Mavericks feel Caron Butler's absence

MIAMI -- You won't hear this excuse from any of the Dallas Mavericks' mouths. But man, could they use Caron Butler in this series.

As optimistic as Butler continues to be, don't get your hopes up that he'll play for the first time since New Year's Day in these NBA Finals.

Donnie Nelson, the Mavs' president of basketball operations, recently said it was "next to impossible" for Butler to return from a ruptured right patellar tendon to play this postseason.

Nothing has changed since then, including Butler not being cleared for contact.

It'd take a miracle for Butler to suit up in this series, much less to resemble the reliable Robin to Dirk Nowitzki's Batman that he had become in the season's first two months.

Then again, it's something of a miracle that the Mavs roared through the Western Conference bracket with Butler wearing suits and watching from behind the bench.

Unfortunately for Dallas, the Miami Heat very well could be the team to finally expose the void in the Mavs' lineup left by Butler's absence.

The Mavs certainly needed some more firepower during their 92-84 Game 1 loss Tuesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.

The Dallas offense bogged down against the Heat's swarming defense. The Mavs, who were forced to grind out half-court possessions, shot a playoffs-low 37.3 percent from the floor.

"Offensively, that was a disaster for us," sixth man Jason Terry said, succinctly summing up the performance.

Of course, the Mavs were missing a main ingredient from their pair of regular-season wins over the Heat. Butler averaged 18 points on 54.2 percent shooting in the two games against the team that drafted him.

Butler also did a terrific job of defending LeBron James in those games. The self-proclaimed King James scored only 26 points in 53 minutes with Butler on the floor and had a shooting percentage (.276) that looked more like a batting average.

James didn't totally dominate Game 1, but he had an efficient 24-point performance, going 9 of 16 from the floor, dishing out five assists and committing only one turnover.

Marion, DeShawn Stevenson and maybe even Jason Kidd are smart, quick and sufficiently rugged defenders to at least have a chance to limit James in this series. But that's the kind of job that needs to be done by as big a committee as possible.

Marion -- the former four-time All-Star who eventually replaced Butler in the starting lineup -- was actually one of the few bright spots for the Mavs, with 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting and 10 rebounds. But Marion isn't the off-the-dribble scoring threat or jump-shooter Butler is, the kind of player that makes aggressive defenses pay for focusing so much on Nowitzki.

"They're able to flood the strong side and make the other team play on the weak side," said Nowitzki, who might as well have been explaining why Butler was so efficient against the Heat this season.

One of the Mavs' biggest problems is how to plug the hole at small forward when Marion rests or slides to power forward while Nowitzki takes a break. That was a total of 21 minutes Tuesday night.

Peja Stojakovic has been well worth the minimum salary the Mavs gave him when he signed with them in midseason. His perimeter shooting played a particularly key role in the Mavs' West semifinals sweep over the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.

But Stojakovic's below-average athletic ability makes him a liability against Miami, especially if he isn't making shots. He was 0-of-3 in 15 Game 1 minutes. Stojakovic wasn't referred to by name, but it's safe to assume that Peja versus LeBron was on coach Rick Carlisle's mind when he referred to matchups that "are challenging, to say the least."

Beating the Heat would be challenging, to say the least, even with a healthy Butler in the lineup. Without him, it'll be a heck of lot harder, if not next to impossible.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.