How could anything be underrated on a team that is constantly discussed and critiqued everywhere you look?
I am here to tell you that after watching them for 3 straight contests in person, there is no question that Miami's defense is even better than we were told. The suffocating defense is enough to make any offense look out of sync. And, the Mavericks' offense certainly looks out of sync this morning after losing 88-86 in Game 3 of the NBA Finals in Dallas.
Look at what is going on to the Mavericks; They shot 47.5% all year long, but in these NBA Finals, the shots are not falling. They have been limited offensively to a FG% of 42%. In a season where they routinely scored 100 points (100.2 per game) and playoffs where they were able to flex their offensive muscle routinely, they are now scoring just 88.3 points per game. That number is a grand departure from Portland (93.3 points per game), Los Angeles (102.3), and Oklahoma City (105.2).
Now we can suggest that the pressure of the NBA Finals and the bright lights of the stage is causing too much for the Mavericks between the ears and causing shots that normally fall to miss their mark for our heroes.
Or, we can consider that this Miami team is a very formidable foe in the NBA Finals because for all of their reputation of having so many choices and routes to get points with their dynamically stacked lineup, the same can also be said for a defense that just doesn't give you an inch to breathe. Like Philadelphia (41%), Boston (45%), and Chicago (39%) before them, Dallas is missing shots they normally weren't missing - mostly because they are taking shots that they have to find rather than having shots given to them.
Miami, with superstar talent in many spots, have players that stress you on both ends of the court. They can prove to be impossible match-ups on offense and then, to make the game even more difficult, those same players can guard you on the other end with ease.
And this is Rick Carlisle's seemingly impossible challenge. He has to figure out how to attack this Miami defense - which is hard enough - but, he also has to figure it out while not using players who are seen as a liability when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have the ball on the other end of the court. This series is asking the Mavericks to play true "2-way basketball" which shortens up your roster considerably.
So, when the Mavericks have the ball, we see the Heat at their strongest. They challenge every pass. They push out Dirk Nowitzki just a bit further than he would like to be pushed out to catch the ball. They make lob passes a thing of the past by being able to cheat off Tyson Chandler, but not so far off him that Jason Kidd can find him for an easy deuce. They jump passing lanes. I swear, LeBron and Wade get their hands on more passes than just about any players I can remember since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen played defense like this back in the 1990's. And like those players who won ring after ring back then, what makes this pairing so powerful is that they seem to be able to play as many minutes as you wish to play them. LeBron in particular plays about 45-46 of the 48 minutes of an NBA game. And there is never a time where at least one of them isn't on the court.
And, if that wasn't enough to deal with, once they turn the ball over, they are off to the races. If the Mavericks could figure out a way not to give 4 or 5 unchallenged fast break dunks each game, they would be winning this series with great ease. But, of course, that isn't how this thing works.
Miami has players who are dominant on both ends of the court. And they make you either match them in that ability or try to play "catch-up" all night when you can't. And Game 3 was a great example of never feeling like you could quite get up the mountain. Every single time the Mavericks thought they had reached the Heat, it seemed to be only an illusion as the Heat were still above them.
What the Heat have on defense is what makes everything else possible. They honestly have a very basic offense, it seems. Very special players who can pull up from 24 feet when nothing else is working on their offense and bailing out the play with another Wade launch that goes right through the rim. But, it all starts back on defense. They have dominant range on defense. They cheat on those who do not require their full attention to help out on those who do. They fly around in passing lanes and sneak up on players from behind to steal the ball. They are truly a pack of dobermans on the prowl. And, when they get the ball, those same top defenders - James and Wade - can take the ball and attack you with it on the other end. They are All-NBA on both ends of the court.
And that is what the Mavericks are up against if they want to achieve their dream of the NBA Title. They, too, have unstoppable players on offense and very strong defenders, as well. But, they are not the same players. Nowitzki, arguably the best offensive player in the league these playoffs, is a guy you try to expose on defense. The same goes for when Jason Terry, JJ Barea, or Peja Stojakovic are on defense. As skilled as they are on offense, you can not ask them to guard top players on defense without great concern and attention.
Meanwhile, the Mavs also have very strong defenders - Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler, and DeShawn Stevenson. But, as good as they are at getting stops and causing major stress on those they cover, they are of little or no concern offensively for set plays or intended offense. Sure, Marion and Chandler can both score, but it usually comes on scramble situations where points are a result of Dirk getting all of the attention.
And it has worked throughout the entire regular season and all through the Western Conference Playoffs. The Mavericks figured out a perfect combination and rotation to navigate through a 48 minute game while always keeping their opponents off their balance and from ever finding comfort. They would keep rolling fresh bodies out there and Dirk could match Kevin Durant or LaMarcus Aldridge, and then the Dallas bench could expose the opponent badly when it became a battle of the benches.
But, Miami is a different animal. Even when you perform well against their starters, when you try to rotate to your bench, they keep LeBron on the court. When Wade is on the court, LeBron is your #2 option on the offense. But, when Wade sits, you still have one of the best scorers in the world taking shots rather than a guy off your bench trying to create offense. And of course, you cannot attack the Heat bench on defense because James is still running the defense when you normally have JJ Barea and the Mavs' reserves dominating a game.
They are just so loaded.
The good news is that this Mavericks team is proving to be one of the most resilient and persistent teams we could ever imagine. They will not negotiate a peaceful surrender or hang their heads in defeat. They play with a passion and resolve that is flat-out admirable. And no matter how big of a mess they find themselves in, they put all of their efforts into working their way out of it.
But, this one is the biggest challenge yet. They are painted into a corner of not being able to play to their strengths. There are guys on the roster that have been used the entire journey who have a very limited role against the Heat. James and Wade force your hand or attack your weak.
And as the coach, you try to solve this very complex and rare problem on the biggest stage of your coaching career. Do you ask Dirk and Jet to play offense with very few threats around them? If you do, you realize Dirk will attract 2 or 3 defenders most of the time because Eric Spoelstra doesn't have to worry about playing honest on the other Mavs. He knows only 2 Mavs can beat him offensively and he can attack them accordingly. Or, you can put better offensive weapons out there with Dirk (or ever less attractive, when Dirk is resting) and concede defense because Peja and JJ cannot guard for very long or with very much effectiveness.
It is the ultimate "classic conflict" or in today's cliches it is known as "picking your poison". Do you short-change your offense or your defense? There is no correct answer, really. And, it looked like that for much of Game 1, Game 2, and Game 3. The Mavericks could easily be up 2 games to 1 this morning, but if you were to consider who has played while leading in this series, surely it would be the Miami Heat by a large margin. The problem that Dallas faces may not have a solution.
The Mavericks must scratch and claw. They must fight and battle. And when the game comes to its climactic conclusion, the Mavericks must play perfectly because they are always coming from behind. In Game 2, it worked. Everything they tried in the final moments fell right and they made all of the big shots and Miami missed all of theirs. But, Game 3 would not smile upon the Mavericks.
4.4 seconds to go. Surely, Miami would be talking in their timeout about how they cannot let Dirk beat them again. 88-86, Miami, but Dallas has the ball side-out. The question would be whether the Mavericks would attempt a 3-point shot and go for the win or play by the books and attempt to tie the game and win it in overtime.
To look at the final sequence is actually quite interesting, because it appeared that Miami was not going to run a 2nd defender at Dirk until the last second - as they appear to be very intent on not leaving the Mavericks' shooters open at the 3-point line. Terry, Peja, and Kidd are never left open, and therefore, Dirk keeps the ball and goes to his trademarked spin and fadeaway from straight on.
If we all had a dollar for every time Dirk hit this shot - even when heavily guarded - none of us would need to drag ourselves to work today. But, on this occasion, his shot hit the rim and the American Airlines Center collectively sunk. The attempt to rescue a game that they never controlled from the jaws of defeat was unsuccessful at the finish line. Dirk, who made every big shot all night long finally missed. He played amazingly well - and yet it still wasn't enough. And that is their margin for error against this formidable foe. As long as Dirk makes every shot down the stretch, the Mavs have a chance. But, Miami seems so strong that if he misses even once, they are in big trouble.
Home court advantage swings back to Miami, as does momentum in this NBA Finals. In any proper best-of-7 series, the roller coaster of emotions is part of the agony and part of the fun. This series will hopefully be no different.
Mavs' Coach Rick Carlisle placed the picture in the frame last night in the postgame: "Look it's seven games. Any notion that it was going to be easy would have been foolhardy by us or anybody else."
Game 4 is surely now of the "must win" variety. And frankly, Game 5 is pretty much in the same bin.
And Carlisle and his team between now and Tuesday Night must continue to try to figure out the problems that may not have solutions to keep their NBA Title dreams alive.