Posted by: Earl K. Sneed

MIAMI — The long wait was over, and after sitting for nearly a week once they finished off the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games, the Dallas Mavericks returned to the hardwood looking to finish off the championship path they began with training camp in September.

Hoping to continue a franchise-best five-game road playoff winning streak, the Mavericks stepped into American Airlines Arena focused on one clear-cut task: Doing what no team has done this postseason on the Miami Heat’s home floor.

With the Heat 8-0 at home entering Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the Mavs looked to draw off their success away from Dallas after tying with Miami for the best road record at 28-13 during the regular season. Meanwhile, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle tried to keep things as close to normal as possible for his players despite the media-crazed circus surrounding the championship series.

“I have a quarter to seven on my watch,” Carlisle joked before the 9 p.m. local time start. “I didn’t change over. I’m on central time. It’s an 8 o’clock game as far as I’m concerned.”

But with all joking aside, Carlisle and the Mavericks took the court looking to send a message while also trying to steal the home-court edge in the best-of-seven, 2-3-2 series. However, the Heat had other things in mind, with Miami’s Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh striking first to take a 1-0 lead and put the Mavericks in a series hole for the first time all playoffs, after surviving a 92-84 defensive struggle.

“We’ll play better. I’m certain of that. Again, we had some opportunities. … Shots we normally make, they didn’t go down. And so, that was tough. But look, it’s a long series, and we’ll adjust and do things we need to do to get ourselves in a better position. This is a very good basketball team we’re playing. They were more opportunistic tonight than we were. That’s been one of the traits of our run. We’ve been very opportunistic. Tonight, we weren’t as much,” Carlisle concluded after the loss.

The visiting Mavs faced some early adversity, beginning the game 1-for-7 from the floor and finding themselves in a defensive combat zone. The team would rally, though, using back-to-back 3-pointers by point guard Jason Kidd to climb back into the game, while swingman DeShawn Stevenson and forward Shawn Marion shared the defensive duties on James and Wade. Dallas then grabbed a 17-16 lead after one quarter of play, with sixth man Jason Terry cashing in at the line on two free throws after a hard foul delivered by James to send a message that it would be a physical showdown.

With both teams shooting just 28.6 percent from the floor in the period, the Mavs grabbed the slight edge thanks to 3-of-8 shooting from 3-point range compared to 1-of-6 from behind the arc for the Heat.

After a quiet opening quarter for the series’ biggest stars, the Heat’s talented trio of James, Wade and Bosh began to insert themselves, while Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki did the same. Meanwhile, the Mavs began to look inside, with Marion’s post-ups and an empathic alley-oop and-1 finish by Chandler off a Kidd feed lifting Dallas to a 44-43 advantage at the midway mark.

Both teams struggled to find the bottom of the nets with regularity in the first half, as the Mavs outshot the Heat through two quarters, 38.2 percent to 36.6 percent. At the same time, both squads also relied heavily on their go-to scorers, as Nowitzki and Terry combined to tally 25 points to combat 30 collectively between the Heat’s Big Three.

After struggling to score through 24 minutes of play, however, the Mavericks would briefly catch fire, starting the third on a 7-0 spurt. But the Heat battled back behind Wade and James, capitalizing on the Mavs’ costly turnovers to take a 65-61 edge into the final 12 minutes of play after James’ fadeaway 3-pointer to beat the third-quarter buzzer.

“We started the quarter on a 7-0 run, which got us an eight-point lead, which gave us momentum,” Carlisle explained. “Then they answered. They responded well. During that period, they were making a run at us, and I thought we did a good job of hanging in. And, again, I thought there were some critical situations where we needed to somehow come up with one loose ball here or go make a shot there that would have made a big difference. But it didn’t happen.”

The Mavericks appeared that they would in fact remain poised in the game’s last 12 minutes, using a suffocating defense with a mixture of man and zone to stay in the game. But after Heat forward Udonis Haslem found a hole in the Dallas defense and scored an and-1 over Nowitzki in the lane, the Mavericks faced an uphill climb and a 75-69 deficit with 6:36 left to play.

Despite Marion’s best efforts on the offensive end, the Heat continued to control the pace and flow of the game down the stretch, with Wade draining a stepback 3 to put the Heat ahead 82-73 with 3:06 left for Carlisle and his troops to regroup. James followed that up with a thunderous and-1 slam to put the Heat up 10 with just under three minutes left to play, quieting Marion’s and Nowitzki’s attempts to muster up a comeback.

“They have two very good closers, two of the best in the game,” Nowitzki said of Wade and James. “I mean, Dwyane made some big shots there in the fourth quarter and LeBron has been shooting the ball really well this playoffs. They had some open looks and really made some tough shots.”

Still, Nowitzki continued to battle, even while wearing a splint on his left middle finger after tearing a tendon during the period when his hand got tangled up attempting to steal the ball from Bosh. The 7-footer swished a pair at the foul line to draw his team to within six, 85-79, with 1:36 remaining. But after Wade forced a defensive stop, Bosh cashed in at the other end with a two-handed slam, before Wade also found James for an above-the-rim finish to ice the game for the home team and put the Mavs behind the eight ball for the first time in this year’s postseason.

Despite Nowitzki’s game-high 27 points on 7-of-18 shooting and Marion’s 16 points to go along with 10 rebounds, the Mavericks got little help offensively. Terry was the only other Mav in double figures with 12 points (all in the first half), but did so while hitting just 3-of-10 from the floor as reserve guard J.J. Barea also struggled to a 1-of-8 finish to the night, leading to the Dallas bench being outscored by Miami’s second unit, 27-17.

“Not tentative at all, just had opportunities that weren’t taken advantage of,” Terry simply said after a rare off night.

Meanwhile, James finished with 24 points, Wade registered 22 and Bosh tallied up 19 to go along with 28 boards from the trio, as the Heat out-rebounded the Mavericks, 46-36, including 16 offensive rebounds.

Thanks to the rebounding discrepancy, the Heat overcame an off-shooting night while still bettering Dallas in that department, 38.8 percent to 37.3 percent. And with James knocking down 4-of-5 from long range to add to sixth man Mario Chalmers’ 3-of-7, the Heat’s 11-of-24 shooting from behind the 3-point arc after the slow start also outdid the Mavericks’ 9-for-22 from deep at the other end.

“I mean, you hold a team to 38 percent and 92 points, for us that’s usually a victory. To score 84 points is very rare for us,” Marion said after the Mavs scored two more than their postseason-low. “To get 67 shots as well, even to shoot 37 percent. Most times we shoot 37 percent from the field, the other team is going to shoot lower than that. It was about equal, and we only were able to score 84 points.”

“They’re a very good defensive team,” Carlisle added. “It was tough to get shots all night. Both teams shot under 40 percent. That gives you some idea of how difficult good, clean shots are going to be to come by in this series.”

The Mavericks will now try to make the proper adjustments heading into Thursday night’s Game 2, looking to take advantage of a second opportunity to steal the home-court edge before the series shifts to Dallas for three straight games.

“We’re a veteran team, so you can’t get down with a loss. You gotta come back strong on Thursday,” Nowitzki said when looking ahead. “And I’ve said it a couple of times this playoff run, if you’re the road team, you’re happy with a split. So, we’ve got another opportunity on Thursday to go get one. Obviously, we don’t want to go home being down 0-2, which is a hole, so we’d love to go home with a split. We’ve just gotta be a little bit sharper there on Thursday in some areas.”

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