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.

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