Mavs-Heat: Followup Thoughts on Clutch & Game 6
Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus wrote a post this morning following up on our post from yesterday about Dallas' outstanding performance in close games in recent seasons, and it helped clarify my thinking further. While I would like to know specifically what Mark Cuban and Roland Beech (Dallas' primary statistical analyst) found in their research suggesting Jason Kidd was especially good at "win time", I wanted to note that I don't believe there is a mystical quality to clutch performance.
I believe the most important factor in consistently successful clutch play, offensively at least, is continue to run an offense which is similar to what's effective in the rest of the game - to get good shots above all.
Note that New Orleans is the one team that's been even better in close games than Dallas. That's no coincidence to me. They continue to run their offense, and they have a superstar in Chris Paul who (similar to Jason Kidd) primarily focuses on creating and finding good shots, wherever they may be, rather than devolving into hero offense.
And that's the alchemy that makes Dallas so good down the stretch, too: they keep running their offense and getting good shots, and Carlisle does an outstanding job of calling the right numbers and making the correct tweaks, such as the staggered pick-and-rolls which have been so effective in allowing Jason Terry to create good shots for himself and others late in games in the Finals. Yes, some of these are isolations, especially for Nowitzki, but they're generally similar to ones the Mavs run all game, putting Dirk in position to create good shots in mid-range areas.
Meanwhile, looking back over the entire 2011 playoffs and the progression of LeBron James' performance as a clutch scorer, I think we can say he was rather lucky vs. Boston and Chicago, and rather unlucky vs. Dallas. He's been taking the same relatively low-percentage hero shots each time. Several of the contested threes he hit late vs. Boston/Chicago were worse than the clean look at a three he got late in Game 5 on Thursday.
Maybe the percentages are now such that LeBron is due to sink a few hero threes which carry Miami over the top in the next few days, but in my opinion, the best thing he can do is focus on better shots. In this matchup, I believe that he (and Wade too) can't really post up enough, even in crunch time. Dallas has had success walling off the lane from the perimeter for a good chunk of the series, and the smaller defenders have had a very tough time containing James and Wade whenever they've gone to the blocks. They've often needed a double-team, and both Miami superstars have carved those up with their passing.
Given that LeBron's average of 3.2 FTAs in the series is really hurting Miami, I also believe that working the low blocks gives him a better chance of getting to the line, though he does need to be more aggressive down low. James let Kidd off the hook late in Game 5, as he had him posted up, but turned it into a long step-back jumper. He needs to be aggressive enough to draw a double-team; he's such a good passer that his post-ups are probably even more efficient in producing points when he's passing out of a double-team.
I'm apparently in the minority of people who thought LeBron played very well overall in Game 5. I thought the passing by both James and Wade was truly exceptional - the two players combined for 11 assists on at-rim baskets overall. James created several points in the fourth quarter on aggressive plays that led to assists.
Also, if one late call - the charge taken by Chandler - which was correct but very close, goes the other way, there's likely a 180-degree difference in the perception of LeBron's game. Yes, as mentioned above, James wasn't aggressive enough against Kidd in the block, and he missed an open three that he dribbled into. His zero points scored in clutch situations in the series (vs. 26 for Dirk) have been a problem, without doubt.
But very few teams in the league would have beaten Dallas on Thursday, with the way they shot. Game 5 will not be the one Miami looks back on if they lose the series. It'll be Game 2 and Game 4. I don't think LeBron cost the Heat Game 5, but I do think he cost them Game 4 with his passivity, and that may end up being enough to cost Miami the series.
As I wrote in ESPN.com's 5-on-5 on Thursday before Game 5: Prior to last year's Game 5 versus Boston, LeBron had never truly let his teams down. Now he is on the verge of costing championship-quality teams playoff defeats as the better team in two straight years. I believe he's now at a defining crucible of his career, and I can't wait to see what happens.
Maybe it'll be fair, maybe it won't, but the perceptions of James, Wade and Nowitzki will likely be altered by what happens over the next three days. I have no idea what's going to happen, and I can't wait for the ball to go up at American Airlines Arena.