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June 6, 2011
Finals
Burnout?

by Dan Feldman

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As the NBA Finals moved to Dallas, the tired, worn-down team took advantage of its first intra-series multiple-day resting period in more than two weeks. Yes, the Heat surely enjoyed the long break before yesterday's Game Three.

That's right. The Heat.

The Mavericks are certainly the older team. Each of the Big Three is younger than seven of the nine Mavericks who've receive regular playoff minutes (Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, Peja Stojakovic, Brendan Hawyood and DeShawn Stevenson).

*Tyson Chandler and Jose Barea are the exceptions.

But the Heat aren't freakishly young. Miami ranks as the 27th-oldest team, adjusted for minutes played, among the last 64 conference finalists, hardly exceptional at either end of the spectrum.

Sure, the Heat can play its Big Three more than the Mavericks play any of their older players. As Kevin Pelton has frequently noted, the minutes when at least one of the Big Three is on the court while Dirk Nowitzki sits will be pivotal in the series. But, at a certain point, Erick Spoelstra might be over-relying on his team's relative youth. He's asking his top players to do something they haven't done (Chris Bosh), haven't done well (LeBron James) or haven't done in a long time (Dwyane Wade).

Bosh has never played this many minutes in a season (regular and post combined, as with all minute totals in this post). In fact, he passed his previous high in Game Four against the 76ers in the first round.

LeBron has played this much just twice before, but if he plays at least 37.3 minutes per game and the Finals goes at least six games, he'll eclipse his 2005-06 season. That leaves 2006-07, when LeBron led the league in both regular-season and playoff minutes while taking the Cavaliers to the Finals. That season, LeBron averaged 25.9 points (43 percent shooting), 8.3 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game in the Eastern Conference playoffs, but his numbers fell to 22.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game in the Finals. The Spurs, who ranked second that year in Defensive Rating, certainly deserve credit for holding LeBron in check. But maybe he got a bit too ran down. After all, San Antonio's defense can't explain LeBron's free-throw percentage dropping from 77 percent in the Eastern Conference playoffs to 69 percent in the Finals.

Wade hasn't played this many minutes in five years, since he led the Heat to the NBA title. Since then, he's begun to play with more craftiness and less explosiveness. If that transformation has been out of necessity more than preference, this year's heavy workload could have ill effects for Wade, the oldest of the Big Three.

Exacerbating matters, Spoelstra has shortened Miami's rotation. In the Heat's first 94 games, he used eight players just twice. In the last six games, he's done so four times.

On the other side, Rick Carlisle is treating his veterans like the old men (in NBA terms) they are. The Dallas veterans probably can't carry as heavy of a load as they did in the past, but nobody is asking them to do so.

Nowitzki (seven), Kidd (five), Terry (one), Marion (seven), Stojakovic (11), Hawyood (six) and Stevenson (four) have already previously had seasons in which they played more minutes. Of course, the Finals will go at least two more games, which will add minutes to each player's log. But the series could go seven games and each of the seven Mavericks could average 123 minutes in each of the next four games (hey, maybe there will be a lot of overtimes)--and still, none of them would set a season high for minutes.

Implications in Game Two and Game Three

Perhaps, fatigue can partially explain Miami's Game Two collapse. If the Mavericks had blown a 15-point, fourth-quarter lead, they would have faced many questions about an old team running out of gas late. So, maybe we should question the Heat's energy, too,

Miami clearly lost focus mentally and tried to coast for the final half of the fourth quarter. But why were the Heat so eager to relax? If there's ever a time to leave your guard up, the it's during NBA Finals. Maybe Miami, a bit fatigued, relished the opportunity to slow down physically and jumped to do so a bit too quickly. Even after Dallas cut into the Heat's lead and made clear the game wasn't over, Miami still didn't muster the necessary energy to compete.

In Game Three the Heat looked sharper late, but Dallas still went on a 6-0 run in the final few minutes. Maybe Miami's extra day of rest between Game Two and Game Three made the difference.

The Heat have won both its Finals games that came after multiple off days and lost its Finals game that came after just one day off. Admittedly, that's a small sample, but as explained above, evidence exists to indicate Miami is battling fatigue.

Mentally, I think Miami learned a lesson in Game Two. It must compete for 48 minutes--or at least more than 42 minutes--to beat this feisty Mavericks team. The Heat didn't let up in Game Three.

That leads to a question that might define the series:

Will playing hard for longer lead Miami to an NBA title, or will it lead to Heat exhaustion?

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

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