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June 6, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
Slim Margin

by Kevin Pelton

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Miami 88, at Dallas 86 (Miami leads 2-1)
Pace: 82.8
Offensive Ratings: Miami 103.5, Dallas 106.8

Here's the thing about a two-point game: It can be lost in the second quarter as easily as the fourth. I suspect when the Dallas Mavericks coaching staff goes over the tape from Game Three of the NBA Finals, that will be the conclusion they reach. The Mavericks went down 12 early in the second, and while they overcame that deficit with a huge third-quarter run and were close throughout the final period, those extra points could have made the difference in a game that came down to the very final shot.

The Miami Heat began to take control in the first quarter, owing largely to a curious change in his rotation Rick Carlisle has made during this series. Dirk Nowitzki's break on the bench has come earlier in the first and third quarters the last two games. In Game Three, he was replaced by Peja Stojakovic barely halfway through the opening period. This creates a couple of issues. First, having Stojakovic on the floor when the Heat plays its starting lineup makes it more difficult to find a good, or even workable, matchup for him defensively. Second, when Nowitzki exits before Jason Terry enters the game, it means Dallas is without either of its top two offensive creators.

No matter what Carlisle does, the Mavericks are going to struggle when Nowitzki rests. That's inevitable because of his importance to the team's offense. Still, I think the rotation during this series is exacerbating the issue. During both halves, Miami took advantage while Nowitzki watched from the bench. It was an 11-5 surge during the first quarter and an even quicker 7-2 spurt during the third. Both times, Carlisle had to use a timeout to get Nowitzki back in the game. That was one less timeout Dallas had available to draw up a play in the last two minutes.

The other issue was out of Carlisle's control. The Mavericks missed center Brendan Haywood, who missed the game due to a strained right hip flexor. Haywood seems unimportant in the scheme of Dallas' success, but the stage was too big for third-string center Ian Mahinmi, a Prospectus favorite. After taking an early charge, Mahinmi was ineffective. In particular, he struggled with fouls--partly because of his positioning and partly, in my estimation, because he is unlikely to get the benefit of the doubt on a close call. Mahinmi was whistled for five fouls during his eight minutes of action. The Mavericks were outscored by six points during that brief span starting center Tyson Chandler spent on the bench.

Put the two situations together and you come up with this striking stat: With Nowitzki and Chandler together in the frontcourt, Dallas was +15. The Heat held a 17-point advantage in the other 13 minutes.

For a time, it seemed like those advantages and an aggressive mentality would translate into a comfortable win for Miami, which led by 13 early in the third quarter. As promised, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade attacked the basket more aggressively than in the first two games of this series. Oddly, that did not translate at the foul line; James and Wade attempted just four free throws apiece. Where it did make a difference was in terms of creating better shot attempts in the paint. The Heat had an incredible 40-22 advantage in paint scoring. At one point early in the game, the disparity was 16-2.

Wade was really everywhere, including an inspiring performance on the glass. Throwing himself into traffic to keep loose balls alive, Wade came up with three offensive rebounds and eight more defensive boards for his second double-double of this series. On a night where Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem combined for seven rebounds in 66 minutes, Miami needed every one of those boards.

The Mavericks were able to answer by cleaning up their help defense and with offensive execution. This might have been Dallas' best ball movement in the series, led by Jason Kidd's ability to identify and complete the extra pass. For extended stretches--most notably a 15-2 third-quarter run that tied the game--the Mavericks made the Heat defense look silly by sharing the basketball and finding whatever Miami was giving up defensively. Putting Jose Barea alongside Kidd in the backcourt seemed to open things up for Dallas. While Barea continued to shoot poorly, missing a series of open three-point looks in the final quarter, the Mavericks were +3 with him on the floor.

Dallas also benefited from the offensive glass for the second consecutive game, which is attributable almost entirely to Chandler. In 40 minutes, the Mavericks' center had seven offensive rebounds, which doesn't even count the loose-ball fouls he drew from smaller Heat players trying desperately to push him away from established position.

In the end, it came down largely to Wade against Nowitzki. Miami ran its offense through Wade, not James, because of his success during the first three and a half quarters. Again, the Heat stagnated at times, particularly on the possession where Bosh passed up a good look late in the shot clock only to end up with a desperation attempt that turned into a violation. (I'm going to give Miami a pass for its last possession because the Heat presumably expected a foul, though Erik Spoelstra too used a timeout in the third quarter that could have helped set something up at that point.)

Miami's winning set came out of a timeout. Spoelstra called for the Wade-James pick-and-roll that is virtually indefensible, something the Heat never used during the Game Two collapse. Dallas, which surely prepared for the play, defended it well. The Mavericks trapped Wade and Nowitzki helped on James. However, a great wrinkle to the play--Haslem back screening as Nowitzki tried in vain to recover--freed Bosh for a midrange jumper.

Given the criticism of Miami's "hero ball," it's funny to note that Dallas went more heavily to isolations down the stretch, preferring not to get other defenders involved with Nowitzki going strong. It worked as Nowitzki scored on four consecutive trips to tie the game, but the Heat's help forced him to give the ball up twice in the final minute. On the first play, James was able to force the pass and recover to Terry, who missed with a hand in his face. The next time down, Nowitzki and Shawn Marion weren't on the same page, leading to a costly turnover. Nowitzki wasn't passing with a chance to tie in the final seconds. Haslem played him well, Nowitzki's fadeaway was ever so slightly long and the Heat reclaimed the lead in this series by the slimmest of margins.

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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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