US PresswireAndray Blatche (17 points, 13 rebounds) and the Nets bench gave Deron Williams and Co. a big hand.
BOSTON – Pardon the rumblings, but there’s a lot to digest here after the Brooklyn Nets left town with a hard-fought 95-83 win over the Boston Celtics. In several ways, up is down and down is up relative to our expectations for these two teams heading into the season, and Wednesday only reinforced most of those trends.
Did you think that the Nets would be better than Boston at this point? Did you think they’d be better because of their defense? Did you think the bench would be the main catalyst behind the Nets’ success while the starters struggled? Did you suspect that Andray Blatche and Jerry Stackhouse would become the linchpins of that unit? And did you imagine the Celtics would be the ones accused of softness after a physical encounter that saw three ejections?
My answers: No, no, no, HELL no, and no.
Yet here we are. Brooklyn is, indeed, in first place in the Atlantic Division at 10-4, tied with New York, after beating both the crosstown rival Knicks and defending division champion Celtics in a span of 48 hours. In fact, the Nets are just a half-game behind Miami for the best record in the conference and can move into first by sweeping the next two games in Orlando and Miami over the weekend.
And the way the Nets reached that point couldn’t possibly be more unlikely. Brooklyn spared no expense in building its roster, lavishing free-agent riches on Deron Williams, Gerald Wallace, Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries and then trading for the even more expensive contract of Joe Johnson.
The thought was that the offensive firepower of players such as Williams, Johnson and Lopez would offset the suspect defense in the frontcourt, after the Nets were just 29th in defensive efficiency a season ago.
But instead the Nets’ defense has been just as prominent in their success. They’re likely to move into the top 10 in defensive efficiency after holding a fifth straight opponent to less than 90 points, offsetting some disappointing offensive results from Johnson in particular and the starting lineup in general.
Meanwhile, the minimum-wage bench they built behind the conference’s most expensive starting five is basically carrying them right now. Five players who combined barely make the midlevel exception -- Reggie Evans, Jerry Stackhouse, Andray Blatche, Keith Bogans and C.J. Watson -- finished with 52 of the Nets’ 95 points, 25 of their 50 rebounds, and a combined +32 for the evening.
Unbelievably, Blatche, who was recently released via the amnesty clause, and the 38-year-old Stackhouse nearly finished as the game’s two high scorers. Discarded by Washington after an embarrassing 2011-12 campaign, Blatche was the game’s high rebounder with 13, including eight offensive, and entering the game had a sterling 20.76 player efficiency rating that was better than four the Nets' five high-priced starters.
Stackhouse has made nine of his 11 3-point attempts in the key division wins over the Knicks and Celtics, scoring 31 points in 44 minutes. He was +12 in 22 minutes and it actually brought down his net plus-minus -- an unfathomable +103 for the season now, in just 164 minutes. The Nets have actually been outscored when he’s off the floor.
Again, this is Jerry Stackhouse. He’s 38 years old and barely played for the Hawks last season. He’s a career 30.9 percent 3-point shooter. And for the Nets, suddenly, he’s money. Stackhouse added to the surreal state of affairs immediately after sinking his fifth 3 by committing a goaltending violation. On a 10-foot rim.
As for that vaunted starting five? As a unit they have been outscored on the season. Right now the minimum-wage serfs are carrying the Nets. The glass-half-full take is that they’ll start crushing once the starters get into a groove; the more negative one is that the bench guys are almost certain to cool off.
As for the Celtics, we went down this road with them last season so we’ll tread carefully this time. But it was a bad performance on multiple levels, one that takes them to just 8-7 against an easy 15-game opening slate of schedule.
The Celtics were already likely cooked, trailing by 16 points late in the second quarter after yet another highly unlikely event -- a contested Reggie Evans rainbow jumper from the right elbow -- when guard Rajon Rondo escalated matters by taking exception to a Kris Humphries after-the-whistle love tap on Kevin Garnett. Rondo became tangled with Humphries, pushed him behind the stanchion and into the crowd, and threw at least one punch, which only makes matters worse for Boston: Not only was he ejected, but given his rap sheet with the league office he’s likely facing a multigame suspension.
The only silver lining for Boston is the end of Rajon Rondo’s streak of 10-assist games at 37, one that had seen him blatantly ignoring easy baskets in order to get his assist fix. On this night that included passing up a layup to kick out to a confused Jason Collins at the top of the key, but Rondo had only three dimes before he was asked to leave the premises. With the streak over, one hopes he’ll refocus his efforts on making the right play instead of passing backward on fast breaks and other such assist-padding silliness.
But Boston has far greater worries. Coach Doc Rivers went off on his own team afterward, saying “we’re a soft team right now; we have no toughness. And that stuff’s not toughness.”
Boston’s bench again let it down, but the starters were nothing to write home about either -- even before the dust-up, Rondo had given a low-wattage performance that included not crossing half court on one defensive possession until the shot-clock was at 14. Even Garnett’s excellence was a bit muted on this night.
Sum up all these improbably events, and the Atlantic Division race seems upside down too. The Celtics, thought to be the hunted, are now the hunters, trailing the Nets and Knicks by a little in the standings and by an increasingly large margin in quality of play. And Brooklyn? In their first season in the new digs, these Nets are showing that there’s plenty of mettle and toughness behind all that expensive glitz.
Looking for a reason why Kris Humphries is getting $12 million a year? Just look at the cap math from the Brooklyn Nets’ perspective ... and then turn your gaze toward Florida.
If they’re thinking about trading for Dwight Howard after Jan. 15, when Brook Lopez is trade eligible -- and most certainly, they are -- then signing Humphries to a short contract of this size makes all kinds of sense.
The reason is that it allows the Nets to take back much bigger contracts from Orlando in a trade. Paying Humphries $12 million means that the combination of Humphries, Tyshawn Taylor and Reggie Evans can be used to take back $18.6 million in contracts from Orlando -- which conveniently, is exactly enough to swallow the contracts of Orlando veterans Glen Davis, Jason Richardson, Chris Duhon and Quentin Richardson and clean the Magic’s books going forward.
Do that, then put Lopez and MarShon Brooks in a deal for Howard (again, just clearing enough salary from the Nets' end to take back his salary from Orlando), throw in all the same draft picks Brooklyn would give in the original deal, and the trade still works. In fact, it works better, since the Nets can swallow a bit more salary in this one than in the deal mooted over the summer.
As for the fine print, Brooks almost certainly would be routed to a third team for another draft pick for Orlando, but the trade would be cap-legal regardless. Routing Humphries to a third team would prove more problematic, but again it would be cap-legal if it happened as long as all the goodies went back to the Magic. After all this, the Magic would have a signed frontcourt of Humphries and Lopez and, if they cut Hedo Turkoglu, have max cap space in 2013.
Are there hang-ups to this strategy? Of course. First and most obviously, Howard may not be with the Magic in January. Second, even if he is, much depends on how well Lopez plays at the start of the season -- the Magic are unlikely to be tempted unless he’s racking up 20-and-10s. And unless he wants to end up on a bad team, it’s not clear to me how much incentive he has to play well.
But it’s worth a shot, and Brooklyn has shown that the money is a secondary concern. They’d have a $90 million payroll after doing a deal like the one above, but they’d be a marketing powerhouse in their first year in Brooklyn -- an investment that would likely pay itself back several times over. In the context of that, overpaying Humphries a few million seems like chump change.
MIAMI – One of the key plays in Tuesday’s Game 4 win by Miami came on a jump ball with 17 seconds left, when the Heat’s Shane Battier anticipated a tip would head toward the Heat basket, worked around an Oklahoma City player to get in position, leaped up to tip it a second time, and guided the ball to teammate Mario Chalmers.
Chalmers, of course, was fouled by Russell Westbrook in a decision that effectively ended the game, but he couldn’t get the ball without Battier’s play. And for that, Battier says to credit his former coach in Memphis many moons ago, Hubie Brown.
“I owe that to Hubie Brown,” said Battier. “He’s one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time. He actually coached jump ball situations when we were in Memphis. He covered every situation. I just went back to my teachings with Hubie Brown, he taught us how to steal the tap, and how to anticipate where the ball’s going to go. That’s all coach Brown.”
PORTLAND -- Our first clue that the San Antonio Spurs’ league-best 11-game winning streak might be coming to a self-inflicted end came when coach Gregg Popovich announced his starting point guard to the assembled media:
That’s not who Popovich meant to say, obviously -- Cory Alexander was a bit player for the Spurs a long, long time ago. So long ago that your correspondent went to college with him.
The name he was looking for was Cory Joseph, but you could forgive Popovich his lack of familiarity. He had started All-Star Tony Parker at the point every game this season until Tuesday, when he opted to rest Parker and fellow star Tim Duncan, play his kids and "put some money in the bank" for the rest of the season.
With the Spurs starting Joseph, Richard Jefferson, Kawhi Leonard, DeJuan Blair and Danny Green, Popovich mostly chilled on the sidelines as his Spurs were thrashed by the Portland Trail Blazers 137-97, dropping the Spurs' record on the season to 23 wins, nine losses and one DNP-Coach’s Decision.
A 41-point Portland explosion in the first quarter -- nearly six times their output a night earlier in L.A. against the Lakers -- put the Spurs’ JV team out of its misery early, with newly instated started Jamal Crawford hitting four 3-pointers and getting fouled for three shots on a fifth.
Knowing what fate likely awaited, Popovich had some fun with it, slowly dragging us along before the game before revealing that Duncan and Parker wouldn’t play and who his other starters would be.
“What’s our rookie’s name, the guy we drafted? Kawhi? Kawhi Leonard at 3," he said.
Popovich opted to rest his stars because of the grueling “Rodeo road trip” that San Antonio is undertaking, when a rodeo takes over their home court at AT&T Center for three weeks. They haven’t played at home since Feb. 4 and have traveled to both coasts since. Both Parker and Duncan had played 38 minutes in Utah the night before, after they had played 45 and 41, respectively, in an overtime victory against the Clippers on Saturday.
“[Tim] and Tony need a rest. Everybody’s played a lot of games, and somewhere along the line, everybody gives somebody a rest. I think we’ve reached that point," Popovich said. "This is whatever it is, third game in four nights, X in whatever nights before that. I don’t know what it is any more, I lost track. But they’ve been going and going and going. If we don’t do it now, I think we’re asking for trouble later.”
Popovich debated just limiting Parker’s minutes before deciding to pull the plug entirely. Already missing Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter against a strong home-court team, this was a good night to mail one in.
“We’ve gone that way before, but really you play or you don’t," Popovich said. "You do that half-ass thing and they play a few minutes, it never works. They play and you should have rested them and they didn’t really get rest. So we’re just going to hold him out.”
Popovich has long been the league’s most devoted practitioner of this maneuver, selecting certain games to sit out his key players and keep them fresh for later in the season.
It’s a lesson Blazers coach Nate McMillan might want to learn; one night after keeping LaMarcus Aldridge and Gerald Wallace on the court for 38 and 35 minutes in a hopeless situation against the Lakers, he had Wallace still out there with Portland up by 40 in the fourth quarter. It was their last game before the All-Star break, yes, but the cumulative wear and tear of this season is already taking a toll on Wallace in particular, who is averaging 35.8 minutes and had three straight single-figure outings before Tuesday night.
And it may also have taken a toll on Wes Matthews, who was on the court for no good reason in the fourth quarter when he sprained his left ankle. Fortunately for him, he’ll have eight days to recuperate before Portland plays again.
This is the type of move that’s made easier by Popovich’s ironclad job security. But it’s also an example of the willingness to think outside the box that has made him the dean of the league’s coaches. You don’t often say that about the side that just lost by 40, but the Spurs have always been willing to do things a little differently if it gives him them an advantage down the road.
Here's one lesser-known impact of Miami’s failure to knock off Dallas in the Finals: It denied the Heat the top spot in my ranking of the greatest trios of all time.
As I noted in this column that ran much earlier in the season, Miami’s grouping of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh threatened to have the highest “Trio Rating” in league history, surpassing that of Chicago's Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant in 1991-92.
And they did, in fact, post a slightly higher rating than that group. Even with all three posting worse PER numbers than a year earlier, Miami’s three stars had a Trio Rating of 26.6, just beating out Chicago’s 26.4 mark.
Except for one thing: They didn’t qualify.
The top trios on my list are limited to champions only. Several other near-champions have posted fine Trio Ratings of their own, but the Jordan-Pippen-Grant group is the best one to walk away with the hardware. Still.
And based on their Finals play, this distinction is completely merited. The Heat were more like a typical one-superstar outfit in these Finals, with Dwyane Wade putting up huge numbers while LeBron James and Chris Bosh barely offset what Jason Terry and Shawn Marion did for the opposition.
It’s hard to make a case for them as the greatest trio of all time when they were only marginally the best trio in the series -- Miami’s threesome was outscored by Dallas’ in the clincher, 60-57, and while the Dallas trio had 30 fewer points, they also needed commensurately fewer shots to get those points and 13 fewer turnovers. Sum across the three players and the Heat’s were better, but it wasn’t an overwhelming advantage.
And, in turn, if "best trio in series" is such a tussle, it makes "best trio ever" an extremely difficult argument to sustain.
Finally, one other Finals note that I have to mention after perusing the stat sheet one more time.
We’ve hardly discussed this, but even before Miami’s bricks in Game 6 the free-throw shooting was a defining issue in this series. In fact, even with LeBron James getting rid of the ball as fast as humanly possible in the fourth quarter and Dirk Nowitzki making back-breaking shots, you can make a credible argument that free-throw shooting anomalies decided the series.
The Mavs and Heat shot virtually identical marks in the regular season; Dallas made 77.7 percent, Miami 76.9 percent. Over the course of the series, we would have expected this to produce a one-to-two-point edge for Dallas.
The actual advantage? Seventeen.
The Heat made only 70.9 percent from the stripe in the series; compared to their regular-season average it cost them nine points over the six games. Dallas, in contrast, hit its regular-season number almost exactly.
But if you break down who was shooting the disparity gets worse -- Miami tended to have its better foul shooters shooting, while aside from Dirk Nowitzki Dallas did not. Multiply Finals attempts times regular-season percentages for the players who were shooting, and we’d have expected 118 makes from Miami, not the 105 they converted. That’s a 13-point differential … in a series where Dallas outscored Miami by a total of 14 points.
Do the same exercise for Dallas, and the Mavs had 125 points instead of an expected 121, with Nowitzki’s scintillating 45-of-46 providing the difference.
Between the two sides, that’s a 17-point swing over the six games. Again, the final margin between the sides was only 14 points. In a series that was so close, Dallas’ unexpectedly superior free-throw shooting proved decisive.
The Dallas Mavericks won their first-ever championship for a lot of different reasons, most of which rhyme with the word “Birk.” But in a playoffs in which the difference between winning and losing was razor-thin, at the margin a key difference was that their brain trust was consistently a step ahead of the competition.
Dallas coach Rick Carlisle’s shift to J.J. Barea as a starter for Game 4 is the most obvious example -- the Mavs won the final three games with the diminutive speedster in the lineup, an achievement that hardly seemed preordained given that he was shooting 5-for-23 at the time. But on countless other subtle moves -- from rest to zones to his use of role players -- Carlisle was pitch perfect.
This was not an isolated incident either. The Mavs, as flawed as they looked on paper, had a unique way of optimizing the resources they had while camouflaging their weaknesses.
It’s a victory for the data-driven approach that Dallas' coaching staff has taken, starting with Carlisle -- unquestionably the most cerebral and stat-friendly of the league’s 30 head coaches -- and down to director of basketball analytics Roland Beech, the 82games.com founder who joined the Mavs on the bench last season and earned the unofficial title of “first stat geek with a championship ring” with such access to the coaching staff.
Carlisle was reluctant to toot his own horn, deflecting praise to the players and calling out two assistant coaches in his opening remarks of the postgame interview. So let me do it for him. Going up against four fairly accomplished coaches in this postseason, he and the Dallas staff consistently stayed a half-step ahead of all four of them.
To say “every button he pushed worked” is technically true, but also misses the point. He wasn’t throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what would stick, he was making calculated adjustments that he knew had a great chance of success. That’s why they all worked.
Tactically, he did the one thing that coaching, at its bottom line, is all about: He gave his team the best chance to win, often with some courageously out-of-the-box thinking.
“Rick coached his ass off,” Mavs owner Mark Cuban said. “There was no question he was the best coach in the playoffs.”
And in doing so, he’s now ascended to near the top of the league’s coaching totem pole. With Phil Jackson retiring, Larry Brown out of the league and Pat Riley in the front office, there is only one active coach who can boast a stronger resume. That’s San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, and Carlisle won’t be moving into that rarefied air any time soon.
But compared to anyone else? Who can stack up with Carlisle? Remember, he might be working on his second championship had Jamaal Tinsley and Jermaine O’Neal not been injured in the 2004 conference finals; he’s only coached nine seasons.
Perhaps he needed an owner like Cuban to appreciate him. Cuban is an oddity because he’s as emotional as any owner in basketball, but behind that facade is an avid number-cruncher who hired Carlisle, in part, because Cuban studied his lineup usage and noted he used optimal line-ups with far greater frequency than most coaches.
Perhaps he needed a team like this too. Having a team full of veterans that cared little about personal agendas gave him a lot more leeway to mix and match lineups and roles. That, in turn, provided him the optimal environment to work his magic.
“The inflection point for the team this year,” said Cuban, “was when they got past learning Rick’s system, to finally just committing to it and executing Rick’s system. And with the analytics, understanding what it takes to execute it and how to execute it. So Rick did a phenomenal job.”
How did Carlisle and his crew -- which includes Beech and assistants Dwane Casey, Terry Stotts, Tim Grgurich, Darrell Armstrong, Monte Mathis and Don Kalkstein -- outfox the competition?
Let’s start with the zone defenses. Dallas was widely regarded as the league’s best zone team throughout the season, thanks in part to the two 7-footers in the frontcourt, but also due to Carlisle’s willingness to switch to it and assistant Dwane Casey’s ability to teach it. (Seriously, would somebody give Casey another a head-coaching gig already?)
The amazing effect of the Mavericks’ zone in Game 6 was not just that it gummed up Miami’s offenses momentarily (a “guerilla tactic,” as our Kevin Arnovitz calls it), but that once the Mavs returned to a man-to-man defense the Heat’s previous mojo against it magically vanished.
Dallas went to a zone late in the first quarter in the most crucial sequence of the game, with the Mavs already down by seven points and Dirk Nowitzki on the bench with two fouls. Given the Mavs’ horrifyingly bad plus-minus numbers with Dirk off the floor this season, the danger of a blowout loomed large.
Instead, the zone helped Dallas hold Miami to two points over the next five minutes, the subs unexpectedly blew up for 17 of their own, and the Mavs closed the quarter with an unlikely five-point lead.
In the fourth quarter, Dallas again trotted out the zone; while the effect wasn’t as outsized, it slowed down a Miami charge long enough for the Mavs to regain control.
Second, Carlisle’s flexibility in mixing and matching lineups gives him a leg up. NBA coaches are amazingly reluctant to change lineups, even when what they’re doing clearly isn’t working. For example, it took Miami five games to yank Mike Bibby from the starting lineup, and they only did so when facing elimination. They are not unique in this regard. (The NBA playoffs: Where finally doing what you should have done three games ago happens).
Carlisle admitted that he’s not fond of changing lineups either -- there’s a value in continuity -- but when push came to shove he’s been more than willing to pull the trigger. Peja Stojakovic went from a key rotation player for three rounds to a bystander in this one when it became obvious the match-ups didn’t favor him; it’s easy to forget now, but he averaged more than 24 minutes a game in the first two rounds when his floor-spacing was more advantageous.
Similarly, Barea went from the bench to a starting role in Game 4, which allowed him to savage Miami’s flammable Mike Bibby for two games before the Heat mustered a response. And his use of reserves Brian Cardinal and Ian Mahinmi in place of an injured Brendan Haywood was equally effective.
“He did some phenomenal adjustments here to start J.J.,” Nowitzki said, “ and then decided to let Peja really sit for the series [and] bring Cardinal in, who has been phenomenal for us.”
And let me reiterate that the geeks played a big role. The Mavericks knew which lineups and pairings worked for them and optimized their rotations accordingly. But it wasn’t just about personnel usage in the NBA Finals -- it was play calls, game planning and countless in-season adjustments that built to this moment.
“Roland was a key part to all his,” Cuban said. “I give a lot of credit to Coach Carlisle for putting Roland on the bench and interfacing with him, and making sure we understood exactly what was going on. Knowing what lineups work, what the issues were in terms of play calls and training.”
“It makes a difference. I think Jason and JET and Dirk and Tyson Chandler make a whole lot more difference, but if you don’t know what’s going on it’s hard for you to get smarter and get better.”
The Mavs did both, and it’s a big reason they’re champions.
LeBron had a triple-double in Game 5, but there's no discounting a fourth quarter unworthy of a king.
DALLAS -- LeBron James had a good game. Seventeen points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Perfectly fine, respectable production. I’d give him a solid B-plus.
And that, in a nutshell, is the problem.
This is LeBron James. The most talented player in the entire league. The guy who went to Miami specifically for these moments. The guy who said early Thursday, on his Twitter account, that it was “Now or Never.” The guy playing in the biggest game of his career to date.
He was good.
The situation demanded great.
With the Mavs knocking down crazy shots and the Heat responding in kind for three quarters Thursday, it was a classic situation for King James to come through with a finishing flourish, put his foot on Dallas’ throat and take the series back to Miami for the clincher.
Instead, for the fourth game in a row, King James was merely a viscount. Miami had a four-point lead with 4:37 left; from there, James missed two jumpers, committed an offensive foul and was beaten for two 3-pointers by Jason Terry. Granted, the second of those was a borderline miraculous shot, and the offensive foul call just as easily could have been a basket-and-one.
And like I said, he had a pretty good game overall for almost any other NBA player. Just not for LeBron James. He made some nice passes, setting up three fourth-quarter layups that gave Miami its short-lived lead, and had a great contest on Shawn Marion in transition.
On the other hand, he declined to take over when Dwyane Wade was out with a hip injury for the first seven minutes of the third quarter, taking three shots in 7:30. He rarely attacked when the Heat repeatedly posted him up through the first three quarters. And while he was more assertive in the fourth quarter than in Game 4’s debacle, he wasn’t any more effective.
James had a triple-double, but his two points in the final stanza came on a basket that was basically conceded to him, after Terry’s game-clinching triple at the other end.
Overall, he scored 17 points but needed 46 minutes to do it. The average NBA player this season, per 46 minutes, scored 18.9 points.
He shot 8-of-19 without a single 3-pointer. That’s not good for anybody, let alone a player of this talent.
He had two free throw attempts. TWO. This continued a series-long trend of James being either unable or unwilling to attack the rim -- he has only 16 free throw attempts for the series.
He has 11 fourth-quarter points in five games, despite playing every minute of every fourth quarter. Eleven points in 60 minutes. That’s a wee bit south of superstar territory. Actually, it’s a wee bit south of Juwan Howard territory -- he averaged 14 points per 60 minutes this season. Every Miami player except Joel Anthony scored at a higher rate.
Again, this isn’t just any random guy. This is a two-time MVP who was the most coveted free agent in NBA history. This is one of the best players of all time, regardless of what happens in the next few days. This is the reason the Heat had a championship parade last July ... because when they got LeBron, they got the promise of dominating games like this one.
Or so they thought.
This is the part where the typical writer reflex is to ascribe this problem to some failing of his character; I’m not going there. Certainly, James has succeeded in such situations before -- witness his one-man annihilation of Detroit in 2007 or his valiant conference finals series against Orlando in 2009 or his destruction of Chicago’s top-rated defense that happened, um, all of three weeks ago.
So I don’t know why he’s been incapable of summoning such efforts in this series against what, on paper, is a very beatable Dallas defense. And I’m not informed enough to speculate.
For posterity’s sake, I’ll also note that you can’t just pin this on LeBron. When the other team shoots 13-of-19 on 3s -- many of them crazy, pull-up, off-the-dribble tries -- the normal response is to kindly tip your hat and head to the airport.
It’s also not his fault that Mike Bibby keeps being allowed on the court or that Anthony can’t catch a cold or that his teammates had 14 turnovers. But we knew Miami had these problems going in. And we thought the Heat would prevail anyway, because they had LeBron.
Even with the Mavs hitting crazy shots, Miami would have won if the LeBron we expected had shown up. James’ subpar offensive efficiency is the main differentiator in the box score. It’s a recurrent theme: James is averaging 17.2 points and 3.2 free throw attempts in the Finals -- that’s nice. He averaged 25.8 and 8.8, respectively, against Chicago -- that’s awesome.
And right now, that’s the difference. LeBron being good isn’t good enough. Miami needs great, and it's not getting it. With King James, the Heat will still win this series. But if Viscount James keeps showing up, they’re dead meat.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Rick Carlisle made some drastic shakeups to the Mavericks' rotation work in Game 4.
DALLAS -- Rick Carlisle said the players win the game, and in the big picture he’s right about that.
But in a series of razor-thin margins between the players on the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks, the slightest of adjustments can have an outsized impact. Three straight final-possession games have the Mavs and Heat justifiably tied at two apiece, and Tuesday it was the subtle adjustments Dallas’ coach made before and during the game that swung it.
We talked about Dallas’ superior depth heading into the series, but look at the box score and you’ll realize the Mavs were using a tighter rotation than Miami's. Carlisle made a fairly complex series of adjustments that involved changing his starting backcourt so that he could entirely reupholster his forward rotation, and then threw a few more wrinkles into his special fourth-quarter sauce as the Mavs once again rallied late.
Ultimately, he was using a 7.5-man rotation, with Brian Cardinal as the 0.5 with “remove only in case of emergency” tattooed on his warm-ups. Dallas’ bench only played 71 total minutes, barely more than the 67 from Miami; only six Mavericks scored.
And Carlisle made it work.
He made it work first by bringing DeShawn Stevenson off the bench and starting J.J. Barea at point guard. After a series of bad starts by Dallas’ starting lineup, Barea’s ball pressure and penetration got Dallas into a better offensive flow early in the game. After constantly finding themselves digging holes early in each half, the Dallas starting five was a +1 on Tuesday.
Starting Barea rather than Jason Terry kept Terry in his accustomed bench role (although it still limits his minutes -- he played 35 while the other prominent players on both sides played at least 39), and Carlisle pointed out it’s something Barea has done before. He started 16 consecutive games in the middle of the regular season.
“He gives us a different dimension to our team,” Carlisle said. “I thought he did a good job. His stats don’t look great, but his penetration helped us and his ball pressure helped us.”
Second, Stevenson coming off the pine allowed Carlisle to tweak his forward rotation. The Mavs felt Shawn Marion was playing too many minutes, largely because of the horrifying play of backup Peja Stojakovic, but using Barea in his place isn’t a realistic option. Stevenson, on the other hand, could come in and immediately relieve Marion in guarding LeBron James or Dwyane Wade.
“I knew we had to take Marion’s minutes down,” Carlisle said. “He can’t play 43 minutes. We can’t expect him to be down in a stance and picking up James full court and all those kinds of things. Stevenson was great.”
Stevenson, in fact, played 26 minutes despite theoretically being “benched” -- something he’s done only one other time since the All-Star break. Stevenson said he was given no indication before the game that he’d play so much; he was just told he’d be backing up Marion and to be ready.
The other aspect of the rotation rebuild was using Cardinal in Stojakovic’s place when Nowitzki got his rest late in the first and third quarters. Cardinal, as a true 4, relieved Marion of the need to defend Chris Bosh in stretches. And while he didn’t score, the sheer fact that he was less of a sieve than Stojakovic proved helpful.
Cardinal also had to act as the backup 5 when Brendan Haywood proved unready in the first half, laboring through three ineffective minutes. That takes us to the one area where Carlisle and the Mavs had genuinely good fortune -- Tyson Chandler was able to play 43 minutes and pick up only three fouls, avoiding the type of foul trouble that would have carved a gaping hole in Dallas' frontcourt rotation.
But coming down the stretch, Carlisle was able to throw a few other wrinkles into the mix.
First, he went to a zone defense down the stretch that flummoxed Miami’s offense. Granted, it hasn’t seemed particularly hard to force the Heat to take low-percentage shots in crunch time, but because Miami had rarely seen the zone this series, it fostered a special brand of confusion. The Heat scored only 14 points in the fourth quarter.
“To change up the pace a little bit,” Jason Terry said. “It worked for us.”
Second, he left Stevenson on the court and Marion on the pine for the game’s final 14 minutes. At the buzzer, it was Stevenson on Wade for Miami’s final play -- and if you’re curious, he said he was planning on fouling until Wade lost the ball in the backcourt.
On paper this is insanity -- Marion is just flat-out better. In this particular game, however, it messed up Miami’s rotations because there were four shooters on the floor. The final layup by Dirk Nowitzki came in part because Stevenson was spotting up in the corner rather than having Marion floating in the paint. Because of Peja’s struggles, it’s one of the few times this series Dallas has lined up with four shooters on the floor.
“We need four shooters out there,” Stevenson said. “It opens it up for Dirk.”
“It makes them honest. When Tyson went down the lane and got the foul, you’re either going to take that or a 3. So at the end of the game it helps us.”
All of those moves gave the Mavs just enough of a nudge to get past the Heat in this one, and leaves the ball in Erik Spoelstra’s court to come up with suitable answers in the now-pivotal Game 5 on Thursday.
The most impressive wrinkle, however, may have been offered by Carlisle at the end of his news conference afterward.
“We’ll see what we do in Game 5.”
That’s right -- he was completely non-committal about whether Dallas will continue to line up this way, or try again to tweak the rotation in a way that produces a momentary advantage. We have two days until tip-off, but the mind games have already begun.