It was bound to happen.
The Mavericks were bound to lose another road game. On the final day of May, the Mavericks lose their first road game since that historic night in Portland on April 23.
And, for the first time in this magical playoff run, the Mavericks find themselves behind in a series. They never trailed Portland, Los Angeles, or Oklahoma City in the only category that matters - games won. Well, Miami put a stop to that in short order in Game 1 with a very impressive show of strength as the game wore on, and now the Mavericks trail in a Best-of-Seven series for the first time in these playoffs.
This Miami team appears to be a different animal altogether than anything the Mavericks have seen.
It is not uncommon to see the Mavericks a little jumpy on defense. Frankly, we have seen phases of all 3 previous opponents that the Mavericks had the proverbial "no answer" for. But, honestly, the defensive job for most of the night was just fine. From an expectation standpoint, Dallas had to exceed expectations in many minds since they really made the Heat rely on shots that are considered low percentage. There were obviously some issues on defense, but all things considered, I think you can look ahead in this series and feel reasonably well about the possibility that Dallas can give Miami some issues when the Heat have the ball.
But, it is when Dallas had the ball that should give many of us pause about where this series could be headed. The offense of the Mavericks never look comfortable after spending much of the last 6 weeks looking like they controlled the game with great ease when it was time to go looking for baskets. Shots were tough to come by, especially for the two lead scorers for this whole operation, Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry. If they stop scoring with the same authority and efficiency that they have demonstrated, then this whole offense grinds to a halt.
Now, before we over-react, we should remember that there are plenty of nights on the NBA playoff road where the ball doesn't drop. People will read all sorts of meaning into Game 1 results in any series, but the facts are pretty clear: In a 7-game series there are going to be nights that teams shoot better or worse based on nothing the defense throws at you - it could simply just be a poor shooting performance.
At the moment of truth, your shot makers simply must knock shots down. And, while Dirk's stat line looked impressive (27 points, 8 rebounds) I think many who saw the performance would concede that Miami was able to bother him and make him work very hard to get what he got. As for Jet, we would also have to look at Miami seeing him as the key to this series.
Jason Terry is not the leader of this offense, but he may be the key. In the last few years, the Mavericks have sacrificed scoring for 2-way players and straight defensive players because they needed to get stops on the other end. So, in bringing in Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion, and even Jason Kidd, you count more and more for the consistent 3rd and 4th Quarter scoring that Terry brings to the table when it turns into a playoff meat-grinder like Game 1. And on this night, Terry went 0-3 in the 2nd half with 0 points. I will do everything in my power to not bring up his last Finals game against the Miami Heat, but let's just say that is 2 straight Finals games for Terry where after decent starts, the bottom absolutely fell out of his performance.
Much of the dialogue in the interview room focused on LeBron James moving over to suffocate Terry in the late stages of the game. I can imagine that is a mismatch that is very disconcerting for Rick Carlisle and his staff. Think about it. If Terry cannot score, and you have Chandler, Kidd, and Marion on the floor late to get stops against James, Wade, and Bosh, then who is going to be able to work with Dirk to keep the offense alive? I never even considered James checking Terry, but after seeing it in practice in Game 1, I would have to tip my hat to Eric Spoelstra. That seems like the perfect way to give Dallas offensive fits late in the game.
And make no mistake. The reason most observers will not believe the "shooting anomaly" theory is that this is what Miami does. In the 4th Quarter of their playoff games they turn the energy way up on offense and defense. They suffocate the scorers on defense and then attack with the 2-headed closers on offense. The Mavericks fell victim to what Boston and Chicago already suffered. In the late stages of a close affair, the 2-way performances of James and Wade were too much to match.
The Heat seem to defend the high pick and roll with Haslem and James against Dirk and Jet about as well as we have seen anyone do it. The Mavericks will be asking Terry to hit tough shots against taller (much taller) defenders for that strategy to work in this series. And that is why they were trying to get it to work with JJ Barea and Jason Kidd earlier. Barea may need to play more and more to get offense, but then who does he guard the other way when the Heat have no point guard in the game?
Are there available counter punches? Sure. But, Rick Carlisle is going to have to consider some radical ideas. Down the stretch, he might need to employ more of someone like Peja Stojakovic to get some offense when the Jet/Dirk pick and roll is neutralized. The problem there is that you are forced to take someone off the court. And Marion is likely not an option because of his superb defense on either Wade or James. So, Tyson? That would seem extra crazy. Kidd? No way. Well, you can only have 5 players on the court at the same time. And now, you see the headaches that the Heat can provide. Likely, they are going to need some real big shots from Jason Kidd in these 4th Quarters. And they are also going to need to figure out how to get Terry some better looks.
But, a lot of what failed the Dallas on this night was self-induced to a certain extent. You have to believe that JJ Barea can knock more of his shots down. We have seen him do it against everyone in these playoffs, so I chalk this up to some early nerves. He will do better - and he must. Also, Peja is going to get chances in all of these games to affect the outcome with his shooting. In fact, if he is not knocking down shots, he is not helping the cause. And last night, he knocked down no shots.
We must all keep our heads. It is merely 1 game. But, we must also realize that last night gave us many clues about how some of these match-ups are going to go.
There is no doubt that the Mavericks now have enough defensive talent on their squad that they can make teams really, really work for points. I am so impressed with how Dallas has put a lineup on the floor where defense is not near the issue it has been over the years. I am equally impressed with how Carlisle has designed a zone defense that actually works. Miami took so many 3 pointers last night that they were clearly kept from the places they like to score. In the regular season, Miami attempted about 18 3's a game. In the playoffs, it has dropped to 16.8 3s per game. Last night, they took 24 and made 11 of them. Very impressive work by Dallas to force long shots from all of the Miami offensive threats. But, equally impressive for them to make them. Lebron James is a career 32.9% shooter from 3-point range over 700 games. Last night he shot 80% (4 of 5 from behind the arc). If I am the Mavericks, I am fine with Miami shooting 24 3-pointers. I consider that a big accomplishment. In the NBA, you try to force your opponents to settle for shots they don't want to take. If they make them anyway, you just tip your cap and move on to Game 2.
What you don't like if you are Rick Carlisle is all of the offensive rebounds that were conceded. 16 offensive rebounds is way too many. We talked about the magic number in the NBA for coaching staffs was about 72%. 72% of all rebounds when you play defense is break-even. Last night, the Mavericks only grabbed 65%. If you saw Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka in the last round, this should not surprise you, but clearly Dallas has to keep Miami from getting multiple looks that many times. It is just a killer to get stops and then Miami gets a fresh :24. We saw that in the 4th Quarter and the whole bench sagged. Of course, this is related to the zone defense where you don't have a body on a body in a zone and it is easier for guys to shoot into gaps to get offensive rebounds when they are unaccounted for, but because the Mavericks must employ the zone this is what they are up against.
The bench was outplayed, and then let's not bury the lead. The lead story for most who followed this game was the spectacular job of James and Wade to take over and make amazing shots from great distance. This was not some easy showing for them. They had to work hard to get their points, but then, they knocked down some very difficult shots. James' 3 at the end of the 3rd Quarter was just ridiculous. You are tempted to say that if they are going to do that, there is nothing you can do about it. But, the fact is that James and Wade have been doing that their entire career. You have to assume that at points of each of these games, you will simply shake your head as they will shake theirs when Dirk proves to be "unguardable", too.
But, what else did you expect from the NBA Finals? You never get to play a bad team in the Finals. You get your stiffest test yet. You must slay the biggest giant or you won't get your trophy.
The Mavericks clearly had reality hit them in the face last night. But, this is why you collect veterans who do not get easily shaken. You have a crew of guys who understood it was going to be a long war and that nothing either team accomplished in Game 1 was going to finalize anything.
Thursday becomes very important. A split was the objective all along, and the Mavericks have to consider Game 2 an imperative objective. More need to hit shots and more need to fight for that last rebound. They have fought too hard to begin to give into their doubts now.
It will be very interesting to see what Rick Carlisle and his troops come up with to counter what was done on Tuesday. But, I saw enough from Dallas in Game 1 to feel that there is not some insurmountable gap between the teams. And the coach pledged the following before he wandered into the Miami night:
"We’ll Play Better. I’m Certain Of That."
Let's hope so, Coach. Game 2 approaches.