The Mavericks return to Miami tonight to see if it is time for them to shut the door on the 2011 season.
I think tonight's game will float on a precarious cloud of perceptions. The NBA has come to find itself in a place where fans are going to look through a lens as never before and hold great and terrible presumptions as to what will unfold. Why?
The Blue Corner, or, what the Mavs have going for them: The Heat managed to cast themselves as the season-long villains by way of their mercenary approach, LeBron James' Decision and their silly launch party. Everyone loves a villain, but only if they know that the villain gets what he deserves in the end.
As an added bonus, the league office HAS to know that this game in particular will be under intense scrutiny for any trace of bias or impropriety. The NBA can simply not afford to have a game of this magnitude be tainted by any hint of refereeing bias. It is so much so that, there is actually a danger of the bias scales tipping back in favor of the Mavs.
The Red Corner, or, what the Heat have going for them: They are competing against a team that is owned by Mark Cuban, who has been a thorn in the sides of NBA officiating for a decade. Mavs fans have complained for years that, as a result, the referees have taken great joy in punishing Cuban's teams.
On top of that, we're looking at a Game Six, not a Game Seven. We know that the NBA is riding high on the wave of success the regular season and playoffs have brought them, and that wave continues if the series gets extended to one more game. A Game Seven would bring more positive attention to the league, as well as a boatload of extra money.
In other words, all interested parties will be watching this game closely to see what happens because there is already an overriding perception that the NBA is more like pro wrestling than they care to admit. The accusation doesn't even have to be true, either; fans just need to think that it might be true, and that is all it takes to poison the well. Don't cry for the league though, because they only have themselves to blame for not cleaning up this perception mess sooner.
Unfolding out of this nasty business is of course the game itself. It should be an intense struggle, and I think that each team has its own particular massive challenge ahead:
1. The game will be Dallas against the world.
For all the reasons above as well as a few more, Dallas is entering the furnace looking to complete its playoff run by once again winning a close-out game. So far, Dallas is 3-0 in finishing up its opponents when the opportunity first presents itself. In each of those games, Dallas has shown remarkable focus and composure, regardless of whether the game was a blowout (Lakers) or a come from behind win (Thunder).
Here is what I mean by stating that the world is against the Mavs - it is not that every force of nature and beyond is going to be stacked against them, but that they have to treat it as if it is. If Dallas can go into the game with the mindset that they are not only fighting against the Heat, but also the league's desire to have a Game Seven, the referees working to give Miami an advantage, the clock manager being a hair fast or a hair slow, or even the DJ miscuing up the music tracks, then the Mavs will be prepared. They will be men without excuse; ergo they will be men who will play as if they control their own destiny.
I've seen weaker teams go into games such as this and fall apart when calls started to go against them. Everything else snowballs, and before they know it, their hard-earned momentum is gone. Dallas must over-prepare to the extent that they fully expect that the cards are stacked against them. Only then will they be able to weather whatever slights come their way and persevere through it.
2. Miami has to sweat the details.
I fully expect Miami to play in the lead for most of tonight's game. Lost amongst the LeBron 24-7 show and Jason Terry's late game heroics was the fact that Miami too got its offense going in Game Five. Particularly in the 4th quarter, they finally achieved an offensive flow that is scary to watch - it is fast, precise, aggressive, and maximizes all of the skills that Wade and LeBron possess. While Dallas was able to make some adjustments to limit the Heat down the stretch, the flourish in the 4th was a reminder as to how good the Heat can be when their offense is humming.
They will have the energy tonight, they'll have the fans, and they'll probably have the advantage of some favorable calls. What they will not be given however is the discipline to pay attention to the small details. They have to continue to work to achieve that level of focus.
We've seen many a game this season where a team, brimming with confidence, is cruising along to what appears to be an easy win. Their offense looks great, they're rebounding well, defending the other team competently, and vitory looks like a foregone conclusion. It matters not that they occasionally miss a free throw or blow a fast break or carelessly throw away the ball. It is irrelevant, because the win is all but assured.
The problem though is that nothing is assured until the final horn sounds. The NBA game moves too fast, there are too many possessions, and the players are too talented to ever think that a game is in the bag. Those missed free throws? The blown fast breaks? Those are opportunities not merely to pad a lead, but to give a team just a little bit more margin for error if things suddenly go FUBAR. We here at WTLC are quite familiar with this phenomenon.
The Heat have not paid attention to these small details. If you recall, Dwyane Wade missed the back end of his free throws at the end of Game Four. This missed free throw changed the entire complexion of the final 90 seconds. It was such a small thing, and yet it changed everything. In each of their three losses, we can point to similar small moments where the Heat could have put the game away, but instead gave Dallas just enough wiggle room to reverse the submission hold. Dallas escaped with wins while Miami wondered what happened.
Miami should play a great game tonight. As long as they don't keep lapsing on these small details, they might even win.
3. The tipping point.
After watching how the first five games have unfolded, I do believe that the key player tonight will be Dallas' big seven footer. No, the other one.
Chandler has been remarkable in this series not just because he has played great, but by the fact that he has played so much at all. Consider this - with Brendan Haywood injured and Ian Mahinmi not ready for prime time, Dallas literally has nobody left on its front line if Chandler were to get into foul trouble. Chandler has endured two games where he has picked up five fouls and come dangerously close to fouling out, but has never had to miss extended time due to foul trouble. He is averaging over 40 minutes per game and has not lost an ounce of intensity on either end of the court.
We already know that Miami is very good at crashing the offensive boards with both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and Dallas has not done a good job staying focused on boxing out Heat players. If Chandler has to sit for any extended period of time, there will be little in the way of Miami taking over the game on both offensive and defensive boards. On top of that, Dallas would have nobody to defend the rim as Slash and the King come flying in for dunks and and-1's.
We know that there is little chance that Dirk Nowitzki is going to get into serious foul trouble; he's a star, and stars get treated differently. But Chandler? I would imagine that Rick Carlisle will be holding is breath a good deal of the time as Chandler crashes the boards and plays aggressive defense. I think that he more than any other can completely tip the scales one way or the other by how many fouls with which the refs tag him.
If Dallas can keep Chandler on the court they will stand a good chance at winning. However, if Miami can attack Chandler and get him into foul trouble and off the court, I expect a Game Seven will be on the horizon.