Miami Heat Index: Dallas Mavericks

What if LeBron took 30 shots a game?

November, 16, 2013
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh

MIAMI -- In Friday’s win over the Dallas Mavericks, James racked up 39 points on just 18 shots from the floor. In fact, that’s the most points he’s ever scored in a game with 18 field goal attempts or fewer. Needless to say, he’s making the most of his opportunities.

James’ hyper-efficient shooting performance comes on the heels of Toronto Raptors forward Rudy Gay shooting 37 field goal attempts in an overtime loss to the Houston Rockets on Monday. Gay totaled just 29 points in more than twice as many attempts.

The days of James taking 30 shots, much less 37 shots, are long gone. Actually, James has never had 37 attempts in a game in his NBA career. He’s reached the 30-shot plateau just twice in a Heat uniform. Over that same span, James has seen other players shoot 30-plus far more -- Kobe Bryant (14 times), Carmelo Anthony (12), Kevin Durant (four) and James’ Friday opponent Monta Ellis (four). So far this season, Anthony, Gay and Kyrie Irving have each shot over 30 times a game at least once.

After Friday’s game, James was asked about his reaction when he sees other players shooting 30 -- or as much as 37 -- attempts in a game.

“Um ...,” James pondered for a few seconds as if he was calculating something in his head.

“If you give me 37 shots in a game, I’d have 60 ... 70,” James said.

Laughter ensued from the reporters circle. So James elaborated.

“I had [almost] 40 now with 18 shots, I mean ... If you give me 37 shots in a game, I’d put up 60. Easy,” James said.

Preposterous answer, right?

On second thought, perhaps James was doing the math in his head.

James has scored 243 points this season on 144 field goal attempts. That’s a scoring rate of 1.6875 points per field goal attempt. Multiply that times 37 and what do you get?

62.4 points.

Maybe not so preposterous after all.

'Second-best' LeBron powers Heat victory

November, 16, 2013
Wallace By Michael Wallace

MIAMI -- LeBron James was determined to respond.

His standing, after all, as the preeminent basketball player in the James household was slipping from his grasp.

James acknowledged as much when he arrived at AmericanAirlines Arena for the Miami Heat's game Friday night against the Dallas Mavericks. James said his oldest son, LeBron Jr., had finished with 25 points, eight rebounds and eight assists a night earlier in his youth league game.

LeBron Jr., 9, got into the car after the game declaring to his dad that he had just notched a triple-double.

“I had to explain what a triple-double was,” James said before the Heat's 110-104 victory against the Mavericks. “He's the star in the house. I'm just LeBron James.”

Turns out, the second-best player in the family was good enough to carry the Heat to another high-scoring win with his most prolific and efficient outburst of the season.

Having emerged from the back problems that slowed him during the initial weeks of the season, James scored a season-high 39 points on 14-of-18 shooting to keep the league's top-ranked offense rolling at a historic clip.

The Heat extended their franchise record by scoring at least 100 points in their ninth straight game to open a season. James has been on his own tear of late, having scored at least 33 points in three of the past five games and shooting better than 60 percent from the field in five of the last six.

“I am getting there, I'm feeling better,” James said of gradually overcoming the sore back and regaining the offensive rhythm that was missing at the start of the season.

James also took the moment to mark the overall improvement and expansion of his game, pointing out Friday night how far he's come since his first season in Miami. The Mavericks still serve as a sobering reminder of how James went into an offensive shell, lacked aggression and allowed Dallas to psychologically take him out of his game during a 4-2 series loss in the 2011 Finals.

On Thursday, James talked extensively about how the Heat are a totally different team now than the group that fell apart in squandering a 2-1 series lead three years ago. Fact is, James also is a completely different player at this stage.

“You know from the day that I got here to now, where my post-up game to midrange game has gone,” James said Friday. “I am just trying to get better and evolve my game where I feel comfortable on every spot on the floor.”

James had his full repertoire working Friday. There were the four driving layups in the first quarter. He worked the fadeaway and step-back jumpers midway through the game. And by the fourth quarter, he mixed it all up. At one point, James answered a one-legged leaning jumper from Dirk Nowitzki at one end with one of his own at the other.

“It was a show of respect,” James said of Nowitzki, who led Dallas with 28 points. “I watched Dirk. Dirk is one of my favorite guys. I love the way he approaches the game, the way he plays is amazing. I took that from him. But I don't do it as well as him. He's been doing it way longer.”

At one point in the second half, when James scored 21 of his 39 points and missed only once in 19 minutes, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle reached for a stats sheet during a timeout, ran his finger across James' line at the top of the page and shook his head as he retreated to the bench.

On nights like Friday, there just isn't much you can do to slow the Heat. Now when James has it going offensively, and Dwyane Wade is supplementing with 17 points, eight assists and a career-high tying eight steals for the Heat.

“It's tough to contain LeBron James,” Carlisle said, flatly. “He was hitting some high-difficulty shots. He is probably the only guy in the game that can hit those shots, but you have to make him do it. Otherwise, other guys are lining up wide-open 3-pointers.”

The Heat gave up 104 points and allowed Dallas to shoot 50 percent from the field and 43 percent from 3-point range. But they strung together enough defensive stops, in part with 19 steals -- one shy of the franchise record. Miami also had 24 points off 24 Dallas turnovers.

There wasn't much for Erik Spoelstra to nitpick about either with his team's or its best player's performance. But a difficult-to-satisfy coach always finds something.

“Obviously the efficiency is tremendous,” Spoelstra said of James, whose 61-percent field goal shooting ranks eighth in the league. “But he'll probably roll his eyes at me when I look at this box score and the first number I see is the six turnovers. That's him taking the initiative to be aggressive.”

James, who won the league's scoring title in 2008 at 30 points per game with Cleveland, said he could easily be even more aggressive looking for his shots if he chose to play that way. He suggested he could score “60, 70 points” in a game if he shot the ball 37 times in a game. His answer was in response to a question that referred to the number of shots Toronto forward Rudy Gay attempted earlier this week during an overtime loss against Houston.

“He's been aggressive the last couple of games,” Wade said of James, who could make it three straight 30-point games on Saturday night in Charlotte.

“You can see a pep in his step a little bit. He is really feeling comfortable right now. I know he wants to continue that way.”

James has no other choice.

After all, there are bragging rights to maintain at home.

Youngest son, Bryce, 6, has a game Saturday, too.

“It's a very competitive family we have going on with me and my two boys,” James said. “I held up my end of the bargain. We'll see what my youngest son does tomorrow.”

The Miami Heat welcome a familiar foe to South Beach on Friday, as the Dallas Mavericks, their opponent in the 2011 NBA Finals and the last team they've lost a playoff series to, comes to town (7:30 p.m. ET). To prepare for the game, our Heat Index team discusses the Mavs in the Dirk era, Michael Beasley's role in Miami, and Dwyane Wade's status for an upcoming back-to-back.

1. Fact or Fiction: The Mavs have failed to capitalize on Nowitzki's prime.

Tom Haberstroh: Fiction. The goal is to win a title and the Mavs did that. If we’re talking the post-title years, I’d go with fact. They haven’t won a playoff game since topping the Heat, so I don’t think you’d hear differently from the Mavericks, either.

Michael Wallace: Fiction. Two trips to the NBA Finals and one championship are far more than many elite players have accomplished. But Dirk does have two blemishes on the resume: that meltdown against Miami in the 2006 Finals and the first-round blunder against Golden State during his MVP season. Dallas never really gave him roster continuity, but he gave them a Hall of Fame career.

Brian Windhorst: Fiction. They won a title. The past few years, when Mark Cuban thought he was out-thinking the rest of the league, have been disappointing, but Drik has broken down a bit with knee injuries. They were a contender for nearly a decade, made two Finals and brought home a ring during Dirk's prime. If they ever feel down, they can just look up at the banner.

2. Fact or Fiction: Beasley should be in the rotation no matter what.

Haberstroh: Fiction. It’s been three games. He’s certainly earned more playing time by showing effort and focus on the defensive end. But I’m not ready to say he should earn minutes over Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem.

Wallace: Fiction. Erik Spoelstra, though he hasn’t said it, doesn’t think Beasley has proven enough yet to beat out Udonis Haslem or Shane Battier. The recent offensive outbursts are promising, and Beasley is gaining confidence from his teammates. But he's still a 10th man, at best, right now and the first 10 guys are still available.

Windhorst: Fact. He's one of the most talented players on the team and his ability to score makes the Heat all that more dangerous. They are already playing at an extremely high level offensively, and having him in their back pocket is some weapon. And if he's going to go through issues defensively or go off the reservation with the game plan, you might as well figure that out earlier than later.

3. Fact or Fiction: D-Wade should play in this back-to-back set.

Haberstroh: Fiction. I’m firmly in the belief that Erik Spoelstra should be proactive with the minute management. Wade needs to be ready for June, not November.

Wallace: Fact. Considering the team's inconsistent performances on defense, and the recent challenges to get a healthy unit together thus far, Wade should be a go for Saturday's game in Charlotte if his knees are good. The Heat then have two days off. Wade probably won't run the back-to-back table in the coming days, with another set coming Tuesday and Wednesday. But unless he's hampered, try playing in three of four.

Windhorst: Fiction. Wade's pride is what it is -- he wants to play every night and everyone knows this. Everyone knows he's tough. But I see no reason to do anything to put wear on Wade's knees before the playoffs. His health is probably the single most important thing for this team and we've seen him wear down two years in a row. Every decision with him should keep that in mind.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
A lot has changed for the Heat and Mavericks since their showdown in the 2011 NBA Finals.
The Dallas Mavericks' triumph over the Miami Heat to claim the 2011 NBA championship seems like ages ago, but the lessons of that NBA Finals series still linger. Our team of Heat writers breaks down how it affected both teams and its place in the history of the game.

1. Was the 2011 NBA Finals the most memorable ever?

Tom Haberstroh: Not quite. Most memorable for me was the 1998 Finals with Michael Jordan's final shot against Bryon Russell. Perhaps I was just more impressionable in middle school, but it was such a poetic ending to Jordan's illustrious career. Wait, he played for the Wizards?

Israel Gutierrez: Ever? Like, ever ever? Umm, no. You're not going to remember too many actual in-game moments from that series the way you do John Paxson's game winner against Phoenix or Michael Jordan's push-off jumper against the Jazz or Jordan's barrage against the Trail Blazers. This is remembered more for the off-the-court rumblings created by LeBron James' inexplicably poor play and Chris Bosh's postseries emotions.

Michael Wallace: No. Not even close. For me, nothing would top the '91 Finals when the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers met for a transaction in which Magic Johnson personally passed the torch to Michael Jordan. It was also a transition from the most dominant team of the 1980s to the most dominant one of the '90s.

2. What was the biggest lesson for the Heat?

Haberstroh: That LeBron wasn't a small forward. That changed everything, not just for the Heat but for the rest of the NBA as well. The ripple effect can be seen now with Carmelo Anthony thriving at the 4 in New York and others (hello, Kevin Durant) looking more comfortable playing a bigger position. LeBron had the size of Karl Malone, but the 2011 Finals showed why he needed to use it to his full advantage.

Gutierrez: That LeBron has to be at the center of what the Heat do. Miami tried to lift LeBron past his slump and win anyway. Succeeding at that would've been the worst scenario for both sides. The Heat wouldn't deem it necessary to rely on LeBron's talents, and LeBron would've probably had a hard time taking ownership of this team the way he has since. As LeBron has said, losing that series is possibly the best thing to happen to this group.

Wallace: That even the best player in the game ironically needed both a severe humbling as well as a major confidence boost to break through on the NBA's grand stage. LeBron James learned many valuable lessons from that defeat to the Mavericks that prepared him for championship triumph the next year against the Thunder.

3. What was the biggest lesson for the Mavs?

Haberstroh: Not that the Mavericks needed confirmation, but that Dirk Nowitzki is a pretty transcendent player. What Nowitzki did in 2011 and James later did in 2012 was reiterate that the "can't win the big one" label is maybe the silliest in sports. With Tyson Chandler anchoring the defense and shooters aplenty, Nowitzki finally had the functional parts to get him over the hump. Yes, Nowitzki evolved as a player, too, but he wasn't "soft" like many so wanted to believe.

Gutierrez: Just the knowledge that they can indeed be great. For years, that team, with Nowitzki as the main man, was considered too soft and too jump shot dependent to be champions. After winning that series with stellar execution and ridiculous outside shooting -- not to mention some decent defense from current Knicks Tyson Chandler and Jason Kidd -- Nowitzki and Co. know they can win at the highest level with that formula.

Wallace: That revenge can be one of the sweetest joys in sports. Mavs owner Mark Cuban always felt he had the better team in 2006 when Dallas blew a 2-0 series lead and lost four straight to Miami. Five years later, Nowitzki was as unstoppable in the Finals as Dwyane Wade was in 2006, as Dallas avenged that meltdown against Miami.

Wade likes Durant matchup for LeBron

June, 12, 2012
Windhorst By Brian Windhorst
LeBron James
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images
Dwyane Wade believes LeBron James will benefit from having to guard Kevin Durant.

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Fans, journalists and historians have spent the last few days getting excited about the LeBron James-Kevin Durant Finals matchup. In short, such a marquee head-to-head battle between players at the same position at the Finals is exceedingly rare.

Among all the commentary offered in the standard build-up, one observation stuck out. It came from Dwyane Wade about his teammate, and what the challenge of covering Durant will mean to James. It wasn’t something you’d expect to hear, which made the remark so interestinog.

“I’d rather for him to be guarding Kevin Durant than to have to guard DeShawn Stevenson or Shawn Marion like last year where he wasn’t as involved,” Wade said. “With Kevin Durant, you’ve got to have your antennas up at all times. I think that’s going to bring out the best out of both of them.”

References to last year’s Finals often make the Heat a little nervous and James a bit short. Without totally retracing old ground, it was clearly the worst series in James' career and that was a major reason the Mavericks won the title. James' play was the target of much criticism, specifically that he didn't exhibit his normal aggressiveness and, at times, looked detached from the moment.

As James said Monday in a mildly curt and certainly once-and-for-all way: “I didn’t play well. I said that a hundred times this year.”

Heat players don’t often speak of last year’s Finals and, for obvious reasons, don’t often elaborate when asked -- all of which made Wade’s comments on the value of having Durant to engage James more intriguing. Facing Durant, Wade seems to believe, will force James to stay locked into the action.

“I’m glad that (James) has that challenge because it’s going to make him focus more,” Wade said. “It’s going to make him play a little different.”

Just how much time James will spend guarding Durant is yet to be seen. Thunder coach Scott Brooks seems prepared to use Durant on James nearly exclusively, and is not worried about foul trouble or fatigue on his star.

“Kevin’s job is to play whoever we have him guard; he’s not one to hide,” Brooks said. “You can’t be a good defensive team when you have one guy not playing defense and he has to be able to commit to that end.”

When the teams last met in a wonderfully played game in Miami in April, James and Durant put on a show during the second half. They guarded one another exclusively, each striking blows on the other, like boxers working the jab and trying to set up the hook. James ended up with 34 points, Durant with 30 as the Heat won by five points.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, though, isn’t so willing to say he’ll have James dedicated to defending Durant. With James logging heavy minutes -- he averaged 46 a night in the conference finals against the Celtics -- Spoelstra hinted he may look, at times, to other players to handle Durant in order to ease the burden on James.

“That’s part of the versatility we have with our roster,” Spoelstra said. “We have some proven wing defenders and we were tested with that in the last two series. (James) did the bulk of the work on (Danny) Granger and (Paul) Pierce, but Shane (Battier), Dwyane and even (Udonis Haslem) and Chris (Bosh) were able to help. I anticipate that a lot in this series.”

In the end, style trumped substance for Heat

June, 13, 2011
Wallace By Michael Wallace
Miami Heat
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Did this year's model of the Heat lack the toughness and resolve of the 2006 championship team?

MIAMI -- In the end, it was as obvious as ever that the Miami Heat were flawed from the beginning.

And when it was over, Dwyane Wade talked about the pieces not fitting together well enough. LeBron James elaborated on how all the so-called haters and naysayers can enjoy their parade for now. Chris Bosh revealed that another team wanted it more, needed it more, had to have it more.

If you listened to the reaction from the key members of the Heat after they completed their collapse -- and, yes, that term is apt after you take a 2-1 series lead, then lose three of four, capped by one of your worst games of the postseason -- there is cause for concern moving forward.

If you heard the Heat as they withered away after the Dallas Mavericks completed a 4-2 series victory Sunday night to clinch the NBA championship, the language was startling.

Even in defeat, champions don't talk like that.

Championship-caliber teams don't get worse as the biggest series of their season progresses. They don't fumble, stumble and crumble under the sort of spotlight that requires them to be committed, aggressive and accountable. And they certainly don't publicly question the pieces, get defensive about detractors or divulge that their will wasn't where it needed to be to match that of team that beat them.

Magic Johnson, who owns a fistful of championship rings and was in AmericanAirlines Arena working the Game 6 broadcast, must have cringed when he heard how the Heat sounded as their season ended.

Bill Russell, who has two fistfuls of rings and one for a toe, must have shaken his head in bewilderment if he stuck around to hear the Heat after participating in Dallas' trophy presentation.

Charles Barkley -- who won … uh, well, never mind -- would have had enough blast material to fill an entire season of broadcasts with anti-Heat rhetoric from Sunday night's responses.

When you reach the NBA Finals, the truth is, it doesn't much matter anymore how you got there. It's about what you do -- and who you are -- once you arrive. Or, if you lose, how you exit the stage. The Heat sounded more like a team of young phenoms who just lost an AAU tournament instead of an NBA championship. They sounded like a team that will just pick up their gear, head to Vegas or Orlando, break out another pair of expensive sneakers and ball out again next week.

This one slipped away. Oh well, there's another chance next week. There's only one problem with that logic: This NBA basketball thing might be gone for a while, considering the looming labor lockout.

At a time when Wade, James and Bosh should have been locked in on shutting down the Mavericks in a series they once controlled, and then shutting up segments of the basketball world that ridiculed their every step, the Heat instead stammered down a path to perdition.

There's no doubt about it. Somewhere between Game 2 and Game 4 of the Finals, the Heat lost their soul, their spirit, their spunk, anything and everything that made them so special during an otherwise near-dominant dash through the NBA playoffs.

Give the Mavericks credit where credit is due. They clearly were takers in this series. They took advantage of the fourth-quarter generosity of the Heat, who coughed up comfortable leads. They capitalized on Miami's total lack of a defensive presence at point guard or center. They preyed on an opponent that got too caught up in petty storylines and distractions than handling business at hand.

I've used boxing metaphors before, because no sport better blends the human condition with the spectrum of sports. So in many ways for the Heat, they were Mike Tyson in Tokyo. They were intoxicated with the paparazzi following. They were the life of the Finals party. They were the popular pick to win it all, even after some flaws were exposed early in the series.

And then they got popped in the mouth, and started scrambling around the ring searching for a mouthpiece instead of getting up to answer the count.

And as a result, the Mavericks -- those takers -- snatched a championship from the Heat's waste. But here's where the Tyson-in-Tokyo analogy ends. What the Mavericks accomplished was no upset.

Team won out over top-heavy talent. Determination beat out distraction. Substance overcame style.

One team did its best work at the most clutch moments in games.

The other, ultimately, could perform up to par only at the podium in press conferences.

The hope, if you're a Miami fan right now, is that the Heat will hemorrhage a bit from this hurt and come back next season being a little less great at interviews and more committed to introspection. James and Bosh have never won the NBA's top prize. So they don't have a full grasp of what they missed out on this week.

Wade knows better. He won a title in 2006 over the Mavericks, when the Heat celebrated in Dallas the same way Dirk Nowitzki, Mark Cuban and Co. partied in Miami and turned the visitors quarters into a champagne room at AmericanAirlines Arena.

Wade once said it's much harder to win a championship early in your career and then go through the frustrations of failing to taste that sweet success again as you chase another title. So that had to make it an especially painful experience when the final buzzer of the Heat's season sounded.

Wade stuck around just long enough to congratulate the Mavericks as they celebrated on his court, having to take exactly the same feeling he dished out in Dallas five years ago when he tossed the ball high into the air as the final seconds ticked off the clock in Miami's Game 6 victory.

After that, Wade then had to make that long, slow walk down “championship alley” on Sunday, back to the Heat's locker room. That path is adorned with floor-to-ceiling photos of shots taken from the Heat's march through Dallas toward that 2006 title.

This installment of the Heat will win a title eventually. Maybe a few of them. Getting a center, a point guard and some mental toughness would be a start in any offseason improvement program. That would make this Heat team a bit more like the Dallas squad that beat them.

Actually, it'll make them more like Miami's title team in 2006.

The reality is there are so many differences between that Heat team and this one that came up short. Dirk and Jason Terry are surrounded by a superior cast in Dallas than the one they had in 2006 -- even if it was J.J. Barea, Brian Cardinal and DeShawn Stevenson who helped turn this series around.

That 2006 Heat team had more toughness. This 2011 version of the Heat has more top-heavy talent.

That team had better balance, with Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning offering defense and a far more effective post game to complement Wade's perimeter postseason brilliance.

This team had the best group of free agents money could buy, but spent all season with Wade, Bosh and James trying to avoid stepping on one another's toes.

That team five years ago had a much more reliable bench, with James Posey, Gary Payton, Zo and holdover Udonis Haslem filling any and every void. Meanwhile, on this team, you never knew what to expect from Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller or any of the Heat's centers.

That team had Pat Riley on the bench.

Case closed.

Well, except for one more thing.

That team wouldn't have gone out like this.

Not on the parquet. And certainly not at the podium.

Long on talent, short on execution

June, 13, 2011
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
Miami Heat
AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
None of the Heat's Big Three played up to his potential when it mattered most in an elimination game.

MIAMI -- Talent gets you only so far. The rest is up to execution.

This much was painfully clear for the Miami Heat in Game 6. The game of basketball is played on 94 feet of hardwood. It is not played on a preseason stage full of pyrotechnics. It is not played in a cloud of hype.

Put away the MVP trophies. Toss out the All-Star appearances. Forget the ring count.

Ultimately, to win the elusive championship, a team must simply play better basketball over the course of a seven-game series, and the Heat failed in that endeavor.

Why did the Heat lose to the Mavericks in the Finals?

The truth is in the details. With a top-heavy roster, the Heat were long on talent, but short on execution.

“They played great, we came up short, and that's really it,” Chris Bosh said after the game.

They came up short. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra used that phrase four times during his postgame presser, with each echo underlining the sobering fact that his team failed to reach its goal of winning the title. Spoelstra stressed all season that the Heat needed to execute their game plan and stay focused on the task at hand, or else they’d fall short.

And on Sunday, they didn’t just fall short. They looked completely lost in the confines of their home arena. It genuinely appeared as if Sunday was the first time the Heat had played together on a basketball court. They dribbled the ball off their own feet, passed it to the ankles of their teammates, and jumped in the air without a purpose. There was no precision, decisiveness or polish.

All the work they put in since training camp at the military base, all the chemistry that Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Bosh seemed to build during the regular season, all the poise we witnessed down the stretch against Chicago and Boston -- all of that disappeared before the millions who watched Game 6. We expected their bubbling talent to rise to the top. Instead, it vanished into thin air.

“The habits that we built all season long would suggest that how we played at times during this series was very uncharacteristic,” Spoelstra said. “That's not how we played during the season, and that certainly wasn't the way we played in the first three rounds.”

Spoelstra then diplomatically tipped his cap to the Mavericks.

“A large part of this [struggle] would probably be the competition,” Spoelstra said. “Yes, we will beat ourselves up about so many things we could have done better. But ultimately, that's what this stage is about. And sometimes as tough as it is to admit, sometimes you get beat by a team that it was their time.”

Of all the statistics printed on the page of the box score, none of them carried more weight than the 17 turnovers tallied by the Heat. The miscues alone dragged on the Heat’s offense, but the crushing blow was the fact that the 17 turnovers -- including six by James and five by Wade -- led to 27 Mavericks points.

Let’s start with James. We’re not psychologists so it’s not worth trying to speculate what’s going on between his ears. We can only talk about what we saw -- and boy, was it a train wreck.

One of the most head-shaking moments of the game came with 40 seconds remaining in the first quarter and the Heat down by five. Jason Terry had just missed a 3-pointer. Mike Miller handed the ball to James after pulling down the rebound. James took possession and started dribbling up the court. As James made his first couple trots down the floor, DeShawn Stevenson stepped up to defend James in the backcourt and to put some light pressure on him. But as soon as Stevenson got in his crouch in front of James, the two-time MVP panicked, immediately picked up his dribble and passed the ball to Miller.

The only problem? Miller wasn’t looking. He had already put his head down and started jogging down the court, but James decided to pass to Miller anyway. The ball subsequently bounced off Miller’s heels behind him. Miller had no idea that James had passed it to him until the ball ricocheted off his shoes. Stevenson picked up the loose ball behind the Mavericks 3-point line and drained a 3-spot on the Heat as James helplessly looked on underneath the Mavericks' basket.

It was just one of James’ mind-boggling errors in Game 6, but it illustrated how even the slightest sign of pressure swallowed him whole. James may be 6-foot-8 but he remains one of the best ball handlers in the game, but that moment spoke volumes about how James appeared like a different player on this Finals stage.

James barely penetrated into the paint, but when he did manage to pierce the Dallas defense, he inexplicably passed out at the first touch of resistance in the lane. That led to turnovers too. This was not the same James we were accustomed to seeing muscle his way through multiple defenders and propel himself to the rim like a wrecking ball.

No, James actively avoided contact. Instead of taking it to the rack, he dished it to Juwan Howard -- Juwan Howard! – on multiple occasions in the lane in the second half. James took four free throws during the entire game, and he was lucky to rack up that many considering how timid he looked with the ball.

Of course, Wade wasn’t much better. The Heat can survive if one of the members of the dynamic duo has an off game, but not both. Wade had five turnovers of his own, two coming in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. Down seven points with just under 10 minutes left, Wade let Terry strip him 40 feet away from the basket. Turnover, going the other way.

A couple possessions later, Wade lost focus and straight-up dribbled the ball off his foot out of bounds. Wade was supposed to represent the steady hand of a guy who’s been there before, but he was no less shaky than James.

And Bosh? Almost all of those backbreaking offensive rebounds by the Mavericks in the fourth quarter occurred because Bosh failed to either box out his man or get his hand on a live ball. All those Tyson Chandler tip-outs? That was Bosh’s guy. Each one of those offensive rebounds was Bosh’s ball to lose.

Sure, Bosh could have probably used a couple more touches on offense -- he recorded only nine shot attempts from the floor -- but he let Chandler beat him to the ball at the worst possible moments.

The Big Three came up short. The most talented trio in the NBA totaled 57 points in an elimination game at home, 10 points fewer than their average in the postseason.

Playing on their home court, Wade, Bosh and James were upstaged by the Mavericks in nearly every facet on the game. The fluid cohesion that we expected to see from the Big Three on the big stage? Nowhere to be found.

The NBA is not a fantasy league. This will be a lasting message of the Heat’s 2010-11 season. You can’t just assemble a talented trio, add up all the individual stats, and start collecting the rings. Basketball is more complicated and more nuanced than that.

For all the hours of highlight reels that the Heat accumulated over the course of the season, the Big Three will remember other things. James will be haunted by all the times he couldn’t puncture the Mavericks' defense. Wade will run through all the shots that he missed and the balls that he coughed up down the stretch. Bosh won’t forget all the rebounds that Chandler stole from his grasp.

You can have all the talent in the world, but the chemistry and execution matters most.

“It’s like a puzzle,” Wade explained after the game. “And their pieces came together a little bit better than ours at the end.”

After the first trial of the NBA's great experiment, the puzzle is still waiting to be solved.

A season without acquittal for LeBron

June, 13, 2011
Windhorst By Brian Windhorst
LeBron James
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
LeBron James found a change of scenery, but finished the season with the same result.

MIAMI -- The screams and laughs wafted into the interview room from the nearby Dallas Mavericks locker room, and LeBron James and Dwyane Wade couldn’t avoid having it wash over them. All around them were the sounds of celebration in their own building, salt in their wounds as similar cheers were raging across the country.

Space, time, irony and remorse; these realities and emotions were crashing down on the Miami Heat. Everyone had a part in it. This defeat had many fathers. But no one felt the weight more than James.

In this same space -- a couple feet away in fact -- where they were feeling their lowest, Wade, James and Chris Bosh had once boarded a hydraulic lift to announce their arrival in Miami to the world. A world that was so turned off by it that they stayed up late and had parties and jammed Facebook and Twitter with glee at the Mavs’ 105-95 vanquishing of the Heat in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night.

“Sometimes you got it, sometimes you don’t,” James told the media. “The Greater Man upstairs know [sic] when it's my time. Right now isn't the time,” James told his Twitter followers a few minutes later.

That time. Yes, time is now all James has and it’s going to be hard time, too. With the start of next season in doubt because of labor issues and no free agency to distract the basketball world he lives in from another late-season personal collapse, there’s no redemption on the horizon.

Then there’s the irony. The Heat lost to the Mavs, whose owner Mark Cuban was so enraged that James, then a free agent, wouldn’t even grant his franchise a meeting last summer that he called for an investigation into how James, Wade and Chris Bosh all came to the decision to shift the NBA’s balance of power. Now the same man was carrying the Larry O’Brien Trophy right out of their building.

“I could care less about the Heat, that’s their problem,” Cuban said with the bravado of a man who was tasting revenge and vindication in the same moment. “They did their thing, we did ours.”

On to the remorse. This will be the toughest one because it’s a burden James, and his teammates too, will have to endure alone. The grisly statistics will dog him forever, even if he’s able to enjoy supreme success in the future. The film will chase his legacy too, the unexplainable possessions in which he looked lost and unsure of his talents. The whole quarters when his usually fantastic play was inexplicably missing.

In Game 6, James scored nine points in the first few minutes, looking to all like he was finally showing some mettle before it was too late. Then he went 36 minutes while scoring just five more points, throwing odd passes, deferring and looking passive all over again.

By the fourth quarter it was too late. He’d actually made a few baskets -- scoring seven points -- which qualified for his best fourth quarter of a series in which he had vanished so glaringly that people were asking about injuries and making up rumors to make their minds fit what their eyes were seeing.

Just like last season in Cleveland where James' performance in the clutch was the polar opposite of what his talent and history called for. Just like when the top-seeded Cavs got behind the Celtics, as soon as the Mavs turned the tables on the Heat midway through this series James' swagger and game left him. When the Heat were beating the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls, series they took control of early, James was a brilliant frontrunner. At his best, really, finishing those teams off.

It was now when he was expected to rediscover that dominance with anger and motivation from the Mavs and the masses. Everyone around him thought so, too. They talked to him about it, they encouraged him, they expected it. Even his biggest detractors and critics knew it could happen. They qualified and tempered their lashings over the past two weeks expecting James to answer at some point.

But as he went through another puzzling game Sunday -- dishing repeatedly to Juwan Howard at the rim instead of taking the ball to the basket himself, passing up wide-open shots when the ball came his way, standing and watching on defense like it was a summer camp drill at times -- it got more and more clear.

James couldn’t do it.

So fitting was the moment in the fourth quarter when the Heat were trying to cobble together a comeback and Mario Chalmers and James found themselves on a break together. James called for the ball. Chalmers saw him but kept it, trying to beat two Mavs players by himself. It was a brash play by a headstrong and fearless player that was wrong, but it was also a glaring indication of where James’ teammates apparently thought he was by then. Chalmers felt like he could do it better by himself.

James finished with 21 points, the most on the Heat, on what looks like a wonderful 9-of-15 shooting performance. It was, in fact, a better game than Wade's; he shot 6-of-16 and had just 17 points. But Wade’s game had so much more will and passion. He was blazing across the floor trying to carry the Heat through it.

In the coming weeks, Wade’s heartache will be as intense as his teammates'. But while it’ll be fair to cry over his execution, his drive was unquestioned and he goes to sleep every night knowing he’s still a champion. His mistakes, and there were plenty, came from aggression and the desire not to lose.

So were Chalmers’, who had 18 points, seven assists and three steals. And Udonis Haslem's, who had 11 points and nine rebounds on a foot that still isn’t totally healed. Bosh, too. He didn’t rise to the level of counterpart Dirk Nowitzki, true. No one could. But Bosh acquitted himself better in these playoffs than perhaps anyone on the Heat team. He finished Game 6 with 19 points and eight rebounds.

All of them played like their playoff lives were on the line Sunday night. James, again, played much of it like he was stuck in a bad dream.

After James’ Game 4, when he scored eight points in a game that truly turned the tide in the series after he was unable to impact the outcome when the Heat were just a big play or two away from grabbing a 3-1 series lead, the demand for James to respond was immense. A marginal improvement would not do. He needed to roar back because of his talent and those fresh memories from the past two rounds.

Of course, he did not. More chilling, it looked like he could not.

For those who cursed him when he signed with the Heat last summer -- be it fans of the teams he spurned or those turned off by the nature of his announcement -- it was like Christmas. Even buried in the bubble of friends and family he’s crafted over the years to protect him, he knew it and heard it as clearly as those Mavs players, coaches and officials cracking open Budweisers down the hall.

Left threadbare, all James could do was deploy his defense mechanisms.

“All the people that were rooting me on to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life they had before,” James said. “They have the same personal problems they had today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want with me and my family and be happy with that.”

Yes, James could leave in his Bentley or Rolls Royce or Maybach or whatever vehicle he chose to drive. He could, indeed, go home to his mansion where his personal chef might have a five-star meal waiting. Then off to his plush bed with 1,500-thread-count sheets. In a few days, it’ll be off on a private jet for a needed vacation.

The vast majority of those who toasted his defeat will wake up and go to work on Monday morning.

James is a multimillionaire now and he’ll still be a multimillionaire after the coming lockout ends. As a two-time MVP, he's earned it. All these things will provide him plenty of comfort while his performance is eviscerated nationally.

“They can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy that not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal,” James said. “But they’ll have to get back to the real world at some point.”

And there’s the rub. So, too, will James. Eight years in, James is walking away from another season with no ring. In the past he could -- and did -- with his head high while quietly blame others. Last year, he got away with a series in which he failed to deliver.

Now, in the real world, there’s nowhere to hide.

NBA Finals Game 6: Five things to watch

June, 12, 2011
By Kevin Arnovitz and Tom Haberstroh

What kind of game can we expect from LeBron James?
Game 6 is a do-or-die affair for Miami and a potential clincher for Dallas, but all eyes will be on LeBron James. Virtually everyone tuning in wants to know if James can turn the page and write a heroic third act to his Finals melodrama or if he'll continue to sputter.

At this point, no midnight shooting sessions at AmericanAirlines Center or motivational speeches from Pat Riley can snap James out of his slump. If he's going to embrace the moment and deliver on his otherworldly talent, it will have to come from within.

However impressive James' playmaking, defense and activity might have been over the first 43 minutes of action Thursday, he must find a way to wreak havoc when it matters most down the stretch.

Late-game basketball can be riddling to watch. What is it about the final five or six minutes that causes a guy who found shots in close proximity to the hoop for two hours to settle for a contested long-range jump shot against an inferior defender or a 25-footer when there's still plenty of time left on the clock?

There are no simple answers, but James must tackle the same nagging issue that's festered for years at inopportune moments. He must find opportunities close to the hoop, where he can exploit his size and strength. Whether that's attacking off the dribble or demanding the ball on the low block, where he can either overpower his matchup or pass out of a double-team, LeBron must be more assertive.

His talent simply demands it.

How can the Heat make sure 13-for-19 doesn’t happen again?
The Heat lost by nine points in Game 5, equal to a margin of three 3-pointers. Framing it in that context feels appropriate, considering the Mavericks made 13 of their 19 shots from downtown, which goes down as one of the hottest displays of 3-point shooting in playoff history. Sure, we knew the Mavericks had a 3-point downpour somewhere in their back pocket, but not to this extent.

The reality is that the Mavericks hit a ton of contested 3s. As painful as it was for the Heat in Game 5, it also provides a silver lining heading into Game 6. Miami contested almost every 3-pointer with a hand in their face, but Jason Terry, Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki each hit shots that were going in regardless. That’s just how it goes sometimes.

Of course, there are ways to prevent the Mavericks from getting those looks in the first place. The Heat’s defensive rotations must be sharper. When a Mavericks shooter received an open look beyond the arc, it usually came off of a slow rotation early in the possession that triggered a chain reaction of late recoveries. The Mavericks dart the ball around the perimeter, so every moment in the defensive rotation counts. All too often, the Heat were playing catch-up.

The Heat said they lost Game 5 because of their defense, not because James disappeared in the fourth quarter again, or that their offensive execution was shaky. And for the most part, they’re right. After all, Miami’s offensive efficiency in Game 5 was the team’s second-best of the playoffs. But they have to be quicker on the rotations in Game 6, or else they may not live to see Game 7.

Will Dwyane Wade’s hip injury be an issue?
At the Heat’s practice Saturday, Wade bluntly addressed the concerns about the right hip he injured in Game 5, saying “I'll be totally fine.”

He didn’t look totally fine in Game 5. Wade missed the first seven and a half minutes of the second half after finishing out the second quarter. Wade looked grounded, rarely jumping around like his normal self. In fact, Wade didn’t pull down his first rebound until there was five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. He collected only two boards during the entire game, and both of them fell into his lap. This is a guy who averaged 7.3 rebounds per game in the playoffs coming into the game.

The Heat can get away with playing Joel Anthony, one of the worst rebounding centers in the game, for long minutes because Wade and James crash the boards like big men and pick up the slack. But if Wade plays tentatively underneath the rim like he did in Game 5, the concerns over the hip will only grow louder.

As a player who relies on changing directions at full speed, Wade will have a harder time with that bum hip in planting one foot and exploding in the opposite direction at the same time. The devastating Euro move doesn’t happen with a sore pelvic bone.

Wade received some much-needed rest and treatment in time off, but keep an eye on Wade’s explosiveness in the opening minutes. If he’s rising up and pulling down rebounds, juking players left and right, then Wade is back to his old self. If he’s not, the Heat will be in serious trouble with their backs up against the wall.

Can the Heat stay on a roll offensively?
Lost amid the historic barrage of 3-pointers by the Mavericks was the fact the Heat had a pretty darn good offensive night in Game 5 -- their finest since Game 3 of the first round.

Even as they rolled though the Eastern Conference bracket with a 12-3 record, the Heat struggled offensively in nearly every game. But on Thursday night, the half-court offense was humming. And one of the Heat's more impressive feats was their ability to pick Dallas apart on pick-and-roll sets.

Nine times the Heat hit the roll man, often with pinpoint pocket passes from James and Wade, for a total of 14 points (which would have been 16 had Chris Bosh drained both ends on two trips to the line in the second half).

It's a formula that seems elementary. After all, James and Wade will almost always command a trap or, at the very least, a very hard show by the Mavericks' big men defending those high screens. That will inevitably leave the likes of Bosh and Haslem with open space as they rumble to the rim.

Dallas' defensive rotations have typically been very prompt, but the Heat lifted their big men and spread the floor. This created longer commutes for Dallas defenders to rotate, a task made harder by the speed and momentum of Bosh and Haslem rolling hard to the rim.

If the Heat want to sustain their offensive momentum in Game 6, they'll need a repeat performance from all involved.

Is there truth to the Heat's claim they play their best ball in adverse conditions?
From the very outset of the season, the Heat have promulgated this us-against-the-world theory: When it looks like the roof is caving in, the Heat can bounce back so long as they don't ... let ... go ... of ... the ... rope.

That was true when they opened the season 9-8, when the media pounced on "BumpGate," "ChillGate," "TweetGate" and "CryGate."

Headed into Game 6 with no margin of error, there's no "Gate" to describe the Heat's predicament. For Miami, the adversity they face can be summed up in a familiar NBA chestnut:

Win or go home.

Fortunately for the Heat, they are home at AmericanAirlines Arena, a place where they've racked up a 10-1 record during the postseason.

Whether they can parlay home-court advantage into the kind of comeback staged by the Los Angeles Lakers last season, who also returned home with a 3-2 series deficit, will depend on whether they can stay true to their offense, apply the defensive intensity that enabled them to roll through the Eastern Conference finals and, as Spoelstra has said so many times over the past eight months, trust each other when it matters most.

The Heat assembled three of the four most efficient offensive players from the 2009-10 season. That congregation of talent was supposed to be the foundation for their title run this season. If they want to stave off mortality, it will fall upon James, Wade and Bosh to bring their very best.

What can momentum tell us in the Finals?

June, 12, 2011
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
James and Wade
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
For LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat, momentum has been a fickle thing in these Finals.

MIAMI -- Can a team starring LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh win two games in a row on its home court?

Of course it can.

But in the age of immediacy, in which everyone rushes to judgment, it seems the Dallas Mavericks have this one in the bag. James is back to being irreversibly flawed. Erik Spoelstra is back to being in over his head. And the Heat are back to being the team that can’t close the door.

We’re speaking in absolutes again.

“There's so many different opinions and storylines out there,” Spoelstra said Saturday. “The reality is no one really knows.”

We don’t know what will happen in Game 6, even though it feels like the Mavericks have all the momentum in their favor. Inertia is a fickle little thing. The Heat seemed to be rolling after closing out Game 1 with a flourish. And then they lost Game 2. After winning Game 3 in Dallas, the Heat appeared to have restored order -- but then they lost two straight.

After watching the see-saw battle in the Finals, we’re reminded that predicting the future is hard work. But that’s also what makes this compelling theater. Expect the unexpected.

What we do know is that it will be very hard for the Mavericks to repeat their offensive onslaught from Game 5. This was a team that had shot 37.9 percent from beyond the arc in the playoffs, then erupted for 68.4 percent (13-for-19) in one game. How rare is that? Shooting that well on that many 3-point attempts has happened only five times in 1,615 playoff games over the past 20 years. That’s as big of an outlier as it gets.

But the overall 3-point percentage wasn’t the most stunning part of the night; it was the conversion rate on contested shots from downtown. That Jason Terry 3-point dagger in the final minute was just one example. In fact, after reviewing the tape, nine of the 13 3-pointers the Mavericks hit were with a hand in their faces.

We all remember the Terry 3-pointer because of the late-game circumstances, but lest we forget the one in the beginning of the second quarter, when Terry threw up a prayer from the left wing off his right shoulder with the shot clock expiring. It splashed through the net, but Mike Miller couldn’t have defended it any better. If you’re the Heat, you shrug your shoulders and move on.

It’s certainly possible the Mavericks continue shooting lights-out on contested shots, but the more likely scenario is that they fall back to Earth in Game 6. Those five teams that matched the Mavericks' Game 5 scorcher from downtown? They shot 39 percent from beyond the arc in the following game. Still pretty good, but they cooled off.

Sustainable shooting or not, the reality is that the Heat find themselves with their backs against the wall, down 3-2 in the series with potentially two games left in front of their home crowd. All the momentum seems to be on the visitor’s side. If this scenario sounds familiar, that’s because we just saw it a year ago. The Los Angeles Lakers lost Game 5 to the Boston Celtics in Beantown, bringing the Lakers to the brink of elimination.

“We have a challenge obviously down 3-2. We let a couple opportunities slip away. But it is what it is. Now you go home, you've got two games at home that you need to win, and you pull your boots up and get to work.”

Those are the words of Kobe Bryant fresh off the Game 5 loss to the Celtics in last year’s Finals, but they could just as easily have been said by James or Wade in the past 48 hours.

The challenge ahead, the squandered opportunities, returning to the home crowd. We’ve heard it all before. The Lakers subsequently pulled up their boots and won the next two games to bring home a second straight title.

Of course, just because Boston blew the 3-2 lead, it doesn’t mean we’ll see an encore performance from the Mavericks. It merely means that there’s precedence. And the Celtics aren’t the only ones. As ESPN Stats & Info tells us, Dallas is the sixth team to go up 3-2 while facing Games 6 and 7 on the road. Of the previous five to do it, two went on to win the Finals in Game 6 (2006 Heat, 1998 Bulls) while each of the remaining three lost its series in seven games.

Each game in this Finals has been extremely close, coming down to a toss-up in the final few minutes. And there’s no reason to believe Game 6 will be any different. If we’ve learned anything over the past few weeks, it’s that momentum changes game to game and the script can be flipped in a matter of seconds.

These things change. Remember, the Heat were the best closing team in the playoffs, until they weren’t. Terry couldn’t hit a clutch shot to save his life, until he did. Dirk Nowitzki and James couldn’t win a title, and soon, we’ll all find out who did.

Dwyane Wade must carry the Heat home

June, 12, 2011
Wallace By Michael Wallace
Dwyane Wade
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
It's Dwyane Wade's time to take the reins and try to bring the Heat back from the brink.

MIAMI -- Before the hydraulic lifts would catapult them onto the stage, before the fireworks boldly and flamboyantly introduced this unprecedented union and before their numerous detractors around the basketball world had a chance to dig their nails in with disdain, there was a much more humbling reality developing backstage that night in July for the Miami Heat.

Before they made their first public appearance as the core of a team much of America would soon love to hate, they were simply two dudes who were tentative and overwhelmed by the occasion they were about to step into being comforted by one obvious leader.

As LeBron James walked onto the lift, he grabbed a railing, leaned over and stared toward the ground with an expressionless face and appeared almost nervously uncomfortable.

Chris Bosh was on the exact opposite end of the emotional landscape, as giddy, fidgety and hyped as a 12-year-old on a shopping spree at a video game store.

And then there was Dwyane Wade, literally and figuratively in the middle, the mayor of the moment -- as cool and collected as the Dos Equis man -- simultaneously calming the jitterbug friend to his right and cheering up the buddy on his left.

“We've done this before fellas,” Wade reassured James and Bosh seconds before they rose to the stage for that rock concert-like introduction at AmericanAirlines Arena to kick off their signing party. “It's just like in the All-Star Game. Remember?”

Eleven months later, it's Wade who must again step to the forefront and rescue the Heat from a potential meltdown in the NBA Finals they won't soon forget.

Despite how many headlines and how much hoopla would accompany the transition of James and Bosh to Miami, there was never much debate whether this was Wade's town.

And with James seeming reluctant to impose his will along with Bosh's consistent stretch of inconsistency in falling down 3-2 against the Dallas Mavericks, there's no question it's Wade's time.

It was Wade who played the lead role in bringing these guys together. And it's his obligation to carry them home, with the Heat needing a victory Sunday in Game 6 and another in Game 7 on Tuesday to deliver a championship. A loss in either of those games would almost assuredly trigger the pundits' process of ranking Miami's meltdown among the most stunning collapses in recent Finals history.

Much like last July, this is another moment when Wade might need to make it clear that it's his town, his team, his time. From there, everyone else falls into place and everything else falls in line.

“I understand the importance of it, obviously,” Wade said of the moment at hand for the Heat. “Up to this point, the leadership that I've portrayed will come to the forefront and my teammates will understand the things that I've been saying. The time is now. The time is here.”

And only time will tell if Wade can lead the Heat past the most daunting test of his career.

Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks have snatched momentum away in this series by perfectly timing some clutch shooting and playmaking late in games with the Heat's penchant to collapse in the fourth quarter. When the Heat blew a 15-point fourth-quarter lead in a Game 2 loss, they insisted it was an aberration.

When they squandered a 13-point lead in the second half but rallied back for a win in Game 3 to take a 2-1 series lead, the Heat vowed to end the disturbing trend.

But when they couldn't hold a nine-point lead with less than 10 minutes to play in Game 4, the sobering reality began to set in. A series that could have been a sweep was now in danger of being swiped away.

Dallas was simply the better team in Game 5. And as a result, the Mavericks are a more confident team.

They've fought off doom and are embracing the notion of destiny, with two shots to get one win for a title. And considering the way the Mavericks regained their shooting stroke in Game 5 that allowed them to sweep the Los Angeles Lakers in the semifinals and get past Oklahoma City to advance to the Finals, the Heat will be flirting with disaster if they find themselves locked in another tight game Sunday.

These are times when teams lean on leaders.

D-Wade is that for this Heat team.

Especially at this time.

“It's not just on [Wade], and it's not just on myself or [Bosh],” James said. “It's on all of us. D-Wade knows that it takes to win a championship, coming back when you're down. But we know none of us can win it by ourselves. That's why we're here. That's why we came together.”

Sacrificing money in free agency to get Bosh and James here was fine. Now, it's time to get a little selfish with the season on the line.

Deferring to make sure James would eventually find a comfort zone with the team, the town and the coaching staff was admirable. Now, it's time for Wade to get back to dominating.

James might break out of his fourth-quarter funk just in time to help save the season. But if you're Wade, can you really sit back and trust that it will happen, giving the circumstances of this series?

Bosh might distance himself from those in-game disappearing acts when the offense either goes away from him, or he fails to assert himself. But if you're Wade, can you afford to wait?

Of course, Wade can't do it alone. But for 102 games this season, including the playoffs, having James and Bosh was a unique luxury. Bosh is still figuring out what it takes to be a big-time presence in postseason basketball. James has a history of doing his best work in the regular season and through the first two or three rounds of the playoffs.

But if there were any doubts as to whether the waters at this stage of the season would prove to be too choppy for James and Bosh, they've confirmed at times in the Finals that this is uncharted territory.

Wade is the lone player among them who has navigated this path to a championship, conquering the Mavericks back in 2006 with four consecutive heroic performances to rally from a 2-0 series deficit. The message he delivers before Game 6 will be listened to more intently. The way in which he'll lead on the court will be followed.

“He's tasted this before, he's been here before,” Bosh said. “He's experienced being in this situation and has come out on top. Just to hear his side of it and what he says, and with him knowing exactly how much you have to give to come out on top, we can take something from that and we'll go as he goes.”

Bosh said Wade has mixed up his leadership style throughout the playoffs.

Against Philadelphia in the first round, Wade led more vocally. He started by organizing a team dinner the night before that series opened and broke out his championship ring from 2006 to remind everyone around the table what they were all there to accomplish.

Against Boston in the second round, Wade allowed his game to do the talking as he shot 52.6 percent from the floor and averaged 30.2 points and 6.8 rebounds.

He struggled against Chicago in the conference finals, but led by example in showing that the best team leaders can also be devoted followers. That was the series James carried the Heat and delivered them to the Finals.

Now, teammates say Wade is bringing all the pieces together.

“The action is always there,” Bosh said. “Once he's locked in, he challenges everybody else. And I think that's good for all the guys to hear, because he got a great voice for that.”

Now is the time when that voice needs to come through as loudly and as clearly as it ever has before.

“His leadership is evident every single day,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It's the moment that every professional wants right now. We are not going to overexaggerate it. We are still going to be who we are. But Dwyane's been here. Guys respect his voice because there's integrity behind what he says. There's absolute substance and meaning. And he's backed it up with his actions.”

Spoelstra went on to say that the special thing about this Heat team is that different guys have been able to step up at different times and lead, based on need.

The need now is clearly for it to be Wade's time.

As sore as that left hip he bruised in Game 5 might feel, he must provide the foundation for the Heat's fight Sunday night to keep their title hopes alive.

Just like last July, Wade was the only one on that hydraulic lift who had any idea what to expect when they hit the stage as both the fireworks and music blasted and the flashbulbs popped.

The other day, Wade used a cinematic analogy to describe the moment and urgency with which the Heat needed to respond in this series.

“Now, we're getting down to when, really, the popcorn is popping and the movie is about to -- well, the movie has started, and we've got to get there.”

Yep, Joakim Noah. You're right. They are Hollywood as hell. Have been since July.

But that's fine. As long as the right guys are cast in the right roles.

Until this point, Wade has done the right thing by moving over to make space for James to share equal billing on the marquee.

But with the Heat's season on the brink, it's obvious who the leading man should be.

“I look across the locker room and I see the guys I'm coming out on the floor with -- and we look forward to it,” Wade said. “I'm excited about this and I'm confident in my team.”

It was Wade who set the tone when this show started 11 months ago.

That's when the movie started. The popcorn has been popping since then.

And it'll be up to Wade to prevent the curtain from closing too soon on what would be a stale finish to a Heat season that's been, at times, dominant.

Yet always dramatic.

In the NBA, there is (still) always time

June, 10, 2011
Windhorst By Brian Windhorst
Miami Heat
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
The Heat still have time to turn things around because, in the NBA, things can change quickly

DALLAS -- In the NBA, there’s always time.

That was the way I started a story on March 10 when the Miami Heat were on a five-game losing streak. They were also a national joke at that moment because coach Erik Spoelstra had oddly announced some of his players were crying in the locker room after a tough home loss to the Chicago Bulls.

Now, with the Heat on the brink of being vanquished by the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals following a couple of high-intensity nights in Texas, it is time to recall the proverb that refreshes itself over and over.

In the NBA, there’s always time.

After a decade covering the league, I can tell you that is one of the honored truths. It’s as essential a tenet to the game as stuff such as “one game at a time” and “defense wins championships.”

Boring and tedious, yes, but relentlessly true.

No one is a bigger believer in the "there’s always time" principle than the Mavs. After all, they’ve come from behind in the fourth quarter in all three of their Finals wins. They have three 15-point comebacks on the road in the playoffs over the last two months. That includes the masterpiece they assembled against the Heat in Game 2, which is truly the difference in this series.

There’s no need to tell veterans Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry that individual games offer enough time for a team to settle in the coffin only to pull a Houdini. They’ve lived it over and over. The clock moves slow and momentum and whistles are fleeting. When the Heat got under their skin by celebrating up 15 points with seven minutes to go in Game 2, the Mavs' collective belief on the bench:

There’s time.

As usual, there was.

With Dwyane Wade limping, LeBron James slumping and the Mavs surging, it would be quite easy to reach a conclusion that the Heat are barely hanging on. The Mavs were certainly impressive in their 112-103 Game 5 victory, and there weren’t very many fans who left the American Airlines Center thinking they wouldn’t be back for a parade sometime soon.

“We look at it the other way,” Spoelstra said. “We’re going home and we wouldn’t have it any other way than the hard way. That’s why you play a seven-game series. You’ve got to play it out.”

It’s not quite believable that the Heat want it the so-called “hard way," but otherwise Spoelstra’s statement is true. His team has time left just as it did back in March when the world seemed as if it was caving in. It won a home game then went on a 29-7 run to take a 2-1 lead over the Mavs in the Finals before it lost two consecutive games.

No one needs this allotted time more right now than James, who is coming off the worst collection of three consecutive playoff games of his career. His time in Dallas saw him shoot just 39 percent and average just 14 points per game, the low point coming in an eight-point outing that will qualify as one of the most bizarre Finals efforts in this generation.

It obviously has been a mostly dreadful series for James. Not even the most radical and attention-seeking offshore sports books would’ve created this prop bet: James has more fouls (18) than free throws (16) in the first five games of the series.

At this point some have written James off in this series and branded him with a number of adjectives, the most popular being that he’s “shrinking.” His substandard fourth-quarter play, especially when compared to the recent monster finisher Nowitzki, has created a string of jokes across the Internet. After James scored only two points in the fourth in Game 5 after going scoreless in final frame of Game 4, every reasonable NBA fan's Twitter feed by noon had at least three versions of a joke about James being unable to make change for a dollar because he lacks a fourth quarter.

James has earned criticism for many different reasons dating back a year. Most recently, it was his less than acceptable triple-double in Game 5 that included just 17 points and nowhere near the clutch play presented by Nowitzki, Terry and Jason Kidd. Perhaps James will have to hear about these two weeks for the next few years.

But declaring it so now just may not be wise. Because -- you know where this is going -- there is always time. Time for James to save his reputation, time for the Heat to win the series, time for the Mavs to be put to the ultimate test.

“We’ve got two games left,” James said. “We’ll be better in Game 6 on Sunday.”

Maybe and maybe not. Time will tell us, it always does.

Wade bruised by hip injury, Game 5 loss

June, 10, 2011
Wallace By Michael Wallace
Dwayne Wade
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images
An injured hip limited Dwyane Wade to 34 minutes in Game 5, but that's not all he's hurting from.

DALLAS -- It's a safe bet Dwyane Wade will wake up sore and angry Friday morning.

The question is which bruises will hurt more as the Miami Heat retreat back to South Florida facing elimination after Thursday's 112-103 loss to the Dallas Mavericks dropped them into a 3-2 series hole heading into Game 6 on Sunday.

There's the injury: a left hip contusion he insists won't keep him out of action with his team's season and title aspirations hanging in the balance.

And then there's the agony: knowing that the Heat have allowed the Mavericks to hang around long enough to gain momentum on the heels of their most complete game of the series.

Wade sustained the hip injury with 4:01 left in the first quarter as he drove to the basket and ran into Mavericks forward Brian Cardinal, who was called for a blocking foul while attempting to draw a charge. Wade made both free throws, left the game two minutes later and collapsed on the floor in front of the Heat's bench before he was escorted to the locker room.

Wade refused to make the injury an issue after the game, but it was serious enough to require extensive treatment that kept him in the locker room for the start of the second half and it affected his play down the stretch as Dallas closed the game on a 17-4 run.

“I don't talk about injuries -- it was unfortunate I had to leave the game, but I came back and finished,” Wade said. “Once you're on the court, you're on the court. I don't have no excuses. I'm smart enough to play the game without obviously being 100 percent. That's all I did when I came back.”

Wade finished with a team-high 23 points on 6-of-12 shooting from the floor. He also was 10-of-12 from the free throw line and had eight assists, two rebounds, two steals and four turnovers in 34 minutes. Wade missed the first seven minutes of the third quarter while he was treated by doctors and trainers before he returned to replace Mike Miller, who started the second half at shooting guard.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said he went into the second half anticipating that Wade wouldn't return.

“My plan was for him not to go,” Spoelstra said. “I didn't even see him on the bench when he came back. We went on from there. We still had an opportunity to close this out. We weren't able to do it, and so now, when we go back to Miami, we wouldn't have it any other way. Nothing we've achieved this year has been easy. So we're certainly not going to start now.”

With Wade still in the locker room, the Heat got a boost early in the third quarter from Miller, who made two 3-pointers and scored six of his nine points in the period. After Miller tied the game at 60 on his first shot of the half, Dallas outscored Miami by seven before Wade re-entered the game.

The Heat committed five of their 18 turnovers in the third quarter and could never get on track.

Heat forward LeBron James said the team tried to play through Wade's absence but could never really make up any ground when he was out of the game.

“We just tried to work our same offense,” said James, who tried to be more aggressive offensively while Wade was out. “I was able to get into the lane a couple of times, hit out for 3s, hit out for guys that got some layups, and also I was able to get to the rim a couple of times, put a little pressure on the defense. But it's nothing that you can really change.

"It's our habits we've been working through all season. With him being out, we just try to do the same thing as if he was in, but knowing that one of our scorers is down. Guys had to come in and try to make plays, pick up the slack.”

Wade returned and had his most productive stretch in the fourth quarter, when he led the Heat with 10 points and three assists and played all 12 minutes. Defensively, the Heat's perimeter players struggled to keep up with Dallas guards Jason Terry, J.J. Barea and Jason Kidd, who combined for 19 of their team's 28 points in the fourth quarter.

Terry said he couldn't tell how much the leg injury affected Wade down the stretch.

“When he came back in the game, he came back aggressive,” Terry said. “So I don't know if he was hurt or what. To us, it doesn't matter. He was on the floor. He got opportunities. He drove to the basket. So he's a tough cover. If he's out there, he's a threat.”

Wade vows to be back out there again Sunday. He'll have two full days of rest and treatment on his left hip. Wade has had similar injuries with both legs in the past despite wearing protective pads beneath his uniform near his hips, thighs and knees.

As Wade walked out of the American Airlines Center late Thursday, he was mocked by Mavericks fans who asked whether he needed a wheelchair. He smiled and kept walking toward the Heat's bus. Despite the discomfort and disappointment he felt Thursday, he was focused on the larger dilemma his team faces.

“I'll be fine Sunday,” Wade said. “The good thing about life, good thing about this game, we get another opportunity, another crack at it. We'll do whatever it takes to win [Game 6]. We're confident.”

Heat need a plan for Mavs' 'other' 7-footer

June, 9, 2011
Wallace By MIchael Wallace
DALLAS -- The Miami Heat knew they would face a tremendous challenge in the NBA Finals with a certain 7-footer from the Dallas Mavericks who creates matchup problems with his length, relentless play and ability to dominate games in stretches.

“Someone has to take the challenge in our locker room of trying to limit [him] as much as possible if we're going to win a championship,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said.

Wade wasn't referring to Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavericks' perennial All-Star who has repeatedly torched the Heat with his late-game heroics to help Dallas knot the series at 2-2 heading into Game 5 tonight at the American Airlines Center.

The Heat expected every bit of Dirk's exploits in this series.

But Tyson Chandler has been the one Miami has had problems accounting for through the first four games. Chandler's energy, effort, rebounding and defense have sent the Heat searching for adjustments on the heels of his 13-point, 16-rebound performance during the Mavericks' 86-83 victory in Game 4.

With so much of the focus geared toward containing Nowitzki and preventing guard Jason Kidd from controlling the tempo, Chandler has effectively been able to slip through the cracks in Miami's game plan to repeatedly get in position for rebounds, putbacks and tip-outs to extend possessions.

Nowitzki is the 7-footer who has garnered the headlines in this series.

But Chandler has been causing the headaches.

During a series in which the last three games have been decided by three or fewer points, the assortment of little things that Chandler has done on the court has had a big impact on the outcome. Of all the statistics and numbers crunched in the aftermath of Tuesday's loss, the one that most concerned the Heat was Chandler's nine offensive rebounds, including four in the fourth quarter.

Most of the dirty work came as the Mavericks rallied from a nine-point deficit with a 17-4 run. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra insists his team has the capable bodies down low to slow the 7-1 Chandler -- or to at least match his activity and production in the paint.

But Heat starting center Joel Anthony, a 6-9 shot-blocker, has been unable to keep Chandler from being disruptive in the lane. Chris Bosh, a power forward who primarily has guarded Chandler instead of Nowitzki, has struggled with his own rebounding in addition to keeping Chandler off the glass.

Miami has left three 7-footers on the bench during the series -- Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Jamaal Magloire and Erick Dampier -- and Spoelstra hasn't hinted at any potential changes in the rotation, although he also didn't rule out potential adjustments to counter Chandler.

“It goes without stating, obviously,” Spoelstra said when asked if Chandler, who also is shooting a team-high 57.1 percent from the floor, is hurting the Heat in stretches almost as much as Nowitzki. “Nine offensive rebounds and putting a lot of pressure, getting to the rim. He's an impact player, and he has been for several years when he's been healthy. We understand that. We have to meet him with force, with effort, and we have to be relentless, because he does offer them relief points in the paint with his aggressiveness.”

Chandler has also been a legitimate two-way threat at center, which is a dynamic the Heat lack at the position. Chandler has averaged 10 points and 9.5 rebounds in the series, with his workload and minutes having increased the past two games since backup Brendan Haywood sustained a hip injury.

Asked specifically if he believed he has the personnel and confidence in his post players to offset Chandler's impact, Spoelstra didn't shy away from the challenge.

“Yes,” he said. “We've played against a lot of big teams already in the games we won. The two games [Games 1 and 3], we've been able to impact the big muscle areas enough. So yes.”

Bosh said the Heat have to get back to winning the “hustle areas” of the game. To accomplish that, it's as much about effort as it is execution. It's as much about aggression as it is adjustments.

“We have to tighten up our defense,” Bosh said. “We have to continue to give them one shot and we've got to get out in that open court and get some easy baskets ourselves, and really swing momentum back our way if we're going to win in this building. That's relief for us. We have to keep our minds in it.”

And that's why Wade theoretically placed a "Help Wanted" ad in the Heat's locker room entering Game 5 as both teams look to move to within a victory of winning an NBA championship.

For the Heat, dealing with Dirk presents one major dilemma.

But challenging Chandler can be just as difficult of a task.

“Tyson has had a similar impact to Dirk in the sense of the importance he means to the team,” Wade said. “We have to make an adjustment on what we're doing with him.”

NBA Finals Game 5: Five things to watch

June, 9, 2011
By Kevin Arnovitz and Tom Haberstroh
From the Miami perspective, there's one dominant storyline headed into Game 5: What is going on with LeBron James? In today's "5 Things," we focus on prescriptions. What do James and the Heat need to do to get James going?

Here are five suggestions:

Why isn't James attacking more?
Why do the Mavericks send a double-team when Jason Kidd is guarding James? Because it’s an incredibly unfair one-on-one matchup for the 38-year-old. But the funny thing is that James doesn’t seem to realize it.

In Game 4, when James caught the ball in a post-up or isolation against Kidd, who stands 6-foot-4, James waited … and waited … and waited for the double-team to come. Instead, he should have the mindset to attack, attack, attack when a mini-Juwan Howard attempts to guard him. Considering James’ size and athleticism, Kidd should be roadkill in the half court, but somehow the Mavericks point guard has managed to be a spike strip in front of James.

James will tell you he isn’t attacking right away -- called a "quick attack" in coaching circles -- in these situations because he wants to facilitate and get his teammates involved when the help comes. That’s a perfectly acceptable and rational response at some junctures, but not 100 percent of the time. Right now, James is playing nice to a fault.

Whether it’s turning the corner on a pick-and-roll or simply exploding off the block, James needs to show us that he’s firmly in attack mode if he wants the Heat to take control of this series. There’s no more time to waste. As James tweeted early Thursday morning, “It’s now or never.”

Will Erik Spoelstra find some minutes on the bench for LeBron?
The past couple of seasons in Cleveland, the Cavaliers had such a comfortable cushion atop the standings that they were able to rest James headed into the playoffs with little consequence. The Heat didn't have that luxury in early April this season.

With Dwyane Wade and Mike Miller ailing, Spoelstra consistently played James in excess of 40 minutes, even calling on the superstar to log 43 minutes in a 19-point blowout loss to Minnesota on April 1. Were the Heat fools to assign that kind of workload to James, knowing they'd want him fully energized for what they hoped would be an extended playoff run into June?

James' critics roundly ridiculed him in November when he said "42 minutes are too much, and Spo knows that.” But are we now seeing the effects of those heavy minutes? Is 3,900 minutes over the course of the regular season and playoffs too many, even for a guy we widely regard as a superhuman athlete with no physical limitations?

With the media circus swirling in Dallas for the Finals, James knows better than to offer casual suggestions of fatigue. All he essentially said Wednesday was that a few minutes of rest can't hurt.

"You can always use -- if you can get a minute or two minutes there, it helps anyone," James said. "It would help me as well."

There's never a convenient time to lift your most dominant threats from the lineup in favor of a less potent player, but Spoelstra might not have a choice in Game 5.

Should we being seeing more of LeBron at the power forward slot?
Spoelstra has been reluctant to go to smaller lineups this series, though for two very brief stints during the second quarter in Game 4, we saw James log his first minutes at the 4 in this series.

Sixers coach Doug Collins has always maintained that the power forward was James' natural position. Before his team's first-round series against the Heat, Collins called James "a monster" at the power forward. "You can’t guard him," Collins said. "And he's big enough to guard you. He's bigger than Karl Malone because he's got speed and quickness and power and grace and agility and skill. So when they go small -- and that’s what you’re going to see in the playoffs, as much as Chris Bosh probably doesn’t want to play the 5, when they put Wade out there and LeBron at the 4 and Bosh and a couple of other guys who can shoot that ball -- they’re tough.”

The numbers back Collins up. As has been the pattern over the past few seasons, James' production when he was at the power forward position this season were mind-blowing. He recorded a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 37.1. His effective field goal percentage jumped from 53.2 percent to 57.5 percent. Curiously, his assist rate also ticked upward when he manned the 4.

Could this be a tactical move that gets James going? Would setting up closer to the hoop and finding opportunities in what Spoelstra refers to as the "Karl Malone" area at the foul-line extended move James away from the weakside corner where he's been loitering aimlessly? Would getting another shooter on the floor and moving Bosh to the 5 for stretches decongest the Heat's half-court offense and provide more seams and angles for James to attack?

The likely answer to all these questions is yes. That's not to say that sliding LeBron to the 4 wouldn't have adverse effects on the glass. But Miller and Wade are among the best wing rebounders in the game. In addition, Bosh would have his hands full trying to move Chandler underneath the hoop on both ends. But when Chandler checks out for his rest, the Heat should immediately mobilize themselves and go to the LeBron-at-the-4 lineup.

Given James' alarming slump, it's time to break the glass -- even though such a scheme isn't all that radical.

Did James forget he's a train in the open court?
Remember James’ thunderous fast-break slam in Game 4? Trick question -- it didn’t happen.

The truth is that James only tallied one fast-break bucket in Game 4, and it was a light two-handed dunk on which he barely touched the rim. That’s not James’ game, and he’s aware of it.

“I have to be more aggressive,” James said at Wednesday’s practice. “Even if that takes for me getting out in the open court sometimes, getting the rebound, getting out in the open court where I'm at my best.”

The call for James to be more aggressive extends beyond the half court. One of the most terrifying experiences for Heat opponents is seeing a two-on-one fast break developing with Wade and James. Absent in Game 4 was the open-court magic between these two even though it has been an essential part of their playoff routine.

Maybe James needs to remind himself that no one can stop him – or slow him down for that matter -- once he gets a full head full of steam. There’s not a player on the Mavericks roster who has the athleticism to keep up with him, but he’s playing like his emergency brake is on. According to Synergy Sports, James ranked first (with Wade) in the regular season in transition points per game, but you wouldn’t know that by watching Game 4. Time for him to step on the gas.

Can the Heat re-establish that Wade-James synergy that carried them through the spring?
After Wade struggled during Chicago series and in Game 1 of the Finals, James played a pivotal role in helping his counterpart emerge from that slump.

As the Heat's primary playmaker, James was constantly on the lookout for Wade, rarely missing an opportunity to get watch a pitch-and-drive on the weak side or streaking across the baseline.

Now's the time for Wade to come to the aid of his comrade. Getting James back into the flow of the offense will require more than just one-on-one basket attacks by James.

The Heat need to return to that lethal Wade-James pick-and-roll -- and not just the half-hearted version in which James dances for a few seconds, then slips a couple of feet toward the foul line. We're talking about rev-up-the-engine dives to the hoop that draw the defenses in. At that point, James has a bevy of options, even with Chandler guarding the basket.

James has spent so much time as the trigger man on actions designed to get Wade the ball -- and has done so effectively dating back to Game 3 of the Chicago series. But now's the time for Wade to return the favor. And it's incumbent on the Heat's coaching staff to draw up those schemes.