You'll never believe it, but this mess really does come down to effort.
At some point, you've become one player out of 450, playing on one team out of 30. If your team is above average, you're in the playoffs and amongst one team out of 16. Then things whittle down, and the bracket shortens, and you might be part of two teams at the very end. And by that time, unless you're part of the 2003 New Jersey Nets, you're more or less evenly matched with your Finals counterparts. And though there might be disparate rosters at battle with completely different execution expectations, to say nothing of size, age or attack disparities, there really isn't much that sets you apart.
Save for effort. And in Thursday's Game 2, the Finals showcased unending effort from both Dallas and Miami for the first 42 minutes of play. It didn't matter who was winning, because both teams were giving their all, and any lead or advantage just fell in the laps of those who were luckiest with those caroms that bounced either the right or wrong way. It was thrilling, if unnerving, to watch.
Over the last six minutes of Game 2, though, Miami's effort was lacking. Not because these guys are spoiled, lazy sods bent on ruining the NBA for the next decade. No, it was because it's tough to play at a fever pitch while ahead. It's tough to bring that same level of determination that a five-point deficit demands when you're up eight points. Or 12 points. Or 15 points. The Heat's panache disappeared, and I can't blame them. They were up 15 with half a quarter to go, and they fell apart. Pile on me for using clichés, but they played not to lose, rather than playing to win.
The Mavericks? They had no such pressure. They ignored Mario Chalmers (save for one, obvious, penultimate possession in this thriller) and focused on LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. They ignored Udonis Haslem and watched as he either tossed up a brick or passed on shooting what he believed was going to be a brick. They hardened their steely gaze on the Big Three, we can capitalize that after the Eastern playoffs, and Miami fell apart. Bad spacing, impatient offense, quick decisions and missed shots led to what Dallas loves the most -- delayed transition.
Oh, what a glorious thing delayed transition basketball is for Dallas. The Mavs get to watch as their shooters and finishers run the floor, picking up defenders along the way and creating space. They get to set screens and then a staggered screen while their opponent talks it up, and before you know it someone has an open look. And once Dirk Nowitzki stopped faffing about and looking for Shawn Marion on a cut or a covered Jason Terry, the former MVP started shooting, and hitting. Lefty layup to win this because, as you know, it's sports. Every storyline becomes so drearily obvious. Obvious, but fun. Thank faff for that.
Could Miami have done better, as Dallas destroyed and then overcame a 15-point fourth quarter deficit? Of course.
Single coverage and a lack of enthusiasm and panache on Nowitzki allowed the big fella to see over the defense and shoot over the top of or spin his way into good things. There was no counter, late, when the Heat had to start taking the ball out of the net and (needlessly) walk it up, in a way that was so, so annoyingly reminiscent of Miami's worst runs during the regular season. And there was no excuse for not trying to find Chalmers (I'm aware he was 2-of-7 before his last make, but you need that movement and/or threat) on several late possessions, as he fled to the corner; and this was a note I wrote down before Chalmers hit a late 3-pointer to tie the game 93-93.
But how do you manufacture enthusiasm? It's only natural, for even the best (if anyone tells you Michael Jordan's Bulls didn't have a hard time sometimes sustaining the emotion that took the game from 61-61 to 81-65, then you're talking to someone who didn't watch those Bulls closely) to keep up once the big lead takes hold. You can't kill this Heat team, this team that has destroyed the 76ers, Celtics, Bulls and Mavericks in several close games down the stretch of this postseason, for this misstep.
You can't. You have to credit the Mavericks. Miami wasn't selfish, and it wasn't scared. The Heat were just wrong in several very important decisions after being spot-on brilliant with three (and now four) notable exceptions over nearly the last five weeks. They failed at what they did best during the regular season, sustaining a big lead and playing while way out ahead. If this postseason has been a complete repudiation of the stereotype that Miami developed during the regular season, then Game 2 was a dismissal of the "geez, these guys can really close" aura this team has developed since the klieg lights went up.
So what happens when these two cross each other out? You look at this for what it is: 48 minutes of basketball, with Dallas winning by two. No more, no less.
The difference? Well, Dallas picked up on the offensive glass. It hit double figure turnovers in the second half alone just four minutes into the fourth quarter, but Shawn Marion and Tyson Chandler combined for seven offensive rebounds. Marion had 20 points. Chris Bosh was treated as an afterthought offensively as Dwyane Wade (36 points) took over, and missed 12 of 16 shots as will often happen to someone who is asked to bail out an offensive possession late. Miami missed eight free throws in 24 attempts, and it was beat on the boards 41-30.
But this was also a two-point win. For whatever team, this was a coin flip. Play eight more minutes, and Miami might win by two. Play 12 more? Dallas might do the same.
Play five more games like this? We all win.
So don't overreact. Just revel in two teams taking advantage of what they should have, another reminder of the career-long brilliance from the vets on the winning side, and yet another learning experience for the NBA's next great dynasty.
And enjoy Dirk Nowitzki. He had nothing to learn from, in this league, back in 1998. He had everything to teach this league, and everything to lose by entering it. And yet he came stateside and just brought it year after year after year. And Thursday night he spun and flicked and shot his way toward giving his team home-court advantage in the NBA Finals, against perhaps the most talented top-heavy triptych in NBA history.
Way to go, my man. Now keep it up three-to-five more times over the course of the next seven-to-12 days.
Finals, cats and kittens. Count the seconds until Sunday.
- Dirk Nowitzki