Tonight, Game Four of the NBA Finals commences at 9PM EST and the Mavericks are looking to avoid falling into a 3-1 death trap against the Miami Heat. A 2-2 series, with one road victory needed to win? That is doable for Dallas. Three wins in a row, including two in Miami? Not happening. The Mavs are essentially looking at the beginning of the end tonight if someone other than Dirk Nowitzki does not start figuring out how to make a two point shot. On the opposite side of the coin, I would imagine that the Heat are looking at tonight as about as stress-free moment as you could make a championship game. They have home court and they have the knowledge that if nothing changes and Dallas does not play a 4th quarter perfectly, they will lose. I absolutely could see tonight's game unraveling very quickly if the Mavs do not come out sharp and pay attention to early game possessions.
Be sure to track the game at the respective game threads for each team:
I think there are four potential tipping points that must be either continued or altered, depending on your particular point of view.
1. Heat winning the battle of the guards.
Put Dwyane Wade aside for a moment. He is clearly the best guard on the court on either side, and he really isn't pertinent to the area where the Mavs are failing in this series. What is pertinent is the fact the Mavericks have not actively set out to attack the Heat defense where it is most vulnerable - namely, their other guards. The Mavs have not attacked Mike Bibby, Mario Chalmers, and Mike Miller when the opportunity has arisen.
The challenge of course is the fact that, with the exception of Dirk, the Mavs are not really equipped to attack players one-on-one. Jason Terry and Jose Barea both require other players to help them get open for their offense. Jason Kidd coordinates the offense well, but he rarely look to attack on his own. As a result, the Miami defense has been able to act like a net against all Dallas attempts because they only have to decide how wide they stretch. They never have to worry about a Maverick trying to puncture the net in the middle. I think though that if the Mavs do not alter their attack in some form, it just allows Miami to get more and more comfortable with what Dallas is doing and dictate their offense, rather than have the Dallas offense dictate the Miami defense.
The Dallas has gotten a bit stale in the same way that the Thunder's did in the last round. By Game Five, Dallas knew exactly what OKC was trying to run and they thwarted the Thunder's high-scoring offense. In the same way, Miami has seen and knows how the Mavs are going to set their screens and move their guards off the ball. The Mavs need to change up their guard approach to take advantage of the experience and skill that Kidd and Terry have over Chalmers and Bibby, and I think one way to do it is to see Kidd reach back five years and start working out of the post.
I have not seen Kidd do much post-up work this post-season, but I have to think that he still has it in his arsenal, if only in small doses. He's big enough and strong enough that neither Bibby nor Chalmers should bother him too much. He can still drive to the rim, and of course he is the best player on the court in passing the ball out of the post. The net result is that the Mavs can make the Heat pay on defense for their use of the weaker players against Kidd, or in the alternative it might force Dwyane Wade to switch over to Kidd and further open up other players such as DeShawn Stevenson. The Mavs can negate some of the Miami team speed by forcing the defense to expand and contract via post play rather than allow their defense to play to its strength, which is shift side to side.
When The Mavs have Barea and Peja Stojakovic in the game, the Heat attack them right away. The Mavs need to do the same thing against the Heat's weaker defenders.
2. Dirk starting too slowly.
One of the stark differences in how the Mavericks have played this series compared to the series against the Thunder is in how slowly they have started off offensively. I'm sure the pains of Game Three in the Conference Finals still lingers for Thunder fans, but it is important to look back on that game to see how quickly the Mavericks were able to apply both offensive and defensive pressure to OKC. Everybody knows that the Mavs start and finish with Dirk, yes? Well then, the Mavs need to do a better in starting with him. Dirk only had two shot attempts in the 1st quarter of Game Three, and as we noted before, was substituted earlier than normal to give him some early rest.
If Dirk is going to be the answer, then he has to be a bigger part of the solution early on. The Mavs cannot afford to fall behind by double-digits once again and getting Dirk early touches in the game, and at early points in the shot clock, will play an integral part. After the Mavs' Game Two loss against OKC, Dirk admitted that he was facilitating too much rather than attacking. Tonight, he needs to look to attack first.
3. LeBron James is not a post-player.
LeBron James does a multitude of things well on offense, but two things he does better than almost anyone at the small forward spot is drive the ball to the rim and make pinpoint passes to open men. LeBron has actually been making these kinds of clutch passes we've seen in the past two games (Chalmers' 3-ball, Chris Bosh's baseline jumper) over the course of his career, and in fact even drew the ire of some because of it. He's a great passer, a mere shade below Kidd in terms of his ability to see the court and anticipate movement.
So when LeBron takes the pass into the post, intuition should say that he is looking to pass first, shoot second. In fact, Sebastian Pruiti noticed the same thing:
Dallas Needs to Stop Doubling Miami's Wing Post-Ups | NBA Playbook
These two plays are perfect examples of what James is looking to do. Just like Peyton Manning, he is itching to see that double-team come at him, because he knows he is big enough and good enough of a passer to get the ball to the open man in one move. What he is not as good at doing is either work through his still undeveloped post-up game or turn and face up for the jump shot. Neither of these things are what James does best, so it would stand to reason that Dallas should try to make him do those two things.
Over the course of the season, the Heat were one of the worst assist teams in the league. However, in Game Three they tallied more than Dallas and James had almost half of them (nine). James becomes multi-dimensional when the Mavs double-team him in the post. Rather than give him what he wants, Dallas needs to challenge him to look to his own offense first and see how he does. The change will serve the dual purpose of forcing James to play to his second option as well as take away some of the wide open jumpers that Chalmers, Bibby, and Bosh have been getting. James wants to be a passer and he wants to get his teammates open. Dallas needs to recognize and counter James' first line of attack.
4. Does desperation matter?
We often hear this mantra in sports - that when it comes to head-to-head match-ups, the win will go to the team that plays with a greater desperation. In fact, we often heard it in the Thunder's series against the Grizzlies. Is it true?
If the NBA playoffs were a "one and done" format, I would say, "yes." The "win or go home" perspective works well when an underdog must figure out, for one game, how to beat a superior team, such as in the NCAA tournament or the NFL Playoffs. However, in the NBA, desperation only works in small doses. Your exhibits (A) and (B) are the two close-out games that the Mavs and Heat won against the Thunder and Bulls, respectively.
I don't think emotion and desperation works in the NBA because, unlike in football, emotion can become a detriment to a team's focus. Since the game is fast and free-flowing, it requires a greater and heightened sense of concentration that enables players to react and make important decisions on the fly. Emotion can override those decision-making abilities. So while we'll still see players from both sides celebrate after big plays, it is each team's collective calm in the midst of the moments that allows them to perform to the best of their abilities.
Game Four. I can hardly wait.