Pat Riley always says a playoff series doesn't really get started until somebody wins a road game. The Miami Heat coach had better hope the NBA Finals don't get started for a while because his team plays the next three games at home, and it didn't come close to winning a road game in the first two.
The Heat won't even get to play that third home game if they don't win either Tuesday or Thursday, which isn't looking like a slam-dunk after the way the Dallas Mavericks have handled them so far.
And the trend line is not good for Miami. Game 1 was a competitive but convincing win for the Mavericks. Game 2 Sunday night was a blowout, 99-85, a game never in doubt after an 11-0 Dallas blitz to end the second quarter.
That run consisted almost entirely of Jerry Stackhouse's increasingly ridiculous trio of three-pointers, the middle one a four-point play after a foul by Dwyane Wade, the last a heave as Stackhouse was falling out of bounds. A 39-34 game became 50-34, and the Heat were never heard from again.
Also not looking like a slam-dunk: The end of pretty much every possession in which Shaquille O'Neal handles the ball. That's supposed to look like a slam-dunk. Or a two-foot jump hook, a little palmed jump shot, something that results in two of, oh, 25 or so points for Shaq.
Or it's supposed to look like a pass out of a double-team to the incomparable Wade, who hits a jumper or drives the lane, drawing O'Neal's defender, leaving him open for a dump-off or an easy offensive rebound and put-back.
Or a pass to one of the role players, to Jason Williams, Antoine Walker, Gary Payton, Udonis Haslem, even James Posey once in a while. Some combination of those guys is supposed to create enough offense to draw the defense away from Shaq and give him space.
It looks to me like it's not happening for three reasons. First, O'Neal is wearing down. It's happening deeper in the playoffs than I'd thought it would happen, maybe because getting to play against the undersized Ben Wallace in the last round made it look like Shaq was stronger than he was. But it's happening.
Against Mavs big guys Erick Dampier and DeSagana Diop, O'Neal doesn't have the legs or energy to power his way to an unstoppable post position. It's significant that in Game 2, the Heat were a much better team with Alonzo Mourning in the game than with Shaq in there.
Much better. During the not quite 28 minutes O'Neal was on the floor, the Mavs outscored the Heat 67-39. In a little over 20 minutes with Mourning playing, the Heat had a 46-32 advantage. Now, a good chunk of that was during the garbage-time fourth quarter, when the Heat lopped a meaningless 10 points off a 24-point deficit.
But still, when Shaq reentered the game after a long rest with 8:38 to go in the second quarter, the Heat were leading 25-23. When he left for good with 3:13 to go in the third, they'd been abused to the tune of 51-24 in the interim. Game over. Shaq's fault? Not entirely, of course. But he was helpless to do anything about it.
The second reason Miami's possessions aren't ending like they're supposed to is the almost complete disappearance of O'Neal's teammates, Wade chief among them, in Game 2. He admitted as much after looking completely out of sorts and off his rhythm in the first half when the game was still in doubt. He dribbled a ball off his foot while unguarded, finished a drive with a crazy flip shot that didn't stand a chance, got T'd up for saying very bad words to a referee.
It was an ugly performance, though in step with his teammates, who other than Walker and Mourning were terrible. Haslem hurt his shoulder on a hard foul of Jason Terry late in the first half. He played some after that but was ineffective, and he sat for the last 22 minutes, eventually with an ice pack strapped to his shoulder.
Miami, already outmanned by the much-deeper Mavs, can ill afford to lose anybody from their rotation.
Some credit for Miami's troubles should go to the Dallas defense, which swarmed and swatted and made life miserable for the Heat. Dirk Nowitzki, who rebounded nicely from a poor Game 1, was the double-team defender on O'Neal, and he gave Shaq fits with his height, or, as basketball people say now, length. The Mavs used their superior speed to be able to clog the lane and still run out to challenge shooters.
And that brings us to the third reason: Riley's getting outcoached. Avery Johnson, in his first full year at the helm, is doing a masterful job of staying one step ahead of the master. The Mavs double-teamed Shaq with guards in Game 1. Riley may or may not have adjusted to that for Game 2, but either way, here came the 7-footer Nowitzki.
I don't know enough about offensive strategy in basketball to know what the Heat should do to get Shaq more space to operate, more touches, more shots than the meager five he put up Sunday. If Nowitzki is on the double-team, isn't there a way for his man to keep him on the other side of the floor from O'Neal?
I don't know that but I would think Pat Riley ought to, and it didn't seem that the Heat made any real adjustments during Game 2. Maybe on the off day, but at this point, I'm not betting against Johnson's ability to come up with a deadly counter.
Two things in Riley's defense. First of all, at some point, guys have got to make plays. All the coaching in the world isn't going to help if your guards are dribbling the ball off their feet and hoisting up shots at a 10-for-33 clip, 1-for-6 from beyond the arc.
It doesn't help if a blue-collar defender, rebounder and spare scoring option like Haslem gets hurt. It certainly doesn't help if Shaq is an astonishing 2-for-16 from the free-throw line.
And second, we can't leap to conclusions based on the first two games of the series. At this point last year the San Antonio Spurs had abused the Detroit Pistons by 15 and 21 points in San Antonio and it looked like it was all over but the parade. The Pistons won Game 3 by 17 points and Game 4 by 31, and the thing wasn't decided until the fourth quarter of Game 7.
Riley thinks a playoff series begins when a home team loses a game. This one will end when one does.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
World Cup begins, and -- Argh! My leg! [PERMALINK]
I spent a fair amount of time watching World Cup soccer over the weekend. Several soccer fans have written to beg me not to write a word about the World Cup, lest I somehow sully the thing with less than fanatical devotion to the sport or total, unacceptable ignorance of it.
Putting aside that point of view's total lack of merit, I find myself enjoying soccer more and more as I get older, and I had a nice time watching some early matches, including the very first one, Germany's 4-2 win over Costa Rica, for which I accepted an invitation from a reader to join him and his multinational co-workers at a local bar and grill.
I'm slowly coming to appreciate the flow of the game and the staccato nature of sudden, brief scoring chances. I still have my problems, of course. There are fundamental rules of soccer I'd change if I could, and while I realize that sounds like the ignorant raving of an uncomprehending heathen, do keep in mind there are fundamental rules about basketball and American football I'd change also.
That's not to say I'm not an uncomprehending heathen about basketball and American football too, but I would argue that I'm not.
We have a month to talk about what I'd suggest so that, for example, a 4-2 opening game wouldn't be the highest-scoring opening game in World Cup history. We're talking 18 games.
I'm just wondering one thing: How long do I have to wait before a TV announcer acknowledges one of the obvious dives players take?
Once in a while, a commentator will mention that a fellow "may have taken a bit of a dive," but when a replay clearly shows a player launching himself into the air as though he'd hit a land mine, then clutching his leg in agony -- all after not having been touched by the nearby defender -- don't the announcers ever say, "Oh, my, look at that dive"?
I haven't watched every minute of every match, but they haven't yet when I've been watching.
Diving's no secret. There are even rules about it. Why can't we talk honestly about it?
Meanwhile, I want to announce that my prediction to win the whole thing is Mexico, because if it does I'll look like a damn genius. You heard it here first: Mexico.
Also, several readers have asked if my daughter would be joining in with her older brother in the family business of making silly predictions. The answer is yes. But while Buster uses his trusty coin to pick NFL and NCAA basketball Tournament games, Daisy has her own methods, which involve the kind of communication only a 10-month-old and her daddy can engage in.
That is, she babbles, and I guess.
Her pick: Argentina.
Ack! The worst of the divers! She's rebelling against me already.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Table Talk chat reminder [PERMALINK]
The first monthly Table Talk chat will be Wednesday at 1 p.m. EDT. Join me in this column's thread for at least an hour, and maybe more, of talk about whatever you want to talk about.
After this one the chat will be on the first Wednesday of the month.
- - - - - - - - - - - -