NBA Finals Game 2 -- Anatomy of a Meltdown

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On the "Play-by-play" Web page for Game 2 of the NBA Finals, it simply reads "Dwyane Wade makes 24-foot three point jumper (Mario Chalmers assists)," one simple play out of a few hundred plays during the course of an NBA basketball game.

But if you were watching the game, you knew that Dwyane Wade's rainbow from the corner to put the Miami Heat up 88-73 over the Dallas Mavericks with 7:13 left was much, much more than that.

The nature of box scores and play-by-play pages is they are inherently non-descriptive. They are merely data. What they don't capture is the frenzy the crowd was whipped into, the hopelessness that engulfed anyone rooting for the Mavericks and probably the Mavericks themselves.

They don't capture Dwyane Wade's using his follow through in the corner as the approach for a celebratory pose in front of the Mavericks bench, his own personal "fuck you" to a wounded dog. They don't capture LeBron James's making a beeline for his teammate and then using Wade's chest as his own personal air-punch "big bag" -- left jab, right jab, left jab.

Most of all, they don't capture the abyss the Mavericks were staring into on a futile night where pride was all they had left.

Fortunately, pride was enough. Pride and a shitload of Dirk Nowitzki.

If there is one criticism you can levy on these Miami Heat, it's that their sense of timing on when to celebrate their greatness (and right now their greatness is still bottled up individually in James and Wade; their collective greatness is still unvalidated) is indicative of a disturbing, ongoing and at this point unsurprising lack of self-awareness.

They announced their presence in Miami with an arena celebration last summer complete with laser lights and dry ice smoke. They celebrated the conquest of the Celtics in Round 2 of this year's playoffs like they had just won the title. And last night, granted in a much smaller momentary window, after Wade's three, the Heat suddenly acted like and more importantly played like a not-quite-two-game sweep actually existed, like there was such a thing. Like they had just administered the death blow on the Mavericks.

And I guess to be fair, many of us were thinking the same thing -- we just chose not to sneer at the Mavericks bench like Ivan Drago shaking his head and smirking at Rocky Balboa after pulverizing Apollo Creed in the first round of their fight in Rocky IV.

Dwyane Wade did.

Dirk Nowitzki said he didn't really notice Wade's and James's preening. Several of the Mavericks players said they did notice, and it fueled them. Jason Terry hollered at his teammates, imploring them not to go out this way.

A Mavs loss would have sent them down 2-0 and into "percentage of teams to come back from down 2-0" hell. They were fighting for their lives. Nowitzki was fighting for his legacy. And they were fighting an opponent who, up until the 7:13 mark of the fourth quarter last night, had an answer for pretty much everything the Mavs threw at them.

Still, the Mavericks had seen this before. They had fought back from 15 down before to win playoff games. In fact, they had done it seven other times in the Dirk Nowitzki Era, all on the road. They had just done it a couple weeks ago to effectively put away the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. (The Mavericks won that series in five games, but the series was, for all intents and purposes, over after the Thunder's Game 4 collapse.)

And that's what their coach Rick Carlisle told them -- this was the Oklahoma City game but with seven minutes to get the job done and not just four. Three extra minutes.

What happened then, especially if the Mavericks go on to win the series, will be remembered in Dallas the way they remember The Drive in Denver, and lamented in Miami the way they lament The Drive in Cleveland.

Miami began to play basketball the way you see a careless pickup team start to play when they're on their sixth game in a row and really just don't give a shit. The razor sharp focus was gone. Inexplicably, Wade, who was spectacular up to that point with 36 points worth of dizzying dunks and jumpers, hardly touched the ball down the stretch. Even more inexplicably, he barely looked like he wanted to.

The Heat literally just stopped going to the basket, shooting jump shots virtually exclusively down the stretch. (The only three times they went to the basket, James short-armed a finger roll, James got fouled and Bosh dribbled a ball off his leg.) In the last seven minutes, the Heat took 11 shots and ten of them were three point attempts or long two pointers.

It was almost like a youth soccer game where one team is up like 10-0 and the coach of the winning team tells his players they can only use their left foot. It was as if Erik Spoelstra said to his players, "Guys, we're up 15. Let's take it easy on them. Jumpers only."

Damn, how else do you explain Udonis Haslem -- UDONIS HASLEM! -- actually shooting a hasty elbow jumper during the waning moments? How else do you explain Chris Bosh, who has been solid in the playoffs, getting almost no touches down on the blocks? How else do you explain Wade going into witness protection just minutes after delivering the near kill shot at 88-73? How else do you explain LeBron James's literally dribbling the ball for an entire 24-second shot clock before launching a contested three pointer in the final two minutes? (Of all those, the last one is the easiest one to explain, just to be clear.)

So while the Heat were folding up tents on offense and forgetting assignments on defense (recommended viewing -- go back and watch Miami's defense on Jason Kidd's uncontested three to make it 90-84), the Mavericks went to work.

Two Mavericks were around for their 2006 fiasco of an NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, Jason Terry and Dirk Nowitzki. Fittingly, it was an eight-point spurt from Terry that started the comeback. Struggling for the better part of the last couple rounds of the playoffs, Terry was able to scratch some buckets together at the height of the Heat's lack of focus.

Even more fittingly, when the Heat finally started to care again, it was Dirk making bucket after dagger bucket, the final nine points of the game. The capper, a left-handed flip shot after beating an overmatched Bosh off the dribble to the left of the lane. Did I mention that Dirk is playing with a torn tendon in a finger on that same left hand?

This playoff run for the Heat has been about their evolution from late game chokers to late game closers. Thursday night, they allowed all that doubt to creep back in.

On to Dallas.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from noon to 3 p.m. weekdays and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.

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