Tuesday, June 7, 2011
NBA Finals, Game 4: 5 things to watch
By Kevin Arnovitz and Tom Haberstroh
Will LeBron James ever please his critics? Basketball, especially at the highest level, operates on a few basic rules and strategic principles. Five defensive players guard five offensive players -- usually in a series of one-on-one matchups.
A player who has possession of the basketball has three options. He can shoot, dribble or pass to a teammate. Even in the NBA, not every player excels at all three skills -- but the best ones, including James, do.
As anyone who has ever strolled the cereal aisle of a large supermarket chain knows, choice can be a paralyzing thing. For a talent such as LeBron (or Dwyane Wade or Dirk Nowitzki), exercising the discipline to make the correct choice is often the biggest challenge. He has to read the opposing defense and identify where the best opportunities lie.
On Sunday night in the fourth quarter, James appraised the Dallas defense and saw something. Like the Bulls and Celtics before them, the Mavericks were loading up on James when he crossed the 3-point line. As a result, James decided the best way for the Heat to score was to leverage all that attention and find open shots for teammates.
To a simple observer, a pinpoint, perfectly timed pocket pass to Chris Bosh for a wide-open slam dunk could be interpreted as shrinking from the moment -- so too could a backhanded dish against a double-team to one of the best midrange shooters in the game who is wide open for a game winner.
Then there's the defensive side of the court, where James' perimeter pressure and ability to rove and recover enable him to be a looming threat wherever he sets up on the floor. Dallas has totaled five points on the 10 fourth-quarter plays when James was the primary defender on the potential scorer.
For those who see superstars as circus seals or action heroes, none of this matters, of course. But ignoring all but the most rudimentary facets of the game makes for a fairly dull viewing experience -- and even duller critiques.
Is Chris Bosh’s eye an issue? After accidentally getting raked in the eye by Jason Kidd in the first quarter of Game 3, Bosh could barely keep his left eye open as he battled up and down the court. Would it be fair to say that his vision was being affected?
“I don't think so,” Bosh said before Monday’s practice. “I wasn't thinking about my vision or anything. I can't remember if I could see or not.”
Bosh could clearly see, but he did say somewhat jokingly after Game 3 that he only had use of one and a half eyes. The better question is whether this is something the Mavericks can exploit in Game 4.
When Bosh downplays the damage to his eye, it appears he’s doing this as a battle tactic. In the Finals, players do not want to lose an inch of competitive advantage. Revealing that you have a blind spot – or rather, a blind eye – wouldn’t be the wisest move in the heat of battle.
But rest assured, the Mavericks will test him. Bosh’s shooting abilities didn’t seem to be greatly hindered by his battered eye. He shot 7-for-17 after the injury, which is actually much better than he had shot before the injury against Dallas. He opened the third quarter splashing a midrange jumper from the top of the key and nailed the game winner on the left baseline.
But rebounds might be a real issue. Bosh collected just three boards in Game 3, just one more than J.J. Barea’s total Sunday. More than shot-making, the ability to rebound the basketball depends on peripheral vision, something Bosh lacks at the moment. On several rebounding opportunities in Game 3, Bosh looked lost, allowing Tyson Chandler to swoop in for dunking putbacks. Expect the Mavericks to try to exploit his blind spots even further.
Can the Heat continue to make Dirk Nowitzki work hard for shots and limit Dallas' weakside threats? The Heat were under no delusions they'd be able to stop Nowitzki, and his numbers continue to impress. He's averaging 28.3 points and 10 rebounds per game.
But the Heat have made a strong statement to Dallas: Getting Dirk open looks will require a whole lot of work and will disrupt the overall flow of the offense.
That crisp ball movement we saw from the Mavericks in extended stretches of Games 1 and 2 has gone missing. On Sunday night, the Mavs recorded assists on fewer than a fifth of their possessions. For a team that was second in the NBA in assist rate in the regular season, that's a disconcerting number.
So much of what Dallas did offensively against the Lakers and Oklahoma City was about creating opportunities on the weak side, sometimes for Nowitzki but sometimes for the Mavs' platoon of shooters.
Against Miami, the Mavericks are working so hard to get the ball to Dirk that their secondary actions have often disappeared. When the Heat's ball denial makes an entry pass to Dirk impossible, the Mavs' guards dribble aimlessly. When they try to reverse the ball or drive it into the gut of the defense, they're too often turning it over.
When the ball finds its way to Dirk, Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony are doing an admirable job of denying him space and forcing him to be a playmaker. Dirk drained about half a dozen contested jumpers in the Mavs' half-court offense, but the balance of his scores came in transition or, on one occasion, a scrambled second-chance opportunity.
The Heat must continue to play Dirk straight up with their active big men because the combination of results has been impressive -- contested shots for Nowitzki and virtually nothing substantial anywhere else.
When did Dwyane Wade become a post-up machine? It seems like ages ago when Wade would work one-on-one with Jerry Stackhouse on the far side of the Heat's practice floor while the rest of his teammates fielded questions during media availability.
At the time, Wade said that filling out that part of his offensive repertoire was vital because he wouldn't be 28 forever. But who knew that, seven months later, Wade would use his post game as the foundation of one of his great Finals performances?
That's what happened in Game 3, as Wade repeatedly looked to post up Jason Kidd at the left elbow and back him down.
Posting up Wade does a number of things. First and foremost, it's an opportunity to get Wade closer to the lane, where's he's at his most dangerous. He went 8-for-11 inside of five feet in Game 3. Posting up a guard is also a lot less taxing than launching basket attacks from 20 feet and throwing yourself into the teeth of the defense.
Second, by initiating the offense with Wade on the left block, the Heat have the luxury of using LeBron as a weakside threat. Dallas -- like most teams -- simply can't account for Wade with the ball 12 feet from the hoop and James diving from the perimeter on the other side of the floor. On the off chance the defense can, perimeter shooters will be wide open for kickouts.
For an offense that too often falls stagnant, Wade-in-the-post against Dallas' smallish guards gives the Heat yet another viable option.
Is Mario Chalmers a better option than Mike Miller? Before the series, we witnessed the debut of the "big five" lineup that featured the Heat’s five highest-paid players -- James, Wade, Bosh, Miller and Haslem. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra tabbed that unit to close out games in the Chicago series and he experienced immense success with those five.
But surprisingly enough, he has barely used this lineup in the Finals. We’ve seen it on the floor for just five of the 144 minutes thus far in the series. Why?
The emergence of Mario Chalmers.
Miller was acquired for his versatility. But with two bum thumbs, Miller’s penetrating and playmaking abilities have been largely neutered on the wing. But the Heat have another option. Chalmers can put the ball on the deck and can hit a 3-pointer with consistency.
If you created a checklist of duties that Miller was supposed to fulfill on offense for the Heat, Chalmers would receive more marks than Miller right now. But the most distinguishing quality between the two players is the level of confidence.
For better or for worse, Chalmers does not hesitate, pushing the envelope offensively, whereas Miller’s hampered hands have made him tentative with the ball. Right now, it’s for the better, as Chalmers scored 14 points off the bench, including another critical 3-pointer late in the game.
Spoelstra relied on Chalmers to play the final 18 minutes of Sunday’s game without rest while Miller barely got off the bench in the second half. With Chalmers exuding assertiveness and drilling 3s in the half court, expect more minutes for the backup point guard in Game 4.