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For 40 minutes, it looked like the Miami Heat had completely outclassed Dallas. They were lighting fast on defensive rotations, extremely efficient in half-court offense and lethal once again in transition.
But the Mavs proved to be a resilient bunch, coming up with one clutch defensive stop after another, followed by timely shot-making on the other end of the court.
After game one, viewers were left thinking that Dallas had to zone Miami because, without Caron Butler, they simply don't have the athletes to defend the Heat for 48 minutes. Miami made 11 three-pointers Tuesday night, a complete aberration on a team that doesn't shoot the ball particularly well. But in terms of Miami's lack of a half-court offense, the blueprint was there. The Heat shot a pedestrian 39 percent and looked oddly unbalanced for most of the night.
Down the stretch of game two, Miami was plagued by the same type of issues, namely far too much isolation and a scary lack of ball movement -- eerily similar to Chicago's Game 4 collapse in the Eastern Conference Finals. It's easy to grow complacent when you have such a big lead, but champions know how to close, and last night, Miami was simply fraudulent.
Statistically, the Heat remain the premier defensive team of the playoffs, giving up just over 100 points per 100 possessions, the best of any team that advanced past the first round. Joel Anthony has emerged as a rim-stopper. He's both a terrific help and on-ball defender, while LeBron, D-Wade and Chris Bosh have all bought in as well.
Dallas though, is a jump-shooting team that doesn't rely on attacking the basket. Dirk, Peja and Jason Terry all prefer to launch from 16 feet and out. In game one, viewers saw the problem associated with such a reliance on perimeter shooting, but with the way the Mavs have shot the ball all playoffs, it was only a matter of time before guys started to convert.
Stojakovic has been a recluse, but getting Terry going is a wonderful sign for Dallas moving forward. Shawn Marion is playing like he did in 2004, when he was a bonafide All-Star in Phoenix. He is the one guy for Dallas that can put pressure on the Miami defense as an attacking athlete who slashes and posts up.
While it's certainly unfair to put all of the blame on a head coach, Erik Spoelstra certainly deserves the majority of it. Many often talk about how players who haven't been there before falter in closing games (LeBron), but last night, Spoelstra showed how inexperience as a coach can sometimes be the difference too.
In the Mavs' final possession, everyone in the world knew Dirk was getting the last shot.
There are only a handful of big men that can defend a guy like Nowitzki 20 feet from the basket, and Chris Bosh is not one of them.
LeBron James -- who forced Derrick Rose into 1-15 shooting and crucial late-game misses -- should have been defending Dirk on the final possession. He is the only guy on the Heat roster who has the dexterity, size and strength to defend him on the perimeter. Before the Finals began, I highlighted how 'Bron should continue to be Miami's defensive "closer," if you will, just as he was against Rose.
If Spoelstra believed Bosh was the best option, then so be it. But he absolutely must send the double-team at him in that situation and, in turn, force Dirk to get rid of the ball. If someone else beats the Heat, that's a risk worth taking -- but don't even give such an assassin the opportunity to do so. The double-team, after all, worked well in game one and for most of game two.
Lastly, and this is the real big one, the Heat had a foul to give -- the kryptonite to any offense. By fouling Dirk with four- to five-seconds left, Spoelstra could have forced Dallas to reset out of bounds, and could have completely disrupted the fluidity of their attack. Even Nowitzki, in his post-game interview, said he expected Miami to use the foul.
As I said, it's hard to put the blame on one person and even more so, one play, but these are the types of chess matches that elite coaches and true championship teams must win.
With the vaunted 2-3-2 Finals format, the Mavs now head back to "Big D" with three consecutive home games and the opportunity of their lives.