Relief. Temporary relief. That's what the Dallas Mavericks got after coming back to beat the Wizards on Tuesday night. It wasn't a pretty win, but it was perhaps a season-saver, as silly as that sounds. Consider this:-
-- The Mavericks were on a six-game losing streak, their worst streak in the Mark Cuban era.
-- The Mavericks were 12-19, their worst record after 31 games since the 1999-2000 season.
Had things gotten worse and the Mavericks lost to the 4-win Wizards, there's not telling the repercussions. A coaching change (as absurdly misguided that would be), massive roster alterations or a declaration of defeat...it was all there had Dallas failed on Tuesday night.
They won and with it brought temporary relief. Until tonight. Now the Mavericks (13-19) play another great team in the Miami Heat (21-8), a team that smoked them just a short time ago.
Miami is definitely in a different direction than most thought. It's been an interesting evolution. To start, the Heat were a disorganized offensive team that produced points purely from the level of elite talent on the team, not from a cohesive philosophy. That Miami team countered their inconsistent offense with an elite-defense, once again, built on the elite-level talent of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. The Heat used their exceptional athletes with brutal results: intense traps and great pick and roll coverage.
Slowly but surely, the Heat have switched. It's become more evident this season: the Heat are now more an offensive team than anything. Spurred by more doses of small-ball, the Heat simply overpower you with an offense that seems unstoppable at times.
James is the centerpoint, like always, playing power forward. It worked in the 2012 playoffs but now over a full-season it's really starting to show. Ray Allen, Mike Miller, Shane Battier and Rashard Lewis are all shooting over 40 percent from three and Mario Chalmers is hitting a respectable 36 percent. Miami creates mismatches all over the court and surrounds James with these shooters to pick apart defenses in the half-court. It almost doesn't seem fair.
And we haven't even talked about Dwyane Wade, who's putting up a "quiet" 22 points per game while shooting over 50 percent from the floor and Chris Bosh, who's shooting an absurd 60 percent (!) from 16-23 feet, just feasting off James and Wade's penetration.
Then you have James who, despite already being nine years in, is getting better. Just look at the December he had:
(Per-game average) 27.5 points, 7.5 assists, 8.1 rebounds on 55/40/77 shooting splits (that's field goal percentage, three-point percentage and free throw percent.)
The trade-off this season has been the defense. Miami isn't awful, but being 18th in defensive efficiency is a far-cry from the top-5 defense the Heat are capable of fielding. Interestingly enough, Miami has gone back to their traditional lineup in hopes of getting the defense back on track.
Big or small, Miami feats on turnovers with high-pressure traps at the top of the key and in the corners. Throw the ball away against Miami and forget it, the Heat are most likely getting points. Dallas fans know that all too well and even when The Mavericks prevailed in the 2011 Finals, the Heat's ability to create instant offense out of turnovers still gave Dallas fits.
This is a Mavericks site and I hate to go on and on about the opponent, but it's worthy praise. Amid all the stories about the Clippers success, the Lakers troubles and Oklahoma City's steady-rise, the Heat still have the best player on the best team in the league.
It'll be difficult for the Mavericks to top. The Heat's biggest weakness (rebounding) is not something the Mavericks can exploit. Still, Dirk Nowitzki is rounding into form and only played 17 minutes Tuesday night, despite his good play and a relatively close game. I wonder if Carlisle was saving Dirk for tonight. Hopefully he was.
With Dirk performing at Dirk-like levels against the Wizards (5 of 7 shooting, 11 points), there was a notable difference in the Mavericks offense. O.J. Mayo saw less traps (0 turnovers) and Darren Collison had more room to roam in the paint (7 FTAs, 8 assists). Elton Brand sprung free for a few short jumpers...it just...worked. Without Dirk, the Mavericks looked out of place and out of shorts. It made sense because the roster was put together this summer expecting a healthy Dirk. Mayo was supposed to benefit with more open looks beyond the arc, Collison was supposed to attack and slash off Dirk screens and Elton Brand and Chris Kaman would get free looks at the rim thanks to all the attention teams pay to Dirk at the free throw line. As Dirk gets healthier, we'll see this offense turn it around.
Tonight will be the ultimate test. If Dirk is up for it, expect 20-25 minutes and maybe more. I think Dirk is getting close to starting and hopefully tonight proves it.