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NBA Finals Game 6: Five things to watch

6/12/2011

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.