A 92-84 loss isn't going to define the Mavericks or this series on the whole. Which is not to say the Mavs are going to win the NBA Finals, but they're surely going to show more than they did in Game 1 on Tuesday.
They never elevated, and the Heat were happy to let them feel hopeful and content for more than three quarters. But a ho-hum, neither-here-nor-there showing isn't true to Dallas' character.
"We have to force the game," said Mavs forward Shawn Marion, and he sounded as if he was making a promise for Game 2 on Thursday. "Go out there and play ball. We were calling so many sets, it just kind of took the rhythm out of everything we normally do. When we're out there freelancing and playing the game and making it up as we go, we're one of the best to do it."
How many times can we talk about how far the Heat have come? In this case, they cultivated their senses of teamwork and rhythm in order to raise an important victory from the basement of a 28.6 percent first quarter all the way up to the penthouse of LeBron James (24 points, nine rebounds, five assists) and Dwyane Wade (22 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and two blocks) pulling away in the fourth? Forgive me if you've heard this one before, but they never could have done anything like this in November, January, March or even early last month.
"It just takes time for players to feel comfortable with each other and a new offensive system and playing with new guys and being in this situation over and over and over," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. "We had quite a few close games in the regular season where we failed. The more times you're in it, the more confident you get."
This was a victory of patience and understanding. The Heat went to Chris Bosh (19 points and nine rebounds overall) in the first quarter and then to Mario Chalmers (12 points off the bench) in the second. The Mavs may have been able to convince themselves that everything was going to plan, that they weren't letting James and Wade destroy them.
The anticipated matchup of James on Nowitzki went unconsummated -- James spent more time guarding Jason Terry in the fourth -- because the Heat didn't need to go there. Nowitzki, set back in the fourth quarter by a torn tendon in the middle finger of his left hand, had a relatively blasé 27 points (7-of-18 from the field), if such a thing is possible.
In the meantime, LeBron was happy to spend the first three quarters doing his own impersonation of Nowitzki while hitting all four of his threes. He's making those shots the way a red-shirted Tiger Woods used to drill putts on Sunday. Toward the end of the third, LeBron brought the ball up to the edge of the line for one of those quick-hitting threes, and then moments later, appearing to have botched a quarter-ending possession, he moved to his right a full stride behind the arc for a fallaway three over Marion that gave Miami a 65-61 lead.
LeBron and the Heat don't feel the need to force much of anything anymore.
"They were doing a good job of corralling him on pick-and-rolls and also protecting the paint when we did attack," Spoelstra said. "He was reading the game, getting off the ball when he needed to. We had some good ball-movement possessions there in the fourth."
The Mavs will be disappointed that the story of this game was how Wade and James played off one another to combine for 29 points (11-of-17 together) in the second half, as if they'd once and for all committed to memory the team manual handed out at training camp eight months ago. Wade had been a disappointing 3 for 10 with three turnovers in the opening half -- a continuation of his struggles in the previous round against Chicago. But when Dallas scored seven points to open the third quarter and take a 51-43 lead, the Heat went to Wade for a pair of layups that made everything feel simple and straightforward for him again.
The Mavs were within 75-70 in the final four minutes when Wade finished them off. He sauntered to the top of the key for a jumper over Jason Kidd (77-70), then hit a rolling Bosh with a bounce pass off the dribble that led to a pair of free throws (79-73). At the other end, Marion (16 points and 10 rebounds) was picking up a loose ball in the lane and turning around for a 12-footer only to see Wade hovering above him to block the shot. The ensuing possession was converted by Wade into a three-pointer that made it 82-73.
That's when LeBron made it clear that his three-point shooting had been like so many effective jabs, designed to raise the defenses out high to the perimeter. James brought the ball up as he had so many times before -- then burst past Marion into the lane for an and-one dunk that worked the Miami lead up to 85-75 with 2:48 remaining, during which the Mavs would never come closer than six points again. But James wasn't so interested in the scoring end of it.
"In order for us to win basketball games, we have to defend and we have to get stops, and our offense will speak for itself when we continue to get stops," he said. "I think for me going into the fourth quarter, I know it's winning time. That's when the game is won."
The Mavs need to defend their backboard -- they provided Miami a 16-6 advantage in offensive rebounds and 13 additional field-goal attempts -- and they must play through Nowitzki more effectively. For most of the first half he was an unimposing 1-for-5 decoy before he broke through with a drive into the lane four minutes before the intermission. This led to three exquisite possessions that will serve as the model for everything Dallas will hope to accomplish for the remainder of the series:
A Nowitzki three over Wade even as he bodied up defensively against him.
A Nowitzki turnaround bank shot from the right side.
A Nowitzki double-teamed pass from the top of the key to find Marion for a layup.
For those couple of minutes the Mavs were flowing as they had throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs. They have to believe they can extend that rhythm, and that they can maintain their blend of zone and man-to-man defenses that held Miami to 38.8 percent from the field.
"We'll play better, I'm very certain of that," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "Shots we normally make, they didn't go down. But it's a long series. They were more opportunistic tonight than we were. That's been one of the traits of our run -- we've been very opportunistic."
Consider this an opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Or else.