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Monday, June 12, 2006

"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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At Monday, June 12, 2006 8:41:00 AM, Blogger illest said...

This looks like a sweep, David.

Im tired of hearing about Wade to. I dont know who said Wade is heroic but hes losing so how heroic is it. The difference is the Mavs are just shutting off the middle when he drives. The other teams the Heat played in the playoffs didnt do that.

Shaquille is old and tired and its showing. Of course he cant run to get to the spot to avoid the double-team. You always seem to mention Bryant's name. Thats ok. You know that when Shaq says that about Wade he is just trying to alleviate any pressure on Wade. Shaq needs to call Rick Barry.

At Monday, June 12, 2006 8:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

It does look like a sweep, but I want to see the first six minutes of game three. How energized will Miami be at home and how well will Dallas' role players play on the road? Sweeps are pretty rare in the NBA Finals, so I am still inclined to believe that Miami will win a game at home. That said, what has happened so far does not surprise me at all (well, Shaq scoring only five points is a little surprising); Dallas is simply the better team. I am still more surprised that Miami beat New Jersey and Detroit than I am that Dallas is completely outclassing them so far.

Does saying that Wade is better than Kobe take pressure off of Wade or add it? I guess since most members of the media refuse to criticize Wade no matter what that it doesn't matter.

It's hard to not think of Kobe or bring him up when Shaq is involved because their careers are inextricably linked. There is no way around it. Ten years from now the main thing that we are going to look at regarding them is if Shaq won a title without Kobe and/or if Kobe won a title without Shaq. Winning a championship requires talent, timing and health--individually and collectively--so it is possible that neither player will win another title. However, from the day that Shaq left L.A. for Miami I have maintained that Kobe has a better chance of winning one more ring than Shaq does. Granted, Shaq has a much better chance of winning a ring in the next couple weeks than Kobe does but if the Heat don't win four of the next five games they may not see another NBA Finals for a long time.

At Tuesday, June 13, 2006 11:39:00 AM, Blogger illest said...

It is hard to bring up one name without the other.
Very true the Heat definitely need to win the next four or five. They need to win the next four.

I dont know if thats Shaquille's intention or not. Wade is not Bryant, but that stat that Wade first three playoff years scoring is the best is impressive. I think thats the stat.

At Tuesday, June 13, 2006 2:16:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I didn't say that the Heat need to win four OR five. I said that they need to win four OF the next five--assuming the series lasts that long, of course.

Wade has scored more points in his first three postseasons than anyone in NBA history. That is impressive but it is important to remember that the NBA playoffs have expanded several times over the years in terms of the number of series and the number of games in series (most recently, the first round went from best of five to best of seven). Wade's accomplishment reflects his greatness but also the fact that he has been on teams that have played in a lot of playoff games. I'm sure that his playoff scoring average to this point is lower than most, if not all, of the previous leaders in this category.


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