You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
- The margin of this game exploded in a hurry; Dallas trailed by just seven points with about four and a half minutes remaining, but a combination of Miami’s starters and deep reserves finished the night on a 16-2 run. This loss — the second “blowout” by the hand of the Heat this season — certainly looks bad on face, the final verdict and sheer number of bullets in this post are incredibly misleading. The Mavs certainly had their second-half difficulties, but their late-game petering isn’t of monumental concern. They’ll be healthier, they’ll play better, and most importantly, they’ll largely keep these kinds of winnable games within reach. The fact that something not at all dissimilar happened at the tail end of the Mavs’ loss to the Spurs last week does offer the slightest reason for pause, but there’s no reason to believe that Dallas’ latest fourth-quarter troubles are suggestive of any legitimate trend.
- Odd though it may seem, this still appears to be a specific matchup that the Mavericks are capable of winning — even if they would be considered extreme underdogs in a single-game event or a presumptuously hypothetical seven-game series. I highly doubt that we’ll have to weigh Dallas’ playoff odds against any Eastern Conference opponents this season, but it’s easy to see this game going very differently if only for a stronger second half from Dirk Nowitzki (25 points, 9-19 FG, six rebounds, three assist, three turnovers). It’s certainly not a good sign that the Mavs are struggling so much on the offensive end, but so long as we’re basking in hypotheticals, I don’t think the on-paper Mavericks would necessarily be doomed.
- Miami won this game by plugging away; their second half possessions were interwoven sequences of driving and passing from every angle imaginable, pressuring the defense repeatedly until it gave way at a particularly vulnerable point. LeBron James (19 points, 8-16 FG, nine rebounds, five assists) and Dwyane Wade (16 points, 5-11 FG, five assists, three rebounds) deserve a lot of credit for their refusal to settle, and the entire offense followed the lead of their shot creation. Those who somehow doubt Miami’s half-court potency need only to watch tape from this game; James and Wade were creating shots in a consistent stream, and Dallas’ defense was stretched to its limits.
- The Heat did consistently productive work against the zone, as even those possessions that didn’t end in baskets still generated quality looks or good penetration. Couper Moorhead of Heat.com has done a number of excellent posts on Miami’s zone offense over the course of this season, and on Thursday night we got to see all of those tricks — in addition to something as simple as LeBron being LeBron — at work against the Heat’s most notable zone nemesis. Rick Carlisle was essentially forced to use the zone whenever Shawn Marion was out of the game, perhaps giving Miami too much of an opportunity to find their bearings following the defensive shift.
- Nowitzki got plenty of early touches and was heavily involved in the initial stages of the offense, something we don’t see on an every-game basis. He was incredibly efficient in the opening frames as well; Dirk dropped 16 points in the first half on smooth 8-of-10 shooting from the field, unperturbed by the collective efforts of the Heat defense to throw him off his game. Miami’s defense on Nowitzki (and in general) improved dramatically in the second half, but much of Dirk’s later struggles were due to missing very makeable shots; credit should of course be thrown the Heat’s way for making Nowitzki work for his points as the game went on, but there was no lockdown in effect.
- I’m gobsmacked. Lamar Odom (12 points, 4-6 FG, 2-2 3FG, four rebounds, three assists) again came out with an aggressive, drive-and-kick mentality, and did a great job of instigating movement at times when Dallas’ offense had turned stagnant. Ronny Turiaf was occasionally forced to guard Odom, and was easily beaten off the dribble. Shane Battier checked him later, and provided a mere road block as Odom worked his way toward the paint and tossed in a runner over Battier’s outstretched arms. An actualized Odom creates so many mismatches, and though we should pump the brakes a bit before we go overboard in our praise of his solid effort and decent production, the last two games have been a welcome surprise.
- Jason Terry (three points, 1-10 FG, four assists, three turnovers) airballed his first shot attempt of the night in what can only be retrospectively regarded as an omen. Terry legitimately had one of his worst games of the season; he forced looks, he played lackluster defense, and he failed to create on a level that would mask the odor of his errant jumper. Terry typically has ways in which he can hedge against a particularly poor shooting night, but none of those concessionary measures were present on Thursday.
- Battier is shooting 40.5 percent on three-pointers from the corner this season, according to NBA.com’s statistical database. He’s still as deadly as ever from that pet spot of his, and he stepped out of the corner’s comfort to give the Heat a lot of energy. A solid performance by the premier defensive stopper of yesteryear.
- Brandan Wright (11 points, 5-8 FG, three rebounds) immediately infused the Mavs with energy, but he had his share of defensive follies. It’s never an issue of effort with Wright; he really does try his best, and he manages to challenge shots effectively, in spite of his other defensive faults. But Wright still doesn’t know when and how to rotate dependably, particularly when he encounters any offense of thoughtful construction. I wouldn’t say Wright is uniquely exploitable, but he simply did not look prepared to defend the Heat as either a back-line man defender or the anchor of a zone.
- That said, it wasn’t just Wright; Ian Mahinmi (six points, 3-6 FG, five rebounds) failed to provide a more suitable alternative on the defensive end, and couldn’t quite match Wright’s offensive impact. Dallas badly missed Brendan Haywood (who dressed, but did not play) and a healthy Delonte West (who played, but wasn’t quite himself on the defensive end).
- Early in the game, Rodrigue Beaubois’ pick and rolls were incredibly productive. Miami characteristically blitzes ball handlers out of the pick and roll, and Beaubois was able to skip the ball over the top of the double without committing any silly turnovers. The Heat’s step-slow rotations on the weak side left them particularly vulnerable to this kind of reversal, and initially it appeared that this basic action could be the key to both the Mavs’ and Beaubois’ success. The intermission made all the difference; Erik Spoelstra erased his teams pick-and-roll deficiencies with what must have been one hell of a pep talk (or more likely was a subtle tweak in weak side coverage), and then — if I can channel my inner Seth Rosenthal for a moment — everything with that facet of the Mavs’ offense went Chinua Achebe.
- I’m still a bit surprised that Ronny Turiaf made his way into the Heat rotation so quickly (especially considering how murky his injury status was at the time of his signing), but he’s a nice addition. Turiaf is very clearly the fourth best big at the Heat’s disposal, and Spoelstra uses his him appropriately as a Joel Anthony facsimile. There aren’t many nits to be picked here; Turiaf is a decent player in a role suited to his talents, and though he doesn’t make Miami significantly better than they were before, he certainly doesn’t hurt.
- James is such a dominant defender; few players manage to turn the jumped pass into such a consistent and profound weapon, and yet here we are, living in fear and awe of James in the passing lanes.
- In his first game action since February 15th, West (seven points, 3-3 FG, two turnovers) looked understandably apprehensive at times. He nearly jab-stepped his way out of an open three-point look at the tail end of the shot clock, was ripped by Norris Cole while standing still at the three-point line, and generally passed up his opportunities to drive and defend like the Delonte of old. That’ll come back in time, but we should expect more tentative showings as West gradually works his way back into a basketball comfort zone. Dallas may be close to having all of its players available, but it could be some time before West and Haywood are comfortable with the speed and physicality of the game.
- Have to love that Wright can catch the ball facing away from the basket on the high block, floor the ball as he spins, and fluidly finish without issue. It sounds like such a simple move, but as I noted earlier this week on Court Vision, there’s an art to what Wright and Mahinmi accomplish on the move.
- Udonis Haslem (16 points, 6-10 FG) is averaging the lowest points per minute of his career, is posting career-low shooting percentages, has seen his PER dip to 11.0…and yet he’s still a completely essential piece for Miami. His utility as a defender and rebounder simply makes any offensive struggles a reasonable concession, and when one considers the variety of ways that Haslem can still be effective on offense, it becomes difficult to even cast him in the same light as the league’s other defensive/rebounding specialists.
- Shawn Marion (four points, 2-7 FG, four rebounds) was just a bit off; he actually got some good looks at the rim and was incredibly active around the basket, but those runners and hooks just weren’t dropping. Had Marion been a bit more successful on those attempts, Nowitzki’s second-half waning would hardly be so painful, and Terry’s unfortunate irrelevance would be a far less relevant issue. That’s all it would have taken to push the Mavs into the thick of a game that was within their grasp, yet here we are — finding meaning in a 2-0f-7 shooting line.
- Anthony had a rough go of defending Nowitzki in the first half (Spoelstra interestingly seemed to avoid pitting Chris Bosh against Nowitzki like the plague, which should make us all wonder if there’s something uniquely beneficial for the Mavs in that matchup), but did a much better job of pushing Dirk away from his first-choice spots as the game went on. That’s not at all an easy task, and though Anthony was hardly alone, his in-game improvement on the defensive end was certainlynotable.
- Vince Carter (11 points, 3-6 3FG) wasn’t much of a shot creator in this game, but he was quite effective as a spot-up shooter on the perimeter — a role that seemed particularly fitting for him early in the season, but has become a less central part of his Maverick identity as his three-point percentage has begun to drift downward. Carter is still shooting a perfectly respectable 37.7 percent from beyond the arc for the season, and seemed to operate more from the post merely as a means to subsist through a shooting slump.
- Norris Cole had a handful of very nice drives (including an impressive sweeping lefty hook that nearly went), and was part of the supplementary scoring core that allowed James and Wade to operate comfortably as playmakers. The total rotation of Cole and Mario Chalmers doesn’t need to provide x points or y assists; they merely need to contribute as functional members of the offense in whatever ways they can, and apply pressure on the ball in order to distort opponents’ passing lanes. This was a particularly nice statistical showing from that pair (Cole and Chalmers combined for 22 points and six assists), but their roles — and capabilities — are too fluid to peg either player to a number at this point.
- An interesting note: The defensive matchups obviously changed throughout the game, but Carlisle elected to start Marion on Wade and Carter on LeBron. More interesting yet: It actually worked, if only because LeBron wasn’t actively involved in Miami’s first-quarter offense. Did Carlisle know that the Heat have a tendency to go to James less early in games, or did he merely see Wade as the greater immediate threat/think Carter had a better chance of staying in front of James?