You associate old pros and big stars with fourth-quarter dominance in the NBA Finals, not the neophytes. If you were going to guess the Game 1 victor, based on a big finish, you'd probably go with Pat Riley, Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade — and you'd be wrong.
Dirk Nowitzki said he and his teammates were "a little frozen up" to start Game 1, which is to say they were nervous like a team of mostly first-timers should be. The Dallas Mavericks thawed in the second half, finally got the game up to the pace they wanted and, at the same time, kept the Miami Heat playing that same slow, methodical brand of ball that failed Riley the last time he made it to the NBA Finals.
You'd have to conclude, based on the results of Game 1, that Miami has some re-thinking to do. It wasn't just losing, 90-80. It's the way it all unfolded. The Mavericks' most celebrated player and perhaps the MVP of the playoffs, Nowitzki, missed 10 of his 14 shots and scored 16 points. Josh Howard, Robin to Nowitzki's Batman, missed 11 of his 14 shots and scored 10 points. Nowitzki did diddly-pooh in the fourth quarter.
Yet Jason Terry, who spent five years playing in Atlanta — which can ruin anybody — scored a dozen points in the fourth quarter and hit 13 of 18 shots overall to lead Dallas to the first Finals victory in club history.
Miami wasted what has become a typical Wade performance — 28 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists — because it couldn't shoot straight after hitting 70 percent in the first quarter and because it couldn't hit foul shots. Reminiscent of its 6-for-20 futility in Game 5 of the conference finals against Detroit, Miami missed 12 of 19 free throws in Game 1 and very quickly has to return to the drawing board over the next two days before Game 2 on Sunday.
Any kind of Plan B had better start with Shaq getting more than 11 shots. He hit 8 of 11 and passed out of the post efficiently enough for five assists. "But we made a lot of mental mistakes," he said.
"We've just got to play smarter. We'll go back and make some adjustments. And usually after we make adjustments, we play well. It was silly mistakes, costly turnovers."
Shaq also was critical of his own foul shooting — he missed 8 of 9 — and said, "Sunday, look for me to shoot a little bit better."
Miami got off to such a fast start — 31 points in the first quarter — it seemed like it might just breeze, with or without good foul shooting from Shaq, especially since, as Nowitzki said, the Mavericks were initially feeling the pressure of playing on the biggest stage in basketball.
The Heat took early control with good, traditional half-court basketball, which is to say the Heat dumped the ball into Shaq, let him draw double-teams, then fire quick passes out to open shooters or teammates cutting to the basket. It worked to perfection.
Wade, in the first quarter of the first NBA Finals game of his career, hit 6 of 7 shots. As brilliant as Wade can be individually, he didn't have to be the first 12 minutes of Game 1 because Miami played the team game beautifully. Shaq took four shots in the first half, but it was the threat of him owning the paint that caused Dallas concern defensively. After all, we're talking about a man who in his previous five NBA Finals appearances, averaged 32.3 points on 60-percent shooting.
Meanwhile, we got to see why Riley likes to close down entire neighborhoods to keep anybody not under his employ from seeing practices.
Jerry Stackhouse, who probably hadn't seen a double-team the entire playoffs, found himself running into Riley's double-teams in the first half, committing a traveling violation and badly missing a rushed shot the first two times he faced such special defensive attention. Nowitzki's poor shooting had to be caused, at least a little bit, by Riley's ambush double-teams.
The hot shooting and clever defense are how Miami built its lead to 34-25.
Here comes the "however" part of the game. Late in the first half, with Miami leading by six, Shaq picked up his second foul when his elbow split open Stackhouse's nose. With Shaq on the bench to avoid committing a third foul before halftime, Miami departed radically from its game plan.
Okay, Alonzo Mourning isn't Shaq. But long before Shaq arrived on South Beach, Mourning was the guy who played Riley's inside-out system from the low-post or high-post. Yet, the Heat started jacking up jumpers late in the second quarter, missing five straight, and the Mavericks jumped all over the opportunity.
While Miami dropped to 26-percent shooting the second half, Dallas did what the Mavericks do best: find the hot shooter.
In this case, it wasn't Nowitzki, nor was it Howard. With his mates ice cold, Terry looked more aggressively to put up shots and wound up hitting 9 of 11 by intermission to lead Dallas with 20 points. Terry got the Mavericks close, and it was Nowitzki who buried the jumper at the halftime buzzer to put Dallas ahead, 46-44.
Terry didn't even take a shot in the third quarter because he was so obsessed with setting up Nowitzki for a run, which never materialized. Instead, Mavericks Coach Avery Johnson, who does have NBA Finals experience as a player, made sure his team kept milking Terry, who made 4 of 6 tough shots and blew one runaway layup.
It was just the kind of first half folks invested in the playoffs wanted to see to start the NBA Finals, something tight with some surprises, but yet enough of the familiar to remind everyone of why they were so anxious for this series to begin in the first place. There was Riley pacing, Mark Cuban screaming, Wade flying, Shaq missing foul shots, as the Finals visited Dallas for the first time.
But the final 24 minutes were too reminiscent of the slug-it-out basketball folks tuned out a dozen years ago. That pace is no good for the basketball consumer and no good for the young Mavericks.
What the Mavericks realized three quarters into the game was that they had to run. Preferably for Dallas, the Mavs could make Miami miss, grab the rebound and then run. But even if the Mavericks had to take the ball out of the net and run, like the Suns so often do, that was better for Dallas than trying to slug it out with the Heat in the halfcourt.
"Getting out and getting some transition baskets," Terry said, "is what got us back in it and what got us the lead."
When the Mavericks got out in transition and produced two open three-pointers for Terry, Dallas had an 82-72 lead and had added just enough pace to the game to feel it had gained an advantage, if not for the series — at least for the critical opening night.