- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Mavericks just gave away Game 3, just wrapped this gift up in a pretty bow after leading the Heat by 13 points with 6:34 left.

The series was theirs at that point, essentially concluded, except for the remaining bookkeeping.

Erick Dampier again was meeting the dwindling force of Shaquille O’Neal, and Dirk Nowitzki was en route to a 30-point game and Pat Riley was down to Dwyane Wade and a prayer.

Wade delivered 42 points, and Riley’s prayer was answered.

O’Neal actually hit two consecutive free throws near the end, Nowitzki actually split his pair, and the Dead Man Playing, Gary Payton, actually hit his first field goal of the game with 9.3 seconds left.

All those improbable developments led to the Heat securing a two-point victory and encouraging the wrong-headed notion that this is a competitive series.

This series is more over than it was with the Mavericks up 2-0, considering what it took for the Heat to claim a victory at home. This is not to suggest the Heat cannot win another game in the series.

O’Neal is apt to have one of his throwback games, and the Heat’s perimeter players are apt to have an effective 3-point game. But one more Heat victory hardly would constitute a genuine series.

The Mavericks have dominated the Heat in all but six-plus minutes of the three games, and that is considerably more persuasive than the compelling comeback of the Heat.

The Heat appear emotionally fatigued and reduced to clinging to the coattails of Wade.

How many more 42-point outbursts can the Heat reasonably expect from Wade? And he has come to be the Heat’s principal hope.

Here is where Riley’s contingent is: Atonement is granted to O’Neal on the basis of 16 points and 11 rebounds. Not too many years ago, when O’Neal was at the peak of his powers, a 16-point, 11-rebound performance by him would have been cause for criticism.

Critics of Riley suggest he is not malleable enough to make significant adjustments between games. What might those adjustments be, given the makeup of a team built around O’Neal and Wade?

These are not the Showtime Lakers or even the Knicks team Riley took to the NBA Finals in 1994.

Riley’s Heat team has obvious limitations, and its appearance in the NBA Finals is no small accomplishment.

It is a team dependent on the nutty shot selection of Antoine Walker, the inconsistencies of Jason Williams and James Posey, Dead Man Playing, Fortunate to be Playing Alonzo Mourning and the injured Udonis Haslem.

Jerry Stackhouse, the sixth man of the Mavericks, would be the No. 3 player with the Heat.

So no one should have a beef with Riley, the coach. The beef, if there is one, is with Riley, the team president who assembled the personnel.

As it is, the quality of a series is measured by the quality of the visiting team’s performance.

The Heat failed to show up in Dallas, as is typical of an older team.

The Mavericks have shown themselves to be a steady road team in the playoffs, and they certainly looked formidable for about 42 minutes of Game 3.

And Avery Johnson and the Mavericks are certainly in a position to make an adjustment following their meltdown.

Johnson should remind his exuberant shooters that the offense needs to go through Nowitzki each time down the floor in the waning minutes of a tight playoff game.

If you are destined to lose, it goes down a lot easier if your lead player did not meet the challenge.

Riley and the Heat made that decision late in Game 3.

They turned to Wade and said, “Do what you do. You’re our best chance.”

The Mavericks, meanwhile, neglected to respond in kind.

That omission is not likely to persist in the next two games in Miami.

All the Mavericks need is a split and a 3-2 lead leading going back to Dallas.

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