There is no particular shame in losing at Miami -- even if it is something the Dallas Mavericks so rarely do.
The Heat come at you with elite top-of-roster talent, of course. In Thursday's 106-85 win over the team that defeated them in last year's NBA Finals, LeBron James and Chris Bosh each finished with 19 points and nine rebounds and Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem scored 16 apiece.
They come at you with an improved second-tier group of players, like Mario Chalmers (12 points) and Norris Cole (10) and vets Shane Battier and just-added Ronny Turiaf.
They win at home, as the Heat extended their home winning streak to 15
And they have two straight wins over the Mavs, a team that has owned Miami ever since the 2006 Finals meeting between the teams.
The Heat seem to know where they are heading.
The Mavs? Outplayed in nearly every facet of the game, Dallas looked the part of a team still trying to find its identity.
The one video highlight/lowlight that says it all:
And there it is: 1) An open-court turnover, suicidal against Miami; 2) allowance of launching-pad position to LeBron, a gameplan no-no for Dallas; 3) permission to TNT's Reggie Miller to ad-lib a scene-setter, one of the many things he is incapable of as a broadcaster.
Some nights the Mavs look like the hungry veteran team that surprised the league and captured the championship last season. Some nights they struggle to find an identity, a strange amalgam of still-celebrating champs (as evidenced by Jason Terry's shoes) and possibly one-year rental players (as evidenced by Jet's ridiculous pregame comments about considering joining Miami this offseason).
Returning to the site of their coronation, the Mavericks were outshot, out-assisted, out-rebounded (badly, continuing a disturbing trend), out-hustled and altogether outplayed by Miami. Miami would enjoy six players in double-digits to lead a balanced, aggressive attack that out-rebounded Dallas 44-29 and attempted twice as many free throws, 27-13.
On the other side, Dallas was led by Dirk Nowitzki with 25 points and six rebounds but needed 19 shots to reach his total. He was also the only Maverick to attempt more than two free throws. His two-man game partner, Terry, was nearly atrocious in this one, only scoring three points on 1-10 shooting, including 1-5 from the arc for a game-worst -20 in plus/minus. Roddy B also struggled, held scoreless while posting one assist, foul and steal to go along with two turnovers.
One of the lone positives for Dallas was the continued emergence of the head-banded Lamar Odom. He put together another strong effort with 12 points on 4-6 shooting with four rebounds and three assists. The other silver lining was the return of Delonte West, who added seven points in eight minutes off the bench while shooting a perfect 3-3 from the field.
As they are known to do, Miami seemed to capitalize on every Dallas mistake, scoring 19 points off of Dallas' 15 turnovers. (That's right; the above highlight was just one of eight such examples.) Miami could have named the final score in this one as they badly outscored the Mavericks in the paint, 46-24. Further, they had 17 second-chance points to Dallas' eight and outhustled Dallas to the tune of a 13-2 edge in transition.
In their last five games, Dallas has only won the rebounding battle once. Here, they lost more than that as their search for an identity continues. Before the game, in typical Jason Terry fashion, chirped ill-advisedly, suggesting that he'd be willing to play for Miami next year. After a 10-percent shooting night, We're not sure this was his best audition. However, his quote does illustrate the topsy-turvy world the defending champs now inhabit.
Without an established identity, Dallas faces the very-real possibility of a short spring. With only 14 games remaining, time is running out to find the center of this squad. If they need an example, the need only look across the court.
"We just worked our habits," James said of the cruise-control second-half Miami enjoyed by being themselves.
This Dallas team does not yet have a distinct sense of self. It has a decent-enough record and things can change in a hurry starting Friday in Orlando. But with lapses like the Reggie Miller-accented one and without some certainly about the future, we are left, in the words of Terry, wondering just "What the hell is going on here?"