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The 2011 Finals - A Recap
I told myself I was going to stay up all night into Monday morning writing this column. Instead, what ended up happening was me staring at a blank word document for about 90 minutes before I realized that I had no idea what to say.
How was I supposed to explain how and why Miami reverted back into the team they were on the first night of the season? Because that is what they looked like on Sunday night. In my opinion, that was the single most unbelievable development of the entire NBA season. From the day that training camp opened, everyone wanted to know who the team “belonged” to, and who was going to step up in crunch time. Then we fast forward to mid-June…
And they still didn’t know.
Seriously, that’s the thing that I keep coming back to. LeBron and Wade spent nearly the entirety of the 4th Quarter waiting for the other guy to take over, only neither of them did, and then all of a sudden they were down by 11 with two minutes left and they finally realized “Holy Crap, this actually might be our last game of the season,” like that thought hadn’t occurred to them until that very moment. It was indescribably bizarre to watch a team that completely throttled Boston and Chicago all of a sudden look completely flummoxed by this Dallas team.
For as long as I live, I will never understand why Wade and LeBron spent the first eight minutes of the 4th Quarter pussyfooting around, hoping that the Dallas lead would just magically disappear. Nor will I ever understand how a team that was able to minimize the advantage that Chicago had on the glass suddenly became incapable of securing a rebound in traffic in the 4th Quarter. Dallas had five 4th Quarter offensive rebounds, including one stretch from 5:16 remaining to 2:27 remaining where Dallas held possession of the ball for 122 of 169 seconds.
Honestly? I think Miami choked. If you look at their inability to rebound in the 4th Quarter, all of their missed free throws, and all of their unforced turnovers, it starts to add up. From Day One they were the villains, probably the most scrutinized team in NBA history, and when things really started to go bad (two straight losses in Games 4 and 5), all of that collective pressure basically just crushed them down the stretch of Game 6. I’m usually not the type of person that buys into too many of the truly intangibles, but this is one case where I really think it played a factor. Wade and LeBron didn’t just look physically tired by the end of the series (a by-product of playing 42 minutes per game for two straight months), they looked mentally tired also. In every sense of the word, they were exhausted. Everything caught up with them at the worst possible moment, and that was it.
And part of this is their own fault. It’s LeBron’s fault for how he handled The Decision and everything leading up to it. It’s the organization’s fault for hosting the victory party when the Big Three signed before even holding a practice. It was LeBron and Wade’s fault for playing up the idea of winning multiple championships before they’d even won a single game. They brought the pressure on themselves. Like Nikola Tesla said in “The Prestige,” “I followed [my obsessions] too long. I’m their slave, and one day they’ll choose to destroy me.” LeBron and Wade are the same way. They brought all of this pressure on themselves, and eventually it killed them.
In the wake of Miami’s loss, everyone is trying to point fingers. Everyone’s first instinct is to point the finger at LeBron for not stepping up in 4th Quarters, but I really don’t think that he’s the culprit here. Is he blameless? Of course not. Nobody on the team is blameless. Games Four through Six were an indictment of the entire team, from the front office all the way down to the 15th man on the bench. But people that are saying that LeBron’s lack of scoring in 4th Quarters cost Miami this series are being incredibly short-sighted.
Miami lost this series on the defensive end, especially in Games 5 and 6. In those two games, Dallas shot 24-for-45 (53%) from three. In Game 6, Dirk shot just 9-for-27 (although most of the misses were exceedingly makeable shots), but the rest of the Dallas team shot 58%. Jason Terry combined to shoot 19-for-28 in the last two games. Those are the types of games that Terry wasn’t having early in the series, and that’s why Dallas was able to turn this series around. Dirk was great in Game 1, scoring 27 points on 18 shots, but nobody else stepped up as Miami’s defense clamped down on everyone else. Game 3 was the same way. In Games 2 and 4, Dirk got help from one other guy, Shawn Marion, and Dallas was able to squeak out wins. In Games 5 and 6, though, Dallas all of a sudden was making everything.
In Game 5, Barea and Terry combined for 38 points, then Kidd and Chandler chipped in with 13 apiece and Dallas shot 57% as a team. It just doesn’t make sense to blame the loss on LeBron’s lack of scoring when, (1) Miami shot 53% as a team and had their best offensive game of the series, and (2) LeBron ran the offense for the first eight minutes of that 4th Quarter when Miami went on a run to take the lead, and had four assists in the quarter and a triple-double for the game. The problem for Miami clearly wasn’t LeBron’s scoring, it was their team defense.
Give a lot of credit to Rick Carlisle for this. He made three awesome adjustments over the course of the series that helped loosen up the Mavs offense. First, he inserted J.J. Barea into the starting lineup, starting with Game 4 and bumped his minutes. He played 18, 14, and 19 minutes in Games 1-3, then 22, 26, and 29 in Games 4-6. This allowed Dallas to have their best dribble-penetrator on the floor for longer, and they didn’t lose much by ways of floor spacing because Kidd and Barea were both knocking down jump shots. Barea really carved up Miami’s defense in Games 5 and 6, constantly getting into the paint and making things happen. It was really incredible that it was J.J. Barea, not Derrick Rose or Rajon Rondo, that exposed a few flaws in Miami’s screen-roll coverage and took advantage of Miami’s lack of a true shotblocker.
All season, Miami has been a gang-rebounding team and a gang-protect the rim team, not unlike the Jordan-Pippen Bulls. They didn’t have one elite shotblocker like other teams of that era (Ewing, Robinson, Olajuwon in the 90s, Howard, Bynum, Tyson Chandler today), but they managed to control the paint. But in this series, with Barea breaking down Miami’s defense thanks to a ton of double-ballscreens (the 2nd big adjustment), Miami’s defense was scattered and the middle of the floor was wide open.
Dallas started screening with BOTH of their bigs, forcing BOTH of Miami’s bigs to step out to hedge, all of a sudden there was nobody left in the paint to protect the rim. Honestly, it was one of the best mid-series adjustments I’ve ever seen, and I would be absolutely shocked if every single team in the league doesn’t have a set featuring a double-ballscreen next season because of how effective it was in this series, regardless if it was Barea or Terry running it. Miami just had no answer for it, and it constantly led to good shots for Dallas.
The last adjustment is sort of a defensive off-shoot of the first two, but Carlisle decided that he was going to completely trust Dwayne Casey’s (Lead Dallas Assistant – basically the new Tom Thibodeau) zone defense, and this was the biggest one. Basically all of the problems that Miami had offensively came because of the zone defense that Dallas was running. Miami never figured it out, and it allowed Dallas to keep their best offensive unit on the floor in crunch time without losing anything on defense.
It was the zone defense that caused a lot of the confusion between LeBron and Wade in Game 6. Instead of just running their normal offense or trying to find empty spots in the zone (like right below the free throw line or backdoor cuts), they tried to isolate one of them (the exact last thing you’re supposed to do against a zone) and as a result, the offense dragged to a standstill. A lot of people saw this slowdown of the offense and assumed that LeBron was being tentative, when I feel like it was just as likely that he was simply confused. No other team in the league even tries to run a zone defense, let alone against Miami, who on the right night would be able to shoot you out of the zone with relative ease.
But Carlisle trusted the zone, it worked far better than anyone would have realistically expected, and because it worked, Dallas was able to keep their best offensive lineup in the game, and that helped on offense, too.
(Quick aside: Dwayne Casey was the architect of a defense that successfully contained LeBron James and Dwyane Wade at the same time, something that Tom Thibodeau, the formerly-appointed “defensive mastermind” couldn’t do, and somehow Dwayne Casey doesn’t get hired, but Mike Brown (fired from his last job), Kevin McHale (fired from his last job), and Mark Jackson (never coached at any level) do. You figure it out)
Let me go back to LeBron for a minute. Never before have I ever seen people react to the result of a sporting event like it was a personal victory for THEM. My friend Carson mentioned this to me, and he’s spot on. If you don’t like LeBron, then YOU won the 2011 NBA Finals, along with the Dallas Mavericks. It seems amazingly stupid to me. Carson says “The fact that these people call LeBron childish, arrogant, and a diva, and then go and celebrate when he fails, seems pretty hypocritical,” and he’s right.
I keep coming back to the scene in the 4th Quarter when LeBron and Wade both stood around waiting for the other one to step up. It made me want to stand up at scream at the TV “HOW HAVE YOU NOT FIGURED THIS OUT YET?!?!?” Among the many reasons that Miami lost this series, even if it wasn’t the biggest reason, it was certainly the most noticeable. It jumped off the screen, and it was infuriating to watch for anyone that actually wants to be able to discuss this Miami team from a historical perspective and not just root against them for the sake of catharsis.
Today, it finally hit me. The reason Miami couldn’t figure this out is because they never tried to, and they never had to. They beat other teams with overwhelming talent, not with overwhelming execution. The crazy shots that LeBron and Wade made in Game 5 against Chicago? Those were TALENT shots, not execution shots. They weren’t running designed plays to get open looks, they were pulling up for contested threes, but making them anyway. They were able to beat Chicago because Chicago hadn’t completely developed an identity yet, and many of their players still had flaws that they hadn’t figured out how to hide yet. Against Boston, Miami was able to overwhelm them with athleticism. When you add in that Boston lost a bit of their identity after the Perkins trade, as well as Rondo’s elbow injury, the series ended quickly. In terms of identity, those teams were having similar problems to Miami. They didn’t have a plan that they trusted and stuck to. But Miami overcame that with superior talent.
Dallas beat Miami because they had a plan, everyone was on board with that plan, and they executed it. Miami had no plan. Miami is a play-by-feel team, and play-by-feel teams don’t win. The fact that Miami played 103 games and never came up with a definitive end-game strategy is the biggest possible indictment that you can place on this team, starting with LeBron, Wade, and the coaching staff. Game 6 of the NBA Finals isn’t won in mid-June. It’s won in mid-December against a crappy team where you’re losing in the 4th quarter before someone decides “Fuck it, we’re not losing tonight.” Miami’s problem is that they had different games where LeBron and Wade both had that response. Doesn’t that kinda defeat the purpose? Plans that work are ones that have one course of action, and one contingency if that doesn’t work. Miami had two separate courses of action with contingency plans for each. If LeBron doesn’t take charge, Wade will. If Wade doesn’t take charge, LeBron will.
Well, what if neither of them do? What then? LeBron and Wade were too afraid of stepping on each other’s toes to grab the reigns and steer the ship back on course when things went bad in Games 5 and 6. Meanwhile, Dallas knew exactly what they wanted to do: play screen-roll with Terry and Dirk or Barea and Dirk, get Dirk to a spot he likes, then isolate and react from there. They had a plan that worked, and they executed it, and they won the championship. That’s really all it boils down to. Dallas was better prepared and the executed better. Execution trumped talent.
Only five months until basketball season (I hope).