20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Reaction to Stackhouse's Suspension

John Jackson of the Chicago Sun-Times does not believe that Jerry Stackhouse should have been suspended:

O'Neal was going in for an uncontested layup on a fast break. Stackhouse's job was to foul O'Neal hard enough to ensure he wouldn't be able to convert the layup for a potential three-point play.

How else do you do that against a 7-1, 325-pound giant except with great -- perhaps even excessive -- force?


When I watched the game the thought never even occurred to me that Stackhouse might be suspended. ABC's Mike Breen and Hubie Brown never even brought up that possibility and in their remarks after the game players and coaches from both teams downplayed the severity of the incident. The first time I heard anyone talk about Stackhouse being suspended was during Sportscenter. I don't believe that ESPN influenced what happened--it's just strange that in the immediate aftermath of the foul that no one seemed to be thinking that Stackhouse would or should be suspended. ESPN's Tim Legler said that the foul looked worse each time he watched a replay. I guess flagrant fouls, like beauty, are in the eyes of the beholder, because I have seen the play several times and it looked the same to me each time--Stackhouse tried to make sure that Shaq would not score and would have to shoot two free throws. Stackhouse's play may have been a bit overexuberant perhaps, but when Shaq is driving to the hoop uncontested and Stackhouse is bearing down on him full speed it is hard to precisely measure the force that one applies. James Posey's foul on Kirk Hinrich earlier in the playoffs was much worse; Hinrich was in the middle of the floor, was not in a scoring position and Posey just leveled him with a cross body check without even making a pretense of going after the ball. Stackhouse at least attempted to go for the ball, even if Shaq's size and the angle of the play made it difficult for him to reach the ball. Posey was only suspended for one game. Either he should have received a stiffer punishment or Stackhouse should have gotten a lighter one.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:28 PM

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Friday, June 16, 2006

Jerry Stackhouse Suspended for Game Five of the Finals

Jerry Stackhouse has been suspended without pay for game five of the NBA Finals. Stackhouse's foul against Shaquille O'Neal in game four has been upgraded from a Flagrant Foul One to a Flagrant Foul Two.

I suppose that this ruling is consistent with decisions that the NBA made earlier in the playoffs and this season. Certainly, it is a good thing that the NBA is doing everything it can to minimize violence, a far cry from the farce that is the NHL, whose officials skate in circles while players beat each other to a pulp. The decisiveness of the NBA sets it apart from Major League Baseball, which still has not punished Michael Barrett for the punch he threw several weeks ago.

Still, those of us who remember the NBA of 20-plus years ago--or have seen a lot of old games on ESPN Classic or NBA TV--have to wonder what kind of suspension that Kevin McHale would receive today for his clothesline against Kurt Rambis in the 1984 NBA Finals. Shaq said that his little girls hit him harder than Stackhouse did; if Stackhouse's foul is worthy of a one game suspension--and perhaps it is, although I did not think so watching the game live--McHale's assault on Rambis would now garner a lifetime ban. It is interesting that so many people attribute the rise in physicality in the NBA to the Detroit Pistons' Bad Boys teams of the late '80s and early '90s, because those teams were built to withstand the rugged play of the Celtics. Boston was a very physical team, going all the way back to M.L. Carr undercutting Dr. J in the 1980 playoffs, their very rugged play against the 76ers in the last three games of the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals and the aforementioned McHale-Rambis play. Robert Parish also coldcocked Detroit's Bill Laimbeer once, although many would say that his action had been provoked. Those Boston teams are much more remembered for their brilliance and finesse than for their physicality, but brute force was without question a big part of their success. The Pistons also played with brilliance and finesse--Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Vinnie Johnson, Adrian Dantley (and then Mark Aguirre) all played with great artistry--but they will forever be known as thugs. I guess the old rule still applies--if you are going to hit someone, hit first, because the retaliator always gets caught. Boston hit first in the 1980s, but Detroit's retaliation is what sticks out in people's minds.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:29 PM

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Sweltering Heat: Miami Routs Dallas 98-74, Ties the Finals at 2-2

Dwyane Wade had another marvelous game, scoring 36 points on 13-23 shooting from the field, and the Miami Heat tied their NBA Finals series with the Dallas Mavericks 2-2 with a 98-74 win. Miami held Dallas to seven fourth quarter points, a record low for any quarter in the NBA Finals. Shaquille O'Neal contributed 17 points, 13 rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots and James Posey had an excellent game off of the bench with 15 points, 10 rebounds and his usual strong defense. Jason Terry led Dallas with 17 points and Dirk Nowitzki and Jerry Stackhouse each scored 16. Terry shot 8-18 from the field but the rest of the Mavericks shot a horrendous 17-61 (.279), "led" by Nowitzki (2-14) and Josh Howard (1-8, three points). It is unlikely that Dallas will shoot that badly again in this series but a bigger concern is the team's overall lack of aggressiveness. Miami outrebounded Dallas for the second consecutive game after the Mavericks consistently outrebounded their oppponents throughout the playoffs.

The final result will surely cause a lot of people to say that the Heat built on the momentum of their game three win but Dallas started out the game by making seven of their first 12 shots. There was no indication that blowing a big lead late in game three was affecting the Mavericks at all. Ironically, things started to turn in Miami's favor when Nowitzki drew O'Neal's second foul, forcing the Diesel to the bench for the remainder of the quarter. The Heat outscored the Mavericks 21-14 after that to lead 30-25 at the end of the first quarter. Mindful of his team's slow starts in the previous three games, Dallas Coach Avery Johnson started Devin Harris in place of Adrian Griffin, hoping that a quicker lineup would do a better job of containing Wade but it is fair to say that this adjustment backfired; Wade had 14 first quarter points.

Miami got some separation midway through the second quarter when James Posey and Jason Williams hit consecutive three-pointers to put the Heat up 40-31. Miami led 54-44 at halftime. Wade had 24 points on 9-14 shooting and O'Neal, limited to 14 minutes because of foul trouble, had six points and three rebounds. His backup, Alonzo Mourning, provided a lot of energy: four points, four rebounds, three blocked shots. Nowitzki crawled into double figures (13 points) because of his 8-9 free throw shooting but hit only two of his nine shots from the field.

The third quarter had belonged to Dallas in this series but not in game four. Miami extended the lead to 68-51 by the 7:04 mark. Shortly after that, Williams stole the ball and could have shot an uncontested layup. Instead, he flipped the ball back to O'Neal and Stackhouse delivered a flagrant foul to force O'Neal to make two free throws. Of course, this play will be shown endlessly on TV and overanalyzed to death, but the simple fact is that Stackhouse went after O'Neal aggressively because O'Neal is a poor free throw shooter and if you don't deliver a hard foul then he will dunk you and the ball in the basket. Was it in the back of Stackhouse's mind that earlier in the series O'Neal opened a gash in his nose that required stitches? Only Stackhouse can answer that. Stackhouse went for the block with one hand, but he was so far behind O'Neal and O'Neal is so big that Stackhouse's trailing arm/shoulder delivered a blow to O'Neal's head, sending him careening into the front row. Any foul of that nature is automatically ruled a flagrant foul. After the game, some of the ESPN analysts suggested that Stackhouse might be suspended but I don't think that he will be.

Wade ran over to prevent O'Neal from going after Stackhouse; meanwhile, Antoine Walker got a technical foul for confronting Stackhouse. When the dust settled, Stackhouse made his free throw, O'Neal made both of his and then Wade got fouled and made two free throws on the ensuing possession--so the Heat gained three points and led 72-52. Neither team seemed to get particularly fired up from this sequence. Miami maintained a 15-20 point lead for most of the quarter until a late 8-0 run by Dallas closed the margin to 78-67, putting the Mavericks within striking distance entering the fourth quarter.

Harris' free throw brought Dallas to within 80-70 at the 10:34 mark in the final period, but that was as close as the Mavericks would get, primarily because they missed 10 of their first 11 shots in the quarter. Miami outscored Dallas 20-7 in the fourth quarter, totals which look like they belong in a Dolphins-Cowboys boxscore instead of an NBA Finals boxscore.

Only one home team has swept the middle three games since the NBA Finals went to the 2-3-2 format in 1985. ABC's Mike Breen offered some words of wisdom as the final seconds ticked off of the clock in game four: "Each game takes on a life of its own. You can't overreact to a win or a loss." I liked Dallas in six games at the start of the series, I didn't expect Dallas to sweep the Heat even after the first two games and I still like Dallas in six now.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:40 AM

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Thursday, June 15, 2006

Basketball 101 With Rick Barry

Hall of Famer Rick Barry just appeared for a segment on "NBA TV Insiders" and offered some insights about his playing career and this year's NBA Finals. Here are some of his comments:

--If he could coach only one game in the NBA, he would love to coach against Shaquille O'Neal and the Miami Heat. If a fast break was not available, Barry would instruct his team to run a pick and roll involving O'Neal's man every time down the court. On the weak side, he would have the players setting screens as well. This plan of attack would force O'Neal to show on the pick and roll, which is the weakest part of his game (other than free throws; keep reading for Barry's thoughts about that). The guard would get an open shot every time and, even if he missed, the players on the weak side and the big man setting the screen would have offensive rebounding opportunities. Barry said that the Mavericks blew game three by getting away from pushing the ball and running pick and rolls; of course, that point is familiar to 20 Second Timeout readers.

--Barry started shooting free throws underhanded as a youngster just to get his dad off of his back. He was teased a little bit about the form, but didn't care because it helped him to score more points. Later on, Barry refined the technique and that was when he started shooting over 90% from the free throw line. Barry offered to teach the underhanded free throw technique to Shaq, but Shaq said that he is from the hip-hop generation and could not be seen shooting free throws underhanded. Barry said that Shaq's attitude about this is terrible and that helping your team win is more important than worrying about how you look. Barry said that he does not understand how anyone who shoots less than 80% from the free throw line can live with himself and that it is sad to see a dominant player like Shaq sometimes relegated to the bench at the end of games because of his poor free throw shooting.

--Barry is "in awe" of the athletic abilities of the current generation of NBA players but rues that most of them do not understand how to play in a way to maximize their natural gifts. Barry said that he received a great foundation in the fundamentals of the game from his father, who played semi-pro ball; with a strong foundation you can build a tall skyscraper, but if the foundation is poor then the building will collapse.

--No current NBA team runs the pick and roll as effectively as it can be run. Barry said that screens are set at poor angles; when he played, he wanted the screen to be set from an angle that would allow him to drive to the hoop. Also, before the screen is set, the player with the ball should not use his dribble or establish a pivot foot. That way, the offensive player maximizes his options. Barry declared that even Stockton and Malone did not run the pick and roll to maximum effectiveness.

--Barry can't stand it when offensive players hold the ball over their heads with two hands, telegraphing that they plan to make a pass; they should hold the ball in triple threat position and always pose a threat to shoot, pass or drive. Even if they know from the start that they are going to pass, by keeping the ball in triple threat position they will place defenders on their heels and open up a bigger passing lane. Barry provided some narration over highlights from his career, pointing out that he played very aggressively on offense and attacked the defense. When he came off of a screen with his defender trailing he was ready to shoot; if a teammate was open and had a better shot, then Barry was ready and willing to deliver the pass.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:33 PM

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The Last Night of the ABA

"The Last Night of the ABA" premiered Wednesday night on NBA TV and will be re-aired later this week. If you are old enough to remember the league that featured the red, white and blue ball, do yourself a favor and indulge in some nostalgia by watching the show; if you are too young to remember the ABA, do yourself a favor and make sure that you catch a glimpse of the league that featured the talents of Dr. J, the Iceman, the A-Train and many other great players. It is very special to see the ABA highlights and to hear the players and coaches talk about how much the league still means to them 30 years later.

"The Last Night of the ABA" refers to game six of the 1976 ABA Finals, when Julius Erving's New York Nets--coached by Kevin Loughery--defeated the David Thompson/Dan Issel/Bobby Jones Denver Nuggets--coached by Larry Brown--for the last ABA championship, but the half hour show actually covers a lot more ground than just that game. The viewer learns about Larry Brown, Doug Moe, Julius Erving and Wendell Ladner and gets a glimpse of the heart and spirit that made the ABA so great.

Larry Brown was one of the great playmaking guards in the league before winning the Coach of the Year Award three times in four years. The story of his "odd couple" relationship with Doug Moe is amusing but also touching because of the deep, underlying bond that they share.

I have something in common with Clyde Drexler, Scottie Pippen, Ben Wallace--and millions of other people: Julius Erving was my favorite basketball player as a kid (and still is today). Seeing footage of the young Dr. J doing his "high wire act," as his first pro coach Al Bianchi calls it, is a true basketball fan's version of winning the lottery. At one point, Erving, whose eloquence could make him the poet laureate of the ABA, says, "That was the time when I had the most fun playing basketball. Between age 21 and age 26, I genuinely was empowered with this ability to do anything that I wanted to do on a basketball court and anything that I had ever dreamed of doing."

Ladner's rise from Necaise Crossing to pro basketball is inspiring and his tragic death in a plane crash still brings tears to the eyes of his brother three decades later. Ladner embodied the free-spiritedness of the time in general and the ABA in particular.

I have had the great fortune to interview many of the ABA's legends; you can click on the links to the right of this post and read their stories. If you want a visual reminder of what made the ABA special--or you want to see it for the first time--find out when "The Last Night of the ABA" is being shown in your area and make sure that you watch it. Better yet, tape it or TIVO it; you will want to watch it again.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:51 AM

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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

"Flash" Scores 42, "Superman" Makes Two Free Throws (!) and Miami Wins a Thriller

Dwyane Wade tied his playoff career-high with 42 points and the Miami Heat overcame a 13 point fourth quarter deficit to beat the Dallas Mavericks 98-96. Dallas seemed to be only minutes away from taking a commanding 3-0 series lead but could not stop Wade down the stretch; he scored 15 points in the fourth quarter, including 11 in the closing six minutes. Wade also had a career-high 13 rebounds, two assists, two steals and only one turnover. Shaquille O'Neal had 16 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and two blocked shots. He shot 4-6 from the free throw line but had seven turnovers. Dirk Nowitzki led Dallas with 30 points and also had seven rebounds. Josh Howard (21 points, five rebounds) and Erick Dampier (14 points, nine rebounds) both played strong games, while game three hero Jerry Stackhouse shot 1-9 from the field and only scored four points.

Miami started the game with a lot of energy, hardly surprising considering that this was the Heat's first home game in the series. O'Neal opened the scoring with a nice turnaround jump shot. After he stripped Jason Terry and passed ahead to Jason Williams for a fast break layup, Miami led 11-7 and O'Neal already had four points, two rebounds, two assists and one steal. At the end of the quarter Miami led 29-21; Wade had 13 points, while O'Neal filled up the boxscore with eight points, four rebounds and three assists.

One minute into the second quarter, the Mavericks had made seven field goals and committed seven turnovers. The Heat led 31-21 at that point but several early Miami mistakes kept Dallas in contact. In the first quarter, Wade received a technical foul for hanging on the rim and O'Neal committed a silly foul on a Dampier dunk; in the second quarter, O'Neal fouled Nowitzki on a jump shot and Gary Payton received a technical foul. Dallas made all five free throws that resulted from those plays. There is a tendency to focus on what happens at the end of games but imagine if Miami had lost after basically giving Dallas five free points in the first half. The Heat held on to lead 52-43 at the half. Wade already had 21 points and nine rebounds. O'Neal had 10 points, six rebounds and four assists, while Nowitzki (11 points) and Howard (10 points) led Dallas in scoring.

The Mavericks came out of the locker room firing in the third quarter: Howard made a three-pointer and Nowitzki made a jump shot in the first minute, forcing Heat Coach Pat Riley to call a quick timeout to regroup. It didn't help and the Mavericks took their first lead since the first quarter on Jason Terry's runner with 8:44 remaining. Antoine Walker made two consecutive strong drives to put Miami ahead 60-57 but the Heat faded down the stretch and trailed 77-68 going into the fourth quarter. Dallas outscored Miami 34-16 in the third quarter.

Prior to the start of the fourth quarter, Riley told his team simply, "This is our season." A little over a minute into the period Wade committed his fifth foul after Dampier grabbed an offensive rebound. Riley left Wade in the game, realizing that he could not afford to sit Wade on the bench and give Dallas a chance to pull away. The gamble did not seem to matter when the Mavericks extended the lead to 83-71 at the 8:36 mark.

The Mavericks still led 93-88 with 2:49 remaining, but played very sloppily down the stretch. First, Dallas committed a 24 second violation. Then, Jason Williams missed a jumper for the Heat, but O'Neal shoved Dampier out of the way and corralled the rebound. Naturally, Dallas fouled him to prevent an easy two points. O'Neal made both free throws to pull Miami to within three. Dallas ran down the shot clock but Stackhouse missed a jumper. Wade quickly hit a jumper to pull the Heat within one. Then Jason Terry threw a weak pass to Nowitzki that Udonis Haslem intercepted. Terry fouled Haslem and his two free throws put Miami up 94-93. On the next possession Terry missed a jumper and inexplicably fouled James Posey. Dallas Coach Avery Johnson was quite irate after that, because Dallas was only down one with :47 remaining and did not need to foul. Posey made one free throw but Devin Harris blew by Wade to score a layup and tie the game at 95.

Dallas played good defense on the next Miami possession but Gary Payton pump faked and hit a jump shot with nine seconds left to give Miami a 97-95 lead; Payton had only shot 1-8 from the field in the series prior to that. Dallas called a timeout and Johnson drew up a play for Nowitzki, who drove to the hoop and was fouled by Udonis Haslem. Nowitzki, an exceptional free throw shooter, calmly swished the first free throw but he missed the second and immediately fouled Wade. Wade also made one of two, so Dallas was able to call a timeout with one second left. Nowitzki lobbed the inbounds pass toward the rim, a cutting Howard elevated to attempt a dunk but Wade jumped a little higher and broke up the play as time expired.

So has the momentum of the series turned? Is Dallas now in trouble? Here are a couple things to consider:

(1) The Mavericks' collapse in this game is reminiscent of their 121-118 loss to the Phoenix Suns in game one of that series; Dallas had a 114-105 lead with 3:43 to go in that contest. The Mavericks were so devastated by that setback that they won four of the next five games.

(2) Wade probably played the best game of his life, Dallas had a complete meltdown in the final six minutes and Miami barely escaped with a two point win. If the Heat do this two more times in Miami they still will have to win a game in Dallas. Also, O'Neal had a very good first quarter but then was a complete non-factor for the rest of the game until he hit the two big free throws.

Miami may very well win the next game but I doubt that the Heat will go back to Dallas with a 3-2 lead. Just like Dallas' two strong wins did not convince me that the Mavericks would win in a sweep, Miami's victory in game three does not convince me that the Heat are completely back in the series. All game three showed is why there have been very few sweeps in NBA Finals history.

The Mavericks surrendered most of their large game two lead before holding on to win and squandered a 13 point lead in game three. What happened in both games is that Dallas took command by pushing the ball up the court and exposing Miami's lack of foot speed, poor perimeter defense and inability to guard the pick and roll. Then, after getting a lead, Dallas tried to slow the game down and run time off of the shot clock. If the Mavericks have a fourth quarter lead in game four they should forget about running time off of the clock and just play their game. Miami has no answer for the speed of Dallas' perimeter players and looked completely helpless in the third quarter when the Dallas perimeter players drove straight into the heart of the Heat's defense. The shot clock violation that the Mavericks committed when they were up five should have never happened--either run the right sideline pick and roll with Terry or have Harris take his man off of the dribble and Dallas can get a wide open shot at any time. What Dallas did at the end of the game is the equivalent of an NFL team playing a prevent defense and, as the saying goes, the only thing a prevent defense does is prevent you from winning. The Mavericks have the better, deeper and quicker team and should be playing aggressively to win, not holding on for dear life trying not to lose.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:51 AM

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Monday, June 12, 2006

There is No Reaction Like Overreaction

Irving Berlin's famous song declared "There's No Business Like Show Business." In terms of writing about the NBA Finals, there is no reaction like overreaction. My favorite part of the NBA Finals is actually watching the games. There is pre-game hype, in-game hype and post-game hype; I enjoy all of that as well, but the game's the thing--how the players respond to championship level pressure and how the coaches make adjustments from game to game, quarter to quarter and possession to possession. My second favorite part of the NBA Finals is seeing how people who either don't follow the games closely--or don't understand what they are watching--base their predictions for the remaining games in the series entirely on the most recent game.

Check out these two stories, written by the same author:

Get Set for a Long NBA Finals

Heat Talking Better Than They Play

In the wake of game one--which Dallas won despite the fact that the Mavericks' two best players shot 7-28 from the field--the author decides that Dallas and Miami are very evenly matched. Then, Dallas beats Miami even more convincingly in game two and this author writes, "Give the Miami Heat credit--at least they talk a good game. They sure haven't played one yet." What happened in game one? I thought that was the contest that proved that the teams are evenly matched. Did Miami play so poorly in game two that it changed the Heat's statistics from game one?

The reality is that Dallas has a deeper, younger and more energetic team. That is why Dallas won the first two games. Sweeps are rare in the NBA Finals, so even though Miami is overmatched and will likely lose this series it would not be shocking for the Heat to win one or even two games at home. The 1996 Chicago Bulls went 72-10, stormed through the playoffs and took a 3-0 Finals lead before finally defeating Seattle 4-2. An injury to Ron Harper had something to do with Chicago losing those two games but the point is that you could not necessarily predict the outcome of a particular game in that series based on what happened in the previous game. The better team will almost always win a seven game series--barring a serious injury to a key player--but unless one team completely outclasses the other the result of one game does not necessarily foreshadow what will happen in the next game. I'm not sure what will happen in game three--but if Miami wins I can virtually guarantee that there will be an AP headline that reads something like this: "Heat Melt Mavs: Big Trouble for Dallas as Miami Masters the Mavericks." Then the writer will tell his readers that Heat Coach Pat Riley has completely outcoached Mavericks Coach Avery Johnson and that even though Dallas still leads 2-1 that it is hard to see what changes Dallas can make to cope with the Heat's adjustments.

posted by David Friedman @ 9:11 PM

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"Lack-A-Shaq": Dallas Shuts Down the Diesel and Takes a 2-0 Lead

The Dallas Mavericks held Shaquille O'Neal to a career playoff-low 5 points en route to an impressive 99-85 game two victory. Dallas led by as much as 27 in the second half but a furious fourth quarter run brought the Heat to within 12 points. Dirk Nowitzki led Dallas with 26 points and 16 rebounds. Jerry Stackhouse scored 19 points, Jason Terry had 16 and Josh Howard added 15. Erick Dampier outscored and outrebounded O'Neal, finishing with 6 points and 13 rebounds. Dwyane Wade led Miami with 23 points but he shot only 6-19 from the field and had four turnovers. Antoine Walker was the Heat's most consistent player, scoring 20 points on 8-16 shooting from the field. He added four rebounds and two assists and could be seen imploring his teammates to not give up even when they trailed by more than 20 points; perhaps he was recalling his participation in the biggest comeback in playoff history when Boston rallied from a 21 point fourth quarter deficit to defeat the New Jersey Nets in game three of the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals.

All anyone could talk about before the game was that O'Neal was going to attempt a ton of shots and have a big game. The Heat ran 23 seconds off of the shot clock on their first possession before O'Neal scored and was fouled. O'Neal missed the free throw, drew a lane violation and missed that free throw as well. It seemed like the perfect beginning for Miami: slow the game down, score and draw a foul. Incredibly, O'Neal did not make another field goal until the 3:06 mark in the second quarter. He finished the game shooting 2-5 from the field and 1-7 from the free throw line while grabbing six rebounds, passing for two assists and having no blocked shots. O'Neal did not play in the fourth quarter but he was a complete non-factor for the first three quarters and the Heat trailed 74-49 when he went to the bench. ABC's halftime graphic said it all: "Lack-A-Shaq," followed by a chart showing that O'Neal had 15 points, seven rebounds and three turnovers while shooting 1-10 from the free throw line in the previous four quarters of play. O'Neal's wallet is also $10,000 lighter because he did not show up for the mandatory post-game media availability (the Heat were fined an additional $25,000).

The Heat made just 2 of their first 10 field goal attempts but only trailed 14-7 because Dallas committed several careless turnovers. Dallas led 18-17 at the end of the first quarter. Early in the second quarter, ABC commentator Hubie Brown said, "We're seeing shoddy play at both ends of the floor"--specifically, low shooting percentages and a high number of turnovers. Miami kept the game close for most of the quarter until Stackhouse scored ten straight points in the final 1:19 to push Dallas' lead to 50-34. Stackhouse made three three-pointers, capping off the second one with the seventh four-point play in Finals history by drawing Wade's third foul. Wade complained so much about the call that he received a technical foul, but Nowitzki missed the free throw. O'Neal had 4 points on 2-3 field goal shooting at the half, while Wade had 7 points on 2-7 field goal shooting. This was the complete opposite of what happened in the Miami-Detroit series, when Detroit came up with an amazing defensive plan that allowed O'Neal, Wade and the Heat role players to all put up good numbers (usually the idea is to either shut down the stars and make the others beat you or not do any double-teaming and prevent the role players from contributing); Dallas succeeded in shutting down Miami's two best players while not getting burned by anybody else.

Nowitzki hit a mid-range jumper to start the third period and the rout was on. Josh Howard converted the eighth four-point play in Finals history (note to Miami for game three--don't foul jump shooters) and Dallas led 59-40 with 9:32 remaining. Brown observed, "All of their (Dallas') perimeter people can put the ball on the floor, attack you and get to the rim." This leads to high percentage shots for the Mavericks and foul trouble for the Heat. I will never understand why New Jersey and Detroit did not attack Miami this way, because Dallas is exposing all of the Heat's defensive weaknesses; there is a reason that Miami struggled to beat quality teams for most of the regular season--the mystery is why the Nets and Pistons abandoned the proven method for defeating Miami. Another problem for the Heat is the bruised shoulder suffered by Udonis Haslem. The Heat's starting power forward played only two minutes in the second half before the injury forced him to the bench. His status for the next game is questionable.

The Heat outscored the Mavericks 27-17 in the fourth quarter to make the final margin somewhat respectable, but the outcome was never seriously in doubt in the second half. It is certainly possible that the Heat will win two or three games in Miami and turn this into a competitive series--but the blithe statement that the Mavericks "just did what they are supposed to do" by winning the first two at home is not quite correct. Only two teams have come back from an 0-2 deficit in Finals history--the 1969 Boston Celtics and the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers. On 25 other occasions the team that went up 2-0 won the series. That statistic and the clear superiority that Dallas has displayed in depth, quickness and intensity do not bode well for Miami's chances. If Dallas can withstand the high energy that Miami will surely have in the first few minutes in game three, this could be a very short series.

This series has historical significance on many levels. Either Nowitzki or Wade will win his first NBA championship. O'Neal would like to win a title without Kobe Bryant and Heat Coach Pat Riley is trying to win his first championship since he helmed the Showtime Lakers. These storylines make it very interesting to look at some of what is being said--and what is not being said.

O'Neal has stated that Riley is the best coach that he has had. Riley has won four championships as a coach and, in any case, O'Neal can hardly be expected to say anything else while he is playing for him (he could have said nothing, but that only seems to happen after he scores 5 points in a Finals game...). When Phil Jackson coached O'Neal with the Lakers he made sure that opponents could not effectively double-team O'Neal by instructing him to sprint down the middle of the court, get to the front of the rim and turn around. The Lakers then immediately passed O'Neal the ball and he made quick hitting moves. If he was double-teamed then he picked apart the defense by either passing to a cutter slashing to the rim or an open three-point shooter. Under previous regimes, O'Neal camped out on the left block (like he is doing now), making it easy to double-team him while setting up a defensive rotation to make sure that only a non-shooter is left open. The keys to Jackson's alternative approach are O'Neal sprinting up the court, the proper spacing of his teammates to exploit double-teams and the ability to deliver good entry passes to O'Neal. This type of adjustment may not work for Riley because it is possible that none of these factors apply to the current Heat team: O'Neal may no longer be able to sprint up the court and get good post position in the middle of the lane and his teammates do not seem to understand proper spacing or how to make good entry passes. Still, if the Heat are going to pay O'Neal $20 million and he is going to insist that he is still a dominant player, one has to wonder why O'Neal had so many more offensive opportunities when he was coached by Jackson and playing alongside Kobe Bryant than he does now. Two pictures summarized game two: O'Neal practically begging for the ball in one frame and then O'Neal having a completely chagrined look on his face when the entry pass never came.

As for Miami's younger star, am I the only person who is sick of hearing about Wade's sinus infection? The old school theory used to be that if you are injured you cannot play and if you can play then you are not injured. At this time of year everybody is playing hurt (which is not the same as being injured--Amare Stoudemire is injured). Josh Howard has banged up fingers, Jerry Stackhouse looks like he lost to Bernard Hopkins courtesy of an inadvertent O'Neal elbow and DeSagana Diop is guarding O'Neal without a face mask despite suffering a broken nose earlier in the playoffs. Which would you rather do--play with the sniffles, or place your face in close proximity to O'Neal's elbows when you already have a broken nose? I don't mean to minimize whatever Wade is going through and I don't pretend to know exactly what kind of physical condition he is in right now but I can guarantee you that he is no worse off than several other players in the series. It's like the media are searching for reasons to not criticize Wade's play. The simple fact is that he does not seem to be limited physically. He is making poor decisions in terms of shot selection and has been very careless with the ball, at one point dribbling the ball off of his foot and out of bounds while facing no defensive pressure. Wade is one of the brightest rising young stars in the league but I don't understand why he is seemingly immune to criticism. Nowitzki always gets hammered for his defense and for being soft; Kobe Bryant--don't even get me started there. Lots of guys have gotten IVs before games or even at halftime of games, so I don't understand why every time Wade throws up an off balance shot we hear about how he is still suffering from the effects of his sinus infection. This reminds me of a famous chess grandmaster who said that he never beat a healthy opponent--everyone who lost to him claimed to be suffering from some malady.

I'll throw a few names out there and you can be the judge of where Wade's ailment ranks historically: Jack Youngblood played in a Super Bowl with a broken leg; Wilt Chamberlain won the 1972 Finals MVP despite playing with a broken wrist; Kirk Gibson hit a World Series home run despite barely being able to trot around the bases; Isiah Thomas scored a Finals record 25 points in a quarter despite a severely sprained ankle; Terrell Davis played in a Super Bowl despite a migraine attack that was so bad that he could barely see. Speaking of migraines, Scottie Pippen is still criticized for his performance in a playoff game versus Detroit when he was suffering from a severe migraine. He later played an essential role on six championship teams but seemingly cannot shake the "stigma" of that one game. Why are Wade's struggles heroic but Pippen's not? Yes, I know that Wade's numbers in these two games are better than Pippen's were in the contest in question but that is not the point; both players functioned at less than optimum efficiency due to physical ailments but one is being praised and the other still receives criticism even after "redeeming" himself six times over.

To put it a different way, John Elway's four Super Bowl losses have been mentioned a lot less frequently after he closed his career by winning two titles. What it all comes down to is this: some athletes are more beloved and their careers are covered in a more favorable light. This is no different than the whole flap about Kobe Bryant shooting only three times in a half. Since then we have seen LeBron James and Steve Nash have similar halves. I don't think that Bryant, James or Nash deserved criticism for the games in question and I think that this is a difficult series for O'Neal and Wade because they are facing a better team, one that is deeper, younger and faster. There are things that Wade could be doing better but even if he does them the Heat may still lose the series. I just wish that the next time O'Neal says something about Wade being better than the "other guy" (he never mentions Bryant by name) that someone would be honest enough to point out that what O'Neal and Wade have done to this point does not equal the three championships won by O'Neal and Bryant. As Billy Joel once sang, "Honesty is such a lonely word."

posted by David Friedman @ 12:51 AM

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