is worlds apart from his perception at 22. Although the Thunder lost, I think Brooks made the right call.
By contrast, Carlisle made the right call too, but it is because he has players that are older, that have perspective on the game and on life, and can handle being offered a glimpse of the bigger picture at stake. Jason Terry used to be a starter in this league, and a pretty good one too. Mid-way though his stay in Dallas, he was asked to start coming off the bench. I'm sure he didn't like it. He may not have liked it yesterday when Barea was given the starting nod and not him. Regardless, he knew that Carlisle still needed him to play a certain role, and to play it better than he had been. Carlisle trusted that Terry would do it, and Terry, and the rest of the players, trusted that Carlisle knew what he was doing. As a result, Terry, Stevenson, and even Barea all played their best games of these Finals.
2. Fourth Quarter defense
Dallas continued to showcase a heightened element of defense in 4th quarters. Two things to underscore this assertion:
a) Miami has been torrid down the stretch, getting stronger as games have gone on. In their four wins against the Bulls, they won every single 4th quarter. The same was true in three of their wins against Boston. Both the Celtics and Bulls are very good defensive teams, and received considerably more accolades for this particular attribute than Dallas. Yet Miami dominated both of them down the stretch. They have the perfect players to bury a team that has begun to wobble on the mat.
b) Dallas has been overwhelming teams defensively throughout these playoffs. In the Finals, Miami has managed 27, 18, 21, and 14 points in the 4th quarters (only in Game One did Miami excel offensively). Against the Thunder, Dallas only allowed 20 and 20 in 4th of games Four and Five. Against the Lakers, Dallas allowed 16, 19, 20, and 24.
The fact that Dallas has continued to catch teams from behind late in games is by virtue of their strong defense late in the games. Their holding Miami to 14 points when their season on the line should not be surprising.
Kobe has more rings to be sure, but as of right now Wade is probably the best 2-guard in the game and the best player in closing out quarters. The reason why is probably the best difference in comparison between he and LeBron James in this particular series. For all of James' wonderful attributes, he is still not a natural shot-maker. He can go on runs with the best of them and certainly his physical advantages play into a big part of that. However, as far as he catching the ball in a place on the court, sizing up his opposition, and then making a move, unless James has a crease to the basket, his offensive set is still limited.
By contrast, Wade possesses that rarest of features - he is a shot-maker. Similar to Dirk (although not similar at all in appearance), Wade knows that if he can get to certain spots on the court, he can take and make his shots. In fact, mid-way through the 4th quarter, right around the time when Wade was rejecting a Tyson Chandler dunk on one end and finishing a strong move for a layup on the other, I made a note that this game felt like the old Bulls-Jazz Finals back in the day. No matter how proficiently Dallas was able to run its offense, there was simply no antidote for a player like Wade who can simply make shots and single-handedly return volley. It was a remarkable display of talent. Unfortunately, Wade did not get a chance to attempt a game-tying 3-pointer, as he fumbled the inbounds pass and he and the Heat lost their last best chance to tie the game.
Wade will never be Jordan in terms of late-game shot-making ability, but he can certainly be Kobe.
(Aside - Jeff Van Gundy had a great rip on Mark Jackson last night. Jackson made the comment that he thinks that Wade is now the 3rd best 2-guard in NBA history. Van Gundy then joked that if Jackson said, "Behind Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry, he was going to lose all credibility in Van Gundy's eyes.")
4. Echos of the "flu game"
Dirk, as you all are aware, had a sinus infection and an out of control fever. I know that when I get the fever, shimmy shakes and chills, I turn into the world's biggest baby. Dirk, on the other hand, started out with a strong facade, hitting three quick jumpers in the game to throw the Heat off the scent that he might not be up to snuff. His ruse was quickly sniffed out, however, and by mid-third Dirk began to look like a blonde Keith Richards. He was clearly gassed, had no lift in his legs, and was missing everything he threw at the rim. Despite the gallant and fierce play by Tyson Chandler and Jason Terry, it did not seem like Dallas would have its ultimate shot-maker.
(Another aside - big props to Chandler, who once again saw it as his role to do whatever he had to do to just give his team's shot-makers a chance to win the game. Even as a veteran guy, he knows and embraces his role and talent in a remarkable way. As a result, he chipped in 13 points and 16 rebounds, nine of those offensive).
But then, in the midst of Dirk's worst shooting game in quite some time, he did the most remarkable of things for an offensive superstar - he self-corrected. It did not matter if his jumpers were contested or open; he was missing them all. However, Dirk had enough self-awareness to know that his team needed his points down the stretch, so instead of settling for lazy jumpers, he worked his way to the rim again and again. It was not pretty, but Dirk was able to draw fouls and drop layups, all the while not dropping his stomach on the floor. I'm sure that every time he sized up the defense, he had to dig a little bit deeper than normal to summon the juice he would need to attack into the teeth of the Miami defense.
In a final bit of nifty gamesmanship, Dirk found himself in almost exact same place as at the end of Game Two. This time, he had Udonis Haslem on him, and I'm sure Haslem was relishing the opportunity to stop Dirk for a second consecutive game-ending situation. Dirk got the ball, and then waited and waited as the shot clock wound down, determined to not give Miami a decent shot at the end. So Dirk waited, and...then he did not wait. He made quick a pivot, earlier in the shot-clock than Miami had anticipated, and beat Haslem off the dribble. Dirk took the ball to the rim and scored the game-icing layup as a just-late Wade flew past the shot. Pure deutschmark.*
I'd be willing to bet a nice cold bag of IV drip was never so satisfying to the big German as the one he got after this game.
So Dirk had his "flu game," and the Mavs have a tied series. Was Dirk's game anywhere near as good as the original? Even Dirk knows that is silly:
"I never thought about MJ's performance. I was way off, looking at my line."
Even so, Dirk knew about Jordan's flu game. And now we know about his as well.
Game 5: Thursday night in Dallas at 9PM EST
*yes, I know that the German currency is actually the Euro, but "Pure Euro" sounds like some sort of lame European cover-band.