Dwyane Wade and LeBron James could only watch as Dirk Nowitzki led the Dallas Mavericks on a seven minute assault that erased what would have been a 2-0 series lead for the Heat. Now the series shifts to Dallas knotted at one.
I had to watch it a few times before completely processing what had happened. The Miami Heat, ok, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, were up 15 with seven minutes to play. Then, in the snap of a finger, Dirk Nowitzki and his Mavericks walked off the floor victorious.
There’s an old saying, “Pride cometh before the fall.” In this case, “collapse” would be more appropriate.
After burying a corner three to stretch Miami’s lead to 15, Wade stood directly in front of the Dallas bench with his arm extended for a solid five seconds. Wade didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. His pose spoke volumes. It’s over. Go home. You can’t stop this.
Unfortunately for Mr. Wade, if he’d have remained in that same spot with his right arm extended high over his head for the remainder of the game, no one would have noticed. Wade finished 0-3 for 0 points after that shot. In fact, all of Miami’s Big Three checked out a little early last night, finishing a combined 0-9 with one turnover and only 2 points in the final seven minutes.
Maybe the Heat didn’t see the Oklahoma City series where Dallas erased a 15 point deficit with less than six minutes remaining. Or, perhaps the Heat didn’t believe Nowitzki was capable of dominating a game and carrying his team. Or, maybe, just maybe, Miami got ahead themselves and believed the series was over. Whatever they believed, the Heat was wrong. Dead wrong.
So what happened? How did the game turn so abruptly? Here are three defining moments that changed the game.
First, the Heat overreacted to Wade’s three. They thought it was the dagger to end the game. For all we know, it may have been if it weren’t for Wade’s showboating, which apparently shook Dallas from its comatose state. I especially liked Jason Terry giving Wade an ear full while following him to midcourt. Those are the type of things that define a team. The Mavericks are a veteran group. Following that three, no one started shouting and passing blame, no one sulked. They all walked calmly back to the bench to regroup. Miami, on the other hand, hooped and hollered like they’d just beaten the Boston Celtics again. The Mavericks stayed the course. They focused, dug in defensively and kept grinding until they found their groove. Miami stopped working, stopped running its offense, and lost focus.
This is where Miami can really get burned in this series. As great as Wade and LeBron are, neither is a leader. I know we see Wade stand in the circle before tip-off and rally his guys, but let’s be honest. That’s one of the most uncomfortable, awkward pre-game huddles I’ve ever seen. Wade looks nervous and uncomfortable. His teammates look uncomfortable. Even I feel uncomfortable watching. Wade wants to be a leader but leading comes naturally. You can’t force it. Unfortunately, there’s no veteran on Miami to rally the troops and settle them down. Juwan Howard doesn’t have enough clout. The same is true for James Jones and Big Z. Chris Bosh and LeBron are good teammates but not leaders. That leaves the coach. Eric Spoelstra hasn’t been here before. He doesn’t have that calming presence like one of the NBA’s premiere coaches. Obviously, Pat Riley would never join the bench or sit close enough to undermine Spoelstra, but that’s exactly what Miami needed last night. Someone to calm the team, tell them everything was going to be fine, and guide them to victory. Instead, Spoelstra panicked, LeBron and Wade were frustrated, and collectively, the team looked like they just saw Roseanne naked.
Dallas, on the other hand, was composed. The coach was relaxed, the players knew what needed to be done, and most importantly, no one panicked. Not a single player. Not even Mark Cuban sitting behind the bench. The lesson: Keep your wits.
Second, LeBron and Wade transitioned into hero mode over the final minutes. Instead of moving the ball and running the offense, Miami’s superstars forced bad shots. In fact, the Heat struggled down the stretch just as they had throughout the regular season in tight games. So really, we shouldn’t be surprised. In fact, the Heat offense late in games hasn’t changed in the playoffs. The only difference is Wade and LeBron (mostly LeBron) have been nailing those tough shots in big moments. Naturally, we all assumed the Heat figured out how to close tight games when in reality the only difference was Wade and LeBron hitting shots. Last night those shots didn’t fall. As a result, the offense struggled and the ball became stagnant.
What’s funny about the NBA is it’s not always that difficult to force superstars to take bad shots. They want to take the big shot, after all. Proof: Outside of Wade and LeBron, Miami players took four shots after Wade’s corner three. Instead of finding open teammates, the Heat’s superstars forced hero shots and hit zero of them.
Third, Nowitzki knows what to do with the ball in a decisive situation. Unlike Wade and LeBron, who kept hoisting 25 foot fade-aways and off balanced jumpers, Dirk continued to get to his spots and waited patiently for the shot HE WANTED. If the shot didn’t come, he found Jason Terry or Jason Kidd. The offense ran through Nowtizki. It didn’t stop with him. There’s a big difference. In the closing minutes, when the ball reaches Wade or LeBron, the possession is usually over for the other four players on the court. Michael Jordan didn’t win until he learned to trust his teammates. While LeBron trusted his teammates in Cleveland, he clearly doesn’t trust them in Miami yet, and I’m convinced Wade is of the Kobe ilk. Essentially, if we need a big shot, I’m taking it, no one else.
Dirk is obviously Dallas’ crunch time guy. He handled that role perfectly on the game winning possession. How many times, in both the NBA playoffs and NCAA Tournament, did we see players settle for jump shots with a chance to tie or take the lead in the final seconds? I don’t know. I lost count. But it’s asinine. Dirk didn’t settle, not even for his money, one-footed-turn around fade-away jumper. Instead, he faced up Bosh, made a move, and drove to the rim for an easy, game-winning layup. This just in, it’s easier to score from 3 feet than 19.
Dallas’ win in Game 2 felt similar to Game 3 of the 2006 NBA Finals, only the roles were reversed. Dallas never recovered in 2006. Neither did the Thunder in this year’s Western Conference Finals. Is Miami destined for a similar fate? I doubt it. It’s too early in the series. And as shocking and devastating as the Mavericks comeback was, it was still just one win.
However, Game 2 cost the Miami Heat its swagger. Their momentum is now gone. They’ll start from scratch again on Sunday night. Whether or not, and how quickly, they shake the nightmare of Game 2 will determine how far they go in this series. We know this much, at least: Dallas isn’t going anywhere.