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 line...as 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?

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