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Monday, June 19, 2006

Wade's Clutch Free Throws Put Miami One Win Away From the Championship

Dwyane Wade hit two free throws with 1.9 seconds left in overtime to lift the Miami Heat to a 101-100 game five win over the Dallas Mavericks. Wade shot only 11-28 from the field but he finished with a playoff career-high 43 points on the strength of his 21 free throws, a Finals single game record. Wade shot 5-17 from the field and scored 22 points in the first three quarters before erupting for 21 points on 6-11 shooting in the fourth quarter and overtime. Shaquille O'Neal contributed 18 points and 12 rebounds; James Posey was the only other Heat player to score in double figures (10 points). Dallas also had only three double figure scorers: Jason Terry (35 points), Josh Howard (25 points and 10 rebounds) and Dirk Nowitzki (20 points and eight rebounds). Nowitzki now holds the record for most free throws made in one postseason but he only made four (in five attempts), while Wade's 21-25 effort from the charity stripe exactly matched the Mavericks' team totals in both categories. As Dallas Coach Avery Johnson said after the game, it is tough to win when one player shoots as many free throws as your whole team.

Miami's bench outscored Dallas' 23-12, in no small part because Dallas' best reserve, Jerry Stackhouse, was suspended because of his flagrant foul against O'Neal in game four. Stackhouse was not ejected by the game officials but was suspended when the league office reviewed the play. Dallas probably wishes that the league office could review the last foul on Wade, because it appeared to be a phantom foul. Wade always goes sprawling when he drives to the hoop, so when I first saw the play I thought that he had been fouled. Upon further review (as they say in the NFL), there was little if any contact. ESPN's Paul Silas flatly said that Wade was not fouled and other ESPN commentators (Greg Anthony, Tim Legler and Scottie Pippen--who was whistled for a phantom foul on Hubert Davis in game five of Bulls-Knicks series in 1994, a call so bad that one of the officials on the court at the time later publicly admitted that it was a mistake) also disagreed with the call.

Howard had a great game, but he will wear the goat's horns in the end because he missed two free throws with 54 seconds remaining in overtime and Dallas leading 98-97. Then, he made an ill-advised timeout call with 1.9 seconds remaining. Wade had just made his first free throw to tie the game. Dallas had one timeout left, which Johnson wanted to use after Wade's second attempt. Instead, Howard apparently asked the officials for a timeout before Wade's second free throw and the officials granted it. I say apparently because Johnson vehemently insisted that he was signaling to his team to call the timeout after the second shot. It certainly makes no sense to use your last timeout before the second shot, because you forfeit the chance to advance the ball and lose any realistic opportunity to get off a good shot. After the game, crew chief Joe Crawford issued a brief statement saying that Howard twice asked for a timeout and that the officials had no choice but to grant it. The fact that he even issued a statement indicates that this was an unusual situation. Clearly, there was a communication breakdown among Johnson, Howard and the officials.

While the game ended with a lot of drama and some controversy, it began rather routinely. The Mavericks got off to a good start, seemingly putting the memory of their game three and game four losses behind them. Dallas led 11-5 with 7:39 remaining in the first quarter but the Heat answered with a 10-0 run and led 24-21 at the end of the period. Nowitzki (8 points) and Howard (6 points) scored 14 of Dallas' 21 points.

Wade gave no indication in the first half that he would end up having such a memorable performance. He only had 13 points on 3-13 shooting from the field in the first half and Dallas led 51-43. Terry and Howard each had 19 points in the first half and they combined to score 27 of Dallas' 30 second quarter points as Miami focused its defense on holding Nowitzki in check.

The Mavericks came out strongly in the third quarter, as they have in most of the games in the series, and pushed the lead to 63-51 with 5:31 remaining. The thing that has been befuddling about this series is that the Mavericks have two offensive sets that produce open shots almost every time that they run them but Dallas seems to go away from these plays down the stretch. During the ABC telecasts, Hubie Brown has repeatedly mentioned that Dallas needs to keep Terry involved and that he can take Gary Payton or Jason Williams off the dribble, with or without a screen. That is one good set for Dallas; the other is running Nowitzki off of screens so that he catches the ball with the defender on the move; that lessens the physical contact that is applied to Nowitzki. Except for forcing a 24 second violation with 1:52 remaining in regulation, the Heat have not shown the ability to stop either of these plays. Expect Dallas to be more dedicated to running these sets at home and more efficient in executing them.

While most people will focus on Wade's heroics and some of the things that happened at the end of the game, I look at how Dallas closed the third quarter. The Mavericks led 71-60 with 2:10 remaining after Terry hit an 18 foot jump shot. On Dallas' next possession, D.J. Mbenga set a moving screen; Hubie Brown correctly noted that Terry has been getting open on the play so easily that there is no need for Mbenga to even think about moving on the screen. Then Marquis Daniels missed a wild running shot; on the next possession he committed an offensive foul. Dallas could have taken the last shot of the period, but Harris forced a rushed attempt, giving Miami the chance to attempt a long three as time ran out. Meanwhile, when Miami had the ball in the last 2:10 Wade made two jump shots and James Posey hit a three-pointer, cutting Dallas' lead to 71-67. TNT's Doug Collins always talks about the importance of closing quarters in a strong fashion; the Mavericks closed the third quarter like a race car running out of gas or a boxer who is spent--the focus, concentration and discipline that are necessary to win these kinds of games were not there in that critical strech.

Wade hit a jump shot less than one minute into the fourth quarter to give the Heat their first lead of the second half. Neither team led by more than five points for the rest of the game. There were several plays that seemed like they might turn out to be the play of the game, only to be superseded by a bigger play a moment later. Dallas went to the "Hack-a-Shaq" strategy with just under five minutes to go in regulation and O'Neal only made 1 of 4 free throws before Heat Coach Pat Riley took him out of the game; Riley put him back in with less than 2 minutes remaining, when away from the play fouls such as the "Hack-a-Shaq" result in one free and retaining possession of the ball. Terry hit a jumper to put Dallas up 83-79, but Gary Payton immediately responded with a three-pointer. Terry answered with an old fashioned three point play when Payton fouled him on a running jumper. Wade and Howard each hit a pair of free throws but then Wade scored Miami's last nine points in the final 2:25 of regulation, including a running bank shot with less than two seconds left to send the game to overtime. Just a few seconds earlier, Erick Dampier dunked off of a beautiful feed by Nowitzki to put Dallas up 93-91. Any one of those free throws or shots could have potentially been game winning plays, but they all get kind of lost in the wash since the game went to an extra session.

The overtime was closely contested, with neither team leading by more than two. Dampier made one of two free throws with 1:41 remaining to put Dallas up 98-97 and neither team scored again until Payton hit a left handed layup that bounced high off of the backboard with 29 seconds left. Nowitzki hit a tough fadeaway jumper with nine seconds remaining to put Dallas up 100-99 and set the stage for Wade's final heroics.

I picked Dallas to win this series in six games. Obviously, that will not happen--but I still think that the Mavericks will win the series. It has been a homecourt series so far and Dallas is perfectly capable of winning games six and seven at home. This is a team that overcame a 2-0 deficit to beat Houston in last year's playoffs and a team that eliminated the defending champion San Antonio Spurs on the road in a seventh game this year. Dallas does not need to make any major adjustments. Stackhouse will be back for game six, so the Mavericks will have some additional firepower. Games three and five were right there for the taking, so if the Mavericks play the same way on Tuesday there is every reason to believe that their role players will perform better in Dallas and that Miami's role players will perform worse. The two areas for concern for Dallas in this series have been rebounding and finishing out the fourth quarter strongly. Dallas won the battle of the boards in game five and will likely do so at home. Dallas' tentative and at times inept fourth quarter play cost the team dearly in games three and five. If the Mavericks can shore that up then the championship is there for the taking.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:24 AM


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At Monday, June 19, 2006 12:08:00 PM, Blogger alternaviews said...

Dallas has the better team, but...

the NBA tends to try to push the more marketable team to the championship. Shaq, Wade, and Pat Riley are far more marketable than any Mavs -- and Wade jerseys alone will probably outsell Mavs jerseys if Miami wins. Hence the Stackhouse suspension and the phantom foul call that sent Wade to the line. Miami is in good shape to win this thing. (Now 14 of last 17 NBA Finals games have gone to home team, but I don't see it going to 16 of 19.)

Who knew that I'd win the Wade/Kobe debate due to ON-COURT performance? Which is more impressive, winning a few championships with in-his-prime Shaq, where you benefit from all of the attention that he draws, or a title run with older Shaq, who can't even buy a free throw? Right now, Wade and Kobe have the same number of NBA Finals MVP awards, but that will change, if Miami wins another game in this series. Even if Dallas prevails in this series, Wade has solidified his spot as a clutch performer, who deserves to be mentioned in discussions of the league's best player.

At Monday, June 19, 2006 3:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

My take on Wade and LeBron versus Kobe is that until Wade and LeBron have playoff and Finals performances on par with Kobe's that Kobe has to be given the edge. This was LeBron's first year in the playoffs and his performance raised my estimation of him as a player--not that I didn't think that he was great before or even that I didn't think that he would do well in the playoffs, but seeing is believing. I picked the Cavs to beat Washington in six and even described before the series the type of games that I thought LeBron would put up in games five and six to close out the series. Of course, LeBron has still not played in the Finals but he and the Cavs appear to be on the right course.

Wade played well in his previous playoff runs but had not yet made it to the Finals. This year he and the Heat overcame that hurdle and he has been great, particularly in the games in Miami. There are some things about his game I don't like-- all the falling down and the way he goes for low percentage steals in the backcourt, which lead to scoring opportunities for the other team; he did this at least three times in yesterday's game and the only steal he got came on a horrible pass that bounced off of Terry's head. When he gets steals or blocks they are of a spectacular nature but he is not such a great one-on-one defender. Still, based on these last few Finals games I would agree now that he has to be placed in the same discussion with Kobe. That said...Miami has not won the championship nor have the Heat won a game in Dallas in quite some time. As I said last year when everyone was dogging Duncan in the middle of the Finals, let's wait until the series is over before we pronounce definitive judgements. There is still an opportunity for Dirk to be the series MVP and for Dallas to win the title. Also, even if Miami wins, Kobe still has three titles to Wade's one, although I realize that in that case Wade would have a Finals MVP and his performance would be considered greater than Kobe's for the reasons that you mentioned.

At Monday, June 19, 2006 8:44:00 PM, Blogger alternaviews said...

Dirk is weird. Watching him in Game 7 in San Antonio, I thought he was the truth -- one of the top superstars in the league. And then I watched Game 4 in Miami -- and that brought back memories of regular season games in which Bruce Bowen frustrated Dirk. And then I wondered why he made the free throws look so easy in San Antonio in Game 7, and yet he has missed some very clutch ones in Miami. I don't see him as a lock for Finals MVP, even in Dallas wins. I think Terry could get it. Or someone else who steps up and wins Games 6 & 7 for Dallas. But I have no idea what to really make of Dirk at this point.

On a similar note, Duncan is not that clutch -- I don't think he was fully vindicated in last year's finals. Ginobli & Parker were big reasons for the Spurs' win last year.

At Monday, June 19, 2006 10:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Dirk is a great player and that is why Miami is focusing so much of their defense on stopping him. That creates opportunities for Terry and others, who deserve credit for making shots and making plays--but it is clear that Miami's primary focus is making sure that Dirk does not beat them. Of course, all great players face that kind of defense and the legends are the ones who either singlehandedly beat the defense or create opportunities for their teammates. In the last game, Dirk made a Bird-like pass to Dampier for a dunk on a key possession, punishing Shaq for double-teaming him. Then Dirk hit an amazing fadeaway that would have been the game-winner if not for Wade's two free throws and the timeout fiasco. If Wade's free throws bounced out, people would be looking at Dirk differently. That is why I say that we can't write the story of this Finals or these players until all the games are over, because who ultimately wins is the biggest single part of the story--fairly or unfairly.

If Dallas wins then I think that Dirk will be the Finals MVP, for two reasons: (1) Dallas will not win unless he plays very well in games six and seven and those games will be freshest in the voters' minds; (2) When a team wins a championship, their biggest star is almost always selected as the Finals MVP, even if someone else on the team had a very strong performance. Rodman could easily have been the Finals MVP in '96 and Pippen had a strong case in '97--remember Jordan saying something like he'd keep the trophy and give Pippen the car?--but MJ won the Finals MVP all six years. Terry has never even been an All-Star and, off the top of my head, I believe that the only two non-All-Stars to win Finals MVPs were Dumars and Billups (who both later became All-Stars).

As for Duncan, like all great players who have been in big games, he has had some clutch moments and some not so clutch moments--but the overall verdict on his "clutchness" has to be positive. I wrote about his game seven performance in one of my early posts here (June 24, 2005 if you want to check the archives).

Here is a brief quote from what I wrote then:

"Tim Duncan, nicknamed "The Big Fundamental" by Shaquille O'Neal, joined an elite group--Michael Jordan (six), Magic Johnson (three) and O'Neal (three)-- by capturing his third NBA Finals MVP award after the Spurs defeated the Detroit Pistons 81-74 (the Finals MVP was first handed out in 1969, otherwise 11-time champion Bill Russell and recently deceased five-time champion George Mikan would undoubtedly be on this list as well). Duncan scored 25 points and grabbed 11 rebounds and was particularly dominant in the second half, producing 17 of the Spurs' 43 second half points...

With three championships, three Finals MVPs, two regular season MVPs and eight All-NBA First Team selections in his first eight seasons, Tim Duncan has built a resume that matches up with the greatest players of all-time and he has a strong claim to being the greatest power forward in the history of the game."

At Tuesday, June 20, 2006 1:56:00 PM, Anonymous Jarrett said...

Do you think that the league is in a tough position now that Dwyane Wade is showing signs of elite greatness?

I'm sure that they thought LeBron would be the new marketing machine, and I'm not sure that they can't pump both. But, with their two teams so far apart in terms of regularly competing for the Eastern Conference Final, do they now find themselves in a position to choose one?

At Tuesday, June 20, 2006 3:11:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I don't believe that there is a direct correlation between marketability and playoff success; otherwise, we would hear a lot less about Kevin Garnett and a lot more about Tim Duncan. Also, the Cavaliers made big strides this year, so it is a bit premature to assume that the Heat will always be advancing further in the playoffs than they do. I think that the NBA would like to move away from the idea of one star driving the league's marketing and to sell the idea that there is a wave of new, young stars in the league--LeBron, Wade, Yao and others.


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