It is a critical Game 5 situation for both the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks as they remain ties 2-2 in the NBA Finals. After his worse playoff performance to date, will LeBron James step up tonight to lead the Heat to victory?
A game of words
You know that we have a tight, testy, historic series in the making when you see the intensity of the quotations going to a whole new level:
Dirk Nowitzki calling out a teammate, saying before game four that Jason Terry “hasn't really been a crunch-time, clutch player for us the way we need him to.”
Jason Terry saying of LeBron James’ defense on him entering Game 4: "Let's see if [James] can defend me like that for seven games."
Wednesday, Mavericks president Donnie Nelson appeared to be playing the Overrated card when he said of James and Dwyane Wade "Really, are there two guys that get more compared to Superman than Dwyane Wade and LeBron James?"
But potentially the most telling quote of the finals came after the Mavericks 86-83 win in Game 4 Tuesday, which evened the series at 2-2, when James played 46 minutes and scored a playoff-career-low eight points on 3-for-11 shooting, Mavericks swingman DeShawn Stevenson said that LeBron appeared to “check out” of Game 4, adding "Our defense was good, but at the same time he wasn't in attack mode … He's trying to find other guys and Dwyane Wade has it going, so I think he's deferring. At the same time, it's good for us. It's a positive for us."
Hmmm, Deferring. Checking out. Those buzz words are getting perilously close to insinuating that Mr. Decision is doing nothing to confuse himself with Mr. Clutch during these NBA Finals. In a series that has seen the total scoring differential of the last three games become a microscopic three points, one star player disappearing in the fourth quarter could spell the difference between championship parade and see you next year (assuming we have a season next year).
Considering that the Heat mantra this year was win or bust, wait till next year for the Miami fans is equivalent to the word failure on the Apollo 13 mission: Not an option.
King without a crown
For the first time in 90 career playoff games, James was held to single digits in scoring. His offensive game plan seemed to resemble that of a hockey team that hasn’t scored on the power play for two weeks. He did a lot of passing, looking, surveying, and studying on Tuesday, when he should have been cutting to the chase and shooting. James did not score a point in the final quarter of Game 4, and only took one shot in the period, a period in which he played all 12 minutes.
James knows that he failed to make an impact Tuesday night, but is grateful that in basketball, series play allows you an opportunity to come back stronger in the next game. “If it was the Super Bowl, I would be kicking myself in the foot. We have one game. That's it," James said. "The great thing about this, it's a series. No matter if you can have a bad game, you can always make an imprint on the next game. Game 5 is a huge game."
Even with a second chance, there is no guarantee that James will seize the moment. The two-time MVP only has nine points in the fourth quarter of the first four contests of these finals. His scoring has dropped in each game of the finals, from 24 in Game 1, to 20 in Game 2, to 17 on Sunday, to Tuesday’s single-digit “effort.” Not surprisingly, so has his shooting percentages (56% in Game 1, to 53%, to 43%, to Tuesday’s woeful 27% clip).
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is predicting a different LeBron James on the court for Game 5. “He will be more aggressive and have more of an attack mentality (Thursday) night," Spoelstra said. "He doesn't need to overthink it. He's a great player. He's a proven player ... We will do some things to help him, put him in positions to be aggressive."
Dirk Nowitzki running the show
While the bible says that the meek shall inherit the earth, it has been the meek James who has allowed the Mavericks to inherit control of the fourth quarters of the past three games, as Dallas has pulled out two victories behind its superstar, Dirk Nowitzki (NBA Handicapper Joe C. sees the Mavericks making it a third victory tonight).
Dirk Nowitzki scored the final nine points of Game 2, including the game-winning basket with 3.6 seconds to play. In Game 3 he scored his team’s final 12 points in a two-point loss. Tuesday he overcame a 101-degree fever to score 10 fourth-quarter points to will his team to victory.
Nowitzki said he felt much better on Wednesday, and was squarely focusing ahead, on Game 5. "I think we have to be ready for anything," he said. "I think usually it's the team that loses that looks at the film and says, 'Hey, we have to do this.' Usually the team that loses has more of an edge, makes some adjustments with the coaches."
The difference maker
One of the telling stats in Game 4 was fast-break points. Miami only outscored Dallas 11-5. Usually James and Wade are more productive in this area, generating offense with their speed, length and athleticism on the defensive end. If Miami creates those easy baskets early, and gets the NBA’s version of a locomotive train (James) into the scoring column quickly, then the player whom Stevenson thought was ‘checked out’ of Game 4, could be checking back in and making reservations to stick around in the NBA Finals.
While much of the focus over the first four games was about who on Dallas could support Nowitzki in generating offense, the discussion has switched to James in a way that no one saw as a storyline in the series a week ago. Can James provide teammate Wade (29.8 PPG in the finals) with enough support to win the pivotal Game 5?
I predict that he will. The James-Stevenson back-and-forth stems to the days when James was a Cavalier and Stevenson was a Washington Wizard, with the teams meeting in the playoffs three consecutive years beginning in 2006. Cleveland won each of those series, taking 12 of 16 games overall. I predict that LBJ will remind Stevenson of his winning form then, and how hungry he is now to move one giant step closer to that first championship.
Handicapper Scott Krones also has predicted LeBron to only use the criticism as fuel tonight. He will play off of it, and put on a stunning performance. Up to this point, Dwayne Wade has carried the Heat, and if LeBron believes he is the "King", then tonight is his chance to prove it.
I expect this razor-thin series to stay that way, with Miami taking Thursday’s Game 5. NBA odds reports show two anti-Mavericks trends, which side with the Heat.
DALLAS is 3-13 ATS (18.8%, -11.3 Units) in home games after covering 2 of their last 3 against the spread this season. The average score was DALLAS 101.1, OPPONENT 98.8 - (Rating = 2*).
DALLAS is 6-19 ATS (24.0%, -14.9 Units) in home games versus poor passing teams, averaging <=20 assists/game over the last 2 seasons. The average score was DALLAS 100.3, OPPONENT 97.2 - (Rating = 2*).
With all four games of the series finishing Under the total, and we advise you to keep riding the Under based on this NBA betting trend that is now rated with sixstars.
Play Under - All teams where the total is between 180 and 189.5 points (MIAMI, DALLAS) - in the finals. (48-8 since 1996.) (85.7%, +39.2 units. Rating = 6*).
My Pick: Heat and 'Under'