Friday, June 10, 2011

The Morning After: Game 5 - Mavericks 112, Heat 103 (3-2)

Win #15 in this race to 16 wins will not be soon forgotten. For the 20,443 in attendance, it might be labeled as the single greatest sporting event they have ever attended. The place was electric from start to finish. They were there to celebrate their best season ever - and they were there to get one more win on a journey that they hope ends in a trophy.

And they did not leave disappointed.

The Mavericks, as their calling card has been, won the late stages of the 4th Quarter yet again and took Game 5 from the clutches of the Miami Heat. So much of the national narrative will again be focused on what the Miami Heat did not do. If you will forgive me, I choose to focus on what the Dallas Mavericks DID do.

There was a moment late in the 3rd Quarter in Game 5 where Jason Kidd found Tyson Chandler uncovered underneath the basket. Chandler unleashed a furious dunk to give the Mavericks their biggest lead of the night, 80-71, with 3:46 to go in the quarter. The arena went absolutely bonkers and victory seemed to be on its way.

And then, the Heat answered with a giant body blow. For the next 11 minutes of high-stakes basketball, the Heat put on an offensive clinic that gave everyone in the arena and millions more at home indigestion. The end result was a 99-95 Heat lead with 4:47 left in the game. That stretch was 28-15 in favor of Miami over 11 minutes. And the way Miami was scoring was most demoralizing. The run started with a LeBron James jump shot and ended with a Dwyane Wade 3-pointer. But, in between, there was no basket scored from outside 5 feet. And that is where Rick Carlisle had to be in some state of panic. It was lay-ups, dunks, put-backs, and possession after possession where the Miami offense was making the Dallas defense resemble a sieve.

And before anyone discounts the contributions and resolve of that Miami star-studded group, know that the tip of the spear during that surge was most definitely LeBron and Wade. They were slicing up the Mavericks defenders and dishing to their big men in the most simple of pick and roll strategies. A pick and a roll to the basket by the man who set the screen was giving Dallas fits. James had 4 assists early in the 4th Quarter and Wade had 3. And a comfortable Mavericks lead had disappeared and now, the Heat had put themselves in another position to win a gutting contest on the road.

When Wade hit his 3 to make it 99-95, we can only imagine what was said in the Mavericks' huddle. We can only wonder what defensive adjustments Rick Carlisle made. Clearly a big part was getting his final line-up in place didn't hurt. It was clear what was going to be needed for victory. I tweeted at that precise time: The defense must save them. The defense must rise up.

And now, we know the results. The results were that in the final 4:37 the Heat would only score 3 more points - 2 of those on an uncontested LeBron James lay-in with the game already decided. And Dallas, would go on a shooting spree that will be talked about for years to come if this season ends with 1 more win. A 17-3 run to end the game made the Mavericks victors in their final home game - and for the first time in these NBA Finals they take a lead in the series, 3 games to 2.

It happened again. Somehow, in a series that appears so has appeared even up and down the boards, there appears to be a clear difference in execution in the 4th Quarter. This is unexpected to many, because Miami is known for having an extra gear at "winning time" after their 4th Quarter destructions of Boston and Chicago. But, not in these NBA Finals. In these Finals, we have seen two ends of the court that suggest Miami runs out of answers when the game gets late. And Dallas happens to have many answers themselves.

Looking back at Game 4's win on Tuesday, when breaking down the story of that game, I was sure to discuss the contributions of Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion, and DeShawn Stevenson as warriors who stepped up and carried the Mavericks along while Dirk was feeling the effects of a fever. It is a true testament to the "team construction" of the Dallas Mavericks that in the Game 5 win, I feel compelled to look at 3 totally different Mavericks who made the majority of the plays and shots that brought along victory.

This was a victory that was largely a result of two guards who have been very quiet in this series (JJ Barea and Jason Kidd) and one guard who is never quiet (Jason Terry). Barea, after absolutely destroying the Los Angeles Lakers, has suffered the flattering notion of being the defensive focus of Oklahoma City and Miami when he enters the game. No longer is he an after-thought. To beat Dallas, you have to keep Barea under wraps. But, in Game 5, Rick Carlisle continued to show faith in him and gave him significant minutes to put his stamp on the contest. And he delivered in huge fashion. A 17-point performance and a 14-point 2nd half that was vital to the victory. Barea seemingly has unshakeable confidence in himself (which seems like a recurring characteristic of your 2011 Mavericks) and he picked a great time to dominate.

Meanwhile, Jason Kidd played his 100th game of the season last night, and had gone since May 23rd since he had scored in double digits. His Game 4 was 0 points, 3 assists, and 4 turnovers and when games like that happen and your point guard is 38 years old, your natural reaction is to simply wonder if he has hit the wall. Especially given his defensive responsibility to chase Wade and James around. In the pregame, many felt that Kidd would have to have 2 more big efforts in his season for the Mavericks to complete their mission. Well, his Game 5 was a thing of beauty, as he buried a 3-pointer that brought the roof down with 1:26 left to go to make the score 105-100. With time ticking down and clinging to a 2-point lead, he took dead aim and did what you thought he would do at the most important juncture. He delivered with 13 points, 6 assists, and just 3 turnovers, and showed his tank is not empty.

And finally, the guard who is never quiet. The guy who felt some premonition that resulted in tattooing the NBA trophy on his arm before this season started. The guy who constantly make people cringe because of his bold claims to the media that may anger an opponent at just the wrong time. If anyone has confidence that borders on irrational confidence, it is Jason Terry. Those of us who have never done what he has done cannot process how he does what he does, and how many of his shots that seem to be poor shots still go in. He is often a target of ridicule when those shots don't fall. But through it all, he never stops believing that his next shot is going in. So there he is - after a week of verbally challenging one of the best defenders of all-time to stop him - knocking down the dagger right in James' face with :33.3 to play. To suggest that he earned the right to extend his Jet arms in celebration might be an understatement. In a night of unforgettable moments, that one might be the signature memory.

That is what makes you fall in love with this team. In Game 4, a game they had to win, it was Chandler, Marion, and Stevenson stepping up. In Game 5, another game they had to win if they wanted to win it all, it was Terry, Kidd, and Barea. Of course, the constant in all of this is the superb efforts they continue to receive from their leader, Dirk. Dirk's dunk with 2:45 to play gave the Mavericks a lead they would never surrender, and his 29 points led all scorers yet again. But, this team is getting to where it is going based on having a group of guys who are seizing the moment. This is the ultimate basketball test. Can a team with contributions from all sectors strike down an opponent largely built on a few dominant players? In a sport where we have been taught that the victor has the best singular players, are we seeing the team concept re-emerge at the finish line of the 2011 season?

We won't know until these two combatants reunite in Miami. And, both teams are still in a great position to end this series with a happy ending. But, I assume you can find plenty of Heat discourse by simply turning on any radio or tv station. So, instead, once again, I want to focus on what this could mean for Dallas.

I am reminded this morning by a colleague that in 1993-94, in the midst of the Cowboys' Super Bowl dynasty runs, the Mavericks were limping to a 13 win regular season. That season put Dallas in a position to draft a guard, named Jason Kidd. Comparing that to a post-season where the Mavericks have 15 wins in the playoffs shows you how far this journey has come.

And every winner has people jump on the bandwagon, but the reason this story means so much to so many is because they did not jump on the wagon. Oh, sure, maybe it took Mark Cuban to buy the team and a young German star like Dirk Nowitzki to capture their imagination, but for a decade and more, this fan base has been spending every spring enduring playoff-pain. Don't get me wrong, making the playoffs each year is nice, but when it ends in a painful defeat, the disappointment mounts.

In 2001, Dirk lost a tooth and the team lost to San Antonio. In 2002, the Mavericks bowed out to the Kings. In 2003, it was all the way to the Western Finals before Dirk's health and Steve Kerr's shooting took them down at the hands of the Spurs again. IN 2004, it was the Kings again. In 2005, Steve Nash and the Suns punched Dallas in the stomach. In 2006, it was Miami with maybe the most gutting ending of them all. In 2007, the humiliation of losing to Don Nelson and Golden State. In 2008, Chris Paul threw lobs to Tyson Chandler as New Orleans celebrated. In 2009, it was Denver. In 2010, it was back to a defeat to San Antonio.

As one reader points out, "you need the sour, to appreciate the sweet". Upstart organizations that go right to the title without ever enduring heart-breaks don't feel the same. But, this Mavericks team - its superstar, its owner, and its fanbase - is very familiar with pain and disappointment.

And yet, here they are. With only 48 minutes separating them from the end of the rainbow. The course of this franchise is going to change forever in Miami, one way or another. Either they will win their first ever title that will rival any sports fairy tale this city has ever seen, or they will suffer a disappointment that will send this city into a serious funk.

The stakes are high. The tears are forming. The nerves are shot. This thing is not over by any stretch, but this franchise has never been closer. You just know the Mavericks would play the next game right now if the league would allow it. They know their opponent is on the run and is starting to question itself.

How are we ever going to wait until Sunday to see what happens next?


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