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.

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