Sunday, December 2, 2012

Dwyane Wade And The 2006 Finals


I was watching a Heat/Celtics game at a Dallas bar recently, and the consensus was that Dwyane Wade is a “cheater” who “stole” the 2006 Finals from the Mavericks. At the very least, the majority of sports fans in the Metroplex are dubious about the circumstances surrounding Dallas’ loss to Miami.

Wade attempted 97 free throws in that six-game series, the most in the history of the NBA. In the Heat’s pivotal Game 5 win, he had 25 free throws, as many as the entire Maverick roster. ESPN’s Bill Simmons summed up the feelings of many Dallas fans: “I just don’t see how there’s any way this can happen in a fairly-called game. It’s theoretically impossible.” Wade’s record-setting performance does need an explanation, but as so often happens in life, it’s a little more complicated than a conspiracy theory.

While the ’06 Mavericks were an excellent team, they were uniquely vulnerable to dribble penetration from a big, athletic guard in ways that most Finals teams throughout history weren’t. Dallas was constructed specifically to beat Tim Duncan's Spurs, their division rival who had sent them home twice earlier in the decade.

At center, they played two barrel-chested seven-footers, Erick Dampier and DeSagana Diop, who could defend a low-post scorer like Duncan without help. But neither had the foot-speed to roam across the paint and protect the rim, something that their other big man — Dirk — wasn’t keen on doing either. Around the perimeter, they played two small, fast guards in Devin Harris (6’3 190) and Jason Terry (6’2 180) to combat Tony Parker and Steve Nash.
And in their run to the Finals, they never went up against a team whose offense was built around someone like Wade. They steam-rolled a Memphis team built around Pau Gasol, out-lasted Tim Duncan and the more finesse-oriented guards of the Spurs in an all-time classic series and defeated Steve Nash and his merry band of three-point shooters in the Western Conference Finals.
Wade’s dominance exposed a hole that had always been there. The next year, the Golden State Warriors drove a stake through that hole, as Stephen Jackson, Jason Richardson and Baron Davis put on an offensive show to defeat a 67-win Dallas team in the first round.
Wade, a powerful and explosive 6’4 220 guard, was the one type of player the Mavericks had no answer for. He had a match-up advantage, and the only way Miami was winning a title was if he exploited that advantage to the absolute limit.
The Heat’s offense revolved completely around Wade and Shaq, both of whom had usage ratings well over 30. The only other player in their rotation with a usage rating over 20 was … Antoine Walker. So with Shaq somewhat neutralized by Dallas’ seven-footers, Miami’s offense in the Finals was Wade or nothing.
The Mavs raced out to a 2-0 lead in the Finals, looking like the far superior team. What happened next, depending on how you look at it, was one of the greatest comebacks or the greatest crimes in recent NBA history.
As he attacked the basket, Wade began searching out and initiating contact. When a team’s best player runs full-speed into a defender and acts like he’s just been shot, the refs are almost obligated to call the foul. With his combination of great body control and long arms, it was fairly easy for him to initiate a minor amount of contact on the interior and then throw himself on the ground.
It wasn’t cheating and it wasn’t against the letter of the law, but it certainly violated thespirit of it. Imagine the puzzled looks at a pick-up game if someone attempted Wade’s strategy of attacking slower defenders and throwing himself on the ground instead of trying to make the basket. He probably wouldn’t be invited back to play.
If you stretch the rules of a game to the breaking point, it no longer becomes fun to play it. It certainly isn’t very entertaining to watch a guy shoot 20 free throws a game.
One of the many apocryphal stories about Michael Jordan, which Wade undoubtedly heard as a teenager growing up in Chicago in the 90′s, was that he cheated his teammate's mother in a game of cards while he was visiting them over the holidays.
Wade’s strategy is the end result of a basketball culture that celebrated this type of sociopathic behavior as not only necessary to be a champion, but as a positive character trait — to be like MJ you must be a “killer”, you must be willing to do whatever it takes.
But what’s been lost amidst the controversy about the officiating is what a dominant performance Wade had and just how great a basketball player he actually is.
It’s been a recurring theme throughout his career.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, he wasn’t an AAU star, only blossoming into a great player after a growth spurt late in his high school career. He wasn’t heavily recruited due to academic difficulties and was forced to sit out his first year at Marquette because he couldn’t pass the ACT.
Playing for a small private school in the Midwest, Wade didn’t become nationally known until a transcendent performance in the 2003 Elite Eight, when he had a triple-double to lead the Golden Eagles past Kentucky. The next year, as part of one of the greatest draft classes in the history of the NBA, he had to share the rookie spotlight with Carmelo and LeBron.
And just as he was becoming a national figure after the 2006 Finals, his aging Miami team fell apart around him. While LeBron and Kobe became the faces of the NBA, Wade was stuck in purgatory, with the Heat making the bold choice to bottom out and clear cap space for the summer of 2010.
Statistically, Wade’s been the best shooting guard in the NBA for three seasons now, and it hasn’t even been close. He’s had more points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals than Kobe in each of the last three years, all while shooting at a much higher percentage.
** The exceptions: Kobe grabbed .2 more rebounds in 2009 and scored .4 more points in 2010. **
While Kobe struggled to score against Jason Kidd, Wade put on a performance for the ages against the Celtics — averaging 30 points on 53% shooting, 7 rebounds and 5 assists, all while playing tireless defense on Ray Allen. But because the playoffs have such an out-sized impact on NBA player’s reputations, it’s only now that he has championship-caliber teammates around him that he’s been able to match Kobe in the public imagination.
Which is of course the cruelest twist of all for Wade, as LeBron, a paradigm-shifting player who soaks up all the media attention in the room, will always be the story for the Heat.
No guard in the league has a bigger impact on the game than Wade. Derrick Rose is more valuable to his team, but he’s not on Wade’s level as a player.
Just look at Wade’s 2009 season, when the second best player on his team was a rookie Michael Beasley. Shouldering an even heavier load than Rose, with a usage rating of 36.2 compared to Rose’s 32.2 this year, Wade averaged 30 points on 49% shooting with 7.5 assists and 5.0 rebounds.
** Rose’s 2011 stat-line: 25 points on 44% shooting with 7.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds. **
With a lightning-quick first step, immaculate body control and a preposterous 6’11 wingspan, there’s no way to keep him out of the paint, where he takes 39% of his shots, an absurd number for a 6’4 guard.
A lot has been written about how LeBron’s legacy will be negatively affected by joining forces with Wade in Miami, but it’s far more likely that the converse will occur: how is Wade ever going to win an MVP award when he’s on the same team as the best player in the NBA?
Thanks to “The Decision”, he’ll never have to carry a team like he did in the ’06 Finals. He didn’t do it in a very sportsman-like fashion, but you try winning honorably when a 30-year old Antoine Walker is your third best player.
And as the Heat advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, don’t forget they have two all-time great players on their roster.

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