LeBron James and the Miami Heat lost again in Thursday's Game 5 of the 2011 NBA FInals, and once again, we're left to wonder whether James was too passive. He had a triple-double, but with just two points in the fourth quarter on a bucket in garbage time, the assault on his stardom, his status and his on-court courage will continue.
There's no doubt that James certainly hurt his team by not being a factor offensively in the fourth quarter. But the major reason Miami lost Game 5 was because of what happened on the other end. The Heat's offense functioned well, even though LeBron disappeared. It scored 115.7 points per 100 possessions and fought back into the game in the fourth quarter with a series of beautiful pick-and-roll plays that used James and Dwyane Wade as decoys to get easy layups for big men like Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem.
The problem was on the other end. Miami surrendered 125.8 points per 100 possessions in the loss, a number that would be obscene even for a regular-season game. To a certain extent, the Mavericks were just hitting tough shots they have missed most of the series, but that doesn't come close to explaining the whole story. Dallas' half-court offense had finally figured out how to attack Miami's pressure, altering their pick and roll locations and figuring out how to get Jason Terry and J.J. Barea in the lane. There were subtle adjustments that made huge dividends.
Miami's strategy and matchups on defense have been consistent all series. But in light of the way Dallas picked it apart, especially down the stretch of the fourth quarter, it might be time for a change. It might be time for the Heat to do what Steve Nash suggested and put LeBron James on Dirk Nowitzki at the end of games.
This isn't an adjustment the Heat should make because it's the only way James can prove his worth. This is an adjustment they should make because it's the most obvious way they can throw the Mavericks' late-game offense off balance.
The problem Miami faces now is that Dallas has figured them out. James has guarded Jason Terry in the fourth quarter of these Finals. The theory at the time was twofold: Terry's fourth-quarter scoring is a huge key to Dallas, maybe even more of a key than stopping Nowitzki; and James could lock down a perimeter threat like he locked down Derrick Rose down the stretch in the Chicago series. It was fair logic, and it worked for a while.
But in Game 5, Dallas ran Terry through more off-ball screens and sent different big men to set screens for him. The difference between Terry and Rose is that Terry needs to be accounted for more off the ball in late-game situations than Rose ever did. In a one-on-one, isolation setting, LeBron can shut him down, but Dallas did a lot of things to make sure that didn't happen. That tired LeBron out.
Dallas also kept LeBron guessing once Terry caught the ball. Sometimes, Terry dumped it into Nowitzki and went to the weakside. Sometimes, Tyson Chandler came and set a screen, like he did on Terry's key three to tie the game at 100. Sometimes, Terry faked right, his preferred direction, and then drove left, which is what he did to give Jason Kidd a key three to put Dallas up five. Sometimes, he pulled up and shot it, like he did on the dagger he hit with 33 seconds left. The multitude of different looks confused James, and he came up short defending Terry because of it.
This is a long way of saying that James is much better in an isolation, one-on-one setting than when he has to chase a man around off the ball. So why switch him to Dirk? For one thing, what Miami is doing now isn't working. Nowitzki has figured out 2006 Finals nemesis Udonis Haslem, especially with his movements off the ball. Putting Haslem on Nowitzki down the stretch has also robbed Miami of its smartest help defender, and the off-ball confusion that has resulted has led to Dallas getting open shots late in many games of this series. Switching Haslem onto Shawn Marion will help take advantage of Haslem's quick feet and defensive instincts off the ball, allowing him to know better when to step up and cut off Dallas' drives.
That leaves LeBron on Nowitzki in one-on-one settings, where James can really lock in. Clearly, Dirk isn't Rose. Fighting Nowitzki for position and chasing him through all the screens Dallas sets to get him to his spots is half the battle, and James has to commit to doing it for the late-game possessions it would happen. But James, if motivated, is also the best suited to fronting Nowitzki, a new look that Miami has yet to use consistently. James is also athletic enough to stay in front of Nowitzki and has the length to contest his jumper. His athleticism also leaves him better equipped than anyone on the Heat to briefly cut off penetration on pick and rolls, then quickly rotate back to Nowitzki.
In short, of all of Miami's defenders, James is the guy that has the best chance of locking in on a single guy and focusing exclusively on taking him out of the game. That was the theory of putting him on Terry, but Dallas adjusted and turned Terry into more of a decoy and a distributor rather than a one-on-one player, which confused James. It's harder for the Mavericks to do that with Nowitzki because of his importance to the team late. This means James can focus on one job: guarding Nowitzki and Nowitzki alone.
Like I mentioned earlier, this isn't a "let's get LeBron engaged in the game" move. This would be a move coach Erik Spoelstra considers because it will give Dallas a different look. Right now, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle is tinkering, and Spoelstra is bearing down, unwilling to make significant defensive alterations to his game plan. The result is a 3-2 Dallas lead and a Mavericks offense that is clicking.
If Spoelstra wants to turn the tide of this series back to the Heat, he'll need to make a defensive adjustment. Of all the ones he could make, switching James onto Nowitzki at the end of games strikes me as the most effective move.