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Sunday, June 12, 2011
What can momentum tell us in the Finals?

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.