If the Miami Heat's defense folded like a wet napkin in Game 2, then it tightened up like a nervous golfer’s swing in Game 3.
Down the stretch, we saw just how lethal Miami can be. No other team in the league is able to lock down as viciously and adeptly. Erik Spoelstra –- who looked dumbfounded for much of the fourth quarter as Dallas made yet another run to tie the game -– had the perfect five guys in to guard the final inbounds play.
Credit the Heat players as well, who did a perfect job containing it and forcing Dallas out of its comfort zone.
Dwyane Wade executed a timely switch with LeBron James to disallow sharpshooter Jason Terry the opportunity of an open corner three-pointer, and Udonis Haslem bodied up Dirk Nowitzki just enough to avoid the foul call and force the German into what was a challenging fade-away.
Down 2-1 with two home games remaining, the Mavericks enter a serious danger zone now. As impressive as they’ve been, they appear oddly content to dig holes and then fight back from one deficit after another.
Oklahoma City was a young team lacking leadership and the killer instinct necessary to put them away. Miami has been maligned for the same shortcomings, but it finally displayed those qualities last night.
The vexing aspect for the Mavs has been their sheer inability to develop any sort of consistent rhythm on the offensive end in the series thus far. While it certainly has had its moments, the team has struggled to maintain the same graceful scoring balance it had leading up to the finals. But are these problems actually that vexing after all?
With the exception of the final eight minutes of its colossal Game 2 collapse, the Heat has been absolutely superior on the defensive end, with its lighting quick rotations, willingness to help defend and brutally tough hedging of the highball screen.
Dallas’ X factor for much of the playoffs -– J.J. Barea –- has been deemed immaterial, something I worried about before the series. Furthermore, Terry, being defended by the much quicker, stronger and bigger James, has had a dearth of clean looks from the perimeter.
The biggest question mark I’ve maintained all season for the Mavs has been the lack of a true second scoring option. Shawn Marion provided relief in Game 2, but looked pedestrian in Game 3. Peja Stojakovic is much too heavy-footed to earn consistent minutes in this series. Terry (38 percent shooting compared to 48 percent pre-Finals) and Barea (21.7 down from 43.4) have really struggled and Caron Butler is still in street clothes. Dirk has played all but 20 minutes of the finals. In those 20 minutes, Dallas has been outscored by an absurd 31 points. And, in the final 6:48 of Game 3, Nowitzki was the only Maverick to score.
Rick Carlisle has been splendid in his approach throughout the playoffs by spreading the floor with shooters around Dirk -- thus forcing defenders to stay home for enough time for him to go off. But, against these Miami rotations and the vastly improving Joel Anthony protecting the rim, I’m just not sure what else he can do.
Jason Kidd is the one guy on this roster other than Dirk who can control the game flow and execute the offense as both the point guard and knockdown 3-point shooter. But Kidd himself has looked perplexed facing the overall size and speed of the Miami defense, and of Wade in particular. He has shot just 34.8 percent compared to the 38.2 percent he shot in the first three rounds, and has turned the ball over an alarmingly and uncharacteristically high 4 times per game, in comparison to just 2.5 in the first three rounds.
Defensively, Kidd –- who was extremely effective on Russell Westbrook by forcing him to shoot jumpers and funneling him into Tyson Chandler in the paint – is also being asked the challenging proposition in defending Wade for 30-plus minutes, because DeShawn Stevenson can’t make a shot and definitely can’t guard Wade for extended stretches.
Flash took over Game 3 with a barrage of pull-ups and post-ups on the slower Kidd. He dictated wherever he wanted to go, forcing Dallas to either double and leave Chris Bosh, Bron or Mario Chalmers (4 3s) wide open, or leave Kidd on an island by himself.
Since the inception of the 2-3-2 finals format, the NBA has seen 11 series go to a 1-1 tie. Of those 11 series, the winner of Game 3 has won every time. Basically, the Heat has a full roster of thoroughbreds and the Mavs have just one, surrounded by an array of horses.
Sorry Mavs fans, but, as I said before the series, Miami in six.
For full Finals coverage and all things sports, check out my brand new Huffington Post blog, The Schultz Report.