The Miami Heat defied convention Sunday night by literally driving past Dallas in the paint to take an important first quarter lead - one that would ultimately prove decisive in their 88-86 win over the Mavericks in Game 3 of the NBA Finals in Dallas.
Prior to the third game, the Heat said they would be aggressive against the Mavericks, and they definitely were that. Miami scored 19 points as the result of 14 Dallas turnovers and outscored the Mavericks, 40-22, in the paint. And, as an exclamation point, they dunked the ball eight times.
That aggressiveness inside was well complemented by Miami’s usually superior transition play off the defensive boards. This is where Miami hurts Dallas the most, and how they will ultimately win the series if the Mavericks can’t slow the Heat down in transition. Miami was more opportunistic and was rewarded for its effort.
Miami’s tight defense paid dividends where it mattered most. Dallas’s usually sure-handed guard Jason Kidd had four turnovers, while teammate J.J. Barea added four of his own. Miami clamped down on them on the perimeter and prevented the kind of pick-and-rolls and outlet passes that had given Dallas the lead in points inside.
Heat forward Udonis Haslem, not to be outdone, forced a huge turnover by Dirk Nowitzki in the last minute, and his defense against Nowitzki in the last seconds forced the 7-foot German to fire up an errant shot. Speaking of his efforts against Nowitzki in the last seconds, Haslem said “I just wanted to make it tough … I stumbled, he got a good spin on me, and I was able to recover chest up and make him shoot a tough one.”
Overall, the Heat survived yet another late push by Nowitzki and the Mavericks, largely on the play of Dwyane Wade and the clutch efforts of Chris Bosh, who combined for 47 of the Heat’s points. Having been widely criticized in the press over his performance in the first two games, Bosh got the last laugh by scoring the winning basket – just before Nowitzki clanked an awkward jumper off the back iron in the waning moments.
Nowitzki was valiant in the Mavericks’ loss, scoring 34 points and pulling down 11 rebounds. He also scored the Mavericks’ last 12 points. LeBron James added 17 for Miami, but his biggest contribution was 9 of Miami’s 20 total assists. Those definitely facilitated Wade’s and Bosh’s point totals and were a difference-maker in the outcome.
The second quarter was a grind, as no one, with the exception of Wade, seemed able to find the basket. In fact, with the exception of Wade, the combined field goal percentage of the two teams was just over 21% for that period.
Miami did build a 7-point lead at the half, largely on the efforts of guard Mario Chalmers, whose 12 points off the bench included a three-point shot from near half-court to end the second period. Those three points were decisive in Miami’s victory.
Dallas had a 25-19 advantage in points off the bench; but the one glaring statistic there was forward Peja Stojakovic’s lack of production. Through three games in the Finals, he’s scored under 1 point a game – as opposed to the 12.5 he scored on average against the Lakers in the Western Conference Semifinals. The Mavericks need him to contribute in a hurry.
Dallas has also had to come back from big leads repeatedly in this series. They are an older team without the legs that Miami has, and they have a habit of placing too much of a burden on Nowitzki to get them in a position where they can win. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle expressed frustration at watching his team have to repeatedly fight back from deficits – specifically with a 11-2 run to end the first half and a 17-3 run in the third quarter to keep Dallas close. These deficits can serve as motivation, but they can also drain a team over time, and Dallas can’t keep up that kind of pace all series long.
Add to all of this that the 2-3-2 Finals schedule has never favored the team that has gone down 2-1. Eleven times in this format, with the games tied 1-1, the team that wins Game 3 has always gone on to win the series.
Game 4 is in Dallas on Tuesday night (9 p.m. Eastern time, ABC).