Through the first four games of the NBA Finals, the cumulative score is Miami 356, Dallas 351. Take away Miami's 8-point Game 1 win and every game in this series has been decided on the last possession.
Games 2-4 all came down to the same play: Dirk Nowitzki isolated on his defender at the top of the key. He made the shot in Games 2 and 4 and he missed it in Game 3. That's how close this series is.
Very rarely do two NBA Finals teams match up as evenly as Dallas and Miami. In the last decade, the Finals have gone seven games only twice: San Antonio/Detroit in 2005 and LA/Boston last year.
Miami/Dallas is a fun-house mirror of last year's championship series: Boston and LA had defensive answers for each other's top scorers; the Heat and the Mavs have no answers for Dirk and Wade. The result has been the most entertaining Finals I've ever seen, with three of the top-25 players of all-time facing off in an old-fashioned shoot-out.
At times, the talent level on the floor is eye-popping. Here's a slow-motion break-down of the play that won Game 3:
There's a whole lot of money on the court.
Miami runs a pick-and-roll with Dwyane Wade and LeBron James; Dallas decides to trap the play and take the ball out of Wade's hands. The two Maverick defenders -- Jason Kidd (a 10-time All-Star) and Shawn Marion (a 4-time All-Star) -- swarm Wade, and he makes the correct read: taking a step-back dribble and hitting LeBron on the roll. But before LeBron can even set his feet, Dallas' help-side defender -- Tyson Chandler, a 7'1 235 second-team All-Defense center -- has made the rotation and is in perfect defensive position. James, knowing that the rest of the Mavs are playing 2-on-3 defensively, sees Chris Bosh out the corner of his eye. In one motion, he grabs the ball and flicks it behind his back, hitting the 6-time All-Star right in his shot-pocket. Bosh, a lights-out perimeter shooter at 6'10, calmly knocks in the base-line jumper.
In crunch-time, there are usually 44 All-Star appearances on the floor, which doesn't even count a Sixth Man of the Year and a Final Four MVP.
It's now a best-of-three series, and the numbers tell you to go with the team that has home-court advantage in this situation. But when one possession out of 100 is going to make the difference, you can throw predictions out the window. How do you predict whether a ball rims in or out, whether a coin is heads or tails?
Going into Thursday's crucial Game 5, here are a few things to keep an eye on:
1. Rick Carlisle's adjustments: In terms of the importance of coaching, basketball is much closer towards baseball than football. The main thing an NBA coach does is adjust his line-up to manipulate the match-ups, and Carlisle has done a masterful job in the Finals.
In Game 4, he made two crucial decisions: first, he inserted JJ Barea into the starting line-up. This put another shot-creator on the floor for Dallas to start the game, and allowed the Mavs to synchronize Barea's minutes with Miami starter Mike Bibby, the Heat's worst defender. It also had a ripple effect: with Kidd at the shooting guard spot to start the game, the Mavs had only strong perimeter defenders in their wing rotation -- Kidd, DeShawn Stevenson and Marion.
The second was his decision to play Stevenson instead of Marion in the fourth. Marion's inability to shoot 3's weakens Dallas' floor spacing around Dirk in crunch-time. Take a look at Dirk's shot to win Game 4 (2:48 on the clip):
In basketball, like life, inches can make all the difference.
Wade is defending Stevenson, and he has to respect his three-point shot. As a result, he's standing outside of the lane when Dirk attacks the basket. That gives Dirk an extra split-second to get a shot up at the rim, and the ball just slithers in past Wade's out-stretched hands. Compare that with Game 3, when Dirk had a crucial last-minute turnover after Shawn Marion's man gave him a hard double at the same spot on the floor.
2. Miami's counter: Dallas rode the floor-spacing perimeter trio of Terry/Kidd/Stevenson to victory in Game 4, and they had a +8 rating in the fourth quarter. But this line-up is pretty vulnerable defensively: it forces Kidd on Wade and Stevenson (6'5 220) on LeBron (6'9 270).
And for all the post-game chatter about LeBron's performance, it's important to remember that the Mavs are keeping their best perimeter defenders (Stevenson and Marion) on him and not Wade. Wade is being defended by the oldest guard in the NBA; he's putting up amazing numbers -- 30 points / 8 rebounds / 4 assists on 59% shooting -- but that's what an All-NBA shooting guard should do against a 38-year old point guard.
** Kobe, on the other hand, couldn't. These playoffs should end all debate as to who is the best shooting guard in the NBA. Wade's 6'11 wingspan is the most underrated aspect of his game. He soaks up rebounds and block shots at an incredible rate for a guard, and his length gives him many release points to get his shot off in the lane. **
The Mavs defensive alignment has exposed the biggest hole in LeBron's arsenal: a lack of a low-post game. He's got 4 inches and 50 pounds on Stevenson; he should be able to take him to the low-block and murder him. All the great perimeter players -- from MJ to Kobe to Dirk -- developed a turn-around J as their career went on; LeBron, after 8 years in the NBA, has no excuse for not having one.
Regardless, Miami is playing the same line-up that routed the Bulls in the ECF with Haslem and Bosh spreading the court for LeBron. Dallas isn't doing anything Chicago didn't do; the difference could be fatigue. LeBron has averaged 44 minutes in 19 playoff games; in comparison, Wade is at 40 while Jordan topped that number in only one playoff run: a 3-game loss to Boston in 1985.
3. Tyson Chandler: The Mavs' seven-footer has been instrumental on both sides of the floor: he's athletic enough to contain Chris Bosh while also challenging LeBron and Wade at the rim. He has also exploited the Heat's lack of a center on the offensive end, with 9 offensive rebounds in Game 4.
Fatigue could be a factor for Chandler, who played 42 exhausting minutes last night. His ability to stay out of foul trouble is huge, especially with back-up Brendan Haywood struggling with a hip injury and Ian Mahinmi clearly not ready for prime-time.
If LeBron and Wade can get Chandler in foul trouble, the Mavs are finished.
4. The refs: The formula for a Miami victory -- attack Dallas' jump-shooting line-up and draw fouls on Chandler -- plays right into the worst fears of many Maverick fans: a replay of the 2006 Finals. More ominously, Wade and LeBron have been shamelessly flopping throughout:
Over the last decade, the influx of European players has taken flopping to a new level, and to be fair, Dirk isn't exactly afraid of accentuating contact himself. But this is absurd.
** I'd like to see a technical issued at the end of quarters when refs can look at the video if an opposing coach files a complaint. When diving has gotten this blatant, something has to be done. **
5. The stakes are higher than you could possibly imagine: I don't want to alarm you, but civilization itself could be threatened by a Miami victory. If you don't believe me, just ask the Dallas media:
The LeBronathon with its megalomania, hubris and grammatically suspect euphemisms was wrong on so many levels. But at its very core it was also dangerous, carrying the seeds to destroy the very thing we love about sports.
The history of every sports championship up until now is the history of athletes melding together in pursuit of a common purpose. LeBron James is in danger of ruining that, and thereby must be stopped from winning a championship.
This is not simply Mavs v. Heat. This is the ideal of sport.
We are all Cleveland. This is absolutely our fight.
It could be the beginning of a dynasty or it could be a fitting end to one of the greatest runs -- 11 straight 50+ win seasons -- in the history of the NBA. One way or another, these next few games will be historic.