Credit the hype behind the free-agent buildup, "The Decision," the criticism, the massive pressure dollop sent their way before they had even played a game together and the ridiculous fallout over every (often pretty daft) comment or failure for what we saw Tuesday night. The Miami Heat wanted big klieg lights and a broadcast TV audience as May spilled into June. They talked about it, they earned it, they got it, and on Tuesday night they acted as if they'd been there before.
The Heat were cool throughout as they worked their way to a 92-84 win in Game 1 of the Finals. The team handled an initial first quarter Dallas flurry of threes and a hot start to the third quarter from the Mavericks by turning up the pressure defensively, and paying mind to their own work from behind the 3-point line. The Heat shot just 38.8 percent from the floor in this game, but they more than made up for it by making 11 threes in 24 attempts. Toss in 16 offensive rebounds, and you have a Heat team that was able to put up a very efficient game overall (more than 109 points per 100 possessions) despite missing more than 60 percent of its looks from the field.
Dallas, meanwhile, seemed a bit nervy. The Mavericks managed two good stretches where, as a whole, they seemed to realize you can play these games as if they were just another game, that there's no shame in that -- and that you can win if you execute despite that blasé nature. But otherwise this was a team that didn't appear to share Miami's composure even as it stayed competitive throughout.
Dirk Nowitzki (27 points) finished with a good line, but never seemed to take over, and his bobbling hands led to several Miami offensive rebounds. J.J. Barea was long on every shot as he missed seven of his eight attempts, Jason Terry and (especially) Peja Stojakovic combined to miss 10 of 13 and clanged on several open looks, and Shawn Marion's strange decision to force a fallaway jumper with eight on the shot clock late in the fourth quarter helped spur Miami's run to the strong finish.
Also, Miami helped spur Miami's run to the strong finish, because this is a startlingly good basketball team.
Not because of all the dunks, those athletic moves and "how-do-you-guard-that?" jumpers. But for the same reason teams feared the 1990s Bulls in a way that even the Lakers and Spurs of the last decade weren't feared. Those Bulls had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, two athletes that could rebound, push the ball, find the open man or finish themselves in ways (both slyly, or forcefully from the sky) that no other in their particular league could. And Wade and James, in Game 1? They just did it all.
Name it. Six threes between them, on good and unforced looks (save for two that James took, and he made one). Nineteen rebounds, 11 assists in a slow (84 possession) game -- on top of 46 points. Then Dallas would get the ball, and James and Wade would essentially pull the 46-point, 19-rebound, 11-assist version of these sorts of contributions on the defensive end. All season they've been perfecting this ham-and-egg game. And while they're not exactly Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere talking gobbledygook to each other as fake-code while bringing the ball up court, their synergy is remarkable. "Just" seven months in.
This doesn't have to remain a constant, mind you, but this also doesn't mean that both can't improve. Wade still had his issues comfortably working his way into half-court sets at times, and James floated a bit during the first three quarters, worrying me as he never seemed to establish a rhythm while tossing up those threes. But the rhythm was there. And perhaps it was tired legs that nearly sent Shawn Marion (great game, by the way, with 16 points, 10 rebounds and four assists) to the floor as James drove past him for a killer fourth-quarter dunk, but that hardly takes away from James' provocative ability to go from helper to hero in an instant.
Dallas doesn't have to remain a constant, either, which is still what makes this series so intriguing. A few more made open looks, some better hands on the defensive glass, and better work at taking advantage of what transition opportunities were there in Game 1, and especially a return to the zone they abandoned in the second half could lead to a win during Thursday's Game 2.
Those four things may have only totaled 10 or 11 possessions offensively in Game 1 (perhaps three times as much for the zone), but that's enough to make up a disadvantage like this. And remember that transition "D" was a big part of Miami's game plan heading into this series, so it was mainly just Joel Anthony and Chris Bosh attempting to get hands on long rebounds while the rest of the Heat got back. Miami had the best of both worlds in that regard, and this is hard to keep up. No matter how great the five-man lineup.
What impressed me the most, though, was Miami's confidence. Of course, the NBA's most talented team (despite that thin-ish bench) should be confident, but that doesn't always add up. Four years ago, LeBron James was in the Finals with a terrible team that nobody gave a chance to win, and they were out in four games. The year before, Dwyane Wade was there on a team full of veterans, with Wade acting as that talented little brother, Michael ahead of the rest of the Jacksons. But this is the first time they've been the favorites, the leaders, the ones to point to when things go pear-shaped.
And things did go pear-shaped, slightly, with Dallas up eight just under two minutes into the second half. And that was it. Miami just decided it had enough. The 2010-11 regular season was about as close to a bad joke as regular seasons get, mainly because of this Heat team. Miami built something, through all that nonsense. How else can you explain the last month and a half?
The Mavericks better explain some things to themselves over the next day and a half. Because they're staring down something special and relying on 25-footers and rolling runners to get them back into this thing. We believe they have it in them, but they also had to earn the burn of tangible proof of Miami's greatness along the way.