Young Mavericks No Match for the Diesel and the Flash
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Shaquille O’Neal is not the biggest reason that the Miami Heat will prevail in their NBA championship series against the Dallas Mavericks. Nor is the considerable Finals coaching experience edge that Miami’s Pat Riley has over his Dallas counterpart, Avery Johnson, who – Coach of the Year honors notwithstanding – is in his first full year as a head coach. And lastly, no, the biggest reason has nothing to do with the veteran savvy of the Heat’s supporting cast.
No, the biggest reason to favor Miami has to do with modern medical science; the flu and sinus infections are rather easily cured. Leading up to tonight’s Game 1, the lead story from the Miami camp is the health of guard Dwayne Wade, and it should be. “Flash” has turned these playoffs into his personal highlight reel.
Wade entered the postseason having already established himself as one of the premier players in the NBA. He averaged 27.2 points per game on 49.5% shooting this season, and added 6.7 assists, 5.7 rebounds, and two steals while playing 38.6 minutes per contest. Those numbers are nearly breathtaking, but consider his playoff statistics. Most players suffer considerable dropoffs in the postseason because the opposition is tougher and it’s easier to design a defense for a specific player when you get to face that team repeatedly for two weeks.
But Wade’s numbers have remained stellar: 26.2 points per game on 51% shooting, 6.4 assists, 5.2 boards, 2.1 steals. On top of that, one key area has improved. During the regular season Wade was a miserable long-range shooter, making just 13-of-76 (17.1%) from behind the arc. Even the Heat cheerleaders covered their eyes at the site of Flash launching one from behind the arc. Since the playoffs began, though, Wade has improved by nearly miraculous levels. He’s nailing three-pointers at a 42.3% clip, 11-of-26. Lastly, let’s not forget that Miami’s three playoff opponents – Chicago, New Jersey, and Detroit – ranked among the top teams in Defensive Efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions), and all ranked higher than Dallas.
Before we look at the secondary reasons to expect a Miami victory, let’s look at why Wade’s health is so key.
During the Detroit series, Wade exceeded his already high playoff level. He shot 61.7%, which you might expect in a lay-up drill, but not from the perimeter against the defending Eastern Conference champions. In the five games he was healthy against Detroit, he went 9-of-11, 13-of-17, 8-of-11, and 11-of-20 twice – that’s 52-of-79, or 65.8%. In general, we like to think that such lofty numbers aren’t sustainable, and they weren’t – Wade shot 6-of-15 in Game 6, but he was playing after taking IVs before and during the game. That sequence isn’t Jordan-esque, because Michael never had a playoff stretch like this!
Even if Wade merely plays like he has during the entire playoffs rather than as he has during the past two weeks, Dallas will have its hands full, and expect to see Mavericks ace perimeter defender Josh Howard, who is also their second best scorer, on the bench a lot due to foul trouble.
O’Neal has also maintained or improved upon his stellar regular season numbers as well. The Diesel averaged 20 points on 60% shooting and nine boards per regular season contest; during the playoffs he’s logging 20.1 points on 61.2% shooting and 9.6 boards. In recent seasons, O’Neal has fallen victim to the wear and tear of the regular season by the time he reached the late stages of the playoffs. This year, in part due to an injury that kept him out for most of the first six weeks of the season, O’Neal has been noticeably fresher and more active during the playoffs. Add the extra advantage of getting a week off before the Heat’s Eastern Conference semifinal series against Detroit and almost a week off before tonight’s game, and Shaq should be plenty rested. Other than in video games, O’Neal will never again be the dominant force he was 10 years ago, but the version that we’re seeing today is good enough to dominate against the Dallas journeymen pivots, Erick Dampier and DaSagana Diop.
During the Mavericks’ Western Conference semifinal series against the Phoenix Suns, their defense was at its worst when forced to double team. The Mavericks were unable to rotate back, which usually resulted in an open look from behind the arc for a Suns sharpshooter.
Riley must have looked at the game film and chuckled. While the Heat can’t run up and down the floor with the aplomb of the up-tempo Suns, they can shoot the three ball. The Heat finished tied for 11th in the league at 17.6 attempts per game, an increase of more than two attempts per game over last year. In the postseason, the Heat are fourth in treys attempted at 19.6, and they’re draining 34.1% of them. Miami forwards Antoine Walker and James Posey, as well as guards Gary Payton and Jason Williams, figure to see a lot of wide-open looks from behind the arc.
Lastly, for all of the talk about Dallas’s tougher new personality, the Mavericks are a team that gets rattled by physical play. Even the Suns roughed them up a bit with great success in the last series. Any Knick fan old enough to drink legally probably has fond memories of Riley’s Knick teams bruising and battering finesse squads like Jordan’s Bulls and Reggie Miller’s Pacers. This could be the next chapter in Riles approach.
All that said, the Mavericks have a solidly constructed team led by a tremendous forward in Dirk Nowtizki and a superb cast of role players, but they will struggle mightily to slow down Wade, struggle further with Shaq, and chase the Miami role players. For those reasons, the Heat will spoil the Dallas playoff party.
The Pick: Heat in six games