Udonis Haslem's decision to save a ball he didn't need to was a pivotal play in the Heat's collapse.
With 1:57 remaining in the game Thursday night, the Heat had a chance to extend their two-point lead. What happened next was a squandered possession that lasted nearly a minute and saw a four-point swing go the Mavericks' way.
After Udonis Haslem recovered an errant alley-oop pass from Jason Kidd, LeBron James crossed half court with the ball. He proceeded to dribble -- count 'em -- 20 times around the perimeter, not once crossing inside the 3-point arc. Two separate failed pick-and-roll attempts forced James to improvise at the top of the key, resulting in a pull-up contested 25-footer as the shot clock expired.
James’ shot clanked off the rim, but luckily, Dwyane Wade tapped it out to Chris Bosh, who secured the offensive rebound.
Back out to James 40 feet away from the basket; 1:30 remained on the game clock.
After watching his offense devolve into James dribbling around aimlessly, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra raced up to the half-court line and screamed the play call: the Heat's bread-and-butter elbow set.
As they’ve done a thousand times before, James looked at Spoelstra, turned and entered the ball into Bosh at the high post, starting a chain of triggers designed to get the ball in the hands of Wade or James.
James rubbed off Bosh’s hip to set an off-ball screen for Wade in the corner. Kidd saw it coming the whole way, and jumped on top of the screen and shielded Bosh’s entry pass to Wade. Trigger one thwarted.
Wade cut into the paint to clear out for a James-Bosh pick-and-roll. James casually dribbled off the screen from Bosh and reversed the ball to Mario Chalmers on the left wing. Trigger two thwarted.
Upon catching the pass from James, Chalmers immediately put the ball on the deck, trying to penetrate into the lane, but Dirk Nowitzki walled him away from the paint. Trigger three thwarted.
Chalmers handed it off to Haslem for a jumper, and Haslem passed it back out to James. Trigger four thwarted.
After all that, it was back to square one -- James with the ball 40 feet away from the basket. This time the shot clock was four seconds away from expiring. In a panic, the Heat ran an impromptu James-Haslem pick-and-roll, but Nowitzki blitzed the screen, forcing another 25-foot heave from James as the clock expired.
Although it was subtle, what followed was perhaps the most pivotal three seconds of the game.
Haslem flew in from nowhere to collect the offensive rebound off James’ second miss. It looked as if Haslem had a clear look at the basket for a putback, but Jason Terry somehow managed to swipe the ball away from Haslem as the Heat power forward sprung upward for the layup.
The significance of Terry’s swipe can’t be overstated. If Terry missed the ball and hit Haslem’s hand, Haslem likely would go to the charity stripe for two free throws. Instead, Terry successfully poked the ball out, both avoiding a foul and eliminating an easy bucket.
And then Haslem made a crucial mistake.
Instead of letting the ball go out of bounds -- which would have given the Heat the possession with yet another full shot clock -- Haslem decided to save it. Why? It’s unclear, but Haslem must have assumed Terry or the nearby Kidd would be chasing to recover the possession -- but they hadn’t. They just sat back and watched Haslem grab the ball and blindly chuck it down the court as his body bounced off the base of the basket.
Haslem didn’t need to save the ball but he did -- and it might have unintentionally saved the Mavericks' chances in the game. Haslem’s desperate pass out happened to ricochet off the hands of Chalmers and James, who fought over the same live ball.
As luck would have it, the ball bounced into Terry’s hands, igniting a 3-on-1 fastbreak that eventually tied up the game.
Who’s to blame?
Take your pick. You could blame Spoelstra for not calling a play on the first opportunity. You could blame James for taking not one, but two contested 25-footers instead of penetrating. You could blame Haslem for needlessly saving the ball and throwing it away.
In the end, the truth is that it was superb defense from the Mavericks. Terry’s swipe on Haslem was as clutch a defensive play as you’ll find. Nowitzki stopped Chalmers’ penetration and then forced an off-balance 25-footer from James seconds later.
Fifty-five seconds elapsed. Twenty-six dribbles, none inside the paint. Eight passes, none that resulted in a good shot. Two offensive boards, none that led to a second-chance point.
It was, however, one failed opportunity that led to an unthinkable Game 2 collapse.