And then there were two.
This year’s NBA Finals represents a classic case of the “irresistible force” meeting the “immovable object.” Which team is which is completely subjective, but the importance of this year’s championship looms especially large. The Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat square off in a rematch of the 2006 championship. Ominous cognizance remains from yesteryear’s series including Dirk’s dilapidated, but recently revived playoff image as well Dwyane Wade’s controversial free throw extravaganza. This time Dirk boasts a better supporting cast while Wade brings along a team dichotomized to the nth degree since last July.
Both franchises enter the season’s final round on respective elevated postseason pedestals. At identical 12-3 records, the series literally teeters in the balance. After surviving their conference finals predictions, the Crew’s Ben Lampin and J. Tinsley attempt to circle the wagon one more time. Ben rides shotgun with Mark Cuban while Tins attempts to slick his hair back like Pat Riley. The end result are 10 key happenings to keep notice of throughout these Finals.
As tradition states, your input is always welcomed. We’re all a big, happy family here.
This could go either way, honestly, but it will be a close, hard-fought series. In the end, we see the Mavs winning if it goes the full seven games. The Heat have no answer for Dirk, and the Mavs’ multifaceted attack is different, and better, than any they’ve faced this season. It’d really help Dallas to win one of the first two games in Miami in order to neutralize the Heat’s natural front-running tendency, and bring the old questions back into their minds. If they can do that, the series is wide-open.
Even if they can’t, this Mavs team has proven to be mentally tough, and with the amount of guys they have who’ve almost won a ring in the past, will be incredibly motivated to make it happen this time around. The Heat’s time will come. They’re too good for it not to. But right now, I think the Mavericks will make it to the promised land.
1. Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood: The Heat haven’t faced a physical, legitimately 7’0” center in these playoffs so far. While they played Zydrunas Illgauskas, Erick Dampier, – remember him? – Jamal Magloire and Juwan Howard sparingly in the early rounds of the playoffs, recently, they’ve gone with an undersized rotation of Anthony and Haslem at center. Against the Bulls, this duo defended and rebounded well enough for the Heat to win.
However, Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood, if they play well, will make them pay for trying to use the same rotation against the Mavericks. Both men are 7’0”, athletic and tough, physical players who will alter shots and rebound. They have the ability and size necessary to give Anthony and Haslem fits. If the Heat are forced to alter their rotation, and play Illgauskas, Dampier, Magloire or Howard they’ll be knocked out of the rhythm they’ve built over the past few games, and not able to play at their peak.
2. The Mavs’ Ball Movement: That brings me to the second key for the Mavericks. When they’re playing at their best, this team moves the ball incredibly well. They pass quickly and surely around the perimeter, catching overaggressive, or overly laid-back, defenses helplessly out of position. It’s the team’s trademark and the element of their game that sets them apart from the competition. At certain times, the Mavericks have buried opposing teams with their ball movement. Remember Game 4 of the Lakers series? Or the beginning of Game 3 against the Thunder? If they recapture that form, they will beat the Heat.
This part of the Mavericks’ game starts with Jason Kidd, who will be key in setting it up. The future Hall of Famer is a legendary passer and has an incredible basketball I.Q., consistently delivering the ball to the exact spot at the exact moment. His skill is the foundation of the team’s unselfish, devastating attack. While Mario Chalmers and Mike Bibby are tough players, they’re not good enough to get Kidd out his game. Expect him, and as a result the rest of the Mavericks offense, to move the ball beautifully and find open looks.
3. The Mavericks 3-Point Shooting: Luckily, when they get open looks, the Mavericks have a wide array of players able to knock them down. Every regular on the team, other than the centers and Shawn Marion, is a threat to hit shots from beyond the arc. Several, including Jason Terry, Peja Stojakovic and Kidd – who’re all among the top eight in three-pointers made in NBA history – are especially good. And in these playoffs, the Heat haven’t been great at contesting long-range shots, allowing opponents to hit from beyond the arc at a 38.5 percent clip. If the Mavericks can hit their three-pointers, they’ll be well on their way to victory.
4. The 2-3 Zone: The Mavericks break out their 2-3 zone more than any other team in the league. It’s uncommon in the NBA, but has become an important part of the Dallas defense. They’ve used it to great effect against the Blazers, Lakers and Thunder, and it’ll be just as good, if not better, against the Heat. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the two keys of the Miami offense, are incredible one-on-one players and creators, but not great shooters. If, using their zone, the Mavericks can close off open lanes to the hoop and force them to take outside jump shots, they’ll slow down James and Wade.
Honestly, if they can just disrupt the flow of the Miami offense, and force them to play a more traditional half-court game, they’ll have done enough with the zone. The Heat don’t play as well in a straight half-court offense, especially if they’re confused about the defense and indecisive. It lessens the effect of having Wade and James on the court at the same time, and makes them decidedly ordinary. The 2-3 zone will make this happen.
5. Dirk Nowitzki: Dirk is still the most important player on the floor for the Dallas Mavericks, and if they have a hope of winning this series, they’re going to need an astounding effort from him. Luckily, based on the man’s play in the past rounds, and the Heat defenders he’ll face, he’s likely to come up big. Dirk has been the second leading scorer in the playoffs, averaging 28.4 points per game, just 0.2 behind Kevin Durant. In the last round against the Thunder, he stepped up his game even more, pushing his scoring average to 32.2 points per game with a league leading 9.7 coming in the final period of play.
Nowitzki’s skills will dominate the defenders sent against him in this series. Chris Bosh doesn’t have the size necessary to contest Dirk’s shots or any sort of defensive savvy, let alone the toughness to body him in the post. Udonis Haslem, on the other hand, is that kind of tough. But he doesn’t have the athleticism he did five years ago, when he was guarding Dirk most of the time. And it seems, somehow, that Dirk has gotten even better in the meantime. I expect him to be effective in short bursts, sure. But in the long run? Not so much.
Those two will get the majority of the minutes against Dirk, but we could see one or two others as well. Joel Anthony will probably step out to guard him at some point, but like Haslem, he’s really too small to alter the man’s jump shot. And LeBron James – while effective playing out-of-position against Derrick Rose and the Bulls – will one, be unable to guard Dirk in the post, and two, not be switched onto him often in the first place. The risk of picking up fouls is too great, and the Mavericks move the ball too well for Erik Spolestra to force other defenders to play unfamiliar roles.
Let’s keep this as concise as possible: Heat in six.
1. Chris Bosh: CB1 may have had the most stressful year of any player in the league, even more than LeBron. How? People, for as fresh as the hate may be for James, basically agree he is one of the more talented people in the world at the game of basketball. Bosh, for lack of a better term, was still unproven after years of being neatly tucked away in Drake’s hometown. He’s heard disrespectful remark after disrespectful remark since the season opened in Boston. We all know them. Hell, we’ve all probably cracked those same jokes.
Still, how Bosh manages to play against Dirk this series will ultimately decide who takes home the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Shutting down the Big Volkswagen is clinically impossible unless Chris suddenly transforms into Bill Russell. Slowing him down, however, is a different story. And how does one do that? Attack just as much on the offensive end. Bosh won’t outscore his much hyped opponent, but he can do something not seen in Dallas’ previous round. Dirk baptized Oklahoma City so frequently because there wasn’t anyone to make him work on the defensive end. If Chris can force Nowitzki into foul trouble and go to the free throw line, where he is shooting 83% this postseason, it helps neutralize the Dirk attack. And if that doesn’t work, Bosh is going to have to imagine #41 is Carlos Boozer. That seemed to work last series.
2. The Scene Of The Crime: Dallas fans, you know what, skip this and move to the next topic. For real, skip it, it’s not even that important anyway.
Good, that was a close one. I almost inadvertently triggered PTFD (post-traumatic Finals disorder) for what I’m about to say. Miami must get to the free throw line. Granted, some of the calls awarded to them may come off as sketchy, but their near relentless attacking of basket puts pressure on the officials to make the call. Such a philosophy has allowed Miami to take 133 more shots from the charity strip this postseason than their opponents. Doing this against Dallas guarantees two things. One, it slows down the Mavs offense which can be nothing short of deadly if they get going. Second, it creates foul trouble. And we all know how critical that can be.
3. Perimeter Defense And Fast Break Points: With all due respect to Chicago, the difference between their shooting and the Mavericks is like Ralph Lauren and USPA. Miami occasionally slacked on perimeter defense in closing out on shooters like Loul Deng (who had a pretty good series anyway), Keith Bogans and an abnormally cold Kyle Korver. The Heat’s ability to contest shots from the three-point marksmen (and the effectively pesky J.J. Barea) Ben previously mentioned is a necessity, not a luxury. As one of the better defensive teams all year, Miami is capable, but look for this to be their grandest challenge.
But let’s say they take the duel and close out. Long missed jump shots lead to long rebounds. Long rebounds lead to what? Fast break points. Exactly.
4. The Close Out Lineup: So this didn’t exactly pan out. Consider that a positive. The lineup everyone expected to see on the floor for Miami made its real debut during the most pressure packed moments of Game 4 in the Eastern Conference finals. They also were on the hardwood when the Bulls let a 12 point lead evaporate in the final three minutes of Game 5. During those two games, the team from South Beach dominated the number one overall seed in playoffs to the music of 48-23. To be fair, it was only small portion of evidence, but it showed the potentially dizzying effect this unit could produce. Tom Haberstroh had this to say.
Defensively, it is a machine, both literally and figuratively. The Heat’s movements and rotations look so mechanical that it appears almost automated. Whenever a shot goes up, it is contested. Whenever a driving lane appears to open up, it is closed. Whenever help is needed, it is provided.
All in all, the Heat’s defensive efficiency with this lineup is a staggering 73.4 points allowed per 100 possessions. How suffocating is that? The Heat ranked as one of the top defenses in the league, but this unit has allowed nearly 25 points below the Heat’s norm.
Of course, we’ve seen only 22 minutes of this lineup this season, so the little data we have should be handled with care. But watch the tape, and you can’t help but be blown away. The Bulls struggled mightily to get a shot off against the Heat’s Big Five, and when Chicago did, it usually resulted in a clanked jump shot. With the Big Five on the floor, the Bulls shot just 34.5 percent from the field and they coughed up the ball once every five trips down the court.
Again, Dallas is a different offensive monster, but look to see this five on the court down the stretch even if they lack the height of a Tyson Chandler or Brendan Haywood. It’s arguably Miami’s best rebounding unit. James and Bosh are averaging nearly 10 rebounds a piece in the playoffs. Wade, even at 6’4, grabs 7.2 per game and Mike Miller accounted for more boards than Joel Anthony and Erik Dampier during the regular season. And Haslem is just as scrappy as they come. Why focus so much on rebounds? Because rings reward rebounds. That’s exactly what they’re going to have to do if they hope to be the first team to four wins.
5. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade: The same way Miami must game plan for Dirk, Dallas has to do the same for LeBron and D-Wade. We all know their rap sheet by now. Two of the top five players in the league on the same team, two of the best open court finishers in the league, two of the…blah blah blah. What else really needs to be said?
Legacies are on the line here. A series victory proves the entire plan to combine talents was a success and throwing a team together actually can equate to championships, at least one. The line between prosperity and failure is deceptively thin though. For LBJ, winning a title erases the years of detractors saying he wasn’t built for such an achievement. Taking home Finals MVP would go a long way to helping his cause as well. For Wade, it’ll rank as his second trip to the mountaintop placing him in another echelon of winners. There’s so much at stake, and with a lockout threatening a season next year, this is it. There is no other option but to win. Who knows what will be said if they come up one series short?
Avoiding such a scenario is the exact reason they’ll be leaving everything on the court. I hope.
Related — NBA Finals 2011: Miami Heat Vs. Dallas Mavericks Position-by-Position Breakdown [Bleacher Report]