DALLAS -- I think I've identified Shaquille O'Neal's big problem.
Shaq slipping, Wade learning
I think I know what's troubling O'Neal and his Miami Heat even more than Shaq's nightly rash of missed free throws, fouling Dallas shooters as they're dropping 3-pointers and watching Udonis Haslem take a hard fall when they're already struggling to cope with the Mavericks' speed, athleticism and depth surpluses. .
It's a twofold problem, actually.
Fold No. 1: O'Neal, as Sunday's Game 2 told us louder than ever, is unavoidably slipping away from his prime at 34. But you already knew that.
Crucial Fold No. 2: Dwyane Wade, great as he'll someday be, hasn't yet reached his prime.
This is not meant to slam Wade, but it's fact. He's simply not all the way there at a time when this Shaq, on this team, needs to be ushered to a title.
There's a strong urge to say Miami, at 2-0 down after its 99-85 defeat, is finito in these NBA Finals. It's a natural reaction after the Mavs overwhelmed them again ... after another Mavs runaway late in the second quarter that changed the game ... after Erick Dampier less-than-trusty mitts caught and flushed two passes in traffic to cement what can only be classified as the worst night of Shaq's playoff life.
Yet I'm more inclined to say that the job Wade has, given the composition of this team and its lack of perimeter quality to otherwise loosen things up, appears to have been foisted upon him before he's fully ready for it.
Let's see if Wade can prove me wrong. Let's see if he can go back to Miami for Tuesday's Game 3 and find a level of attacking brilliance that (A) unlocks a surging-in-confidence Dallas defense and (B) gives us a series when it looks as though we might not get one.
Let's see if Wade can resurrect the Heat after a disaster in Big D, as Miami did once already this season.
But let's be clear here. For all the talk about Shaq's touches and offensive balance and how much retribution The Big Everything was going to dish out after his quiet Game 1, there's really only one adjustment coach Pat Riley can feasibly make to counter what increasingly looks like the best team in the league.
Riles can simply ask Wade, Miami's lone Create His Own Shot option, to be more efficient. To play better, basically.
The sight of Shaq missing six free throws and managing just five points on 2-of-5 shooting -- and then being benched by Riley for the final 15-plus minutes in an attempt to save something for the Florida games -- was an undeniable shocker. It was only Miami's second game in nine days, after all, meaning that this was a fueled-up Diesel, eager to make us all forget his muted 17 points in the Finals opener.
So convinced, like the rest of us, that Shaq had something big planned as a follow-up, Mavs coach Avery Johnson joked before the opening tip that he was too stressed to chat. "I've got 350 pounds on my mind," Johnson explained.
It turned out to be unfounded panic, because Shaq never got close to doing damage, but he's still sufficiently Shaqian to draw double-team swarms and warrant aggressive fronting in the post. No matter how bad it gets for him, O'Neal remains the focus of the Mavs' game plan, such a worry that Dirk Nowitzki is suddenly part of Dallas' double-team schemes, adding another 7-foot variable to Shaq's decision-making.
When surrounded, furthermore, Shaq remains a weapon, because he creates opportunities for teammates, no matter how stunningly empty his stat line is.
Now ask yourself how many Heaters are dynamic enough to make the game easier for O'Neal.
That list stops at D-Wade.
Trouble is, this is Year 3 for No. 3.
You figure that Kobe Bryant, after 10 seasons, would be able to do some Shaq-lifting on the Finals stage. Kobe did it in his fourth season, actually.
I'm just not sure it's reasonable to expect Wade to carry Shaq, when Miami has no other dependable shooters and because the Mavs have the defenders -- more varied looks than any team in the East can conjure -- to make Wade work harder than usual.
"[Shaq] can't be as dominant as he wants to be right now because his other guys are not playing as good as we should," Wade conceded.
I see that response as a promising sign. It tells me that Wade sees the problem and understands he has to take it on, even if there's no simple solution.
He could muster only 6-of-19 shooting in this one, with just one basket longer than a layup, but don't bring up the sinus infection because Wade himself isn't using that. He knows you can't use the no-legs alibi. Wade knows, as Dallas' Josh Howard so helpfully reminded everyone after Game 1, that "nobody has their legs" at this stage of the season.
Wade's woes on this night were missed layups, shaky hands -- he does appear to have freshly jammed one of his right fingers -- and the sticky defense of an old college rival. Small-but-speedy Mavs guard Devin Harris lent a Wisconsin vs. Marquette feel to Sunday's proceedings by joining Howard and Adrian Griffin on Wade duty and effectively shadowing (and nagging) him.
"He didn't have a game that I think you all are accustomed to seeing him have," Riley said. "[But] he's a great student of the game. They are doing some things that I think we can learn from [and] maybe attack a little bit different."
"Tuesday," Wade said, "will probably be my best game."
It has to be.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
After sinking 4-of-5 3-pointers, and a four-point play, Jerry Stackhouse deserves a hand from his teammates. He had 19 points for Dallas, including a Heat-demoralizing 10 in the final 79 seconds of the first half.
Jerry Stackhouse is known as a streaky outside shooter who lives off his drives to the rim, but a little late-night target practice helped him shoot down Miami on Sunday.
Though only a 27.7 percent 3-point shooter during the regular season, the Mavs' super sub broke open a close game late in the second quarter with three straight 3-pointers, taking the Mavs to a 16-point halftime lead. On the middle trifecta, Stackhouse also drew a foul on Dwyane Wade for a four-point play -- one of two on the night for Dallas, after there had been only six in Finals history coming into the night.
Stackhouse credited a shooting session the previous evening for his success.
"The way they have been slacking off in the corner, it was a good opportunity for me to go in the gym last night late and work on some 3s, and it paid off," Stackhouse said.
Stackhouse estimated he was in the gym for about half an hour Saturday night, and that helped him get into a zone.
"After I shot the first one, there was no hesitation once I caught it the second time," he said. "When you're feeling good, you let it ride."
The Dallas Mavericks exposed the biggest problem the Miami Heat face with their aging, veteran-heavy team: their inability to defend any semblance of ball movement. With a complete lack of perimeter or interior quickness on the floor defensively the majority of the game, the Heat find themselves at the mercy of the Mavs, who have shown superior speed and athleticism.
Through the first two games of the NBA Finals, the Mavs have shown themselves to be a far more complete team. They have more quickness, versatility, balance and depth. They can put penetrators, scorers and workers on the court at the same time. That's something the Heat cannot match.
To make matters worse for the Heat, the Mavericks have done a great job of running double teams with another big man at an ineffective Shaquille O'Neal every time he touches the ball. They have crowded the Heat big man and never allowed him to use his 340 pounds to generate momentum toward the rim. Shaq has done a decent job finding shooters and reading the weakside of the Mavs defense, but the Heat shooters have been wildly inconsistent.
The Mavericks' defense on Dwyane Wade in Game 2 was equally stellar. They put defenders in his driving lanes, contested his finishes and forced him to make pull-up jumpers and perimeter shots, his one remaining weakness.
The Heat got past Detroit by outmuscling the Pistons and getting dominant performances from their two stars. The Mavs have relied on help and quickness on the Heat's premier offensive options, daring the role players to step up and be accountable. Thus far, they haven't been able to rise to the occasion.
-- Tim Legler in Dallas
The Mavs' domination was complete in a 99-85 Game 2 victory over the Miami Heat, lifting Dallas to a 2-0 series lead.
Mavs Win Game 2
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Shaquille O'Neal doesn't have much room to operate when Dirk Nowitzki aids Erick Dampier's stellar defense. Shaq was held to five points, the lowest of his playoff career.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
Erick Dampier had more points, more rebounds, more made free throws and more energy than Shaquille O'Neal, which was clear to anybody who watched Game 2.
In addition, he outdid Shaq in another category that nobody saw on TV -- having a nicer set of wheels under his feet -- when he finally exited the arena some 90 minutes after the final buzzer of Dallas' 99-85 victory Sunday night.
Dampier climbed behind the wheel of a fully restored, outrageously snazzy, silver 1964 Chevrolet Impala SS coupe for the drive home following one of the most gratifying evenings of his career. Shaq merely got a seat on the Heat's team bus, where word probably reached him before the team even made it to the airport that he was being fined $10,000 by the NBA (with a $25,000 fine for the Heat tossed on top) for refusing to speak to reporters after the lowest-scoring postseason game of his long and illustrious career.
The '64 Impala, one of three classic Chevys from the mid-'60s that Dampier owns (he also had a '64 pickup and a '66 Impala), was a fitting vehicle of style on this night for a player generally considered so devoid of both style and substance that he's often mocked as the poster child for big guys with big contracts (his is worth $65.6 million) who aren't worth the money.
But in Game 2, Dampier found a way to summon the energy to outplay O'Neal, an adversary who once called him the "best center in the WNBA."
"Obviously, we made some comments back and forth last year. I think that's behind us now," Dampier said from the interview podium, where the performance he gave on the court did not transfer into loquaciousness afterward.
"I just go out and play," he kept repeating, though he did take one backhanded shot at Shaq when someone asked about O'Neal possibly getting more touches in Game 3.
"In Game 1, they said he didn't get a lot of touches, but if you went back and watched the game, he got 30 touches and 12 times he passed it out. How many more times does he want to touch the ball?" Dampier said.
When O'Neal did get the ball, the Mavericks usually either fouled him or forced him to pass, holding O'Neal to just five field goal attempts and five points. Dampier came up with a steal just eight seconds after entering the game midway through the second quarter, and the Mavs went ahead for a good 15 seconds after that.
Dampier's fast-break dunk with 7:15 left in the third quarter put Dallas ahead by 19, and another Dampier dunk on a breakaway gave the Mavericks their largest lead, 78-51 late in the third. It was the most anyone had seen out of Dampier in a long while.
"Even though I didn't play a lot in the Phoenix series, it gave me an opportunity to get a lot of rest," Dampier said. "I wanted to do whatever I could to help the team win."
-- Chris Sheridan in Dallas
• The Mavericks took a two-games-to-none lead against Miami, sparked by a 10-0 run to end the first half, with Jerry Stackhouse doing all of the scoring. Stackhouse's streak of 10 straight points was the longest for any player in an NBA Finals game since Isiah Thomas scored 10 in a row during the Pistons' Game 1 victory over the Trail Blazers in 1990.
During that stretch, Stackhouse made three 3-point field goals in a span of 1:17. In the history of the NBA Finals, only one other player had ever hit three 3-point field goals in such a short span of time. In Game 4 of the 1990 Finals at Portland, Isiah hit a trio of 3s within 52 seconds during the third quarter of the Pistons' 112-109 win.
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Aamir (Fullerton): After Game 1, Heat fans swore Shaq and Wade would come back and have a monster game, and take over the series. I'm thrilled to see what they have to say now. All the hype about Wade ready to take over the big stage, and dominate ... he's been "sensationally" horrendous. And wow, that guy found on a train, he's making Damp look like Olajuwon 12 years ago. Wonder if Riley will make a 180-degree team change this offseason too. Or will Shaq demand a trade, pulling a "I can't exist with Wade" deal like he's done twice already. Good stuff, Dirk.
Herkemer (Torrance, CA): Miami will be lucky to take one game. Dallas has too much depth and flexibility for the Heat. They can adjust too quickly to any offense the Heat brings, and, unless Miami can play four quarters like they did in the first quarter of Game 1, they have absolutely no chance. I think we might see at least one postseason spanking similar to the regular season we remember so clearly. Dallas in 5.
Eeen, Melbourne, Australia: The thing which detracts from basketball as a spectator sport is that the really interesting stuff goes by too quick to see. For me, there's not enough analysis of individual plays on TV or in articles. Your inclusion of an interview with Bob Salmi was FANTASTIC. This guy should have his own TV show.
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