The Heat haven't made it easy on themselves against the Mavericks in the Finals.
The Miami Heat team that beat the Dallas Mavericks by a final score of 88-86 on Sunday were a Rorschach blot.
For the first half of the game, they moved the ball beautifully and attacked the paint. Dwyane Wade was the head of the snake, carving up Dallas' defense with some beautiful attacks off the dribble, cruel post-ups on Jason Kidd and some nice passes to either a cutting LeBron James or an open 3-point shooter on the weak side.
Then, just as the Heat were really starting to hum offensively, the team went stagnant and fell victim to the bad offensive habits that have plagued them all season long.
The ball stopped moving, the Heat stopped attacking, the team had zero free throws and only one field goal from inside of 5 feet in the last 10 minutes of the game. In the span of a few minutes, Miami went from a perfect, terrifying offensive machine to three of the most talented slashers in the game trying their hands at deep jumpers.
Chris Bosh, who suffered an eye injury early in the game, continued to look completely ineffective for most of the game. Bosh didn't have any luck trying to take Tyson Chandler off the dribble from the midpost, and being stuffed by Chandler repeatedly seemed to sap his confidence in his midrange jumper, even when left wide open.
Then, naturally, Bosh found his game with one working eye and scored seven points in the pivotal fourth quarter, including a go-ahead baseline jumper with 37 seconds to play that also qualifies as the biggest shot of Bosh's career.
The role players, specifically Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem, did exactly what they were supposed to do -- make open shots and provide energy and rebounding, respectively. Then they let the Mavericks back in the game when a Chalmers turnover and a Haslem loose-ball foul allowed Dallas to trim the lead from six to two in exactly 18 seconds.
The team played its usual swarming, suffocating and borderline impenetrable brand of defense, at least until it started letting Dirk Nowitzki get some looks at jumpers that were too easy. The Heat also allowed Dallas to live at the free throw line, where Nowitzki literally does not miss, thanks to silly fouls 90 feet from the basket.
Miami did everything wrong in the final minutes of what should have been an easy win -- bad fouls, bad turnovers and forced shots -- to let the Mavericks back in the game, then held onto the win with three perfect possessions: one on offense and two on defense. They Heat played perfect, terrifying offense, then they went flat.
The Heat were in the midst of a collapse, then righted the ship exactly when they needed to most. Bosh shrunk from the Finals for 11 straight quarters, then stepped up in the most important one of the series.
It was a great win, a win that put the Heat two games away from their ultimate goal, but it was also a win that prompted the question: What would it look like if the Heat could put a full 48-minute game together?
Of course, this could all be an exercise in double standards. Throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Heat made a habit of falling behind early, keeping the game close thanks to their defense, then pulling through thanks to fourth-quarter brilliance. I praised them for that, and they deserved praise for it. They did what they weren't supposed to be able to do: beat the Eastern Conference's best defensive teams, execute in late-game situations and demonstrate the ability to break the wills of their opponents late, at their own games.
In the finals, the script has been flipped. If it wasn't for those three final brilliant possessions, the Dallas series would be the inverse of the Chicago series for Miami. The Heat dominated the first game, led for huge portions of the second and third games, and lost one and nearly lost another thanks to Dallas' ability to hang around, some poor late-game execution on Miami's part and the brilliant play of one of the game's best closers.
Miami could have easily run away with Games 2 and 3 if it had kept its foot on the gas pedal when it had double-digit leads. Of course, this could just be a case of not giving the Western Conference champions the respect they deserve. The Mavericks got to the Finals by pulling off some remarkable comebacks of their own, so why should we be surprised that they've been monsters in crunch time against the Heat?
Still, Games 2 and 3 do make you think. Maybe the Heat weren't beating the Bulls and the Celtics at their own games. Maybe the Heat were just playing their game, and maybe the Heat's game doesn't look like what we thought it would look like.
Maybe this isn't a team that was denied by the two best defenses in the league in the conference finals and semifinals to play the explosive brand of offense we were all expecting the Heat to play. As we saw in the first half, Miami can score in the paint against this Mavericks defense; the Heat simply stopped doing it in the second half. While credit is due to Dallas' increased defensive intensity, a lot of the blame falls on Miami's offense.
Maybe the Heat aren't built around Wade, James and Bosh cooperating with each other to create an offensive juggernaut we've never seen before. Maybe they simply pick up each other's slack and ensure that the Heat get just enough to win on a given night against a great team. The Heat now have 14 wins this postseason, and only six of those wins have come by double digits.
For instance, look at the Heat's final field goal, the one that decided the game: Wade, who had been red-hot, started the possession, got a screen from James, and got trapped.
Instead of trying to split the double-team and do something spectacular, he made the simple pass to James, who had some open space.
James, instead of trying to force a drive or a contested jumper, swung the ball to an open Bosh.
It wasn't an ideal offensive set that led to an easy layup or wide-open 3; it set up a shot that, according to Hoopdata.com, Bosh makes 45 percent of the time. And yet it was the play the Heat needed to go up 2-1.
It wasn't offensive perfection that won the game for the Heat, just perseverance and a possession based on patience.
Maybe this is a team that still hasn't figured out how to dominate, but seems to know how to find a way to win night after night, even if it has to overcome its occasionally glaring imperfections to do so.
As good as the Heat have been throughout these playoffs, and despite the fact they now hold a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals, the past two games have left us wondering just how much better the Heat could be if they actually got everything clicking for a full 48 minutes. We admire how the team can manufacture wins thanks to sheer talent, toughness and a sense of the moment, but there's still a missing element.
Until these Finals are over, that statement should trouble Heat fans, because this is a team that could be up 3-0 had they decided to keep their foot on the gas for the last half of the fourth quarter of Game 2.
Instead, there's a lot of basketball left to be played before the Heat will be allowed to raise that trophy.
However, if the Heat do manage to win two more games before they lose three, and take home the championship, the above statement should be absolutely terrifying to the rest of the NBA. Because if the Heat can win the NBA Finals while still figuring out how to put dominant performances together consistently, what is going to happen when they do?