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In Dallas, they shout in triumph. In Chicago, they sigh with relief. In Boston, they mock with schadenfreude. In Miami, they stare silently in disbelief. And in Cleveland, they laugh and laugh and laugh.
All because the Miami Heat lost the NBA Finals… in six games… on their home court.
The Miami Heat practically cruised through the Eastern Conference. They overwhelmed the 76ers. They outlasted the Celtics. They rattled the Bulls. Then they faced the Mavericks, and it all went to hell.
Who’s to blame for this failure? Certainly Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki deserves a measure of credit, with his 26 points and nearly 10 rebounds per game. Throw in shooting guard Jason Terry’s 18 points per game while you’re at it.
Nowitzki’s chief defender was Chris Bosh, a member of the vaunted Big Three. Bosh basically matched his regular-season production (18.7 points, 8.3 rebounds per game) in the Finals, averaging 18.5 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. His numbers were actually slightly better than LeBron James‘ (17.8 points, 7.2 rebounds per game), so it’s hard to lay the blame at Bosh’s feet. He played about as well as he could; Nowitzki is simply a better power forward.
The NBA Finals format also is at least partially responsible for the Heat’s demise. Its 2-3-2 format makes defending home-court more important than in the 2-2-1-1-1 format in the Stanley Cup finals. If you split the first four games in a 2-3-2, the pivotal fifth game is played on the road instead of at home like in a 2-2-1-1-1. If the home team loses either of its first two games, that team has every chance of coming back home for Game 6 down 3-2. Therefore, it is critical that you defend home-court, because you’re probably not going to win two of the middle-three road games.
The Heat failed to defend home court, splitting the first two games, and the Mavericks took care of business at American Airlines Center by winning two. That put Miami on its heals, and the team crumbled under the pressure.
The turning point in the series was Game 2. The Heat held a 15-point lead with 7:13 left in the fourth quarter. They decided that lead was insurmountable and decided to change the game’s tempo. The Heat sacrificed their quick, slashing, foul-drawing offense for a half-court game. It ate up clock time, but it also over-emphasized passing, which led to turnovers, and jump-shots, which led to misses and easy Dallas rebounds.
The Heat gave up on Game 2 far too prematurely, and it cost them the game and home-court. Had Miami held on to win that game, Dallas would have been under tremendous pressure to win all three home games, something they knew was unlikely. It’s only happened twice since the NBA instituted the 2-3-2 format for the 1985 NBA Finals.
By losing Game 2, Miami also lost its aura of invincibility. Their seemingly unparalleled ability to close out games – either through physical conditioning or focus and mental stability – suddenly seemed rather pedestrian. Take a look at these fourth-quarter numbers (winning team in parenthesis):
Game 6 was different in that the Mavericks entered the fourth quarter with a nine-point lead and basically traded baskets with the Heat the entire quarter. In the middle four games, however, Dallas was clearly the better team down the stretch. Nowitzki is too experienced a player, too cold-blooded a shooter, to get rattled the way the Bulls did. The rest of the Mavericks were young enough to maintain their defensive intensity for 48 minutes, something the Celtics couldn’t do.
The Heat couldn’t outlast the Mavericks, and losing Game 2 cost them their swagger and their dominating image.
Heat fans can’t blame Bosh for doing exactly as well as he did in the regular season. Nor can they blame Dwyane Wade, whose 26.5 points and seven boards per game essentially canceled out Nowitzki’s production. One could fall back to cliches about the lack of a point guard, center or bench, but Miami’s point guards averaged 16.3 combined points per game, and the bench averaged 22. Those numbers should be enough when your team has two of the best scorers in the NBA on the court.
Center Joel Anthony, who averaged less than two points per game, may want to forget these Finals ever happened, but he was the only true center on the Heat.
So that just leaves James. The Heat’s inability to end games dovetails perfectly with James’ fourth-quarter production. Or, more specifically, his lack of fourth-quarter production. James averaged just three fourth-quarter points in the NBA Finals, putting up a donut in Game 5 and failing to hit a field goal in Game 3. His best fourth quarter was in Game 6, where he scored seven points.
James is a capable three-point and jump-shooter, but his true strength lies in his aggressiveness and brute strength. James is most dangerous barreling through the paint, because he can absorb contact without losing concentration, often sinking the basket while still drawing a foul.
In these NBA Finals, however, James inexplicably gave up that strategy. In the process, he gave up a chance at a ring.