DALLAS – With 7:07 left in the game, Mavericks guard O.J. Mayo slipped past the Miami Heat defense for a rare close look at the basket. He banked in an eight-foot runner to trim Miami’s lead all the way down to … 20. It had been 36.
Still, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was livid and signaled for a timeout, maybe just to remind his team that a game was still being played. It didn’t matter as Mavs coach Rick Carlisle used the delay in a thoroughly embarrassing home rout to toss in the white towel that his team seemed to have thrown long ago, taking Mayo out of his worst game of the season — eight points on 3-for-14 shooting, including a goose egg on five attempts from beyond the arc.
Mayo was 1-for-8 from the floor at halftime, trapped and hounded and suffocated.
“We held O.J. under all his averages,” LeBron James said. “It started with him.”
The Heat came to Dallas on a mission, and it had nothing to do with exacting another measure of revenge on the team that prevented the 2012 championship from being No. 2 in that line of titles James promised that day to the fans of South Beach.
Miami took care of that here last season on Christmas Day after the defending champs, at least what was left of them, collected their rings. In that one, the Heat led 78-49 with seven minutes to go in the third quarter. On Thursday night, it was, kind of eerily, a 79-50 game at the same point.
This time, though, it was all about the Heat getting back to Heat defense. Finally back on the road for just the ninth time in 23 games, Miami cracked down, and Mayo, the focal point of the Mavs’ offense with Dirk Nowitzki still shelved, paid a hefty price.
“That’s what it’s about,” LeBron said after posting 24 points, nine rebounds and five assists before sitting out the entire fourth quarter of the 110-95 victory. “We understood. We’re a veteran ball club and we understood that we could not continue to play defense like we did the first part of the season, those first 15 to 17, 20 games, and we have to continue to stranglehold guys and get guys out of their [comfort zones]. If they’re going to make a shot, it’s a contested shot or they have to work very hard for it and we’ve been able to do that the last couple of games.”
Dallas, turnover-prone much of this season, had only nine compared to the Heat’s 20. But every Mavs shot attempt — all 96 of them — seemed to come under enormous pressure.
Dallas didn’t score more than 22 points in any quarter until the garbage-time fourth when they outscored Miami, 34-19, to at least make the final score look somewhat respectable. The Heat’s trapping, swarming defense limited the Mavs to 32.9 percent shooting through three quarters, a major feat, because even without Nowitzki, Dallas has sizzled at home, shooting 48.3 percent in their previous 11 games.
By the end of this one for Miami’s third consecutive victory, Nowitzki sat helplessly at the end of the bench in his brown suit, his hands folded, knuckles pressing into his lowered forehead. He couldn’t watch as Dallas lost for a fourth time in five games to fall to 12-14 with a game at Memphis approaching on Friday night.
“It was good to see us play to our identity,” Spoelstra said, “and look a little bit more similar to our normal Miami Heat defense.”
Toward the end of the first half, Miami was toying with the Mavs, throwing wild lob passes that were resulting more in turnovers than dunks. But, again, it didn’t matter. Dwyane Wade, who converted a long outlet pass to James in that period, had 19 points and six assists, but his eye-popping stat of the night was tying his career-best plus-minus rating of plus-40 — that’s right, plus-40.
“This has been building more than the last three games,” Spoelstra said. “It’s been about the last 2 ½ weeks or so where it started to change, not as consistently as we would have liked, but we started to take steps forward and build back our normal Miami Heat defense, which was a little bit absent that first month of the season.”
And now the Heat feel like they’re ready to really roll. They’re excited about getting out on the road where they play 10 of 12 after Christmas following a home-heavy slate that Spoelstra said made his team stale. They get Utah at home on Saturday and then play host to Oklahoma City in a Christmas Day showdown. Then it’s on the road where the Heat believe they will find out exactly how good they can become.
“That’s usually where you build the camaraderie, the toughness, the resolve of being on the road for a long time; you really grow closer together,” Spoelstra said. “This was a good win to get here against a team that’s been grinding, and, yeah, we did want to take the challenge of being on the road, and we’re looking forward to that stretch after Christmas as well.”