Dallas has played surprisingly good defense in these NBA finals through three games. Miami shot 48.1 percent as a team in the regular season, 42.9 percent in the finals. Miami’s offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) has fallen from 109.3 during the season to 102.8 in the playoffs, which has worked out to Miami scoring 10.5 points fewer per game. (Stats via NBA Stats Cube.)
And yet it is the Miami defense that has been the real story, because a Mavericks offense that was clicking through the playoffs at 114.1 points per 100 possessions has been dragged down to 100.7 in the finals on 42 percent shooting.
Things got even tougher for the Mavs offense in Game 3, and if they don’t find a way to adjust for Game 4 on Tuesday night this series will be all over but the parade.
Dallas has made a couple of adjustments — J.J. Barea will start for Dallas instead of DeShawn Stevenson. Also, Brian Cardinal will move in front of Peja Stojakovic in the rotation.
We’ll see how that works. In every seven-game series I think there comes a time when one coach realizes he can’t win the chess match with the pieces he has on the board, so he makes a desperation gambit. They almost always fail. This feels like it could be Dallas’ gambit. Because the Heat have exploited Barea on defense all series, and Cardinal is Cardinal.
Dirk Nowitzki is still having a fantastic finals — averaging 28.3 points and 10 rebounds. He has cemented his place as one of the greatest scorers in the league. But Miami has made him work hard for every point, every touch, particularly in Game 3 when they upped pressure on ball denial. The Heat have become better about when to double-team him and how to throw him off-balance with it at different times.
Dallas still runs the offense through Nowitzki, but to do so has started to disrupt the flow of their offense. In earlier series when teams focused on Nowitzki, Dallas used amazing ball movement to free up shooters on the weak side. And those shooters — Jason Terry, Jason Kidd and Stojakovic primarily — knocked down shots. But the athleticism and ferocity of the Heat defense has them close out more quickly on those shooters, which has led to Terry rushing and shooting 38.2 percent overall and 33 percent from three. Stojakovic is just 1-for-5 total.
Dallas has to make things a little easier for Nowitzki through movement off the ball and has to create better looks coming from the weak side — then knock down shots — or Game 4 could look a lot like Game 3. They also must play better when Nowitzki sits — they are minus-31 in this series in the 19 minutes, 32 seconds Nowitzki has sat. Dallas’ bench was supposed to be a plus, but it has hurt them this series.
Dallas also needs to limit turnovers and keep the Heat out of transition. It has to work too hard to score to give up easy fast break buckets to the Heat.
Defensively, the Mavericks need to find a way to slow Dwyane Wade — he is killing them, particularly in the post (but really anywhere he gets the ball, as his 57 percent shooting shows). Jason Kidd has done his best, but he is overmatched. The problem is, help out more on Wade and they have to deal with more LeBron James.
There are no easy answers for the Mavericks. Barea has been bothered by the length and athleticism of the Heat, but he has to hit his open looks. Terry has run his mouth, but he has to back that up now.
Throughout these playoffs, when really challenged the Mavericks have stepped up, made plays and found a way to win. Game 4 must be another of those situations for them. Fall behind to the Heat 3-1 in the series and they can start making golf reservations.
But maybe the biggest challenge for Dallas is Miami can play lot better, too. You get the feeling the Heat are just starting to play as a unit and find their upper gears. Dallas cannot match that if the Heat really execute and perform like they want.