Sports Nut

If You Can’t Beat the Heat

Then stop complaining about the referees!

James Posey and Antoine Walker celebrate the Heat's title. Click image to expand.
James Posey and Antoine Walker celebrate the Heat’s title

With 26 seconds left in Tuesday’s Game 6 of the NBA Finals, Dwyane Wade cracked his elbow into Dirk Nowitzki’s chest. The referees called a foul … on Nowitzki. Wade made two free throws to give Miami a three-point lead, and the Mavericks got no closer before the clock ran out. ABC’s Hubie Brown commiserated with Dirk—he’d been unlucky to find himself in the “wrong place” as Wade drove to the hoop. Nowitzki had been in the wrong place in Game 5 too, when he got whistled for doing notmuch of anything to Wade with two seconds left in overtime. Wade made those free throws too, and the Heat won by one. Overall, Wade took a startling 46 free throws in Miami’s last two victories. The whole Mavericks team combined for 48.

With this championship, Wade’s coronation as the next Jordan is complete. Greatness is not enough, of course—you also have to get all the calls. Still, the Heat didn’t win the NBA title because Dwyane Wade cast a spell on the guys in black and white. Just like the Blazers and the Sonics and all those other teams the Bulls beat every year, the Mavericks deserved to lose. When you play against Dwyane Wade, you’re going to get screwed by a bunch of calls. But the Mavericks can’t make a plausible case that the refs bestowed victory on an inferior opponent. Great teams overcome things like bad refereeing and bad shooting nights. In this series, the Mavericks didn’t overcome anything.

While the refs may have treated Wade like a fragile vase on a rickety ladder, the NBA’s most lovable superstar didn’t need their help. His repertoire of drives and pull-up jumpers makes it easy to forget that basketball is supposed to be a team effort. Wade’s uncannily on-target bank shots, in particular, look like they were crafted as the secret weapon for a backyard game of one-on-one. While the Mavericks’ Nowitzki and Jason Terry sometimes struggled to figure out when to shoot and when to set up their teammates—see Nowitzki’s doomed dump-off pass to Erick Dampier in the last seconds of Game 6—Wade knows when to be selfish and when to be selfless. One of Tuesday night’s biggest plays came when, with four minutes to go, Wade drove to the basket, lured several Mavericks toward him, and passed out to James Posey for a 3-pointer that gave Miami a six-point lead.

As Wade showed off his championship form, Dallas kept demonstrating its unworthiness. After the phantom call that handed Game 5 to Miami, I would have dismissed any criticism of the Mavericks as blaming the victim. But that was before Dallas returned to its home court and played with the heart of a nonchampion. After sprinting to an early lead, the Mavs succumbed to Wade’s offense, Alonzo Mourning’s defense, and their own inability to make an outside shot. The usually sweet-shooting Jason Terry didn’t exactly turn into a pumpkin in Game 6—by shooting 7-for-25, he played more like a decorative gourd.

Just like in the rest of the Finals, Dallas played just well enough to get wronged at the end. When you’re playing at home, in an elimination game, that’s not good enough. It’s telling that Dallas’ list of scapegoats—the nonsensical foul calls, the unwanted timeout at the end of Game 5, Jerry Stackhouse’s one-game suspension—is a lot longer than the list of the clutch plays the Mavericks made in the series’s last four games. Besides Nowitzki’s dramatic fall-away shot in the closing seconds of Game 5, what did Dallas do to alter its fate?

Last month, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wrote on his blog that he owes his success to whining. (Example: “When I started MicroSolutions, I whined that there were no companies that could help hook personal computers together, so we became one of the first integrators for Novell Share Data Systems.”) The thing Cuban whines about the most is NBA referees. He keeps statistics on various refs’ tendencies and writes obsessively detailed blog posts about how to improve the league’s officiating.

Cuban’s kvetching might force Commissioner David Stern to think more seriously about the league’s officiating problems. But it’s hard to see how chiding the refs will lead the Mavericks to a championship. The NBA will never be able to eliminate the guesswork that comes when gigantic men smash into each other. That’s why Cuban and the Dallas players should focus on the things a great basketball team can control. When Wade finally missed two free throws at the end of Game 6, Terry had an open 3-pointer that would have tied the game. It didn’t go in. Losing on a missed shot—there’s nothing fairer than that.