Friday, June 3, 2011

Anatomy Of A Comeback: How the Mavs roared back

It was disturbing enough that I noted it right away, with the Heat still leading by 15 and no hint of the crisis to come: Dwyane Wade was playing “hero ball.” It happened with 6:30 left, on Miam’s first possession after its chest-punching, hand-raising celebration in the wake of Wade’s apparent backbreaking three-pointer in Game 2 of the Finals on Thursday.

It was even more disturbing because it came on one of the first (maybe the first?) Wade/LeBron pick-and-rolls of the series, a play that caught Dallas by surprise and worked even better than the Heat could have hoped. As Wade dribbled around the screen, his defender, Jason Terry, switched onto James. Shawn Marion, who had been defending James, wasn’t expecting this, and so he drifted back toward LeBron after taking a token jump out toward Wade.

And there was Wade, perhaps the league’s second-best player, totally unguarded with a clear driving lane into the paint and Dirk Nowitzki the only man ready to block his path to the rim. Instead, Wade pulled up for a three-pointer. It was an off-the-dribble bomb, an awful shot, a wasted chance for someone of Wade’s skill. It seemed like nothing at the time, save perhaps an arrogant attempt at a needless home run, but it presaged Miami’s total offensive collapse over the next six minutes.

Friday’s narrative will be that the Heat devolved into hero ball and ran a bunch of isolation plays. That’s not really true. The Heat ran plays, including some of their best sets, on just about every trip down the court over those final seven minutes. They just didn’t score, for three reasons:

1. With one or two exceptions, the Mavs defended the primary action beautifully. They fought through screens, denied the ball when necessary and (a really underrated thing) got some fantastic positional help defense from Nowitzki and Terry. This is the stuff you might not notice on first glance, if your eyes are on LeBron or Wade or Chris Bosh. But over and over, Nowitzki (guarding Udonis Haslem) and Terry (on Mario Chalmers) moved off their primary assignments to stifle the Heat’s first option. They did nothing really dramatic or unusual, but they were smart, and they committed just enough to give Miami pause — and not quite enough to leave Chalmers or Haslem disastrously open.

2. The Heat did not commit often enough to moving on to second or third options after the first one failed. Once Dallas managed to stop that first option, the Heat mostly settled for isolations. In this sense, they resembled not some glory-hogging isolation machine, but rather the Oklahoma City Thunder, who so often in crunch time appeared to have no backup plan once Dallas thwarted their first option during the Western Conference finals.

3. The Heat weren’t quite as precise as they are at full throttle. Screens didn’t hit their target flush, and passes came a beat too late or not at all, when perhaps they could have been squeezed into open lanes.

These trends came together with three minutes to play. Miami, up just 90-86, came out of a timeout and ran a set that involves all three stars in fast-moving action. LeBron brought the ball up, darted to the left wing and gave Wade the ball on a dribble hand-off, which is supposed to act as a sort of screen for Wade. But James never came close to hitting Wade’s guy (Jason Kidd) with a pick, and Dallas remained in solid position as part two of the play began.

That involved Bosh’s popping up behind a screen from Chalmers and then setting a pick for Wade at the top of the arc. The idea was to get Dallas moving just ahead of the Wade/Bosh pick-and-roll and position James on the left wing as the release valve, with Haslem and Chalmers out of the way on the right side.

This can be a brutally effective play, and it appeared to work: Tyson Chandler jumped off Bosh to help Kidd on Wade, and Bosh rolled open to the hoop. This was exactly what Miami wanted: Bosh open in the lane, with poor Marion in the awkward position of having to choose between helping on Bosh or sticking to LeBron.

But it didn’t work. Kidd bumped Bosh chest-to-chest for a brief second — just enough to delay Bosh’s roll and allow Nowitzki to slide off Haslem and into the paint as a potential helper. Wade stared at Bosh and paused, unsure if he should make the pass. He didn’t. He swung the ball to James, who then entered it to Bosh in the post, with Chandler defending.

There were still 12 seconds left on the shot clock. Dallas foiled option No. 1, but there was still plenty of time for something else. Nope. Bosh held the ball for four full seconds before starting an isolation drive that ended with him fumbling the ball out of bounds.

This is Thunder ball, and it wasn’t good enough Thursday. One reason you sign three stars is to salvage possessions like this, but attacking an elite post defender in isolation is a low-percentage play, even for someone as good as Bosh.

This happened again and again. When the LeBron/Chalmers pick-and-roll yielded nothing with about 3:30 to go, LeBron simply called for a second Chalmers screen, ignored it and hoisted a long, contested jumper. When coach Erik Spoelstra screamed for Miami to:read full:

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