at Dallas 86, Miami 83 (Series tied 2-2)
Offensive Ratings: Dallas 107.7, Miami 101.0
The 2011 Playoffs have, unexpectedly, come to be defined by bad offensive execution late in games. The same issue doomed the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, the Chicago Bulls in the East, and it's prevented the Miami Heat from taking control of an NBA Finals series that could easily be over right now.
With 10 minutes left in Tuesday's Game Four, the Heat had all the momentum. Up just nine with nearly a quarter left to play, Miami hardly had the same kind of comfortable lead as in the fourth period of Game Two, but the Heat's offense seemed to be posing questions the Dallas Mavericks were incapable of answering. Jason Terry followed with consecutive buckets to spark the crowd, but Dwyane Wade reentered the game after a timeout and scored a brilliant follow basket. Miami would not score out of its half-court offense again until the closing seconds.
The next time the Heat took possession, Rick Carlisle shifted to a zone defense for the first time all night. Miami looked confused and responded with two bad trips before Wade scored in transition. That would be it for the zone, but the seeds of doubt were planted. The Heat lacked a plan of attack the rest of the game, and the ensuing 12 half-court offensive possessions were a mess: 0-7 shooting, four turnovers, just one offensive rebound and three points, all of them scored at the free throw line.
The side-to-side ball movement we saw from the Heat for three-plus quarters disappeared. This wasn't hero ball per se, but the confusion forced Wade in particular and LeBron James at times to try to make something happen individually against a defense too good to permit that kind of attack. When Miami did turn to role players to beat the help, they came up empty. Miller, who replaced Mario Chalmers with 4:35 left, missed a pair of good looks and turned the ball over.
Lost in this sequence was James. That he wasn't scoring through the first three quarters wasn't really an issue, since Wade and Chris Bosh were supplying enough points and James' presence was setting things up. The key stretch for James the distributor came when Wade rested at the start of the fourth quarter. James twice started the ball movement and created open shots as part of the surge that gave the Heat its largest lead of the period. Late in the game, however, Miami needed more production than James was able to offer. For the most part, he was a bystander in the corner as Wade operated with the ball. We never saw the two-man game that set up the winning basket in Game Three. On the rare occasions James was in control of the offense, he was unable to beat the smaller DeShawn Stevenson.
There was a tremendous contrast between the quality of shots on the two ends of the floor. As the Heat battled to take contested jumpers, the Mavericks were getting open looks from their half-court execution. If Dallas would have made a couple of them, the final score might have been much more decisive. Alas, the Mavericks had no legs. Dirk Nowitzki was exhausted by an illness, while the intensity of their defensive effort sapped the legs of Stevenson, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry.
That left Dallas to rely on Tyson Chandler in the battle of attrition. Where the Heat's second chances dried up late in the game, Chandler was able to extend possessions and give his team extra looks by grabbing four offensive rebounds in the last six minutes, giving him an incredible nine for the game. Save James, Chandler played more minutes than anyone else on the floor with backup Brendan Haywood active but badly limited. He committed just three fouls in 43 minutes and contributed 13 points in addition to his rebounding and stout defense.
In the end, Nowitzki summoned enough strength for the score the Mavericks needed. He beat Udonis Haslem off the dribble and, with the floor well spaced, had enough room to bank in the bucket that extended Dallas' lead to three with just over 30 seconds left. Miami still had a chance to tie after going two-for-one, but Wade's bobble led to a forced Miller attempt from well beyond the arc.
During the first half, Carlisle's rotation changes had the desired effect. The new starting lineup with Jose Barea held its own in both halves, but its real value came by allowing Stevenson to play with the Mavericks' second unit, spelling Marion and at one point replacing Nowitzki. Stevenson supplied unexpected and critical scoring punch in the second quarter, putting 11 points on the board to keep the Heat from pulling away. He then finished the game because of his defense on James.
Dallas was able to outscore Miami with Nowitzki resting in both the first quarter (when Brian Cardinal stepped in) and second. Alas, that did not hold up after halftime. Nowitzki sat less than two minutes, during which Miami went on a 6-0 run that easily could have been 8-0 had James not missed a pair of free throws.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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