Mavs-Heat: Shootaround To Game 5 Preview
Your eyes may tell you that the basketball being played in The Finals stands far from the beauty of an offensively laden masterpiece, but don't let this deceive you into believing what you're watching has been anything less than an immensely competitive, entertaining, pressure-packed series.
"We love pressure,'' Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said today at shootaround. "The more the pressure is on, the better our team has functioned all year long. Bring it on."
Indeed, we've seen deficits, heartbreak, illness and injury ... and pressure ... overcome in 48-minute increments … and that's only looking at Dallas.
Miami has worn the burden of intense scrutiny from the moment LeBron James chose to eat the heart of his former home on a nationally televised special. Because of this, along with the manner they celebrated their union with a gusto that probably made Ali cringe, they've faced criticism from every angle; being preached to pass when they shot, to shoot when they've passed in an identical circumstance. No step has come without a shadow.
And, by the way, no misstep has come without an alibi. (Or haven't you heard about LeBron's mysterious "personal problem'' that's turned him into single-triple threat?)
Oddly enough, though the words are not the same, the Dallas Mavericks can likely identify with a variety of perception that has shaded their every action as well. Rather than the despised, they have faced a season long battle to shed the heavy clouds of doubt heaped upon them, though clearly not embraced within.
When they drew the Blazers in the first round, some misguided analysts and fans were quick to label them an underdog, regardless of the fact that they were tied for the second best record in the Western Conference and Brandon Roy was a shell of his former self thanks to knee issues. When the Lakers were waiting in the second round, few gave them even the slightest of hopes. Then came the Thunder, and while some began to turn their heads, there stood no lack of voices refusing to believe this Mavericks squad would tread further.
As Miami closed out the Bulls, they became heavy favorites to soon wear a ring, even as so many fans hoped they would not, leaving the Mavs to once again to the role of underdogs. Whether it was fed by desire or doubt, both teams are now fighting to emerge from the same dark beneath very different clouds.
With the back-stories in place, a duality of negativity, we're left with three games to decide the 2011 NBA champions, and as many questions calling for an answer as we found four games ago.
The Miami Heat has captured the imagination of highlight package creators with a vast array of spectacular dunks and displays of pure athleticism, along with holding the lead, even if slight, for a majority of the 192 minutes played, this has left many onlookers to assert they have been in control of the series, if not dominant. While a portion of this is born in oversight of the fact that a Dwyane Wade dunk is assigned the same number of points as a Dirk Nowitzki fadeaway, it's not without warrant. But don't believe those who claim Dallas is "stealing" games. They're simply maintaining a margin, though persistent defense and opportunistic offense, that grants them the opportunity to win games in the final minutes where they have leaned on their star and a burst of defensive intensity.
Does the fact that they've arrived to Game 5 of the Finals by accepting such a tactic throughout these playoffs and often in the regular season change that answer? Is it possible for Dirk Nowitzki to continue his postseason of public reaffirmation for two more wins? Can they continue to survive bouts of sloppy offense and turnovers that quickly yield Miami scoring spurts?
Has the Dallas bench found the first hint of traction in Terry's strong close and moments of improvement from Barea (even if you now must call him a semi-starter) to build upon? Will it be enough to overcome the likelihood that Haywood has joined Caron Butler and Rodrigue Beaubois among those stolen from the Mavs roster by injury? No later than next Tuesday, we'll have a definitive answer.
On to the Heat: Have we begun to see cracks in a wall of perceived arrogance that envelops their every move, or merely a prelude to another forward step?
The feeling comes from nothing tangible, only a tingling in the gut, yet it's there. This has the aura of a team either at the precipice of capturing the greatness they openly celebrated prior to playing their first game together, or tumbling down the humbling hill of finding that their consistent (and abrasive to some) confidence must wait at least another season before the reward of a championship.
Jason Terry and DeShawn Stevenson tossed barbs at LeBron and the Heat prior to Game 4. It was questioning James' ability to guard him for seven games and the strength of their team defense in comparison to Portland for Terry; labeling them overly dramatic actors, in the case of Stevenson.
While the Mavs tied the series, both found their words vindicated on the court, as Terry initiated the final 21-9 run Dallas closed the victory with by going right at James in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, it was James performing one of the most blatant flops of these playoffs as Brendan Haywood's jersey tossed a mild breeze in his direction, sending him flying to the floor in a move that made many a Hollywood stuntman nod approvingly.
Stevenson was at it again Wednesday, the day between Game 4 and 5, saying LeBron "checked out" in the closing period of Game 4.
Was this the final prod to awaken a giant who had slept through a new playoff career-low eight points, a psychological ploy to be exploited once more, or a moment of pure insignificance?
Are the Mavs in LeBron's head?
"Our job is to be up in his body and his head and his mind, everywhere,'' Jason Terry said. "We're supposed to be all over this court tonight, and I know we will.''
Again, we'll know soon enough.
If James doesn't come on strong, can Wade maintain the brilliance he's performed with so far in the face of mounting minutes and insufficient help?
Only five points separate these teams. Soon enough, we'll find three games that will define them.
Through four games, no team has won consecutive contests. While Miami needn't do so to find ultimate victory, if they are to claim the trophy, the Mavs must. Game 5, the final NBA game to be played in the 2010-11 season in Dallas, likely presents the best opportunity for them to accomplish this … and the first peak into how the questions raised in this series will be resolved.
Maybe it will roll the way Game 4 did ... with pressure and drama (and at the end of this production, Chuck Cooperstein's voice guiding us to the win ...)
From five points, to three games, to one champion.
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