Tuesday, June 7, 2011

On the Line

One of the great things about the playoffs is that you get to see how people play when their backs are to the wall.

One of the best places to see this is when a team is leading the series by a single game (1-0, 2-1, or 3-2), as opposed to when it's tied or when a team is leading by two or three games. The reason is, of course, that the outcome of the game leads to such a big difference: either the series will be tied, or else someone will have a two-game lead, which is tough to overcome.

Now of course, in a game 7 you get to see both teams with their backs against the wall, which is a lot of fun. But I think in games like the one tonight, with Miami leading 2-1, you get to find out something even more interesting abuot who these teams are. What I mean is, at least from a fan’s perspective, the game at 2-1 (like the games at 1-0 and 3-2) means more to the team who’s trailing in the series than it does to the team who’s winning.

A few years back I wrote a post about how the Mavericks under Dirk had won every game 7 (or game 5 in a five-game series) that they had played. (The same is still true today, since they haven’t played any games 7’s since I wrote that post.) That looks impressive, until you reflect that the *best* teams don’t have to play very many game 7’s, because they put away their opponents quickly. So most seasons, when the Mavericks are the better team, it still often takes them the full seven games to finish a series. When they’re the lesser team, they never stretch the series to the limit.

Now let’s go back to the 2-1 series. What we find out tonight is whether Miami is good enough to beat the Mavericks even when Dallas *has* to win the game, while Miami doesn’t. It’s more interesting than a game 7 because we don’t just see who’s better –– we see who wants it more. If Dallas can win big tonight, we’ll know they play well when they’re desperate. But if Miami can win big tonight, we’ll know they can keep their effort up even if they’re not desperate.

However, there’s a catch. If the game is close, luck comes into play. Dirk could have made that shot at the end of game 3, just like he could have missed his layup at the end of game 2. Wade could have hit his desperation heave at the end of game 2, or the refs could have called a phantom foul and given him three shots on the play. These things happen. In other words, this series could easily be 2-1 Dallas or 3-0 Miami, and some of it depends on luck.

So then there’s tonight. Dallas needs the win more, and we’re playing at home. And so I think you really can say, that if Miami beats us convincingly tonight, they’ll prove that they deserve to win the series –– and the resulting 3-1 lead will mean they surely will win the series.

Of course you hope for the blow-out win. It would mean that Miami can be beaten soundly, and not just on a fluke. You willingly settle for another close win (or three more close wins), because even a championship won with a little luck is still a real championship.

But if Dallas loses another close one tonight, it will be extremely hard to swallow as a fan, because it will feel like the series could have swung the other way so easily. If that happened, we would probably lose game 6 in a blowout, and it would look like Miami was simply a lot better, but I don’t think that would necessarily be the case. In a 3-1 series, at least from a fan’s perspective, the trailing team is likely to lose heart, which helps the leading team smell blood and play with more energy to finish them off.

So you worry about the close loss. Then it’s just more “what if” piled on the list with Dirk’s WCF knee injury in 2003, the 2006 Finals, and the Golden State upset. As Mavericks fans, we’ve had enough “what if.”

But what if we win tonight?


Justin Burton said...

"or the refs could have called a phantom foul and given him three shots on the play."

That would never happen.

Your idea that really good teams don't play many Game 7s is interesting and seems true on the face of it. It seems that really good players might play a lot of Game 7s (like Dirk or AI or Cavaliers LeBron, thought I haven't checked to see how many these guys actually played) because they're dragging a lot of role players through the playoffs.

A stat I was proud of coming into the Lakers-Mavs series is that LAL had won 7 consecutive close-out games (4 on the road) from 2009-2011, which meant something important to me (especially since the criticism of the Kobe-Shaq Lakers was that they were complacent and always took too long to finish series).

Of course, they still have that streak. It just happens to exist alongside 4 straight losses to Dallas...

As for last night, the series looks like two evenly matched teams that will go 7 games. Fascinating considering that "evenly matched" means "constructed according to entirely different philosophies with almost no strengths or weaknesses in common."

JKnott said...

What I love about this playoff run:

I love that the Mavs had what was, for them, an only so-so regular season. They've never even gotten close to doing this well in the playoffs without a 60-win season behind them. For once, our expectations were very low. Every good thing that happens can be appreciated all the more because of that.

I love that the Mavs have had to deal with the most significant injury in the Finals, if not the playoffs as a whole: Butler's. And yet, rather than asking "what if?" we're celebrating their best run ever.

I love that they blew a large, late lead in the first round, prompting everyone to say "here we go again," only to win 10 of the next 11, and to win game after game by being better in the clutch than the other team.

I love that they swept the 2-time defending champs in the process.

I love that they are playing the Heat. I love that the Heat are the team with home-court advantage, who are blowing late leads, prompting commentators to talk more about their choking than the Mavs' late-game excellence. How does it feel from the other side, DWade?

Speaking of DWade, I love that he's having a monster series, and that it might not be enough. He's putting up Jordan-esque numbers, at least in scoring, and yet Lebron can't even come up with a passable Pippen impression when it counts the most.

I love it that Dirk and Terry, the only holdovers from '06, are the
4th quarter masters in this series, in spite of Dirk's injury and health issues. I love it that Terry is talking trash and backing it up.

I love it that every commentator said "You can't lose game 3 in this format and win the series!" after game 2. Who's saying that now?

I love it that Eric Dampier is on the Heat. Sure, he isn't playing at all, but the possibility of denying him a coattails ring is a delicious possibility. Especially after giving one to Gary Payton and Antoine Walker in '06. Denying Lebron his (first?) championship is good enough, but doing the same to Dampier, Bibby, et al would be gravy.

Given the choice, I'd take a game 7win over a game 6 one. Why? So I can add loving the fact that all the commentators have been saying that nobody wins an away game 7 in the Finals. Let them say that, and let the Heat believe it. If they pull out game 6, they might relax and get too confident. Either way, there is a lot to love about this Mavs playoff run!

JKnott said...

How are we ahead at halftime with Dirk shooting like that?

JKnott said...

How do we have a lead at the beginning of the 4th with Dirk shooting like that?