Posted Jun 5 2011 10:05PM - Updated Jun 6 2011 6:33AM
DALLAS -- Right or wrong, the phrase "Hero Ball" has often been used to describe the Miami Heat's offensive philosophy this season.
Rarely, though, has the word "hero" been attached to their work on the defensive end of the floor. The swarming defensive rotations and the frightening, at times, athleticism they bring to the fore being much more than any other team can handle.
Yet there they were Sunday night, locked in almost the exact same position they were in at the end of their crushing Game 2 loss to the Dallas Mavericks in Miami. Game 3 on the line. Dirk Nowitzki with the ball. Heat up by two and just 4.4 seconds to play.
There would be no fairy tale finish this time for the Mavericks. Not with Udonis Haslem as the point man on Nowitzki in the final, rugged minute of an instant classic in Game 3 of The Finals at American Airlines Center.
Nowitzki got free. He made his move and spun into a position to get off a 17-footer that would have tied the game. It didn't fall, courtesy of a little defensive Hero Ball (and the perfect bounce), as the Heat held on for the 88-86 win that not only saved Game 3 but also preserved their championship hopes.
"You just try to contest and make him take a tough one. And when it goes up, you kind of hold your breath," Haslem said. "I just turned around and I was just hoping that it wouldn't go in. At seven feet, he can shoot over me. So even though I'm contesting, it's still a good look. Two plays before that, he had just hit one right in my face. Good defense doesn't always work with him."
Since 1985, when the championship series went to a 2-3-2 format, there's been 11 times a series has been tied 1-1 and each time the winner of Game 3 has won the series.
"We don't really focus on that," Haslem said. "We know they're a dangerous team. I was part of an '06 championship where things can swing at the snap of a finger. We understand that, so we've got to come out and play the next game like we're down, and try to get another one."
If Haslem can crank out another gutsy performance or two like the one he provided on both ends of the floor in Game 3, that number could be 12 by the end of the week. It was his screen that freed Chris Bosh on the baseline to knock down the game-winning jumper with 39.6 seconds to play. He also forced a turnover a possession before that eliminated another opportunity for the Mavericks to seize the moment.
"We've shown that we could win after losing a tough game; we were able to bounce back. We've shown that we can go on the road and win in a hostile environment. But we know it's just one win. We're happy to get one, but we've got to look forward to the next game because they'll come back even better."
If LeBron James or Dwyane Wade had made those same plays, no one would have been surprised. Even some redemptive work from Bosh might have been a reasonable expectation in this situation.
But for Haslem to step up during crunch time and deliver home-court advantage and the momentum back to the Heat in the manner he did only serves to bolster his profile within the Heat locker room as the backbone of this team.
Few players could miss six months (with a foot injury), return in the conference semifinals and perform the way Haslem has against the Mavericks, and particularly Nowitzki, his primary assignment in the Heat's 2006 triumph in The Finals against the Mavericks.
"I would love to have it all back," Haslem said. "I would love to have my legs back. I would love to have my conditioning back. I would love to have my rhythm back. But the truth of the matter is, it's not going to all happen right now. And it probably won't happen this season. But what I can do is I can be disciplined defensively. I can be mentally tough. And I can be a leader out there."
And an absolute problem for Nowitzki.
"He's fronting me everywhere, trying to keep the ball out of my hands," Nowitzki, who notched the first 30-point (34) game of this postseason against the Heat's vaunted defense, said of the work Haslem did on him. "He does a good job. He's active, he's quick on his feet. Down the stretch, I think he stayed down and made me shoot a contested shot and a shot I can make, but unfortunately it didn't go."
That déjà vu moment on the Heat bench before that last shot had to be an excruciating one, visions of that Game 2 disaster with Bosh guessing wrong and Nowitzki blowing by him for the game-winning layup with seconds to play.
Haslem should have been on Nowitzki then the same way he was Sunday night, shoving and snorting his way into the perfect defensive position in those finals seconds to defend the indefensible.
"I just wanted to make it tough," Haslem said, replaying the final moments in the Heat locker room after the game with a bag of ice strapped to his right shoulder. "I stumbled, he got a good spin on me, and I was able to recover chest up and make him shoot a tough one."
If the Heat could hold onto a lead they would need hero ball or late game heroics to survive in this series. Once again they let a double-digit second half lead slip away. They were in control up 13 shortly after halftime when a Nowitzki-fueled 15-2 run tied the game at 57-57 with 4:20 to play in the third.
They went back up by as many as seven in the fourth quarter but still couldn't put the Mavericks away until the very end.
But the Heat aren't concerning themselves with aesthetics at this point. They only care about the results.
"It's just one," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "We're not going to make it more than what it is. We have two wins under our belt. We have to try and be greedy and get another one. But there isn't going to be anything easy in this series for either team. It's all about the win or the loss. It doesn't matter. Even this, it's not a good win, it's not a bad win. It's a win. We have to move on and try to get the next one."
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