The Heat are the fastest defense that the Dallas Mavericks have seen this post season; the Mavericks move the ball like no one the Heat have faced. Observing this fascinating, even matchup in Game 1 reminded me of a vivid and memorable lesson from my basketball-obsessed childhood.
I was 11 years old, playing for a Boys and Girls Club team coached by my best friend’s father. He wasn’t some basketball genius, but he was uncompromising on fundamentals like dribbling with your head up. To force good ball-handling habits, we practiced with special blinders that kept us from looking down at the ball–when we were eight years old. A couple years later, we learned how important passing is.
One of our best players (call him Ben), a tall, thick, aggressive kid with decent hands wanted to dribble. All the time. He would rebound or otherwise receive the ball and, instead of advancing the fastbreak by outletting the ball, he had a habit of trying to sprint-dribble up court, the ball bouncing around his shoulder, just barely tethered to his shaky handle.
On this particular day, my coach tired of imploring him to pass –“you’ll get it back.” He stopped practice and told us to watch as he stood with the ball on the baseline. He asked one of our other players, Drew, to stand at the top of the 3-point line. Our coach told Ben it was a competition: “see if you can run from me to the 3-point line before my pass gets to Drew.”
Ben thought he was fast, and he was, but our coach wanted to prove one thing: no one moves faster than a passed basketball.
Our coach blew the whistle, Ben took off, and coach zipped a chest pass to Drew. The ball got there before Ben had taken three steps. Again and again he asked Ben—ever willing to fight back—to line up for this “challenge.” Again and again the ball beat Ben by a mile.
I was brought back to this moment as the Heat defense sprinted around the court, chasing the ball while the Mavericks, many doing little more than maintaining perfect spacing, whipped the rock from side to side. The Mavs created mismatches and forced wild closeouts. They found open looks and drove towards the basket.
Sometimes, the ball pinballed from Maverick to Maverick, not one dribble interrupting the movement. This is Dallas at its most deadly. The Mavericks become movie Samurais, slicing up an opponent with such precision and speed that it’s unclear any damage has been done until the victim’s body slides apart, quartered.
But as fast as the Mavericks moved the ball, there were times when the Heat defense was faster. Carlisle’s guys missed shots they normally make, but some of that should be attributed to their surprise at the ground Miami so rapidly covered. Even when left with customary time and space, Dallas looked rushed.
The Bulls’ defense (and the Mavs’) stymies by stifling and delaying ball movement. But the Heat defense defies a fundamental physical law of hoops by consistently winning a race against ball movement—often on the strength of a head start. Through coaching and anticipation, they begin the race against the ball before the pass is even thrown.
The question going forward is: can Miami continue to beat the ball?