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THE MIAMI HEAT ON THE BRINK OF ELIMINATION: JUST THE WAY THEY DREW IT UP

BY LUIGUI BARRAGAN
 Picture by Lucy Nicholson/The Associated Press

If you are the type of person that looks at things strictly through the lens of home court advantage, then the Miami Heat are right where they should be after playing three straight games in Dallas: down three games-to-two in their best of seven NBA Finals series against the Dallas Mavericks. But in this life things are rarely as simple as that.  Especially when you consider that the Miami Heat didn’t defend their home court in Game 2 of this series, when a Texas-size meltdown by the home team (the Heat were outscored 22-5 in the last 7:14 of the game) allowed the series to shift to Dallas tied at one game a-piece. And with the Heat having lassoed home court advantage back from the Mavericks with a victory in Game 3,  Dallas once again stole a win from Miami in Game 4 by outscoring the Heat 13-7 in the last 7:24.  The truth about this series is that it broke away from the script a long time ago.

After having been blown out by the Chicago Bulls in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Heat made a name for themselves by closing out games in the fourth quarter, primarily through a staunchly defense.  Entering the NBA Finals, that’s what the script called for.  Two teams will battle for three periods, and then in the fourth, Miami clamps down defensively, and owns the final frame. Game over.  The Heat win.  But ever since the epic meltdown in Miami of Game 2, the Heat have lost their fourth quarter, defensive identity.  This has allowed the Mavericks to re-write the script of these NBA Finals, winning three of the last four games in this series, including the latest: Game 5 went to the Mavs 112-to-103.

In a series that had seen the previous three games all go down to the final shot, and be decided by three points or less, Game 5 gave the Mavericks the opportunity to reclaim their identity as an offensive team.  For starters, the Mavericks scored more than one-hundred points for the first time in this series, on 57 percent shooting from the floor.  Prior to the Finals, Dallas averaged 104 points per game in the previous two playoff rounds against none other than the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and the up-and coming Oklahoma City Thunder. The Mavericks, in this game, also re-discovered their prowess from three-point land.  Dallas made a total of 13 three pointers on the night.  Four of the thirteen were made in the fourth quarter to either keep a charging Miami at arm’s length (J.J. Barea at 8:08 left to make the score 93-88 Dallas), to tie the score at 100 with 3:23 left to play (one of two daggers at the hand of Jason Terry), to once again put some much needed distance on the scoreboard between the two adversaries (Jason Kidd hits a wide open three with 1:25 left to make the score 105-100 in favor of the Mavs),  and finally, to put the game decisively out of reach for the Miami Heat (Jason Terry nails a three-point basket from 26 feet away to give Dallas an insurmountable, 7-point, 108-101 lead with 33 seconds left to go in the game).  “All season long, ever since I’ve been a Maverick, I’ve been the guy in the fourth quarter that they’ve depended on to either make plays or make shots,” Jason Terry added.  “And so I really relish in that role, regardless of what’s going on throughout three quarters of the game, in the fourth quarter I know I’m depended on to come through.”

To be fair, both teams were able to crack the century mark on the scoreboard in Game 5.  The Heat shot 53% from the field, and actually had a three-point lead, 100-to-97, with 3:38 left to go in the contest.  Unfortunately, for the Heat and their fans,  Miami would muster only three more points in the final 3:38.  Dallas, on the other hand, scored 15 points in the same amount of time and ended the game on a 15-to-3 run.

Two of those final three Miami points came from LeBron James who drove to the hoop for a pretty much uncontested lay-up that brought the Heat to within five points, 108-to-103, with 29 seconds left in the game.  For James, however, those were his only two points of the entire 4th period.  Leaving the national media to wonder once again about LeBron’s impact, or lack thereof, in the fourth quarter, when it matters the most.  James diffuses this situation by drawing our attention to his contributions on defense in the final frame, and his role as a facilitator on offense by getting the ball to the “hot hand” (i.e. teammate Dwyane Wade).  In Game 5, and by design according to Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, LeBron James was assigned to run the point-guard position, taking over for a fatigued Mario Chalmers, with 6:48 left in the fourth quarter.  James ran the point for the final six minutes of the contest.  As the point man, and with the ball in his hands, James accrued four assists, and only took three shots, missing two of them.  When asked if the Heat needed more offense (points)  from him in the fourth quarter, James chose to look at the entire team’s offensive output, not just his, and that throughout the entire game, not just in the final quarter.  “Well, I don’t think it was a case of offense again tonight,” James said.  “I mean there was enough offensive play.  We shot 52%, they shot 56%.  We scored 103 points and they scored 112.  I mean offense wasn’t a problem.” The stat sheet credits James with a triple-double on the night (17 points, 10 assists, and 10 rebounds).  “But at the end of the day all it is is about a win or a loss,” James said.  “A triple-double means absolutely nothing, you know, in a loss.”  LeBron could be more right than he knows.  Because despite his arguably “well-rounded” performance on Thursday night, the numbers that seem to carry more meaning now-a-days are his fourth quarter numbers.  Numbers that, for the fifth game in a row, failed to impress.  In the fourth quarter of Game 5, LeBron James shot just 25%, making only one of four shot attempts. James failed to get to the free-throw line in the fourth quarter for the third straight game, and has only been to the line a total of three times during the five 4th periods played so far.  James is also averaging only 2 points in the fourth quarter for the series (11 total fourth quarter points in five games).  Ask any Heat fan about this type of fourth quarter offense, and they’ll say it is definitely a problem.

Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, on the other hand, doesn’t see LeBron James’ fourth quarter offensive woes as the Heat’s biggest problem heading into Game 6 on Sunday night at the American Airlines Arena in Miami.  “There’s obviously going to be some priorities in terms of closing out games,” Spoelstra said.  “Which we’ve been very good  at the last two-and-a-half months, particularly during our playoff run.  We haven’t been able to do it consistently enough in this series, and that’s something we’ll address.”  Closing out is on the minds of the Dallas Mavericks as well.  Both Dirk Nowitski and Jason Terry affirmed that they will approach Game 6 on Sunday as if it were, in fact, Game 7.  “You don’t want to give this great team any hope, or anything,” Nowitzki said.  “We’ve got to play more of the same, and keep attacking, and we’ll see what happens Sunday.”  Meanwhile, for Miami, their margin for error is now down to zero.  A win for the Heat on Sunday only assures them the right to play one more game this season, a winner-take-all tilt on Tuesday night.  But as far as Erik Spoelstra is concerned, the Heat “wouldn’t have it any other way, than the hard way.”  “This is an opportunity for us, that’s why you play a seven game series, you gotta play it out, and this is where we feel comfortable.”

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