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Monday, June 13, 2011

Dallas' Lone Star Outshines Miami's Three Stars in the Clutch

The first line of Dirk Nowitzki's Hall of Fame biography now reads, "2011 NBA Champion/2011 NBA Finals MVP." Nowitzki slew the ghost of Dallas' 2006 NBA Finals collapse and silenced any whispers about his alleged shortcomings by authoring a great playoff run capped by an excellent NBA Finals and punctuated by yet another clutch fourth quarter performance in the Dallas Mavericks' championship-clinching 105-95 game six win over the Miami Heat. Nowitzki scored 21 points and grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds--leading both teams with 10 points and four rebounds in the final stanza--as the Mavericks claimed the first championship in franchise history. Nowitzki earned the NBA Finals MVP by averaging 26.0 ppg, 9.7 rpg and 2.0 apg while shooting .416 from the field, .368 from three point range and a mind boggling .978 (45-46) from the free throw line but those numbers do not fully explain or properly quantify the way that Nowitzki controlled the series, particularly his repeated fourth quarter dominance in one of the most closely contested championship battles in NBA history; three of the six games were not decided until the final buzzer and Dallas won two of those contests as a direct result of Nowitzki's clutch play. Nowitzki totaled 62 fourth quarter points during the series, duplicating the combined output of Miami's LeBron James and Dwyane Wade; Nowitzki shot 18-35 from the field (.514) and 24-24 from the free throw line in those pivotal fourth quarters, while James and Wade shot 23-50 from the field (.460) and 11-14 from the free throw line (.786). The Mavericks are just the fourth team with one current All-Star to win a Finals series against a team with three current All-Stars (the 1994 Rockets, 1989 Pistons, 1975 Warriors and 1951 Royals are the other teams whose lone star outdueled an opposing trio of stars). The NBA has historically been a star-driven league and generally the team with the most star power prevails; ironically, when current Dallas Coach Rick Carlisle was a TV analyst he mentioned a formula for identifying contending teams (three All-Stars or two legit MVP candidates) that would have favored the Heat over the Mavs in this series.

Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant are very different players stylistically and are described very differently by most media members, so the following comparison will not likely be mentioned anywhere else but Nowitzki's 2011 NBA Finals performance is eerily similar to Bryant's 2010 NBA Finals performance; not only are their overall numbers very comparable (Bryant averaged 28.6 ppg, 8.0 rpg and 3.9 apg in the 2010 NBA Finals while shooting .405 from the field, .319 from three point range and .883 from the free throw line) but Nowitzki's 2011 game six closeout performance echoes Bryant's 2010 game seven closeout performance; both players shot poorly early as they tried so hard to carry their teams to victory and both players tallied 10 points and four rebounds in the fourth quarter to push their teams over the top. Some pundits tried to use Bryant's early game seven shooting struggles as an excuse to pump up Pau Gasol as a Finals MVP candidate but no such outcry was heard in favor of Dallas' Jason Terry even though Terry outshot Nowitzki from the field and from three point range during the series and even though Terry outscored (27-21) and outshot (11-16 versus 9-27) Nowitzki in game six; I mention this not to tout Terry as a legit Finals MVP candidate but rather to point out how inconsistent, biased and just plain ignorant so many of the NBA's beat writers/columnists/analysts are. It is correct to praise Nowitzki's fourth quarter performance in game six but it is also correct to praise Bryant's identical fourth quarter performance in game seven last year--when Bryant's team faced elimination, a fate that the Mavericks did not have to worry about just yet--instead of creating fairy tales about Gasol or Ron Artest being serious Finals MVP candidates (J.J. Barea had at least as much of an impact on this year's Finals as Artest did last year but no one in his right mind would say that Barea is a legit Finals MVP candidate).

Nowitzki's fourth quarter dominance provides some interesting data to consider regarding the ongoing debate about clutch play/clutch shots. I think that clutch shooting percentages are overrated due to sample size issues and the arbitrary definitions of clutch time that are used when compiling those statistics; Nowitzki's performance in the 2011 Finals supports my contention that it is far more important to be a clutch player than to hit arbitrarily defined clutch shots: a good portion of Nowitzki's clutch play during that series did not fit into the parameters that "stat gurus" use to define clutch shots (the two most common definitions that I have seen are shots made in the final five minutes when the margin is five points or less and "last second shots" that are, in fact, often little more than desperation heaves). For instance, none of Nowitzki's 10 fourth quarter points in game six would be defined as clutch shots according to "stat gurus," yet anyone who watched the game with understanding realizes that Nowitzki's 5-8 field goal shooting in the final 12 minutes played a major role in sealing the deal for the Mavericks.

The media focused on the challenges that the Miami Heat faced--including injuries to Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem and the self-inflicted backlash from "The Decision"--but the Mavericks overcame a season-ending injury to starting small forward Caron Butler and an injury to backup center Brendan Haywood that impacted Dallas' rotation of bigs during the Finals in addition to vanquishing three high quality playoff opponents prior to conquering the favored Heat in the Finals: Portland--the proverbial "team nobody wants to face"--the two-time defending champion L.A. Lakers and the young upstarts from Oklahoma City. The Mavericks are a true team in every sense of the word: they play hard, they play smart, they share the ball, they are tough-minded and they are very focused. Jason Kidd sets a tone of unselfishness, toughness and intelligence, running the offense to perfection while being an underrated defender, while Tyson Chandler anchors the defense in the paint, sets good screens and contributes hustle points. Jason Terry combines with Dirk Nowitzki to form a lethal one-two fourth quarter scoring punch and J.J. Barea dissects opposing defenses with his quickness, heart and shooting touch.

While the Heat supposedly established the paradigm for future contenders by assembling a trio of stars, the Mavericks built their squad around one star who stayed loyal to his original team; perhaps Dirk Nowitzki, Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant--three confident yet humble stars who each have no desire to abandon their current squad to build a power trio with another team--will combine to lead Dallas, Chicago and Oklahoma City respectively to the multiple titles that the Heat (and their media sycophants) celebrated prior to the 2010-11 season.

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It is very important to praise Nowitzki and the Mavericks for everything they did right along the way to achieving their ultimate goal, because the mainstream media narrative about this series will likely focus not so much on praising the winners but rather on critiquing the losers; even worse, those critiques will likely be completely divorced from reality (a pattern established early on when various pundits created myths about LeBron James being Dwyane Wade's sidekick and when some "stat gurus" suggested that any team pairing James and Wade would be unstoppable regardless of the supporting cast surrounding those two stars). The Heat shined the spotlight on themselves the moment that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joined forces with perhaps the gaudiest championship coronation that ever preceded actually winning a championship. Of all the stupid things LeBron James has said and done in the past year, the most egregious by far was when he declared--during that tacky preseason championship celebration--that once he and Wade got on the court together winning would be "easy." Winning a championship is never easy and expressing the idea that it would be easy reveals a lot about James' mindset and also explains why the game's most talented player so often comes up short in the biggest moments. A person who expects winning to be easy will often fail to play hard and neglect to do the "little" things that are, in fact, not so little at all; in game six alone, James missed three free throws, committed six turnovers and--most importantly--did not play with the all-out hustle and desire that the Mavericks exuded throughout the series.

A person's character--both his strengths and weaknesses--is revealed under pressure: James is a talented frontrunner who does not play hard all of the time; he has a sense of entitlement and a belief that things will be given to him without him putting forth 100% effort. The term "quit" has been used a lot in reference to James ever since his puzzling and disgraceful performance versus Boston in game five of the 2010 playoffs and James' advocates attempt to rebut that criticism by claiming that James' numbers--particularly his rebounding totals--prove that he did not quit; I cannot speak for other who accuse James of quitting but my observation about James is that his effort level waxes and wanes far more than any other superstar player I have ever seen: within a series and even at times within the same game it is clearly evident that sometimes James plays with a lot of energy and effort but on other occasions James drifts listlessly around the court. The James we saw versus Boston in game five last year and versus Dallas in game four this year looks like a totally different player than the James who absolutely smothered Derrick Rose in this year's Eastern Conference Finals; we know how well and how hard James is capable of playing, so it is very evident when he is not giving forth maximum effort.

Wade's effort level is much more consistently high than James' is but, make no mistake about it, James is Miami's best player--James proved this throughout the regular season and in the first three rounds of the playoffs; it is precisely when James ceased performing like Miami's best player that the Heat fell apart, losing the last three games of the Finals after taking a 2-1 lead. James is one of 56 players who played in the NBA Finals after averaging at least 25 ppg during the regular season; he is the 27th of those players whose scoring average went down in the Finals but his average declined by more (8.9 ppg) than anyone else's. James is not injured and the Heat did not suddenly retool their offense, so how else can one explain James' disappearing act except to state the obvious fact that he simply does not play hard all of the time?

The idea--propounded by Brian Windhorst and others--that James became fatigued from logging heavy minutes is just a poor excuse. Michael Jordan averaged at least 40.5 mpg in each of his 13 playoff seasons and he averaged between 41.7 mpg and 45.7 mpg during his six NBA Finals appearances; Scottie Pippen averaged at least 39.6 mpg in each of the six playoff campaigns that culminated in Chicago championships, topping 40 mpg in four of those runs. Kobe Bryant averaged more than 40 mpg in the playoffs in four of his five championship seasons, including 43.4 mpg in 2001 and 43.8 mpg in 2002. Playing heavy minutes and carrying a very heavy burden in multiple statistical categories comes with the territory of being an MVP level player on a championship team. That is why it was so idiotic to say that James "had" to leave a deep Cleveland team so that he could win a title and why it was so stupid to suggest that it would be "easy" for him to win multiple titles in Miami. Great players--whether they are on deep teams, talented teams or teams that are blessed with both depth and talent (in 2008 I explained the difference between being a deep team and being a talented team)--must play 40-plus mpg while being very productive and efficient in order to win a championship. Nowitzki averaged 40.3 mpg during the 2011 Finals and 39.3 mpg over the course of the entire playoffs.

Mike Wilbon insists that LeBron James is the most scrutinized NBA player ever--but Wilbon is old enough to know better. What about Wilt Chamberlain, whose feats--and perceived failures--were covered in great detail from the time that he played for Overbrook High School? What about Michael Jordan, who was repeatedly criticized for being too selfish to win a championship? What about Kobe Bryant, whose possession by possession decision making is subjected to ludicrous amateur psychoanalysis?

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Although understandable emphasis is placed on what happens late in a contest--the fourth quarter of a game, the seventh game of a series--history shows that game one winners ultimately capture a series over 80% of the time. My series preview concluded, "The Heat prance and preen and strut too much for my taste but they also play ferocious defense and they relentlessly attack the hoop in the transition game--and those latter two characteristics are why they will emerge as the 2011 NBA champions." Through the first three games of the series, that prediction seemed quite prescient as the Heat triumphed 92-84 in game one, narrowly lost game two 95-93 and then reclaimed homecourt advantage with an 88-86 game three victory. However, even though the Heat seemed to be in command there were some signs foreshadowing Miami's eventual collapse. Game two was rich with both irony and karma: the irony came early, while the karma arrived late (but just in time). James declared to his teammates in a pregame huddle that if they were not exhausted after the game then they had not played hard enough; it would have been ironic if ABC had immediately cut to footage of James quitting versus Boston in the 2010 playoffs. What are James' teammates thinking when a player who has become synonymous with quitting exhorts them to play hard?

After Dwyane Wade hit a right corner three pointer at the 7:13 mark of the fourth quarter to give Miami an 88-73 lead it seemed like the Heat were poised to take a 2-0 series lead. Naturally (for them), Wade and James celebrated this momentous occasion by acting as if they had just broken Bill Russell's record by winning their 12th NBA championship. The Mavericks then called a timeout and proceeded to outscore the Heat 22-5 to close out the game; except for an egregiously boneheaded defensive lapse by Jason Terry--who left Mario Chalmers wide open for a three pointer when the Mavs were up 93-90 with :24 left--the Mavericks completely outhustled and outexecuted the Heat down the stretch, capped off by Nowitzki scoring Dallas' final nine points while James and Wade combined to miss their final seven field goal attempts. Some Dallas players dismissed the idea that the celebratory antics of James and Wade motivated the Mavericks--and James and Wade haughtily refused to acknowledge the possibility at all--but Jason Terry and Tyson Chandler admitted that they did not appreciate how James and Wade carried on in front of Dallas' bench. While James and Wade are correct that many NBA players celebrate after made shots, the reason that people focused on this particular celebration is because the Heat have become infamous for brazenly displaying this kind of attitude, starting with the aforementioned overblown preseason celebration in which James declared that the Heat would win at least seven championships.

In a March 7 article titled Stumbling Heat Once Again Falter in the Clutch, I referred to the Heat's "clown car" offense, describing the way that their half court offense--particularly in crunch time situations--resembles clowns piling out of a car at a circus. That "clown car" offense returned with a vengeance down the stretch in game two and was prominently featured in the fourth quarter throughout the series. Watching James and Wade run the "clown car" offense provided a flashback to what happened when they played for Team USA on the bronze medal winning squad in the 2004 Olympics and when they "led" Team USA to a bronze medal in the 2006 FIBA World Championship; Team USA only returned to gold medal status in FIBA play when Kobe Bryant joined the roster as a defensive stopper (Bryant also sealed the deal as Team USA's crunch time scorer during the gold medal game versus Spain). It was hilarious to watch James and Wade be totally confounded by Dallas' zone defense in the NBA Finals--much like their Team USA squads were totally confounded by the zone defenses used against them by some FIBA teams. A major reason that Nowitzki came up bigger in the clutch than James and Wade is that Nowitzki is a more complete all-around scorer than his Miami counterparts--Nowitzki can post up or face up, his range is unlimited, he can drive in either direction, he can finish with either hand and he is a deadly free throw shooter but James and Wade do not like to post up, their shooting outside of the paint is erratic and their free throw shooting even at their best is not exceptional (during the Finals both players misfired badly from the charity stripe--.600 for James, .694 for Wade).

The turning point of the series took place in game four when Nowitzki overcame a 100-plus degree fever and scored 10 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter--including a driving layup that put the Mavs up 84-81 with 14.4 seconds remaining--as Dallas tied the series at 2-2. It is no coincidence that the momentum shifted precisely during the first game in this series when James clearly quit (an accusation I base not on numbers but on observable effort level at both ends of the court); after game four, some media members threw around words like "disengaged" and "disinterested" and "detached" to describe James' performance but those terms are just fancy ways to avoid bluntly speaking the truth: James is the most talented player in the NBA, there is nothing wrong with him physically and he quit during a pivotal playoff game. It was funny to hear Jon Barry--who must be the most incompetent NBA analyst who ever actually played in the NBA--declare that if James were still a Cavalier then we would know to expect a big performance from him in game five but that because James now plays for the more talented Heat it was not clear what he would do. Apparently, Barry forgot that James quit versus Boston in game five last year--but Magic Johnson did not let Barry (or James) off the hook, declaring, "I'm sorry, I can't go with that. I can't go with that. I played with two Hall of Famers myself and I didn't say, 'I've got to worry about what Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) is going to do. I've got to worry about what James (Worthy) is going to do.' I came out to dominate if it was a big game and we needed to win that game. He's got to come out with that type of mindset. Let Wade play his game. Let Bosh play his game. He's got to deliver. That's why he signed with Miami. He signed to win the championship. He wanted that pressure. Well, guess what--the pressure's on you. So deliver."

All of the deserved criticism James received for quitting in game four should not obscure the reality that even though Wade played hard throughout the contest he did not distinguish himself in the clutch, missing a key free throw at the :30.1 mark of the fourth quarter that could have tied the score at 81 and then fumbling a pass when he was the first option to attempt a potentially tying three pointer on the game's final possession. Neither miscue should be surprising--Wade is not a great free throw shooter and he has a tendency to be careless with the ball (during his career, Wade turns the ball over 20% more frequently than Kobe Bryant on a per minute basis). It seems like many people have forgotten that before LeBron James became Miami's best player this season Wade's Heat failed to win a single playoff series from 2007-2010.

Game four also included perhaps the most important of the many great coaching moves made by Rick Carlisle during this series; he replaced DeShawn Stevenson in the starting lineup with J.J. Barea, enabling Barea to go head to head with the defensively challenged Mike Bibby instead of facing Mario Chalmers. Barea was a non-factor in the first three games of the series but he played a key role in the final three games of the series; Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra finally countered Carlisle's move by putting Chalmers in the starting lineup for game six but by that time Barea was rolling and Chalmers could not slow him down.

Despite James quitting and the Heat collapsing in game four, the Heat were still in great position to win the championship: the heavyweight bout had been condensed to a best of three rounds fight--and if the Heat won the pivotal game five in Dallas they would have two opportunities at home to close out the series. Legends are made when championships are at stake and James supposedly came to Miami precisely for such moments but when the chips were down Nowitzki was the best player on the court while James compiled some decent boxscore numbers (17 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) but had no impact on the game's outcome at either end of the court: Dallas shredded Miami's vaunted defense--shooting 13-19 from three point range, just one short of tying the Finals record for most three pointers in one game (a mark set by both Orlando and Houston during the 1995 Finals)--while James and Wade shot 2-12 on field goal attempts from 15 feet or more. People can spin numbers and tell stories a lot of different ways but the truth is that neither James nor Wade is a reliable, consistent shooter outside of the paint--not on midrange jumpers, not on free throws and not on three pointers. Elite level competition tends to reveal one's flaws--James and Wade don't need to make those kinds of shots to lead the Heat to a lot of regular season victories but the ability to connect from outside of the paint is vital to loosen up an elite team's defense; that is what Kobe Bryant did throughout the Lakers' recent reign as three-time Western Conference champions/two-time NBA champions, including a masterful performance to close out the Spurs in the 2008 Western Conference Finals and a similarly brilliant effort to close out the Suns in the 2010 Western Conference Finals. A player who can operate out of a triple threat position with the ability to shoot, pass or drive greatly impacts an opposing defense; James and Wade are great drivers and excellent passers but they are streaky shooters. During the fourth quarters of the 2011 Finals we repeatedly saw Miami defenders helpless to stop Nowitzki because of his ability to shoot, pass and drive and we repeatedly saw that James and Wade could not deliver in the clutch because their inability to consistently make shots outside of the paint made it easier to defend them (Wade excelled in the 2006 Finals because the Mavericks bailed him out by fouling him and he made them pay by hitting his free throws but this time around the Mavericks played excellent defense without fouling). James and Wade are virtually unstoppable in the open court but neither one holds a candle to Bryant (or Nowitzki) in a half court set against an elite defensive team.

I don't know how badly Wade hurt his hip in game five but it sure looked strange when he fell out on the sideline like he had been shot by a sniper, then returned to the game playing like nothing was wrong, then sat out the first part of the second half and then again played like nothing was wrong. Joakim Noah said it best: the Heat are "Hollywood as hell." We saw it last year with LeBron James' elbow boo boo (the infamous alleged injury that never showed up on an MRI and never needed any treatment after the season) and we saw it back in 2007 when Dwyane Wade needed wheelchair assistance for a shoulder injury (an interesting sidenote in light of the debate about the relative values of James and Wade is that in 2007 I boldly predicted after Wade's injury that the team would not miss him nearly as much as most pundits suggested and I was 100% correct--the Heat moved up in the standings despite the shoulder injury that prevented Wade from walking). Needless to say, James and Wade are the last players in the NBA who should have been caught on camera mocking Nowitzki's cough--Nowitzki not only played through two obvious, legitimate physical ailments (a torn tendon on the middle finger of his left hand and the sinus infection that caused the aforementioned cough) but he repeatedly outperformed James and Wade in the clutch.

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In March I predicted that Chris Bosh and Erik Spoelstra "are positioned to be the two primary scapegoats if the team falls short of expectations." Erik Spoelstra did a very good job coaching the Heat; he installed a high energy defense to take advantage of his team's athleticism and he deftly managed the oversize egos/sensitive psyches inhabiting Miami's locker room. What exactly is Spoelstra supposed to do about the fact that his best player randomly stops playing hard for no apparent reason?

I have documented on many occasions that Bosh's pre-Miami resume dwarfs Pau Gasol's pre-L.A.resume and that Bosh's skill set is no worse than Gasol's. It is bizarre that the media not only blames Bosh so frequently when Miami loses but that the media brazenly mocks Bosh's manhood by suggesting that Miami's "Big Three" are really "Two and a Half Men." When the Lakers lose, Kobe Bryant is often criticized for supposedly not involving Gasol in the offense--despite the obvious fact that Gasol often hides from the ball and does not play with an appropriate level of aggressiveness. Bosh averaged 24.0 ppg in 2009-10 and he attempted 8.4 free throws a game (his fifth straight season averaging at least 8.0 FTA, a figure that Gasol has never reached during his NBA career) so it is patently false to assert that he is passive or that he does not have the ability to score in the paint. Why do we never hear Mike Wilbon, Jon Barry or other so-called experts ever say that the Heat should utilize Bosh's skills in the half court set? The James-Wade "clown car" offense frequently reduced Bosh to a glorified Horace Grant role as a weakside offensive rebounder/spot up shooter despite the fact that Bosh has demonstrated that he is capable of doing so much more than that.

This season not only exposed James' and Wade's flaws but it also clearly revealed the limitations of "advanced basketball statistics" and--with the marked contrast between how the media covers the Bryant/Gasol dynamic versus the James/Wade/Bosh dynamic--it showcased the ignorance, bias and hypocrisy that characterize much of the mainstream media's NBA coverage.

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After Dallas won the series, Rick Carlisle graciously praised the Heat and said that their time will come but I don't think that hubris combined with lack of effort and lack of attention to detail has ever been or will ever be a recipe for winning a championship, let alone for creating a historic dynasty. Nearly everything broke right for the Heat this season--Boston, Orlando, L.A. and San Antonio all faded from title contention just as the Heat hit their collective stride--but the Heat failed to win the title. I fully realize that the Heat could still eventually win multiple championships but their fans/sycophants/admirers should realize that it is also possible that 2011 represented the Heat's best opportunity to be a champion. It is obvious that LeBron James has the potential to be one of the greatest players ever and that he is fully capable of leading a team to a championship--but unless and until he changes his mindset he will continue to be not King James but rather a self-proclaimed king who has no legitimate crown.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:19 PM

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