The Heat are accustomed to demoralizing opponents with sudden runs generated by steals, layups and three-pointers in transition that can abruptly change the complexion of the game. Trailing by 13 with 2:39 to play in the first quarter against Dallas on Monday, Miami stepped on the throttle for a 12-0 spurt to close the quarter, and added five more during the opening minute of the second period.
But the Mavericks absorbed the onslaught with impeccable poise, quickly answering with a 9-0 run. And when Miami again found its groove for a 12-2 rally later in the second, and a 13-0 explosion midway through the third, Dallas had built enough of a cushion to keep the pressure on the Heat and not be overwhelmed. Call it what you want -- maturity, court IQ, knowing your roles -- but this year's Mavs seem supremely self-possessed, and it is a significant factor in their 12-3 mark against winning teams and their 9-1 record on the road.
It's easy to ascribe this to their savvy core of veterans. But the likes of Jason Kidd, Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry were all around for the undignified denouement to the Mavs' 2009-10 season, when they were upset in the first round of the playoffs by the Spurs. It was just seven months ago that Shawn Marion and Caron Butler were unhappy over playing time and Roddy Beaubois, who hasn't played a minute this season because of injury, was regarded as the key cog in helping the Mavs return to elite status.
What's happened instead is that newcomer Tyson Chandler has solidified the defense in a manner similar to what Kevin Garnett did in Boston on his arrival. With Chandler protecting the rim, Dallas can gamble a bit on more aggressive rotations or throw up a zone with lengthy wings extending out to the perimeter. At the same time, coach Rick Carlisle has done a masterful job getting quality minutes for most of the players on the league's deepest team, and the players themselves, including Marion, Butler and Brendan Haywood (demoted to a backup role by Chandler's ascendance), have played hard instead of pouted.
In the brutally competitive top tier of this week's Power Rankings, Dallas has supplanted San Antonio for second. But both Texas rivals still trail the Celtics, who continue to win despite a variety of injuries. And just behind that trio are the Lakers and the Heat, who have a much-anticipated matchup looming on Christmas Day.
(All stats and records are through Dec. 20.)
NBA Power Rankings