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June 13, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
Unheralded Champions

by Kevin Pelton


Dallas 105, at Miami 95 (Dallas wins series 4-2)
Pace: 90.5
Offensive Ratings: Dallas 116.5, Miami 104.7

Throughout the offseason, the Miami Heat is going to wonder where the NBA Finals got away from them. Twice, in both Game Two and Game Four, Miami was a few short minutes away from taking a commanding lead in the series. Had a couple of plays gone differently, it's not inconceivable that the Heat could actually have won in a sweep.

That's the odd thing, to me, about the Dallas Mavericks' playoff run. Every team the Mavericks beat can imagine a realistic scenario where they won the series. With the exception of the clinching Game Four against the Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas almost never put opponents away early. Each game in this series, and nearly all the ones before it, was winnable within the last five minutes. Those deciding plays were consistently made by the Mavericks while the other team was left searching for answers.

Now that the journey is over, the final numbers from Dallas' postseason march are remarkable. The Mavericks lost just five games, and they did it against a challenging series of opponents, two of whom had home-court advantage. Dallas posted an excellent +5.8 point differential in the playoffs against teams that, weighted for number of games in the series, were 4.6 points per game better than average during the regular season. Adding those together, the Mavericks' adjusted differential of +10.4 points per game ranks third among champions in the 2000s, trailing the 2009 Los Angeles Lakers (+11.4) and the dominant 15-1 2001 Lakers (+19.4).

I will remember two things in particular about this Dallas team. (Well, two things besides what a ridiculous player Dirk Nowitzki is.) One is the way the Mavericks executed in close games. Dallas had a game plan, stuck to it and made plays while taking away easy options on the other end. As M. Haubs of The Painted Area wrote over the weekend, there is little question that Jason Kidd-Jason Terry-Shawn Marion-Nowitzki-Tyson Chandler is the NBA's best lineup in the clutch.

The other is something I mentioned when discussing Rick Carlisle's run in the Mavericks' playoff success that deserves to be amplified. Not only did this team get stronger over the course of games, it got better later in playoff series. As adjustments on both sides became paramount, Dallas took command of every matchup. The Mavericks finished the playoffs going 8-1 in Games 4-6. In closeout games, Dallas was a perfect 4-0.

During the NBA Finals, the crucial adjustments came between Games 3 and 4. When Carlisle moved Jose Barea into the starting five in place of DeShawn Stevenson, it strengthened both Mavericks units. After struggling to score as a reserve, Barea thrived as a starter, living in the paint and breaking down the Miami defense. Stevenson unexpectedly caught fire from three-point range the last three games, knocking down seven triples in 14 attempts and scoring more points off the bench than he did as a starter in any of the first three playoff series in total.

The biggest move of all by Carlisle, remarkably, might have been putting Brian Cardinal in the rotation in place of Peja Stojakovic as the backup to Nowitzki. I scoffed at the idea of Cardinal, who played just seven minutes in the first three rounds of the playoffs, making a difference. Yet Cardinal's hustle and a couple of three-pointers managed to help Dallas stay competitive with Nowitzki resting. What the team managed in the first quarter Sunday after Nowitzki picked up two early fouls was nothing short of remarkable. Down at the time, the Mavericks rallied with a 17-2 run that featured nine points from Terry and threes from both Cardinal and Stevenson. By the time Nowitzki returned at the quarter break, Dallas was up five.

After resisting rotation changes of his own, Erik Spoelstra suddenly altered everything in a must-win situation. Out was Mike Bibby, the starter for every playoff game before getting a DNP-CD in Game Six. In was Mario Chalmers, who finally replaced Bibby in the opening lineup and played 39 minutes. Meanwhile, Eddie House became Spoelstra's go-to reserve on the perimeter in place of the struggling Mike Miller, giving the Heat more shooting but far less size. Spoelstra also opted to play smaller lineups with more shooting. Joel Anthony was essentially a token starter, logging just 11 minutes, while LeBron James saw a couple of minutes at power forward.

The tweaks benefited Miami offensively during the first half. House's shooting and energy, along with Dwyane Wade's playmaking, helped the Heat go on a 14-0 run midway through the second quarter to erase a deficit that had reached 12 points. Add in James getting better touches in the post and the Miami offense was effective. Yet the Heat still trailed at the half despite 1-of-12 shooting from Nowitzki because the Mavericks bench was so effective. Terry scored 19 first-half points on 8-of-10 shooting, Stevenson had nine points from behind the arc and even Ian Mahinmi added a bucket as part of an effective run in place of Chandler.

Predictably, the Finals MVP was a different player after the break. Nowitzki shot 8 of 15 from the field in the second half, scoring 18 points to help the Dallas offense continue apace while Miami had trouble scoring. After a 5-0 spurt to start the fourth quarter drew the Heat within four points, Miami went six possessions without a point. During that span, the Mavericks got a pair of scores from both Barea and Terry to push the lead to 12. Miami never seriously threatened again.

Plenty will be written about James' struggles, and not unfairly so. His performance in late-game situations in this series was not up to a superstar level of performance by any standard. In Game Six, though, the Heat very much lost as a team. James had seven points in the fourth quarter; the only Miami player to outscore him was Chalmers, with eight. Wade was equally ineffective in the final period, missing a pair of three-pointers and committing a pair of costly turnovers, while Bosh was a non-factor late in an effective game that saw him score 19 points on 7-of-9 shooting.

I've never liked the contrast between Dallas as a "team" to the Heat's stars as a group of individuals because I think it unfairly connotes selfishness on the part of Miami's big three. It is surely true, however, that the Heat ultimately could not match the Mavericks' depth. In the biggest game of the season, Spoelstra essentially went with a core rotation of six players. Dallas had as many different players take leading roles at various times in this series. Without Chandler, or Kidd, or Marion, or Terry, or even Barea, the Mavericks aren't celebrating a championship. I don't buy that such a style makes Dallas inherently good as contrasted with evil Miami, but it does make the Mavericks an excellent basketball team and worthy champions.

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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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Playoff Prospectus (06/10)
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