Wednesday, June 21, 2006

At Last, We Know What's in the Bowl

I'll keep this relatively brief, partially because I'm tired from staying up past 1 am watching the bonus coverage, but mostly because anything I could think to say will be repeated incessantly for the next few weeks.

Mark me down as one of the many who thought that, in spite of losing three in a row against a surging Heat team, the Mavs would pull it together and win both games on their homecourt. But as has been the case pretty much all season long, the Heat ultimately proved the doubters (myself included) wrong.

Dallas played some of the most energetic defense I've ever seen from them when it forced turnover after turnover in the second quarter. But as was the case all series long, the effort wasn't sustained. Equally inconsistent was the Dallas offense, which once again lapsed into poor jumpshooting. Dallas's rate of 3-point makes in Game 6 was more than 9% below its season average. Entering the fourth, the Mavs had gone to the line TWICE the entire game. If not for Miami going over the penalty early in the fourth, the final number of FTA wouldn't have been much higher. It's also worth noting that Nowitzki didn't score a single basket in the money quarter. As I have all series, I wonder whether this was purely the players's doing, or whether it was an oversight on the part of Avery Johnson. Even if the former is true, it's clear that the coach's messages stopped getting through.

Then there's the greatness that is Wade, who didn't force a single thing all night and cruised to most effortless 36 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals and 3 blocks. After Game 2, he seemed to beat the Mavs almost single-handedly, slicing through double (if not triple) teams and, as Marv Albert might say, unleashing the entire repetoire. Say what you will about how the officials treated the superstar, but the Mavs never found an answer for Wade on the defensive end. The same is not true of the Heat's defense, which harassed Nowitzki into passing out of double teams for nearly the entire second half of Game 6.
As is always the case when a team (and especially a heavily favored one) loses, there will be a flood of what-ifs, some of them valid. What if the Mavs hadn't coughed up that Game 3 lead? What if Nowitzki, not Terry, had taken that final shot at the end of regulation in Game 5? What if Avery had played Marquis Daniels more? Some interesting notes:
-Dallas lost three of the last four games despite holding double-digit leads. Prior to that, they were 10-0 in games they once lead by 10 or more.
-Games 3 through 6 comprised Avery Johnson's first 4-game losing streak of his coaching career.
-Since the NBA changed to the 2-3-2 format for the Finals in '85, ten teams, including Dallas, have won the first 2 games. Dallas became the only one of those teams not to win the championship.
Inevitably, the temptation is to peg the Mavs's failure not on the excellence of Miami's play, but on an internal collapse of epic proportions. While there was an obvious breakdown from within Dallas, Miami's performance in Game 6 revealed who was more deserving. The Heat acted like its season was on the it was. A Game 7 on the road would have been extremely difficult, and they knew it. So they scrapped for every loose ball, steal, and block they could get their hands on. Haslem decided to find a jumper, Mourning mustered another string of minutes evocative of his Defensive Player years, and Walker crashed the boards. They outrebounded, outshot, and outhustled.

So forget what the Sports Guy might have said about a Heat victory and the decline of the team game. While the winning team did have the series's best player, Game 6 was a testament to Miami's collective commitment to Riley's system. From subverting the biggest egos to snagging rebounds to playing the 3-2 zone to near boredom, the Heat executed as a group. The Mavs didn't. And basketball being the deceptively easy game it is, that was all it took.

Miami Heat, 2006 NBA Champions.

15 strong.

Can't you just see the wristbands?

Monday, June 19, 2006

Ten Suggestions

It's official: chalk me up as another bewildered and confused watcher of this year's championship series. Paradigms reversed? Prognosticators proven wrong? Payton making clutch playoff shots? At this point, I'm fully waiting for Game 6 to open with the Twilight Zone theme.

To the dazed ranks: fear not. Help has arrived. The following is a list of instructions that will help you make sense of the madness that was Game 5.

1. DO praise the referees for consistency in officiating. Every time Wade lowered his head and streaked toward the rim, there was a foul called on a Mavs defender. Doesn't really get more consistent than that.

2. DON'T hold the officials responsible for the Mavs loss. Despite what any future Mark Cuban blog entry may have you believe, I don't think there was a ref conspiracy aimed at propelling the Heat to a win. Furthermore, the Mavs knew the game was being officiated tightly, so you'd figure they'd adjust and avoid making those dumb touch fouls. On Wade's final play in overtime, both Terry and Nowitzki got hands on Wade's back. Those touches could have easily affected Wade's shot, so there were grounds (however subjective) for a call.

Is it right to decide a game like this at the foul line, over such incidental contact? I say not. But blame the rule, not the enforcers.

3. DO point out that this isn't the first time Josh Howard has messed up a timeout situation in an end game.

During the 2003 NCAA tourney, with Wake Forest out of timeouts, Josh Howard called one with less than two seconds left. The resulting penalty sent Maryland to the line, where Juan Dixon nailed one of two to give his team the one-point margin of victory.

This should renew the debate over whether Dallas, and not Miami, has karma working against it.

It should also dispel any excuses that Howard's error was due to his unfamiliarity with timeout management on a big stage. I'm sure he replayed that moment from the Big Dance over and over again, just like he'll stew over last night's gaffe and wonder whether things might have finished differently had the Mavs been able to advance the ball to midcourt on the final inbound play.

4. DON'T believe that Howard's mistake cost Dallas the victory. Even with the timeout, someone still would have had to drill a shot with 1.9 seconds left. Maybe it would have happened, maybe it wouldn't. Nonetheless, it would have been a moot point if the Mavs hadn't missed 4 of their last 7 free throws (after going 18 for 18, no less). The mistake also wouldn't have been costly had Dallas executed on defense down the stretch. It's still amazing to me that the Mavs couldn't figure out how to deny Wade the ball.

If anything, Free Throw Gate is merely symbolic of the Mavs's inability to execute at the end of close games. Lack of effort on defense and poor free throw shooting are symptoms of the same ailment. So was Harris' failure to manage the clock at the end of the third, which, if for a friendlier bounce of Wade's heave at the buzzer, would have been devastating. Just as in the Game 3, when they blew a commanding late game lead, the Mavs have been severely outplayed on the road.

5. DO celebrate Miami's resilience. In the second and third quarters, you got the sense that the game was slipping away from the Heat. Terry was hot, the Dallas offense was clicking, and the Mavs were taking total control of the game. With the lead almost at double digits, Riles calls a timeout in the third, and the Heat (propelled by Wade, of course) embark on a crucial run to send them into the fourth down by only 1. And even though they were dismissed as a non-factor at the beginning of the series, the Heat bench -- anchored by James Posey and Gary Payton -- came up big once again.

6. DON'T keep asking whether Wade is the second coming of Michael Jeffrey Jordan (This one goes out to every ABC and ESPN commentator out there).

Is Wade the best player in the game today? Perhaps an argument can be made. Wade takes over games like no one else since, well, Jordan. A future Hall of Famer? He'll be good for a couple of titles over his career, so probably. Assuming his penchant for driving to the basket doesn't cost him a premature career-ending injury.

All of this notwithstanding, Jordan (6 titles, 6 Finals MVP awards, 5 regular season MVPs, Defensive Player of the Year, and the list goes on) is in an entirely different pantheon of greatness. At least let the kid close out his first championship series before mentioning him in the same breath as MJ, ok? I'd even settle for waiting until his first naming to the All-NBA First Team. As far as I'm concerned, Kobe is still ahead of Wade in the ascendancy to His Airness's throne.

7. DO give Pat Riley props where they are due. Discounted by some entering the series as a shadow of the coach he used to be, he's proven that he can still arrange Xs and Os and motivate players with the best of them. It's really the Heat's improved commitment to defense, the product of Riley's preachings, that has gotten them this far.

8. DON'T erase Avery Johnson's press conference from your TiVo. It'll be shown on ESPN Classic alongside some Karl Malone footage as some of the best interview material in NBA Finals history. The highlight: after being asked to comment on Wade's final drive to the basket (in which he was surrounded by three defenders and, in Dallas' mind, bailed out by the whistle), AJ vollied the question back at the reporter, asking him to provide his own impressions. The reporter stammered on for about a minute, his bumblings interrupted by Avery's reminders that "we're waiting." The reporter finally gave up and stuttered through an entirely different question, only to be told by a stern Johnson: "Don't stutter."

9. DO realize that the Mavs are incredibly frustrated.

Even with Nowitzki hitting clutch shots, Terry shooting lights out, and the team dominating Miami on the glass (+11 rebound differential in Game 5), they still couldn't eke out a win. The frustration must be compounded in light of the Heat's poorer shooting percentage, and its volume of missed free throws. Even though Dallas still owns home court advantage, all of that has to sting.

If I were an exercise bike, I wouldn't want to be within 50 feet of Dirk Nowitzki for at least two weeks.

10. DON'T count the Mavs out. Miami is 0-3 in the other American Airlines arena this season, and Dallas won all of those games by double digits. Even though Miami swept its homestand, the burden is still on them to close it out on the road. Game on.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Ladies and Gentlemen, We Have a Series...

Throughout these playoffs, Avery Johnson has been touted as the veritable King of the Matchups. In the series with the Spurs, his insertion of Devin Harris into the starting lineup was a near master stroke, a move that allowed his team to capitalize on an aging, heavy-footed San Antonio backcourt. Against the Suns, it was his decision to stick with DeSagana Diop at center that proved wise. The Senegalese 7-footer might not have been able to run with Nash and Co., but Diop's interior defense thwarted Phoenix from picking up those easy around-the-basket scores that are so critical to establishing their rhythm.

So when Wade exploded for 42 points on Game 3, it was a foregone conclusion: Avery would come up with another brilliant scheme to mix things up, throw the Heat attack off balance, and tilt the momentum back in Dallas' favor. In true Texas fashion, Avery "danced with the horse that brung him," joining the lightning-quick Terry and Harris in the starting lineup to tire out Wade on defense and thereby limit his offense.

But in Game 4, it was Pat Riley who proved himself better at making the necessary adjustments. One key change was getting Shaq to be more patient in dealing with double teams. Instead of rushing into poor passes or bullying his defenders and picking up offensive fouls, Shaq waited for the helper to set up, identified the gap in the defensive structure, and passed (usually to a slashing back-cutter) for an easy score. Equally effective was Miami's implementation of a zone defense to limit penetration and force the opponent into tough outside shots. While this often meant Adrian Griffin was left wide open for a jumper, the Heat simply weren't afraid of his offense. The calculated risk paid off.

However, the quirkiest (and possibly most influential) change was Riley's ace-up-his-sleeve play of Alonzo Mourning and Shandon Anderson. Though Anderson, whose only other contribution this series was two garbage minutes during Game 2, looked tentative on offense, his stellar defensive play kept the Mavs on their heels and disrupted their flow. Meanwhile, Mourning only logged 14 minutes off the bench, but his presence in the paint (3 blocks) stymied Dallas' guard penetration. Mourning and Anderson don't deserve all the credit -- the entire Heat team arguably played its best defense of the postseason by bodying up on Dirk and limiting Dallas to 32% shooting -- but their play certainly set the tone for Miami's convincing victory.

Dallas, by contrast, looked out of sync all evening. Though their shots weren't falling since early in the first quarter, Dirk kept them close by driving to the basket and earning trips to the charity stripe. Yet Nowitzki moved away from the aggressiveness that has defined his play this season. As a result, Dirk took his fewest number of free throw attempts (6) all series. With field goals extremely hard to come by, this sudden drop in production from the free throw line spelled disaster, allowing the Heat to hold the Mavs to the lowest fourth quarter point total (7) in NBA Finals history.

While the Mavs's stars did look lost, Avery's moves were similarly perplexing. After his double teams against Shaq failed to derail the Heat offense in the first half, AJ switched to single coverage. While a change in the defense may have been necessary, the move simply backfired. O'Neal tallied 11 points on slams and layups in the second half, while dominating the glass for a few key stretches. The more pressing problem, however, is Johnson's inability to find a way to stop Wade. Maybe his team bought too much into the knee injury, or maybe they were a bit star struck, but the Mavs simply could not contain him. Dallas may never be able to fully stifle Wade's attack, but the key lies in harassing him into turnovers (as in Game 1) and denying him his pet spin moves and jumpers. Nonetheless, with the individual defenders proving themselves unable to limit Wade's effectiveness, the burden is clearly on Avery to devise a scheme.

All is not lost for Dallas, but last night's result had to be devastating to a team that was only 6 minutes away from a 3-0 lead in the Finals. Now more than ever, Johnson must live up to his savvy reputation and come up with a fresh change in the matchups. Another blink, and Dallas might just find itself out of the match.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Getting By With a Little Help

Today's issue of the South Florida Sun Sentinel reports:

"In a game where every second counted and was not determined until the final tick, the NBA announced Wednesday that 3.4 seconds were lost from the decisive final period of Tuesday's 98-96 Heat victory over the Mavericks. NBA Vice President Stu Jackson released a statement Wednesday that read, 'the NBA League Office has determined that the game timing system malfunctioned on two separate occasions in the fourth period.'

'With 45.3 seconds remaining in the game, the clock continued to run for 2.5 seconds after a foul was called on Jason Terry of the Mavericks, and with 4.3 seconds remaining in the game, the clock continued to run for 0.9 seconds after a foul was called on Udonis Haslem of the Heat.' While the Heat has had a history of clock malfunctions, the league said the errors were a result of 'the electronic device worn by one of the game officials.' Apparently, one of the referees did not blow his whistle loud enough on the plays in question."

I might be stating the obvious, but this is a pretty huge deal. Not that the timing would have necessarily worked out in Dallas's favor, but if they'd had 4.4 seconds (the discrepancy plus the 1 second they actually had on the final possession), they could have gotten something better than that bonehead attempt at a tip-in. I suspect Nowitzki would have taken an awkward-looking jumper, and let's be honest, he probably would have been fouled in the process. With visions of a scantily clad David Hasselhoff dancing in his head, Dirk makes the two free throws to knot it (he wouldn't miss two more... again), and Miami, with no timeouts remaining, gives the ball to Walker, whose 60-foot desperation heave at the buzzer rims out. However, the officials call goaltending, ruling that Avery Johnson's bulging eyes passed underneath the cylinder, thereby interfering with the shot. So Miami wins anyway. Walker starts dancing but looks more like he's constipated, starting and stopping out of confusion over whether to wiggle for a game-winning shot that didn't actually go in. Meanwhile, the fan celebration is punctuated by what is mistakenly assumed to be a firework display, but is, in fact, the sound of Mark Cuban's head exploding.

Tell me that's not a much better ending.

My advice to the league officials: check the "electronic device" for hair pomade. I'm sure you'll find a left partial belonging to Pat Riley.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Pinch me, I'm dreaming

The moments leading up to this posting were somewhat agonizing. On the one hand, I was a bit apprehensive about christening my blog in the middle of the NBA Finals. For continuity's sake, and out of respect for all two of my readers, I thought about postponing the venture at least until the draft began, so as to trace the basketball season from beginning to end. There's something inherently dissatisfying about jumping in midseason. Kind of like ordering a combo meal from Taco Bell. The three Taco Supremes can be satisfying on their own, but they leave you wanting just enough to run back to the cash register, order another thing or two off the menu (perhaps some nachos and a Mexican pizza), and scramble back to your seat to gobble them up before your stomach realizes it was already full to begin with. Of course, you'll be extremely lucky to avoid the dumping disease by the end of this exercise, which is why the combo is problematic in the first place. Not quite sure how this applies to my blog specifically.

(In case you haven't yet figured out, I'm really bad at making analogies. And yet I nailed them on the Verbal Section of the old SAT. That:irony::the US team against the Czechs at the World Cup:pitiful. See, I told you I'm bad at them.)

But I digress. Despite the potential for disaster, I decided to push forward with the commentary. After all, moments like last night's Game 3 win by Miami come around so few times that I couldn't let the opportunity pass me by.

First things first: you should know that I'm a bit of a betting man. Not in the "I run to Atlantic City every other week with my paycheck in hand" sense, but I play mediocre poker and better blackjack. However, if you would have told me that Nowitzki would have gone for at least 30, that The Contract Baiter Formerly Known as Dampier would have tossed in 14 and pulled down 9 off the Mavs bench, that Josh Howard (or "Jowza," as he is known to my friend Matt) would have had one of his good-luck-charm games of 20+ points, AND that Miami would defend Jason Terry off of screens as if he had the bubonic, I would be typing this ass naked. Because I would have lost my shirt betting that the Heat would be staring down a 3-0 deficit to Dirk the Diggler's posse had all of these things come true, as they did last night.

Don't get me wrong. I stand strong by my prediction that Dallas will take the series, maybe not in five as I'd originally thought, but they'll still defeat the Heat handily. As ballsy a comeback as that was by the Heat, a lot of fluky things happened last night. Shaq swishing (SWISHING?!!?) two clutch free throws? Nowitzki missing two free ones in the final quarter (three if you count the one waved off for the lane violation), when he shot 90% from the stripe on the season and over 92% in the playoffs so far? The Mavs' vaunted "defense" letting the Heat rattle off 30 points in the fourth, after allowing only 16 in the third? Mark Cuban wearing a shirt that isn't two sizes too big? Not going to happen until Jupiter realigns with Mars. Which isn't for awhile, so I'm told.

If you're Avery Johnson, though, you have to be somewhat concerned over what unfolded in SoBe during that fourth quarter. The Mavs blew a double digit lead, which was stuck firmly at 12 with less than seven minutes left. They let the Heat back in the game by not contesting Walker and Wade's penetration, and allowing them to score at will in the paint... or at least try, which resulted in lots of free throw attempts. And remind me again: why didn't Dallas's backcourt attack Wade on offense after he'd racked up his fifth foul early in the final quarter? Dallas instead responded on the offensive end by milking the clock (good) and taking difficult fadeaway jumpers (bad). To me, their effort was eerily reminiscent of last year's conference finals, when they let Nash torch them from just about every spot on the floor. Forget what the pundits have said about their commitment to defense. When they needed stops more than they have all series long, Dallas blinked.

All of this aside, the Mavs will still win the trophy. AJ has done too good of a job with this crew all year to let them make the same mistakes in Game 4. Miami 's offense will inevitably wilt over a few more stretches, and the luck just might not swing their way next time around. But regardless, the Mavericks blew a precious opportunity to crush Miami's spirit on its home floor, on a night when Wade delivered one of the best Finals performances of all time, and when the Heat played to their capacity for most of the night. Instead, Dallas got comfortable, took their foot off the gas on the defensive end, and in doing so, gave up a game and breathed hope into Miami's playoff life. That kind of performance is still probably good enough to make the Mavs this year's Finals winners, but in my view, it's not good enough to make them champions.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

7 Questions to Ask (and Answer) Before Reading this Blog:

1. Who is this guy?

Just an average twentysomething dude who cares more about NBA basketball than just about anything in his life. Except for beer and some reality television (ok, a lot of reality television). And maybe a few other things too. But just a few.

2. Why the blog?

Because he likes talking ball. Because he likes seeing his thoughts in writing. Because he's acting on a moral imperative. Because he's exercising his natural right to free expression.

(Actually he's just bored out of his brains at work, which affords him the luxury of eight idle hours a day before a flat screen monitor and a keyboard. Text Twist, Rocket Mania and Typer Shark get old after awhile, ya know?).

3. What is he writing about?

Mostly pro basketball. He has nothing intelligent to say about anything else. Come to think of it, he doesn't even have anything intelligent to say about basketball.

4. Pro basketball? Are you serious?

Yes, he's... I'm serious. Maybe I'll rotate between actual analysis and random thoughts, but I'm guessing this will devolve into a forum for such questions as: "Who would win in a fight?
a) Eric/a Dampier, after learning that Shaq picked Lisa Leslie above him on the NBA All-Star ballot, OR
b) Chris Kaman, after getting his peaches picked by Reggie Evans for a second time."

5. Wait a minute. Is this some trendy "The NBA is back on top with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade at the helm" type thing? Because if it is, I'm closing my browser...

No, it's not. I was a die-hard fan even in the slow-'em-down, final-score-74-70, before-there-were-tights days. I can prove it too: I can spell Gheorghe Muresan and Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje.

6. OK, maybe I'm convinced. But I'm still somewhat skeptical. Who's the best basketball player of all time?

(deadpan) John Starks. Remember that time in the playoffs when he dunked over Jordan? ... Haha, sorry, I shouldn't joke. But c'mon, I deserve credit for almost pulling that one off.

7. Can I go now? I'm going cross-eyed.

Sure. But don't forget to check back here every once in awhile.