Monday, May 30, 2011

1800 Days After The Morning After

Perhaps this is a change-up from your 2011 NBA FInals reading, or perhaps you will decide to skip this altogether because rehashing a painful defeat can be a wonderful way to kill your buzz.

What you are about to read could perhaps be labeled "The Diary of a Madman". I don't know what makes me do some of the things I do with my sports-obsessed life, but I must follow my instincts and do what feels right at the moment.

And for reasons that I cannot quite explain, my mind told me that this weekend I must face one of my demons.

Some people think I am nuts when it comes to my sports. I am an admitted sports-nerd and sports-addict. I have no issues with gambling to report; I am simply just a person who cannot imagine anything more exciting to follow than athletics. I am lucky enough to consider my job and my hobby exactly the same thing. I don't have many vices as a human being, and frankly, not too many hobbies that aren't somehow related to sports.

So, while I love the human dramas that make up our "sports world", I also fall victim to becoming a bit emotionally involved at times. There are some sporting events that I can watch with almost no emotion. But, there are others that leave a scar.

I felt you needed to know all of this because of what this project today is all about. Over the weekend, I did something I did not ever want to do again. There is a vault in the back of my mind with a few sporting moments in my life that I have locked up and - although I acknowledge that they happened - I never want to revisit them again. Going back would be too painful and too damaging. I lived them once live, and that was plenty. At some point, I accepted the defeat as a result that I could do nothing about, so I filed them away and tried to forget as much as I could.

The 2006 NBA Finals is one of those few events that I have avoided for the last 1800 days. I considered the 2006 Playoff run of the Dallas Mavericks to be one of the most magical 2 months of sport in my life, but then I consider the 8 days from Game 3 to Game 6 some of the most depressing days of sport I can imagine. The next week was very bleak. I did not want to accept that it was over. I did not want to consider that Dirk and the rest of my guys were never going to get to the prize. They were so close. Everything was so perfect. And then it crashed. Very few franchises in sports would consider their greatest moment and darkest moment to be basically the same story. But, I would submit the 2006 Dallas Mavericks would be both.

Your memory is a weird tool. It helps you remember things perfectly from your childhood, but it also allows things from this morning to vanish into thin air. It helps you recall your first kiss or your best high school game in perfect clarity, and yet, you forget what your wife told you to buy on your way home from work.

After Thursday night, when Chicago fell in 5 games to Miami to insure that the 2011 NBA Finals would match the two teams from the 2006 NBA Finals, I decided that I needed to allow that dark place in my head to have a little time out of its cage over the weekend. I would attempt to watch as much of Games 3-6 as I could find on Youtube (and just about all of it is on Youtube if you, too, consider yourself a masochist).

It was not enjoyable. However, I will concede that since I knew ahead of time that things were not going to finish well in any of the games, that my head did not ache nearly as much and I was able to get a relatively good night's sleep both nights.

I really hope you had a chance to read Eddie Sefko's piece in Sunday's paper about this very topic. He did it in a far more professional manner, and he also fills in the gaps quite a bit. My review is a more to focus on two things - composure and strategy.

In my memory, and from what I hear and read from many of you, too, the series was won because of A) Dwyane Wade and B) Bennett Salvatore. The further we get from the series the more the popular idea is that the Mavericks had the series taken from them and it was a gross injustice by the NBA and their officials. I accepted it as some level of fact, but I also do not like to blame refs for things that your team does not properly execute and accomplish.

But, over the weekend, I watched the game from a stand point of "How did the Mavericks handle things?" and "How did they counter what Miami was doing?" In both cases, I was very shocked and disappointed with what I saw.

Because at every turn, I kept coming back to the feeling that the Mavericks lost their heads.

Adversity and uncontrollable circumstances come at you constantly in professional sports. In the NBA playoffs, there are so many momentum swings during the course of a game and a series that you really cannot allow your head to hang and to become your own worst enemy.

But, watching the film of the '06 Finals reveal to me that the Mavericks were mostly brought down by their own lack of composure. The evidence is almost everywhere. They dominated both of the first 2 games. In Game 2, the Mavs held a 24 point lead entering the 4th Quarter. The Heat were beaten and as this series headed to Miami, the Mavericks needed to only get 1 game in Florida to set things up to where they only needed 1 win in 2 games in Dallas to win the NBA Title.

In Game 3, that fateful day where the Mavericks held a 89-76 lead with 6:15 to play, the plane began to dive. They held a 10 point lead at the 5-minute mark. And, after that scored 1 basket the rest of the way. My memory indicated that the Mavericks started settling for perimeter shots. But, in watching it with a critical eye on Saturday, I actually came to 2 conclusions. 1) Dallas began to try to milk the clock. This is a dangerous game where you don't begin your attack until the shot-clock is well under :10. When you do this, you risk not getting a good shot. You must take whatever is available when the shot-clock nears zero. and 2) Dallas just stopped hitting their tough shots. Let's face it. Especially in 2006, the Mavericks offense was very difficult to stop because Dirk and Jason Terry were so successful at making tough shots. They seldom were able to get what we consider "easy looks" by NBA standards. But, they could always make tough shots. And this was one of those cases where they were able to get shots they normally hit, but they went cold at just the wrong moment.

As the time started clicking away and the lead shrunk, things started falling into place. Shaquille O'Neal was hit two very important free throws after hitting 2 for 16 in the first two games of the series. Gary Payton, who my memory had given very little credit for his ring, hit the biggest shot in Game 3. With the score tied at 95-95, the game clock was down to :10 and the shot-clock at :01 when he stepped up and nailed a huge 21-footer. It was his only shot of the game! Meanwhile, Dirk Nowitzki went strong to the rim and was fouled with :03 and barely missed the basket and the foul. He had made 25-26 free throws in the NBA Finals to that point, but missed the 2nd free throw that would have tied the game. This confluence of events (Shaq making his free throws, Dirk missing his) was amazing on so many levels.

With :01 to play, the Mavericks had one last chance with the ball on the side and down 98-96. In a very curious coaching decision, the Mavericks made sure that Dirk would not take the last shot because Avery decided he should be the man to inbound the ball. Words could not describe how insane that seemed to take one of your only shotmakers out of the equation - especially since he would be the easiest to find since he is 7-feet tall. Instead, a lob pass to Josh Howard which never had a chance sailed wide and the Mavericks lost a game they never should have lost. Instead of a 3-0 lead, they were hit in the head with a heavy punch.

But, still; they came to Miami to win at least 1 game. Losing the first one should not have derailed the entire train. But, oh, how it did.

As I compare the 2011 Mavericks to the 2006 Mavericks, all I can think of is the composure that I see on this team and the lack of composure and maturity that those Mavs had. Their owner, Mark Cuban, routinely had the media at his disposal during those Finals and seemed intent on poking the refs as often as possible with sharp sticks. Avery Johnson seemed to make one coaching error after another. On the roster, there were very few calm veteran personalities. Dirk was Dirk, but around him at crunch time were the very young Devin Harris, the always unpredictable and young Josh Howard, veteran Erick Dampier - a player who had almost no role in crunch time yet he played plenty of minutes, and two vets who both had moments of lost composure - Jason Terry who was ejected and suspended in the Spurs series for his punch to Michael Finley's groin and Jerry Stackhouse who was ejected and suspended in Game 4 of the finals for a brain dead tackle of Shaquille O'Neal.

If there was one Jason Kidd or one Rick Carlisle or one Tyson Chandler on that team (even an older version of Dirk), maybe they shake off the Game 3 disaster. But, this group took a small problem and made it worse and worse. One game grew into four and the Finals, which require supreme composure and nerve control, showed that Dallas had none in reserve.

The video tells the story. They missed so many big shots. They missed free throws at just the wrong time (Dirk did it in Game 3 and again in Game 5). They lost their temper. And most of all, their two authority figures - Avery and Cuban - lost their minds in front of the media.

Game 4 showed nothing from a Dallas perspective except that they were now damaged. They set the NBA record for least points in a quarter with 7 points in the 4th. They also lost arguably their most veteran presence when Stackhouse lost his mind on O'Neal with the team down 17 points. A 98-74 decision squared the series at 2-2.

Again, at any point, the team could have regained their composure if they had proper leadership. Either on the roster or in management, the right voice could have saved the season. Avery Johnson, like Dirk and Cuban, seemed to show that this stage was a bit more intense than he thought it would be. He challenged the team in the media by saying maybe they aren't getting mad enough to stop Wade. He blamed their night life and vacation-type attitude on South Beach for the state of affairs on the court. He made the team leave the Mavericks entourage and switched hotels to Fort Lauderdale. The team had players room together to attempt to get everyone to band together. If the Mavericks had pulled out the Finals, perhaps the hotel stunt would go into lore as the reason the season was saved. But, given how Game 5 turned out, it looked like another mis-step by a coach who was not finding the answers to keep his ship from sinking.

I remember the Avery Johnson era rather fondly. In my memory, he was the coach who taught the Mavericks that defense wins championships and that emotion is your friend in the playoffs. He was able to reach players better than Don Nelson and challenge their fight and desire for success.

But, the 2006 Finals demonstrate a coaching mismatch that may have decided the series. Being on a list of guys who have been out-coached by Pat Riley is not a very short list. But, I think in viewing the "Meltdown in Miami" over the weekend, I received a much sharper image of how badly the coaching difference truly was. Riley dominated Avery. Some of it was based on Riley's strategies but some of it was back to Avery not thinking clearly.

Avery is calling the "Hack-a-Shaq" repeatedly when the Heat were not in the bonus. He even ordered it when DeSagana Diop had 5 fouls and had to disqualify himself to do so. He signaled a timeout to his team (that he wanted taken after the next free throw) and since they couldn't hear what he was saying, they called the timeout. Player error in truth, but a coaching error because of poor communication. There were moments of single-teaming Wade and quadruple-teaming Wade.

Game 5 was a game that could and should have been won by Dallas. But, lack of composure from team and coach proved to be their undoing when I watched it again on Sunday. And then, after Game 5, Avery and Cuban both blew their stacks again in front of the media. Dirk was being swarmed by the Heat and despite making some huge shots, must have felt by himself. Stackhouse, the de facto leader, was in street clothes due to his suspension. Howard and Harris were not ready to be on the floor in big moments like Gary Payton was ready for. Howard missed 2 gigantic free throws in overtime that would have likely been enough to win it. And, of course, the fouls called that sent Wade to the line again and again.

And with each passing whistle, the more the Mavericks let it into their head. The pressure built. And pressure, as they say, bursts pipes.

Game 6 was the completion of a death that was put in motion back in Game 3. By that point, Antoine Walker and Alonzo Mourning were giving them fits. Jason Terry couldn't hit a shot to save his life in Game 6, and yet he is the one who took the shot to save the season at the end. And it missed.

The Mavericks lost the 2006 NBA Finals largely because they were not composed and mentally strong enough. After watching the unraveling again, I am sure that this is more important than Wade or Salvatore.

Had Dirk, or Avery, or Cuban, or Stackhouse, or anyone been able to take a deep breath and calm the troops, assure them that things are fine, and design a plan to retake the series by the scruff of the neck, things might have been different. Surely, one gut punch should not set a team that was playing so well into a reeling state that it cannot recover from. But, alas. My eyes tell me that the collapse in Game 3 set of a chain of events that were never stopped.

The chance at basketball immortality had vanished. Perhaps, forever, for many players, coaches, and a certain owner. There were a number of strategy issues which we could elaborate on that just didn't make sense. However, more and more, I keep coming back to the idea that the lights were too bright and the tempers were too short. In a way, much of what dismantled Oklahoma City in the last round in 2011 is what took down the Mavericks. They just weren't ready.

And that is what gives me some hope in 2011. This Mavericks crew learned from that one. Cuban is almost in hiding rather than angering the league officials at every opportunity. Dirk looks so much tougher and more refined between the ears. And the rest of the cast is made up of steely veterans who have seen every situation and now unify for one purpose. I don't see their coach having to chase them off South Beach.

In 2006, I believe that lack of composure was the single biggest issue. They just didn't deal with adversity at all. It changed their ability to function; To play through bad calls; To hit shots and free throws that they normally hit.

And for that, they did not deserve to be champs. As much as it hurts, when I look back it pains me to admit that the biggest culprit to the Mavericks' disaster was the Mavs themselves.

Tomorrow, I would like to take items from the 2006 team and compare them to the 2011 team to see what can be learned.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

Great stuff Bob! I almost didn't want to read the post because I haven't wanted to relive that pain, too. In fact, a friend of mine gave me some DVDs of Mavs history (including the 06 Finals) that I haven't been able to bring myself to watch. Hopefully I'll be able to watch them from a new perspective in about 10 days or so.