DALLAS (AP)—Talk about an ugly game. Jerry Stackhouse got a three-stitch gash on his nose as a souvenir from an NBA finals opener that won’t win any beauty contests.
Of course, neither will the Dallas Mavericks’ swingman.
“I’ve been opened up quite a bit,” Stackhouse said Friday, pointing to a faint patchwork of various long-healed scars near his forehead. “You see all these on my brows? These were all during games. Three stitches weren’t going to keep me out of this game. Coach (Bernard) Griffith looked at it and said, ‘It’s OK. You weren’t the prettiest guy anyway.”’
The Miami Heat drew first blood when O’Neal opened Stackhouse’s cut with a hard foul, but the Mavericks recovered for a sloppy 90-80 victory that left both teams frustrated, disappointed and desperate to play better. In their franchises’ first trips to the finals, they both had hoped for something more memorable from their opener.
But with two days off before Game 2 on Sunday night, Miami coach Pat Riley and Dallas’ Avery Johnson seemed confident they’ve got time to manage the mountain of mistakes and mangled game plans left from the opener.
“The key is not to have two games like that in a row,” said O’Neal, who also left Nowitzki holding an aching jaw thanks to an errant elbow. “So I’ll be hard on myself these next two days, and then hopefully on Sunday, I could play a little bit better.”
The game was no classic, but fans still tuned in: After improved ratings throughout the first three playoff rounds, early numbers for Game 1 were up from last year’s opener between Detroit and San Antonio.
While cooling down after a light practice at their arena, the Mavericks acknowledged they felt the pressure of the sellout crowd and a generation of long-suffering Dallas fans anticipating this first shot at a title. Of course, they’re always aware of high expectations when their boss, owner Mark Cuban, is sitting near them, peering into the huddle—and now blogging about their play during the game.
“I think they’ve gotten it out of their system now,” Johnson said. “We had some jitters … and they know we didn’t play a perfect game. We obviously have a lot of room for improvement. We didn’t meet our goals offensively and defensively.
“I’m glad they didn’t have much of a bounce in their step (Friday). We had a pretty lengthy film session and had a chance to look at some stuff.”
Jason Terry’s 32 points carried the Mavs, but many of their flaws were centered on Nowitzki, who scored just 16 points—none in the fourth quarter— in his finals debut. Dallas encountered this problem earlier in the playoffs: Though Nowitzki raised his stardom to an elite level in the postseason, he also disappeared on occasion.
The Mavericks didn’t have trouble getting the ball to Nowitzki, but he lacked the offensive aggression of his best games—and his beautiful jumper wasn’t falling. With too few easy baskets, Dallas couldn’t force a quicker tempo on the Heat, instead adapting its game to match its opponent for the fourth time in this postseason.
So the Heat shut down Nowitzki, played at their own tempo, got 28 points from an ailing Wade and became the first team to outrebound Dallas in the playoffs—and still lost. Like Wade’s legs, they faltered in the fourth quarter, never raising their games to a level befitting the finals.
“We’ve got more to give than that,” said guard Gary Payton, among Miami’s three reserves who combined for just two points. “We don’t panic. We made mistakes that we won’t make again.”
Miami’s struggles were exacerbated by the lowest free-throw percentage in finals history—although that statistic really just highlights Miami’s passive offense, not the Heat’s season-long struggles at the line.
O’Neal, who had 17 points and seven rebounds, was even worse than his usual erratic self, going 1-for-9—actually 1-for-11, if you count the two misses called back by lane violations—and missing all of his eight tries before the final minute. Wade went 6-for-10, but the Flash was the only other Heat player who even shot a free throw.
That means the stars’ supporting cast didn’t drive the lane or scramble for enough loose balls to earn the free throws that usually counteract Shaq’s career-long woes.
“That don’t mean nothing,” Antoine Walker said in a sentiment echoed by teammates. “We haven’t been a good free throw-shooting team all year, and we’re in the finals. Well, we must be doing something else right. We’re not worried about that.”