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June 3, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
Don't Call it a Comeback

by Kevin Pelton

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Dallas 95, at Miami 93 (Series tied 1-1)
Pace: 87.7
Offensive Ratings: Miami 108.2, Dallas 106.1

In Game Two of the NBA Finals, success was the Miami Heat's biggest enemy. When Dwyane Wade's three-pointer capped a 13-0 Heat run and extended Miami's lead to 15 with 7:13 to play, the team found itself in that awkward position so many teams have been caught in this postseason. The Heat needed to run time off the clock, but it was too early to totally ignore the offense. That's just what Miami did, to its ultimate demise.

With each passing Dallas Mavericks bucket, and each Heat miss, things got a little more interesting. Mike Breen added extra annunciation to the "just" in "just a nine-point game." Erik Spoelstra saw trouble early, calling a timeout after the Mavericks strung together back-to-back buckets, but the stoppage did nothing to arrest the run or invigorate the Miami offense. By Spoelstra's second timeout, with the lead at four and 3:11 left on the clock, it was evident we were looking at another game that would come down to the closing seconds.

One of the lessons of this year's playoffs is the importance of playing early in the shot clock. As it ticks down, the shot clock tends to act like an extra defender, preventing teams from moving the basketball for open shots and forcing them into more difficult attempts. This essential fact means teams must choose between milking the clock and running efficient offense. Nobody has done a better job of taking advantage of this dilemma than Dallas, which built comebacks against first Oklahoma City and now the Heat on the strength of short-clock defense.

Beyond that, Miami was hurt by the confidence LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were feeling in their long-range shooting. Wade's three-pointer midway through the final period brought him to 4-8 in this series beyond the arc, while James was 6-10 at the time. Both players hit big triples in the late stages of games against both Boston and Chicago. This time, when they went to those kind of hero shots, the percentages played out. James missed both threes he attempted in the last seven minutes, while Wade was 0-3, including his near miss at the final buzzer.

Credit the Mavericks for cleaning up the kind of defensive breakdowns that cost them in the first three and a half quarters. The Dallas defense was airtight down the stretch, with traps that forced James and Wade to either shoot from the perimeter or give up the basketball. Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem missed both of their attempts, and that they were shooting is a reminder of why coaches like to run isolations with the ball in the hands of their best players late in games. Where I think Spoelstra erred was in not using Bosh as a screener more in the final minutes. In practice, Bosh was no better than the Heat's role players, missing a midrange attempt and turning the ball over. However, I think his skills would have forced the Mavericks into more difficult decisions.

On offense, Rick Carlisle made some key adjustments that helped open things up in the late moments. As our Sebastian Pruiti noted, putting Jason Terry on the strong side in the corner forced James to choose between providing help defense and staying on Terry. Even though Terry scored just once in the half-court offense (his buckets early in the run came in transition or the secondary break), his presence gave Dirk Nowitzki more room to operate.

After struggling with his shot through the middle of the final period, Nowitzki made four of his five attempts in the final three minutes. Included were the dagger go-ahead three-pointer--on which Nowitzki had far too much airspace--and the game winner, a phenomenal, spinning drive to the hoop. If Spoelstra had it to do again, I think he'd put Joel Anthony on Nowitzki for the last possession. Instead, Bosh and Haslem were in the game, with Bosh defending Nowitzki. He got beat and Haslem's help was late. Anthony, a superior defender to both players, would have helped in either spot.

Perhaps Spoelstra was concerned he would have to leave Anthony on the floor for a possible offensive possession. Miami was out of timeouts because Spoelstra used two in succession to stop the Mavericks run. That informed the Heat's late-game strategy in several ways. It meant Miami went for a three instead of a two on Mario Chalmers' tying shot, then prevented the Heat from taking time and advancing the ball after Nowitzki's score. There would have been plenty of time to set something up instead of having to dribble upcourt and rush up a shot. Wade came close to what would have been one of the more remarkable game winners in league history, but Miami easily could have gotten a higher-percentage attempt with a timeout.

Though the last seven minutes have naturally dominated the postgame conversation, it's unclear how much they will carry over into Game Three. To the extent that it too is likely to be decided by late-game execution, it's crucial, but Dallas still needs to clean up the issues that allowed the Heat to build a double-digit lead, namely turnovers. The Mavericks coughed it up 20 times, and a remarkable 15 of them were live-ball turnovers. Those translated into runout after runout and dazzling Miami finishes. The Heat scored 31 points on those 20 turnovers, meaning Miami had just 62 points on its other 67 or so possessions.

Half-court offense is where the Heat has significant room for improvement. If not for the turnovers and threes, conversely, Miami might never have claimed the lead at all. Such was the case most of the first half, when the Heat's highlight-reel plays counted just the same as Dallas' workmanlike offense. The Mavericks' man-to-man was effective enough that we never saw any zone from them, and it might be phased out of the arsenal until needed later in the series.

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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