In essence, Spoelstra was dismissing the importance of momentum. He saw no reason why the Mavs comeback at the end of Game 2 would impact the events of Game 3 three days later.
But if you listened to many media members, you would think NBA players have the fragile psyches of adolescents. How would Miami’s players respond to such a devastating loss? One idea: they would tie up their shoes like big boys and play like they’d done thousands of times before.
Occasionally in a game of basketball, one team gives up a big lead in the fourth quarter. It happens for a lot of different reasons -- one of their most important players fouls out, they get too conservative offensively, an opposing player gets hot -- but it happens.
The Mavs know this more than anyone, as they were on the opposite end of a similarly dramatic comeback in the first round. And after Brandon Roy’s epic second half performance in Game 4 of the Dallas/Portland series, many in the media were ready to write their epitaph:
A team that had been trying so hard to distance itself from a painful recent playoff history has to be haunted by those postseason demons now, no matter how many faces and names have changed over the last few years. And no matter what the Mavs say.
Back in reality, Portland needed a miraculous comeback to protect their home-court, and still had to win a game away from the Rose Garden to advance. Instead of cowering into a ball and dying, Dallas took advantage of the same match-ups they had used to get a 2-0 lead in the series: the Blazers inability to shoot from their perimeter, the Mavs’ size advantage up-front and their deeper arsenal of offensive weapons.
The misplaced focus on momentum is a byproduct of the 24/7 media environment prevalent throughout our culture.
In the 2008 presidential primaries, the typical “bounce” a candidate received in the polls after winning an important primary or caucus seemed to dissipate a lot faster than normal. One interesting theory was that the difference came from how the public perceived the news. Twenty years ago, people got information from the morning paper and the evening news, so a news cycle lasted a whole day. Now, with the advent of the internet, social media and cable television, a news cycle only lasts a few hours. As a result, information is processed a lot faster, so a bounce that used to last a week now might only last two days.
Similarly, the minute by minute dissection of games distorts our sense of perspective: Game 1 and Dirk’s injury feels like a week ago, the end of the conference finals feels like a month ago, and the Bulls 20-point victory over Miami in Game 1 of the ECF feels like a lifetime ago. So instead of placing each game into a larger narrative of the entire series, the last game becomes all that matters.
There’s no better example of this mentality than CBS’ Gregg Doyel, who lambasted LeBron for his lack of fourth-quarter scoring at the end of Game 3:
Maybe LeBron James isn't a superstar. If the 2011 NBA Finals were the only games I'd seen him play, that would be my conclusion.
LeBron has played in over 700 regular season and playoff games. Apparently we can throw all that out, because Doyel saw him off his game in less than three.
That’s the other problem with our obsessive focus on a particular 48 minutes of basketball: sample size. Flipping a coin a hundred or a thousand times will get you a lot closer to 50/50 than flipping it 10 times.
Ultimately, Dirk Nowitzki was isolated at the top of the key with a chance to win or tie in the game’s closing moments in the final moments of Games 2 and 3. On Thursday, the ball went in. On Sunday, it didn’t. That’s how close the NBA Finals are right now.
Dallas has a few match-up advantages: they close out games with two seven-footers (Dirk and Chandler) against a Miami front-line of 6’8 Udonis Haslem and 6’10 Chris Bosh, giving them a chance to dominate the offensive glass -- Chandler grabbed 7 offensive rebounds in Game 3. And the Heat, like the rest of the NBA, have no real answer for Dirk: the Mavs are +23 when he’s on the floor and -31 when he’s not.
However, Miami has been able to hold Dallas’ other two shot-creators -- JJ Barea and Jason Terry -- in check for most of the series, and their bench has significantly out-played Dallas’. Just putting one of their undersized shooting guards on the floor forces the Mavs to assign Jason Kidd to Dwyane Wade, an almost impossible task for the oldest guard in the NBA.
After three games, the series reminds me of last year’s NBA Finals, a remarkably even match-up between Boston and LA. But while the Mavs and Heat can count on their best players to take over in the fourth quarter, the Lakers and the Celtics had great match-ups for each other’s primary scorers: Ron Artest on Paul Pierce, KG and Perkins on Gasol and Odom, Tony Allen on Kobe and Kobe on Rondo.
The end-result was a series that came down to the last two minutes of Game 7. And after the dramatic last-second endings of Games 2 and 3 this year, there’s a good chance NBA fans are treated to something similar.
In a game decided by a basket, one fortuitous bounce can be all the difference. You can attribute almost anything -- momentum, will-power, karma -- as it’s cause, but that doesn’t make it true.