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NBA Finals: Defense and Adjustments

   by Al McMordie - 06/05/2011

When the LA Lakers won the NBA title two years ago, their defense was exceptional. In the NBA Finals against the Magic, in four of the five games they held Orlando to 41%, 30%, 42% and 41% shooting (all wins). Last year the Lakers and Celtics played a monster defensive battle in Game 7 with everything at stake, sailing way under the total. And this year’s NBA Finals has already seen outstanding defensive efforts by the Mavericks and Heat. The NBA Finals pits the best against the best, so it often comes down to defense and adjustments.

The Heat had a +10 rebounding edge in Game 1, so what did the Mavs concentrate on in Game 2? Not getting killed on the glass, which they didn’t, outrebounding Miami in their incredible comeback.

You have to give the Miami coaches credit for their adjustments in Game 1, putting LeBron James on Jason Terry in the fourth quarter. Terry was just 3 of 10 for the game and 0-for-3 in the fourth quarter, even missing an open three. After the loss Terry admitted he was surprised to find LeBron on him, admitting, “We weren’t prepared for it.” Adjustments like that can be important not only strategically but psychologically.

In Game 2 Dallas was prepared, and played much better, especially down the stretch. The Mavs also attacked the glass much better. Lost in the shuffle of the miracle comeback was one strategy that didn’t work for Dallas in South Beach: changing the tempo. Game 1 was played at a snail’s pace, which Miami prefers, and Dallas got shut down. The Mavericks played more uptempo in Game 2 and the Heat made them look bad, forcing turnovers and dunking like crazy. As the series shifts to Dallas this week it will be curious to see which tempo each team prefers.

Dallas had some bad habits in the first two games. In the opener, it was watching the Heat grab 16 of their misses, leading to them taking 13 more shots than the Mavs. Dallas cleaned that up in Game 2, only to spring another leak with 20 turnovers; Miami turned them into 31 points. When Dallas was in its set offense, Miami did a good job of covering everyone, no matter how often the Mavericks passed the ball. That is going to require some adjustments by Coach Rick Carlisle.

In Game 1 last year, the Lakers outplayed Boston in a double-digit win. Three years ago, Kevin Garnett had 24 points and 13 rebounds in Game 1 against the Lakers, but in Game 1 last year Garnett had one rebound in his first 27 minutes of Game 1. He finished with four in 35 minutes. LA outrebounded Boston, 42-31, and pounded the Green with 48 points in the paint.

So it was all about adjustments as the series moved to Boston for the middle three games in 2010, and the Celtics won 2 of the 3 by slowing the pace down with rugged defense. A problem for the Celtics in Game 1 last June was that Ray Allen came out guarding Bryant and picked up several quick fouls, forcing him to the bench. That took away their best outside shooter. Allen played Bryant well defensively in the 2008 Finals, so the defense was not a problem – it was picking up fouls, as Bryant is so active and often unstoppable. So the Celtics rotated defensively, switching Paul Pierce and Allen on Kobe. Pierce asked to guard Bryant in Game 4 of the 2008 Finals, when Boston made that extraordinary comeback from 24 points down to win.

Another thing to keep an eye on this week will be injuries. Mavericks' center Brandon Haywood is day-to-day with a right hip flexor injury, while Dirk Nowitzki has a torn tendon in his finger. The 7-foot Haywood has averaged 16 minutes off the bench in the playoffs and is putting up 4.3 rebounds and 3.3 points to go along with one block per game.

A year ago for the Lakers, the down time was helpful in that it allowed banged-up center Andrew Bynum to rest his right knee. He had about 2½ ounces of fluid drained before the Finals, but the swelling returned soon after. Bynum played 28 minutes in Game 1, but the two days of rest did him good. Also, Kobe was able to rest his rest his right knee and Lamar Odom was able to rest his sprained right knee and sore left shoulder.

Erik Spoelstra and Carlisle can’t be that happy, as there have been quite a few defensive breakdowns by both teams already in this series. Whichever team cleans those up the fastest could have a big edge. How big is Sunday's Game 3? Consider that, in NBA Finals history when a series is tied at 1, since the NBA went to 2-3-2 format, all 11 winners of Game 3 ended up with the Trophy.

Another thing to think about as this series shifts to Texas is the play of the Heat on the road. Miami tied Dallas for the best road record this season, but is only 4-3 on the road in the playoffs. That includes losses by 21 points in Chicago and 16 points in Boston.

During the regular season, Dallas shot better and scored more at home than it did on the road, but only by a small margin. However, in the postseason, there's been a significant difference in the Mavs' play at home in several categories: accuracy on field goals (up by .018), 3-pointers (up by .042), free throws (up by .027), and points scored (a jump of 8.6 points per game).

Finally, the Heat is 5-14 ATS in its last 19 games playing on 2 days rest. The Mavericks are 10-2 ATS in their last 12 games as a favorite and the road team is 20-8-1 ATS in the last 29 meetings between these teams. It should be a wild (and fun) week in Dallas! Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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