Tagged: miami heat

NBA Finals, Game Four: Could This Be The Best Championship Series Since 1998?

DALLAS 86, MIAMI 83 | Series tied 2-2

If I didn’t have a rooting interest, I would absolutely love these Finals right now. The two teams seem evenly-matched to a bizarre degree, with each group’s weaknesses somehow serving to highlight the other’s strengths without either team having a discernable edge. They seem to be in a dead heat, if you’ll pardon the expression, even though one squad has the superstar firepower and defensive prowess to essentially run the other out of town, and the other has a balanced, well-orchestrated attack on both ends to eventually smother the other all over the court. Three of four games have (a) come down to the final shot and (b) featured superlative superstar play, even in the face of adversity (Dirk’s finger injury, fever and unreliable teammates; Wade’s inability to rely on LeBron or get his usual calls). Continue reading

NBA Finals, Game Two: Miami choked or Dallas soared, but either way the series is tied

MAVERICKS 95, HEAT 93 | Series tied 1-1

With seven minutes and 13 seconds left in the game, the Miami Heat were up by 15 points. The game was over. The series was heading to Dallas with the Heat up 2-0, a seemingly insurmountable lead that had particular psychological implications for Dallas superstar Dirk Nowitzki.

That’s how it felt, anyway, even if such leads never feel airtight to neurotic sports fans like myself, but as it turned out the Mavericks wound up furiously rallying to win the game on a left-handed layup by Dirk with three seconds remaining.

We don’t know yet what this game means because we can’t know. We won’t know until the series is done and over, after which the game will have its significance tacked on after the fact. If Dallas wins it all, this was the turning point where the cagey vets overcame the superstars and remembered how to win. If Miami wins the series, this was the game where they learned how easily it can slip away and they took the scare and learned from it how to finish the job. Any sports yakker who declares the meaning done and set is wrong until the meaning is actually done and set.

That being said, we know how it looks: Either Miami choked away a game they had won or Dallas soared to commit a wondrous comeback. It appears to be a little bit of both: Miami couldn’t sink a shot or run a proper offensive play in the final seven minutes and they also couldn’t stop Dallas from scoring at will. Miami stopped doing what it was that had won them 13 postseason games at that point, and Dallas seized on that to do everything they did well: they got the ball to Dirk, they scored when he was covered and they played very good defense.

A lot of the credit for Dallas’s resurgence is being given, by players and throughout the world of sports chatter, to LeBron and Wade’s celebration after they took that 15 point lead. Wade sunk a three-pointer to put the Heat up by 15, and he held the pose an extra few seconds in front of the Dallas bench; LeBron came over and congratulated him. That’s not why Dallas won. That’s the armchair psychology reason, that the Mavs were given a boost by seeing the “preening” (only Miami preens; when Dirk keeps his hand up after a three-pointer finally regains the lead for Dallas, that’s just pride). Dallas players seemed especially peeved at the perceived celebration, despite the fact that (a) um, this guy was pissed? and (b) they should have been angry because Miami was throttling them despite not playing particularly amazing basketball.

In reality, the Heat lost because of these simple numbers: Over the final seven minutes and 13 seconds, each team took 11 shots. Miami missed 10 of 11 shots; Dallas made nine of 11. (Both teams also took and made two free throws apiece during that span.) They lost because Dallas stopped them and they couldn’t stop Dallas. Dirk was impressive as hell down the stretch, of course, scoring the final nine Dallas points. (His driving lay-up was reminiscent of his series-clinching shot against San Antonio in 2006.)

Miami’s defense disappeared, yes, but Miami couldn’t do anything on the offensive end. While part of that was due to Dallas’s defense, it was also due to some abysmal plays on Miami’s part. There is no reason why they ate up one of the final two minutes with two sedentary plays that essentially involved in LeBron holding the ball at the top of the arc and heaving a desperate shot as the shot clock expired (again, they did that for two consecutive plays, despite the first one not working and a lucky offensive rebound that kept the ball in their hands). The defense also failed them at the end, when Bosh failed to foul Dirk (when they had a foul to give) and Miami weirdly had Bosh single-team Dirk despite having Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem readily available.

The series heads to Dallas tied, but it feels like the momentum has swung dangerously in Dallas’s favor. Forgive the armchair psychology, but I am reminded of something from the 2006 Finals. Back then, Miami was the veteran team made up of guys who had come very close but not sealed the deal (Gary Payton, Antoine Walker, Jason Williams) and guys who were considered washed up or past their primes (Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning). When the Heat were down 0-2 but started to come back, the danger for those Mavericks was in letting these vets realize they had a chance. Once they did, it gave an added fire to their performances. The danger for this current Miami team lies in allowing these Mavericks to similarly get a taste: people like Dirk, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and Jason Terry have come so close before, and they have to realize this is their last shot. (This isn’t a Dallas team built to contend for multiple titles, given the advanced ages of everyone involved.)

If the series winds up turning around, it won’t be because Wade and LeBron celebrated after a big shot in front of the Dallas bench. It will be because a bunch of veterans making their last stand realized they had a chance and could really beat these guys. That could wind up being very dangerous for the Heat.

NBA Finals, Game One: This Is What They Worried About

HEAT 92, MAVERICKS 84 | Miami Leads 1-0

It’s only one game, and it was a pretty ugly game at that. The winning team shot 38 percent, but the losing team was close behind with 37 percent. The winning team also committed one fewer turnover (10) than the losers (11). A grand total of 19 points were scored on fast breaks, while both teams scored two-thirds of their points outside of the paint. It wasn’t glamorous. But it got the job done, and in doing so reminded the rest of the NBA what they’re dealing with in the Miami Heat.

The Heat are by no means a perfect team. The fact that they’ve taken a 1-0 lead in the NBA Finals after handily vanquishing the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics, and they still haven’t reached their true potential, is surprising on its face and terrifying for fans of every other team. This is still a work in progress, albeit a much more cohesive work in progress than they were a few months ago, when they were a smoother product than at launch time a few months before that. This is a team that can make physical and mental mistakes, but is also capable of playing resilient defense that keeps it hanging around long enough for one of the superstars to put things away.

This is what fans around the league feared last summer, whether they admit it or not: This notion that, no matter how smart your defensive sets or clever your matchups, you can still only effectively shut down so many players at once. There simply aren’t enough defenders with enough speed, skill and fouls to give to simultaneously stop Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and, yes, Chris Bosh, and even if you do manage that trick, you still don’t know when Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers or Udonis Haslem will knock down key shots, because you will invariably have left them open at that point. But it doesn’t matter, because the odds of all three stars failing to perform at once is very unlikely. If just one of them is connecting, this is a good team. If two of them are doing well, this is a very good team. If all three are performing well, this is an absurd team.

Still, the Mavericks could have easily won the first game. Outside of Shawn Marion (quietly registering a double-double in his first Finals appearance) and Dirk Nowitzki (who was defended as well as he has been all season, and he still had 27 points after going 12-for-12 from the line), they barely seemed to register. Jason Terry missed 11 of his 17 shots, J.J. “David Eckstein” Barrea went 1-for-8 and Peja Stojakovic missed all six of his attempts. And this was still a six point game with 96 seconds remaining. A lot of these players have come close to the mountaintop before (Dirk and Terry in the 2006 Finals, Kidd in the 2002 and 2003 Finals, Marion with Steve Nash’s Suns, Peja with the early ’00s Kings), as has their coach (Rick Carlisle was in the conference finals in 2003 and 2004, and but for that brawl he could have made it further in 2005). Perhaps they were wowed by the stage, the stars and the significance. Nowitzki is still playing the most efficient basketball of his stellar career. He remains borderline unstoppable, even when defended exceedingly well (as he was on Tuesday night). They still have enough complimentary parts around him to clog the lane and put up points and put up a fight, and they still have the talent and proven ability to win this series.

But Miami has shown that they can keep it close with their defense, enabling their stars to come through in the end, just like superstars are meant to do. They have been defensively tough all year, but their offensive firepower (which hasn’t been as dynamic as fans hoped) continues to remind the league why you need one superstar to compete and two to dominate. Having three of them seems to mean you can play a middling game and still hold the game just out of reach in the end.

Miami beats Chicago and will meet Dallas in the Finals

The Miami Heat staged another fourth quarter comeback in Chicago on Thursday night, beating the Bulls 83-80 to win the Eastern Conference Finals in five games.

First, the Bulls. They are obviously a young team; Rose is 22, Gibson is 25, Deng, Noah and Brewer are all 26. They’ll clearly be back here. Chicago, for all its vaunted depth, was simply out-played on both ends of the court in what was deemed a “physical” series despite being sloppier than anything else (each team had at least 10 turnovers in every game). Miami, for all the talk of its shallow bench, hung around in every game in this series (after the first one, a blowout loss) just long enough for their stars and key supporting players to overwhelm Chicago down the stretch. Chicago led by 12 points with three minutes to go; once again, Miami pulled off a furious finish to win a game.

Miami out-dueled Chicago in a matchup we’re likely to see repeated in the near future. Assuming Miami keeps their superstar core together for at least a few seasons, and assuming there are no major, career-ending injuries to either team’s key cogs, these teams are going to stand astride the Eastern Conference for a while. And despite the sloppiness, that was a very entertaining series, so fans will be glad to see further matchups.

Now: the Finals. Let me say first that there was really no other justifiable way for this season to end. Miami was in a lose-lose situation after signing Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh last summer. If they lost at any point before the Finals (and maybe even if they lose in the Finals), they’re chokers, disappointments, a wasted experiment, proof it didn’t work out, etc. If they win anything — say, their conference — it’s just what was supposed to happen. (Let’s forget for a second that Chicago was the favorite going into the postseason, because plenty of people thought Miami still couldn’t handle Boston.) They were never the team that was going to defy expectations, only meet the begrudging predictions of a dispirited sports populace or fail en route. (Hey, remember when some people said the Heat were done after two games? Good times.)

The hatred directed at Miami that seemed so visceral last summer and last fall seems to have dissipated, has it not? The ire directed at LeBron James for his stunningly stupid “Decision,” and at the Heat for being the new bandwagon hotness, seems to have faded from view for that most obvious of reasons: the NBA season is a grueling slog, and most fans lost interest in actively complaining about one team (that, for much of the regular season, was pretty good but nothing spectacular). Early on, the Heat revealed themselves as a defensive-minded team with a shallow bench; in other words, they were boring. People definitely weren’t cheering for them, but they had gotten over despising them.

Now that Miami is in the Finals, that’s about to change. The spotlight is entirely on them, much like it was the rest of the season, only people are definitely watching and have a strong rooting interest. For most fans, this means cheering against the Heat, cheering against LeBron and Wade, cheering against the superstars and cheering for their humbling defeat. For a lot of fans, though, this means it’s time to hop on the bandwagon, claiming that a summer spent in Fort Lauderdale once means they are lifelong Heat fans, obviously, but please help me get the sticker off of my LeBron jersey, would you? For the rest of us — the small, few devoted, the ones who paid attention in between Finals berths, the ones who slogged through the 2007-2008 season and hoped to get Rose and cheered for Wade and Beasley and who have always had a soft spot for Joel Anthony — it’s comforting to know this demonization of our favorite team has had a purpose. It might still feel like we’ve rented another team for a few years, but they’re still the Heat, our Heat, and we get to root for them in June once again.

As for Miami-Dallas, much of the attention will be focused on the rematch angle. I get that. The 2006 Finals marked the only prior time each of the two teams made the championship series, and it was a particularly memorable one (at least much more memorable than several of the other recent Finals matchups, which serves my pet theory that the Finals and Super Bowl cannot be good in the same year, so if the Super Bowl is exciting, the Finals will be somewhat or entirely dull). The rematch won’t really play out on the court, though: Only two players from each squad remain on the roster (Wade and Udonis Haslem in Miami, Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry in Dallas). The coaches and supporting players have entirely changed. Mark Cuban and Pat Riley are still there, of course, outsized presences looming over the proceedings. Expect to hear a lot about the officiating, especially if the refs hand Dirk Nowitzki another 24 trips to the free throw line.

The real matchup will be between Nowitzki, unstoppable in these playoffs, and LeBron, who has transformed into a magnificent closer this spring. Kidd will try to mark Wade, and Bosh will try to embarrass Tyson Chandler the way he outplayed Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah. Both teams are good defenders that can explode offensively. Both teams have defeated the reigning conference champs (exposing them to be aged and decrepit) and both teams just ousted the young, fresh hotness (showing their age and experience). Interestingly, both teams have shined this postseason with late-game comebacks. If the game is close in the fourth, it will be great to see which team is truly clutch and which one was just feasting upon weaker opponents. Fingers crossed, but it should be a great series.

Miami Could Oust Boston Tonight

The Miami Heat won an overtime thriller 98-90 on Monday night in Boston, taking a 3-1 series lead over the Boston Celtics.

It was an exhausting game, and not just for the players. Both teams shot less than 45 percent. They combined for 57 free throws and 24 fast break points. So it wasn’t the prettiest game of the playoffs. The stars logged heavy minutes, though that and the entire game were largely dwarfed by the quintuple-OT Memphis-Oklahoma City matchup. But these are numbers to remember tonight, in case fatigue is a problem: LeBron played 50 minutes, while Wade, Bosh, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were in for 45 minutes. Those minutes probably mean more to Boston, given their advanced age; Kevin Garnett played 41 minutes and all he had to show for it was an abysmal 1-of-10 shooting night.

One wonders what the game meant for the reputations of all involved. Rajon Rondo solidified his image as a tough player in taking the court despite his gruesome injury, but he wasn’t superhumanly effective (10 points and five assists). It was damn impressive he was able to play, but he remains an offensive liability for the team. LeBron James, who “couldn’t win in Boston,” put up 35 points and 14 rebounds in what has to be considered a statement game of some sort. (He also had five turnovers, nearly a third of his team’s total. If Pierce sinks the game winner, LeBron’s turnovers — including one at the end of regulation — are the story.) Dwyane Wade had a stat line of 28-9-4. Chris Bosh had 20 and 12, including the stellar put-back at the game’s finish that sealed the deal. The Miami bench failed to make the team bus, I guess, because I didn’t see any of them in the game.

Now, I’m not one to prematurely celebrate. In fact, when it comes to sports, I am comically pessimistic, and no matter the score or time left, I always believe defeat is looming until the clock runs down. (Particularly as it relates to my alma mater; a few years ago, when the Florida Gators led 41-14 in the waning minutes of the title game, I believed the Gatorade bath for head coach Urban Meyer was a premature and hubristic move that would somehow cost the Gators the game. I am no fun during championship games.) That being said, this 3-1 margin feels fairly good to me. This game was crucial for Miami. Boston is an old team, in case you haven’t heard. They are also crafty and capable of suffocating defense. If Boston won the fourth game and tied up the series, I could imagine the Celtics figuring out a way to win two of the next three. But as pessimistic as I am in these matters, I just don’t see Boston winning three consecutive games against Miami.

The Heat host the Celtics tonight in Miami. My guess is that the Heat’s younger legs are fresher after the Monday game, while Boston’s starters show their age. This is ostensibly the perfect night for Miami to put the series away. If they win, there’s the chance Atlanta and Chicago go the distance and the Heat earn some extra rest. If they lose, the series returns to Boston, which offers the Celtics a dangerous chance to feed on home court advantage and force a seventh game. Of course, even if Miami wins, that’s just one of the three things they had to do to validate this entire experiment. The other two are making the Finals (over Chicago, I’d wager) and winning it all (over Dallas, I guess, but the three teams remaining in the West are the three best teams in the postseason). There’s a lot ahead, but a lot of that rides on clinching the series tonight.

Problems in the Magic City: Chicago 87, Heat 86

Yes, okay. The Miami Heat are not doing so well at this moment in time. The team’s 87-86 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Sunday was their fourth consecutive loss and fifth in the last six games. Two of those losses have come against Chicago, which took control of the East’s No. 2 record on Sunday; the other losses came against playoff-bound Orlando and New York and the championship-caliber San Antonio Spurs.

The problem isn’t that they’re losing. I mean, yes, sure, that’s a problem, and it’s not going away over the next nine days: three of their next opponents are San Antonio, the Lakers and Oklahoma City. The losing isn’t over. After that stretch, however, Miami has a chance to rack up wins the same way they have all season: by beating up on vastly inferior opponents. (They have 10-game stretch beginning March 19 that pits them against Denver, Detroit, Philly, Cleveland, Washington, Minnesota, Houston, New Jersey, Charlotte and Milwaukee. All winnable games.)

The problem lies in the Heat’s 1-9 record against the league’s top five teams. The problem lies in a team that can’t rally or can’t finish games. The problem isn’t that players are crying over a regular season loss; though that’s sure to open the team up to more mockery, I vastly prefer a team that gets emotional after a loss over a bunch of guys who could shrug it off and forget about it.

Obviously, this is still the regular season. And this is still a team trying to gel, I guess. But these excuses mean less and less as the weeks wear on. Miami is going to have to get through Boston, Chicago, Orlando and New York in the postseason. The Heat are still going to win at least 55 games, because there’s enough weaker opponents out there to assure that. But they have little control left over their destiny; Boston and Chicago are ahead of them, both are much more cohesive units and the Heat need the Bulls to stumble badly to make sure they get the second seed. (Boston is out of reach for Miami, let’s be honest about that right now.)

It’d be easy to try and assign blame, to say the coach isn’t energizing his players, to say they still don’t know how to play together at crunch time, to say they could have used a few more talented role players rather than Chris Bosh, to say LeBron or Wade needs to do more late in games to get the other involved. These are all valid criticisms. I don’t really think there’s any point in declaring that a March loss brands LeBron as a choker, nor do I think folks will particularly remember this stretch if the Heat win their first eight playoff games or something.

The problem isn’t that the Heat are losing. The problem is how they are losing, and to whom, and how little fight they show at crucial moments. The entire appeal of a star-laden team was knowing that, when the clock is winding down, the best guys on the floor are on your side. At least that’s how it seemed last summer. Now, it seems like this still isn’t a team: there are some great individual players and performances, but not an NBA championship-level assemblage of skills, roles and necessary pieces.


Balling: LeBron returns to Cleveland, is not immediately placed under citizen’s arrest

HEAT 118, CAVS 90 (MIA 12-8)

The big Return to Cleveland has finally come and gone. It went much as you might predict: big, fraught atmosphere; loud, cacophonous boos from the stands; and the Heat overwhelming an undermatched team. The Cavs aren’t good, and there’s no debate to be had about that. The Heat have been very good against bad teams this year but struggled against the top teams, which means we can’t take that much meaning from this win. Sure, there was a playoff-type atmosphere and everyone was as amped as you can get for an early December NBA game.

But does this really tell us how the Heat will fare in the playoffs? Not quite. The only thing it says is that when the stakes seem high (even if they aren’t, not really), this team can perform like a collection of superstars, so long as their competition isn’t great. A win like this against a playoff-caliber team, like the dominant performance over Orlando a month ago, says a lot more. In and of itself, all this game says is that a good team with more talent can beat a subpar team with less talent. At the same time, a loss would have been embarrassing as hell, so at least the team could put together a good showing when they had to.

And this was nothing short of a terrific showing for the Heat. They were ahead by 19 at the half and 30 points after three quarters. They shot 56 percent to Cleveland’s 35 percent. James Jones came off the bench to sink five three-pointers, which was nice to see, and gives me a chance to revisit the JAMES JONES THREE-POINTER TRACKER or whatever it’s called. LeBron finished with 38 points in three quarters, including a third-quarter with 24 points where he went 10-for-12, before sitting out the final quarter. Dwyane Wade nearly had a triple-double with 22 points, nine rebounds and nine assists. The Heat barely went to the line, taking just 21 free throws to Cleveland’s 37, reminding us that while they can score in droves from the perimeter, they still don’t go nuts in the paint all that much (though they didn’t need to in this game).

Besides the derisive chanting, the booing, the signs and the general feeling of unified hatred in the same place and by the same people where there had been undying love seven months ago, there were no real problem or issues.


The Miami Heat’s disappointing start has cost a South Florida bar quite a bit of cash

The Miami Heat are 10-8, a disappointing start to a season many predicted would be a parade of blowout wins. It’s causing problems for the players and coaches, but not nearly as much as it’s screwing over the guys who own the bar Whiskey Tango in Hollywood, Fla. They came up with the idea that if the Heat lose a game, fans in the bar each get a complimentary $25 bar tab. As of yesterday, before the Heat’s win over the Washington Wizards, how much money had the team cost the bar? $30,000. And the season is barely a month old. But they’re happy, because of all the publicity, so everybody wins! Except for the livers of basketball fans who live in Hollywood, Fla.

Expect meaningless speculation to surround Spoelstra for the entire season

Ugh, so it begins. Speculation about Erik Spoelstra’s job security has been rife since the free agent signings this summer, continued as the season began poorly, strengthened when star players criticized the coach and now, with the overblown bump being viewed as a sign that the Heat have given up on Spoelstra and LeBron wants to fight the guy, it’s loud and not going anywhere for a while. Now “anonymous players” are getting in the mix.

Spoelstra is not getting fired. Not yet, anyway. Yes, Riley has a history with this sort of thing. But the team he took over in 2005 was not a three-piece  show with a bunch of haphazard pieces slotted around them; he had assembled that squad over the summer through a five-team trade involving 13 players. He had disassembled a group that was mere minutes from the Finals, an audacious move that looked shrewed in retrospect. The rejiggered team had the parts for a championship. Riley knew going to the bench could wind up with a trip to the Finals. You think he’s returning to the floor with a team he knows doesn’t look remotely capable of making it that far? Hardly.

The key right now is that this team is not playing well. It’s not at full strength, with Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem out and Dwyane Wade playing hurt (and, it should be noted, poorly). It is not equipped to beat the elite teams in the league. Firing Spoelstra will literally do nothing for the team’s ultimate goal of a championship; there will be different schemes, different motivational methods and a different voice on the bench, but that’s not going to overcome personnel issues.

One big thing is that this is still a team that hasn’t played much together. Give it time. When the team is 9-8, yes, people will fret or gloat. When they tear off 10 straight wins in February, or when they win a close one against a contending team, will there be a sudden groundswell of support for Spoelstra? Hardly. With Riley watching and this franchise’s recent history, that’s always going to be an issue. It’s just a lot of nothing right now.

Balling: The Heat Decide To Call It A Season

PACERS 93, HEAT 77 (Miami Record: 8-6)

Okay, maybe calling the season at this point is a little harsh. It’s been under a month since the team took the court. But this? Not just losing to Indiana, but getting trounced on their home court by a sub-.500 team (well, now they’re 6-6) that’s heading for the lottery? These are the things that should not happen.

Admittedly, there are explanations. For one thing, no Mike Miller, which remains a factor (there is money and playing time they had earmarked for him and while the latter can be redistributed, the former cannot be, so they can’t just hire somebody to replace him). Udonis Haslem, Miami’s best rebounding hope, is now out indefinitely and needs surgery for a torn foot ligament. And Dwyane Wade is recovering from a sprained wrist, which might help explain his horrific shooting night (three points on 1-for-13 shooting).

Still. This team should not be shooting 38 percent. Or making just four of 20 attempted three-pointers. Or committing 22 turnovers. You can’t fault LeBron (25 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds) or Bosh (21 and 11). Wade simply wasn’t there, and neither was the bench (contributing all of four points).

I keep saying it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and we all know that if one of the three stars is out or weakened, Miami’s chances dwindle. But getting manhandled but a team like the Pacers does not augur well.

SPURS 106, MAGIC 97: Hey, the Magic lost too, so that’s something. They’re now 9-4, not that much better than the Heat. Whereas San Antonio is now 12-1, having lost their first game and won 11 straight (!). Divorce really agrees with Tony Parker, who had 24 and 10. The Spurs are looking fiercely good right now, and one wonders what happens if they meet the Lakers in the playoffs and have the size to tangle with their bigs.