Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Heat Is On

Moving on quickly from the Stanley Cup finals, it's time to get back in the swing of the NBA Championship round, which resumes in Dallas tonight. To recap for those who haven't been following, the Western Conference champion Dallas Mavericks won the first two at home, but then the Miami Heat roared back to take the next three at home. Now, as the series shifts back west, the Larry O'Brien Trophy will be in the building (doesn't have the same ring, does it?), as Miami attempts to close this series out by becoming the first team in this series to win a game on the road.

The series has not been without controversy. The final seconds of overtime in Game 5 were marred by a 'questionable' foul on the Mavs for hitting Dwyane Wade on his way to the basket. Compounding problems was a timeout that Mavs forward Josh Howard allegedly called right before Wade's second free throw attempt (he hit both to give the Heat the lead), which left the Mavs out of timeouts and unable to advance the ball to half-court. Unsurprisingly, the controversial foul call drew the ire of Mavs owner Mark Cuban, who was fined for his post-game actions.

For what it's worth, I was watching the game with another hardcore basketball fan, and neither of us doubted the call. I was unaware of any controversy (or the fact that the back judge called the foul) until I heard about it on ESPN Radio yesterday afternoon, and read the news coverage online today. If Wade was getting the benefit of the doubt at all throughout the game, it was because he had been consistently drawing the Mavs into fouling him for 53 minutes. In fact, I am shocked that by the end of the game, only Devin Harris seemed to have caught on to his 'pump fake, draw the defender into the air, then jump and hurtle into him while simulating a shooting motion' routine which drew about 90% of the fouls called.

A few more things that jumped out at me from Game 5:

• The fact that Shaq is no longer a dominant player was never more evident than when Pat Riley sat him with 2:30 to play, on account of his free throw struggles. It was the right move, and as gutsy a coaching call as I've seen in any sport this year, but I couldn't help but be a bit saddened to see it. As a late convert to the Shaq bandwagon (I couldn't cheer for him during his peak years since he played for the evil Los Angeles Lakers), I had hoped that he could squeeze out a few more years of domination in Miami. That's clearly not going to happen. I think he knew it too, as he had a look of frustration/disappointment/resignation on his face as he sat on the bench for a minute of game play. It was the look of someone realizing they have limitations that they didn't when they were younger (I imagine my dad made this face when his doctor told him he had to stop eating corned beef on account of his cholesterol levels).

• Though neither Jason Terry nor Devin Harris play like a true point, I was impressed by how well Dallas was moving the ball around. More than the traditional-style basketball team that has the point guard setting table, they reminded me more of the more skilled hockey teams (such as the Detroit Red Wings or the, ugh, Carolina Hurricanes) - they were constantly moving and cycling the puck/ball between their five-man units. How much do you think Atlanta regrets getting rid of Terry? With his speed and shooting ability, he'd be perfect in their system, where other players like Joe Johnson can also handle the rock.

• Can Jason Williams and Antoine Walker go one game without throwing up a brick from beyond the three-point line? Even when he's no longer a Celtic, 'Twan still manages to frustrate me.

• Was anyone else shocked that, after DeSagana Diop fouled out with 5 or so to play, the Heat didn't come back and have Shaq go at Dampier (playing with 5 fouls) until he took him out of the game. Yes, the Diesel was about 2 for 20 from the line at that point, but I can't understand not trying to take their other center out of the game. The Dwyane Wade show worked out in the end, but I can't help but think that we wouldn't have gone down to the wire if Dallas had to guard Shaq with either DJ Mbenga (who would have entered with 4 fouls) or Keith Van Horn. On the other hand, scroll back up three paragraphs, and that might explain why they didn't do it. Still, it's like taking out a rook in chess. When you have the chance to knock an important piece of a team out of the game, you have to do it.

Though I'm cheering for the Heat, mostly because of Shaq (how can you hate anyone who produces this and these?), I would also enjoy a Mavs win. They have been an entertaining team to watch throughout these playoffs. With that being said, I don't share Bill Simmons' doomsday scenario for the NBA if Miami wins. I don't think a Miami win would set the the league back. Most people can recognize that D-Wade is special, and very few players on the planet could do what he's doing. Saying that teams like G-State and New Jersey will mimic their gameplan is as unfounded as saying that, in light of the Pistons' success, teams are going to move away from the one or two superstar and supporting cast concept in favor of a collective group that emphasizes grittiness, physical play, and defense. The fact that players like VC, Jason Richardson, and Starbury have never led their teams to within a whiff of the championship should be enough to discourage the trend towards this style of play that Simmons thinks will happen if Miami wins. Frankly, any sensible person can see the problems with it. If Bill's scenario does happen, he has the owners to blame for continuing to employ clueless front office and coaching staffs.

Here are the keys to tonight's game:

• I called James Posey the key to winning Game 5 for the Heat, and while it turned out to be the D-Wade show that did the trick, I think he's going to have to step up big at some point tonight or Thursday (if it goes 7), especially if Haslem and Walker get in foul trouble once again.

• Dallas needs to stop biting on Dwayne Wade's pump-fake routine that keeps netting him easy points from the free throw line. They need to force him to actually take (and make) shots from beyond 15 feet.

• Shaq needs to hit at least 50% of his free throws.

• At least two of Dirk, Jason Terry, and Josh Howard need to be in the 25-30 point range.

• Miami can't count on getting the same calls as Sunday night, especially after the public outcry of the past couple of days so they need to find different ways of creating offense, whether it comes from Wade or someone else.

Based on the stat I heard on the radio yesterday - that since the 1979 Pirates won the World Series, home teams in the World Series, Stanley Cup, and NBA championship series are 18-0 in Game Sevens, I'm saying that the Heat have to close it out tonight. They can't let the Mavs get back in this thing, or they're not breaking the trend.

Since I predicted the Heat in 6 back at the start of the finals, I'll say they do it tonight. And while I picked Shaq for the MVP award, I don't think there's any doubt who will get it if Miami wins.

Enjoy the game, it should be a great one.


At 10:16 PM, Anonymous J.R. said...

Good call.

Amazing how much better this season's final (not "Finals") was without the boring Spurs and Pistons in the mix.

I actually watched the fourth quarters of more than two games this year.

Back-to-back nights with first time champions in subpar sports markets.

At 11:09 PM, Blogger Alex said...

Agreed on the much improved final. I really enjoyed the playoffs this year. The Spurs should be around for a while, but hopefully the Pistons will get eclipsed by some of the younger, more dynamic Eastern teams asap. I'd love to see some of the wide-open play we saw this season keep up in the coming years.


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