Mavericks 98 - HEAT 96 Recap

MIAMI, December 20 – Eventually, the streak was going to end. Whether that loss came today, next week, next calendar year or even last Saturday against the Washington Wizards, the inevitable was just that.

Tough though it may be to swallow, is better it come against one of the league’s top teams, and in the final minutes, no less?

Even though the Miami HEAT lost to the Dallas Mavericks, 98-96, and for the fourteenth consecutive time in the regular season, it was hardly the sort of game that wipes away all the positives of the 12-game winning streak. But it did highlight many of the same issues the HEAT experienced the last time they faced the Mavericks, a 95-106 loss in Dallas on November 27.

That game, the HEAT suffered one of their worst quarters of the season, as they were outscored, 31-17, in the third quarter. The Dallas zone defense lured them into taking jumpers and, effectively, caused Miami’s own 41 percent shooting. It may have been the loss which spurned the now infamous players-only meeting, but it also offered a strategy for how to take Miami out of its comfort zone.

Twelve consecutive wins later, it turns out the Mavericks were the only team since to properly utilize that blueprint.

Looking just as flat as they did in that third quarter weeks before, the HEAT opened the game shooting 1-of-5 to go with three turnovers. In less than four minutes, they found themselves down, 14-2. But this time it didn’t take a mid-quarter break to right the ship. Miami simply ran of its own 12-0 run to close the period, nine of the points coming from Dwyane Wade, both at the rim and behind the arc.

The second quarter wasn’t much better, but not as poor as their 30.8 percent shooting in the quarter indicates. The numbers were deflated because of one possession – one – where the HEAT shot 1-of-8, collecting seven offensive rebounds along the way. That one possession also dramatically inflated Miami’s 31 total three-point attempts, as the HEAT had four players hit multiple threes.

The problem was Miami’s 44 percent shooting from everywhere else. Once again, the Mavericks packed the paint (26 points inside) and got back quickly in transition (five fast-break points), leaving Wade and LeBron James outnumbered as they tried to run out.

Zone defense may be the easy thing to blame for Miami’s difficulties, but that was too easy. What Dallas did so effectively was disguise the zone, mixing it up with man-to-man enough that, early on, Chris Bosh said the team couldn’t recognize which defense the Mavericks were playing.

“When you don’t have a lot of time to prepare for it, yeah it’ll throw you off a little bit,” Bosh said. “In the season, you don’t have time to sit down and really look at it. They just kind of throw you off balance and make you hesitate for those couple of possessions.”

It was a defensive tactic that, it should be noted, not just any team can effectively employ. It takes just as disciplined and experienced a team to use it as it does to stop it. On that front, Dallas has had the advantage.

“We’re 30 games in,” Wade said. “These elite teams have been playing together for a long time. That’s why we play a regular season, so we can get prepared for when its playoff time, when its money time.”

Otherwise, for however much this game could mean, these were back-and-forth, well-executed proceedings. Dallas’ 44.6 percent shooting masks a night of 110 points per 100 possessions – due to Jason Terry’s 19-points fourth quarter – but it still came down to Shawn Marion snagging Dirk Nowitzki’s airballed three with 1:25 to that got Terry an open three, and Chris Bosh watching his potential game-tying triple spin out in the final 20 seconds.

Considering the Mavericks were tactically similar to their earlier victory over Miami – tactics which are extremely well recognized at this point – it’s tough to highlight this night as much more of a negative outside of the loss column. Next time, the HEAT may not have 11 three pointers to use as a crutch against the zone, but next time they may not have to take so many, either.

“They have a lot more experience than us, together,” Bosh said. “We just keep that in mind. It’s a very long season and we’re still going to see these teams down the road.

“Eventually, when we match up with these teams down the road, I have confidence that we’ll be a better team.”