Game 3 of the 2011 NBA Finals was a 48-minute spectacular. It was a heartbreaker and a series changer. It was valiant, defeating, and entertaining, and it was decided by an incredibly slim margin. With a single bucket — a Chris Bosh baseline jumper, to be exact — Miami topped Dallas, 88-86, in a riveting game between well-matched foes that no self-respecting basketball fan could soon forget.
Yet as we try to explain the game’s final, uncompromising two-point differential, attention will naturally be drawn to items of similarly minimal magnitude. One could — and surely will — argue that the difference in the game was a foul call, an errant game-winner, or a single costly turnover. The truth is none of the above, or really, all of the above and more. The Heat won Game 3 because of a flurry of convoluted, interrelated factors that go far beyond the scope of a single play, and extend outward from player rotations into just about every aspect of team play.
“This series is turning out to be an absolute series of endurance, mental and physical,” Erik Spoelstra said. “We didn’t expect anything less than the competitive physicality of this game tonight. Our guys really competed. At times it was a little uneven, but we found ways to make plays on both ends of the court, to grind this game out in a very enduring win.”
That Spoelstra placed so much emphasis on endurance is fascinating, and fitting. Play-specific strength isn’t important; without longevity and consistency, the Heat would have been in no place to win this game, and the Mavericks would have been in no place to compete in it. Dwyane Wade’s fantastic performance didn’t come in a quick burst, but started with a pair of amazing finishes and ended with a well-executed 2-3 pick-and-roll with LeBron James some 46 minutes later. Wade may not have been brilliant for every second he was on the court in between, but his continued impact was undeniable, and to reduce his performance to anything less than the fantastic sum that it was — for the sake of creating a small, manageable talking point, no less — would be a damn shame.
The same is true of the entirety of the performances of both teams. It wasn’t just Chris Bosh’s ability to hit the game’s final made shot that put the Mavs away, but Spoelstra’s willingness to run James and Wade in a pick-and-roll, their ability to execute it, Udonis Haslem’s fantastic screen to free Bosh for the jumper, and the incredible medley of factors that led to that point. The Mavs defended that 2-3 pick-and-roll in a particular way for a particular reason based on the complexion of the game and all that had happened up to that point, and to isolate that particular sequence as a sole determinant for the game’s verdict is disingenuous considering the context that created it.
You have to look at it all and weigh it all when coming to terms with why Miami won this game, and took a 2-1 series lead.
Weigh Dallas’ turnover problems, and the defense that caused them. Jason Kidd began his evening with some big shots, but also a few careless passes; Kidd had two giveaways by the end of the first quarter (in a low-possession game, mind you) and finished with four. J.J. Barea matched Kidd’s four turnovers, and Dirk Nowitzki contributed three of his own. As a result, Dallas had a pretty horrible turnover rate for much of the game, and their poor (but less horrible) final turnover rate of 16.9 is only such because of a stretch of careful play.
Weigh the free throw disparity in what can only be considered an oddly officiated game. Loose ball fouls galore helped to send the Mavs to the free throw line 27 times, while the Heat attempted just 15 free throws. Dallas needed the respite of the free throw line; Miami’s half-court defense was downright oppressive, and to be able to score without expecting a rotation was invaluable for the Mavs.
Weigh Dwyane Wade. He was that good, and Dallas had no counter for his post-ups, his isolations, or even his three-pointers.
Weigh the absence of Brendan Haywood. Ian Mahinmi played eight minutes as the Mavs’ back-up center, and acquired five fouls in the process. His single-game plus-minus was a -6, in part due to Mahinmi handing out free throws and generally looking lost on defense. It’s no real fault of Mahinmi’s; he tried (sometimes to his detriment, or as Rick Carlisle said: “I thought Mahinmi’s energy was good. At times, [he was] maybe a little too energetic, but that was expected.”), but he’s just not the caliber of defender, rebounder, or finisher that Haywood is. The Mavs missed the luxury of having a reliable center behind Chandler, and while the effects of Haywood’s absence are most conveniently measured in what Mahinmi did or didn’t do, we also can’t neglect the impact of fatigue and foul aversion on the play of Tyson Chandler.
Weigh Chalmers’ work as a spot-up shooter, and the indirect influence that his mere presence had on the development of plays. Weigh the Mavs’ incredible team defense against LeBron James, anchored by Shawn Marion and Tyson Chandler. Weigh the injury to Chris Bosh’s eye, which may have played a part in him missing a handful of jumpers and scoring opportunities. Weigh Jason Terry’s tendency to fire up quick jumpers under duress, likely in the fear that shots wouldn’t be coming his way all that often against this particular defense. Weigh Joel Anthony containing Nowitzki one-on-one, until Nowitzki again proved that such a thing impossible.
Weigh all of these numerous individual elements and then some, and never lose sight of the fact that huge, interrelated factors and themes decide the outcome of any game — even one decided by a single made basket. Bosh’s jumper wasn’t the difference, even if it did provide the ticks on the scoreboard that brought Miami to a “good enough” 88 points. It was all of it. All of this, all of Wade and Dirk and LeBron and Ian Mahinmi and all of everything. That might not make for the same compelling narrative as a spotlight on a single play, but such storylines betray the endurance that makes great games great.