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2011 NBA Finals Game 5 Preview: Miami Heat vs Dallas Mavericks

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Game Five commences tonight on Dallas' home court, which means this game will be the final time the Mavericks are showered with the cheers of their home crowd. Mavs fans have seen their team fight to the end, overcome missteps, and work to be on the verge of taking a 3-2 series lead. On the other side of the coin, Miami must once again figure out how to adjust to how Dallas is starting to out-think them both in the huddle and on the court.

The Heat still possess the ability to dominate on the defensive end of the court, which if we're honest, is the place where the Heat will win or lose. Miami has lost the ability to simply outscore Dallas at this point, so defense is their only measure. LeBron James is what he is, and if he takes more offensive initiative as he has promised (twice), it is probably going to come at the cost of touches to his teammates Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. That makes for a zero sum game, and Miami has to be at least three points better than that place if they want to win.

Be sure to track the game at the respective game threads for each team:

Mavs Moneyball

Peninsula is Mightier

I am considering the following factors for tonight's pivotal game:

1. The pressure on LeBron is mounting

It is tempting to play armchair psychologist when it comes to James these days. We could postulate formulas for days, ranging from (take your pick) his lack of a father figure, his sense of self-entitlement, his posse, his global icon motivation, The Decision, etc. The things that make LeBron, LeBron, are all of those things and they are none of those things. At the end of the day Heat fans are not going to care whether James' hypothetical lack of a 13th birthday party caused him to miss an open 3-pointer. All they will know is, LeBron missed. And really, that is all they should know or care about, because that is what the relationship is between James and his fans.

Here is what I know - in Game Three, James played the orchestrator well, moving the pieces of the Heat offense in such a way so that Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Mario Chalmers played their offensive games well enough to steal back home court. James weathered the media storm of complaints that he was "shrinking" from the lime light, and his defenders rightly put forth the fact that James played about as good a game as you can play without needing to score points. His defense and passing were a splendid mix of Scottie Pippen and Magic Johnson. LeBron had his evidence in hand.

The problem though is that James then took his evidence and mindset and took it a step farther than he should have. In Game Four, LeBron became completely content to play the facilitator instead of the attacker, and as a result he scored zero points in a Miami 14 point 4th quarter which resulted in a three point loss. In a strange way, James' 4th quarter reminded me of many of the Thunder struggles this season. These supremely talented athletes, the best in the league, were suddenly in a position where they didn't exactly know what to do. Kind of like this classic scene:

Now James is faced with the defining moment of his career. While we cannot get inside James' head, we do have his own words:

"I think it’s that time that I try to get myself going individually" - LeBron James

If I'm a Heat fan, that quote would have me absolutely freaked out. That is the kind of thing Gilbert Arenas says, not LeBron, and it implicitly implies that James is about to undergo a zero sum game with his teammates, which puts them in no better shape than if he continued to play passively. His quote is akin to the difference between these two statements:

"This is what I will do," vs "I should start doing this."

The first statement is declarative. The second is imperative, specifically directed at one's self. I think there is a difference between the two - one is a statement of purpose, while the other is a wish - and LeBron seems to be leaning toward the one that is more likely to come out of a Tracy McGrady's mouth than a Kobe Bryant's.

2. Dallas finally finding offensive rhythm

Dallas looked offensively fluid for the first time in this series in Game Four. The reasons why they had to struggle to a three point win are thus:

a) Miami's offensive rebounding killed them in the 1st quarter. Announcer Jeff Van Gundy hammered on this point early and often, and the poor defensive rebounding really hindered Dallas from being in a better position late in the game. Miami secured nine offensive rebounds in the first quarter alone, which put them in a tie despite shooting terribly. Dallas really should have been up in that 1st quarter by about 21-12 but missed a huge opportunity by not adhering to fundamental rebounding principles.

b) Dallas missed too many shots late. If you go back and watch Dallas in the final five minutes of play, they missed about six wide open jump shots that could have extended a two point lead to six or eight. It did not matter whether it was Dirk, Jason Terry, or DeShawn Stevenson, they all missed. Dallas had a chance to put away the game just like they did in OKC in Game Four and they just kept missing.

Despite having series best games from Shawn Marion, Terry, Jose Barea, and Stevenson, the Mavs were in a close game because of bad fundamentals and missed shots that they have collectively been making all season.This portends to two things - a) Dallas is a step ahead of the Miami defense, and the brain trust of Rick Carlisle and Jason Kidd have been afforded the time they need to solve the overaggressive play of James, Wade, and the Miami defense; and b) the Miami offense has gotten very lucky in that Dallas has not yet had a game as they had in closing out the Lakers.

3. Mavericks' adjustments on Miami shooters

(Alternately titled: maybe Rick Carlisle reads NBA Playbook)

As Pruiti noted after Game Three, the Heat work really well when they post up either Wade or James in the post, and the worst thing that Dallas can do is double-team them. Both of those guys are agile and adept enough to swing the ball to where it needs to go, and they were practically inviting Dallas to collapse on them.

In Game Three, When James was in the post, he wanted the double-team to come so he can use his strength, height, and passing ability to find the open man. When Dallas collapsed on him, LeBron did a great job finding the cutters and shooters. As a result, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers, and even Udonis Haslem found themselves open for shots. Chalmers in particular was crucial, as his four 3-pointers were a big part of Miami's winning.

In Game Four, I watched closely to see whether Dallas would continue to double-team James in the post. As I've repeated often, if a player is looking to do one thing, it suits his opposition best to make him do another thing. And in fact that is what Carlisle did. When James caught the ball with his back to the basket, the double-team rarely came. James was still able to make some great passes to players who cut through the lanes, but by Dallas staying at home in this set play, the Miami shooters were much more limited. Chalmers, Haslem, and Mike Miller shot a combined 5-18 for only 15 points, and Miller and Haslem missed key shots late in the game.

While Wade still poses all kinds of problems, I think that the Mavs' choice to play James straight up when he is in the post takes away his best talent (passing) and forces the Heat to look to other means for engaging their offense.

4. All Told...still a three point game

Game Four will remain in the books as a) Dirk's "fever game" for Mavs fans or b) "LeBron's disappearing act" for Heat fans. Regardless of where you align yourself as a fan, the fact remains that it was a one possession game and Miami had the ball with a chance to tie. There is no reason to think, even if one team or the other breaks out of its slump, that tonight will be any different.

Game Five is coming soon, and control of the series hangs in the balance.