Posted Jun 1 2011 12:59PM
MIAMI -- Like some nighttime party at a beach cabana on South Beach, there is a game of limbo going on in these 2011 NBA playoffs and, especially, in The Finals. As in: How low can they go? Specifically, how low can the Miami Heat go as in their offensive accuracy and still win a championship?
The Heat shot 38.8 percent (31-of-80) Tuesday night in Game 1 of The Finals and still beat the Dallas Mavericks handily, 92-84, at AmericanAirlines Arena. One game earlier, they shot 39.4 percent (26-of-66) in the clincher of the Eastern Conference finals and still eliminated the Chicago Bulls, 83-80.
When most basketball fans think of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, they think of gaudy highlight plays, stunning dunks, daring aerial moves near the rim and occasional unconscious, step-back 3-pointers of the sort with which James closed the third quarter Tuesday.
Well, there were plays like that in Game 1. But there also were plenty of clangs and thuds, along with the awkward silence of an air ball a time or two.
Miami's Big Three combined to shoot a reasonable 43.4 percent (23-of-53). It was the rest of their squad (8-of-27) that dragged the team's accuracy south of that 40 percent mark. And it didn't matter.
In fact, it's conceivable the Heat could scattershoot their way right through this best-of-seven to a title. In which case the Larry O'Brien trophy -- where the big golden basketball seems to be rimming out -- would be perfectly symbolic.
A year ago, the Los Angeles Lakers shot 41.8 percent and still were able to defeat the Boston Celtics in seven games. Miami could "better" that by undercutting it all the way down to the 30's.
"I don't know if that's the way the league is going but certainly both teams, you know, have committed to that side of the court," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game. "You get to this level, you've probably had to win a lot of defensive games. You can't allow teams to just run up 120 points on you."
No kidding. Since their loss to the Bulls in the opening game of the East finals, Miami has won five in a row while allowing an average of 83.4 points. The Heat outshot Chicago, by percentage, in every game of that series. Now they've done the same to Dallas.
"I mean, you hold a team to 38 percent and 92 points, for us that's usually a victory," Dallas forward Shawn Marion said, laughing a little in exasperation at the quirk. "To score 84 points is very rare for us. To get 67 shots as well. Even to shoot 37 percent. Most times we shoot 37 percent from the field, the other team is going to shoot lower than that."
Said Spoelstra: "Obviously, [defense is] our identity. Sometimes we can also put points on the board. But that's a good defensive team there. We weren't able to get open looks, but we've proven in this playoff run that sometimes we have to win when it's not necessarily pretty for us offensively. We have to grind it and get defensive stops and get some timely baskets."
In the regular season, Miami rarely got put to this test; it scored 100 points or more in 45 of its 82 games and was 41-4 when doing so. When held to 99 or fewer, the Heat were a sub-par 17-20.
Look at them now: The Heat have reached 100 points only three times in 16 postseason games. They are 10-3 when held below that.
Much of this is due to the teams Miami has been facing. Chicago and Boston are as stingy as they come, vying for defensive honors all season with the Heat. And Miami actually shot worse against Philadelphia (42.6 percent) in the first round than it did subsequently against the Celtics (45.1) or the Bulls (45.3).
It's just that the Heat can get away with it if they're going to choke off the other guys. So far in the playoffs, Miami's opponents have shot a collective 41.6 percent.
"Shots are going to be hard to come by," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. "Both teams are really locked in and making a strong defensive effort. We've been playing series [like this]. Our Portland series was, 'The first team to 80' was winning those games. This is nothing new to us."
The Mavericks, though, are at their best when points are more abundant. They were 43-4 when scoring 100 or more, 44-10 when shooting better than their foes. Hold them below 90 as the Heat did Tuesday and you're looking at a 4-9 team in 2010-11.
Some of the Dallas players felt this one was an anomaly and that their higher-octane ways won't betray them as The Finals grinds on. Center Tyson Chandler, for one, doesn't expect such low-scoring affairs. "I think we have to be a lot more aggressive next game," he said. "I felt like it took us a while to get going, whether it be Finals jitters or whatever the case may be, it took us a little while, and they were able to capitalize on that. Normally, we come out and strike first and really get moving. We never seemed like we could get into an offensive rhythm."
The thing is, that is Miami's plan. And the way the Heat execute it, they might find themselves in position to win a championship while almost neglecting the other side of the floor.
If the Lakers' low shooting percentage in victory in 2010 isn't target enough, there are these: In 1955, the Syracuse Nationals shot 33.9 percent in the Finals and still beat Fort Wayne. Two years later, the Celtics shot 36.9 percent and beat St. Louis.
Throw a net over the other team and you don't have to shoot well to win.
"Both teams scramble and they're able to flood the strong side and make the other team play on the weak side," said Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki, who was 7-of-18 in Game 1. "What makes them so good, they're so athletic on the wing that even when we swung it sometimes, they're able to cover a lot of ground, LeBron and Wade, and still run out at our shooters or contest the shots on the weak side."
If that keeps up, the Mavericks quickly will find themselves in a limbo of another sort.
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