Dribble attacks like this were essential to the Mavericks' title.
Right before the conference finals, I wrote about how the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat represented contrasting styles in how the game is played.
The Heat created a lot of shots off the dribble, whereas the Mavs created a lot off the pass. If the Mavs got by Oklahoma City, the other team besides Miami that created a lot off the dribble, and Miami got by Chicago, the Finals would be a major clash of styles. We ended up with just that matchup, but what is amazing is that the Mavs won by adapting to play more like the Heat and by forcing the Heat to play more like the Mavs.
I have a metric that looks at how often teams attack off the dribble and, in the Finals, the team that attacked the paint off the dribble the most won every game of the Finals. In the epic comeback of Game 2, this all came about in the 4th quarter when the Heat stopped attacking the basket. Once J.J. Barea entered the starting lineup for Dallas, the Mavs started attacking the basket a lot.
In the first couple of games, the Heat defense reacted strongly to Dirk Nowitzki, double-teaming him in various ways and zoning the weak side of the court. Every other player got single-team treatment, even Jason Kidd when he went inside because he wouldn’t try to score. If Dirk passed out of the double-team, the Heat always had someone to recover to a shooter. And that is all the Mavs were -- shooters. They would catch the ball and launch a shot or look to pass, not to attack the defense that was rushing out toward them.
Once Barea came in, though, the Mavs started not just spot-up shooting, but actually attacking off the pass, making it much harder for the Heat to simply recover. It wasn’t just Barea, though it was initiated by Barea. Jason Terry started attacking and not just shooting from the perimeter, and even DeShawn Stevenson made a drive against Heat recovery defense.
This made the Heat rotation defense a lot harder, and the Mavs’ offense got progressively better. With the Mavs putting Nowitzki in the center of the court instead of the block, the Heat had a harder time zoning up off of him, making recovery to shooters also more difficult.
Could the Heat have responded better to the Mavs tactical changes? Yes. They were a little slow to respond at first because Barea didn’t make his shots in his first game as a starter. It looked like nerves affected his ability to make even layups -- nerves either about LeBron James flying in or just about playing in the Finals. But Barea was getting good shots and he eventually made them.
The Heat then had to start doing what they weren’t used to -- mixing up their defensive looks, against Nowitzki and against isolations in general. The Heat should have gone to things to fool the Mavericks, allowing Nowitzki to go one-on-one for a little bit while blanketing Terry and Barea, denying them the ball, or making more straight double-teams instead of zoning up the weak side. With the Heat’s defensive ability, they could have implemented almost any tactic, but they needed the right ones.
As a related note, it really is time to lay off of LeBron James for his performance in the Finals, and this is why: Russell Westbrook.
Remember Westbrook? Against the Mavs in the Western Conference finals he got absolutely ripped by outsiders for taking too many bad shots against the Mavs’ defense and not getting the ball to Kevin Durant more. In the Finals, the Heat’s main creator off the dribble, James, got absolutely ripped by outsiders for doing exactly what people said Westbrook should have done -- defer to their other great player.
Credit the Mavs and don’t kill LeBron. The Mavs’ defense did a great job keeping creators out of the paint. If you want to criticize someone, criticize the coaches, Scotty Brooks and Erik Spoelstra, for not figuring out how to attack the Mavs’ defense in a more decentralized way.
What team did the best against the Mavs’ defense this year? The Orlando Magic, who shoot 3s like maniacs. The Heat could have done more to spread the floor by running more sets for perimeter shooters, but they were also reportedly hampered a bit by an injury to James Jones. Don’t get me wrong, Brooks and Spoelstra are good coaches who just couldn’t quite match the moves quickly enough. And, of all the voices criticizing Westbrook and LeBron for what they did and didn’t do, I didn’t hear any of them offering constructive criticism for how to beat the Mavs’ defense.
A final lesson for the playoffs: When teams are fairly close, the NBA playoffs become a chess match. This makes it difficult to have basic statistics characterize a series. There are no great rebounding or shooting or turnover statistics to characterize the 2011 Finals, because adaptations constantly change what wins.
Even MVP Dirk Nowitzki had a statistically bad game in the clincher. Did he have a good series? Absolutely. But the tactical moves were what won this series.