If you were to ask me in April for the worse possible NBA Finals, without hesitation I would have responded; Mavs. Heat. Sure enough, here we are. Shoot me now.
To be fair, both Dallas and Miami deserve to be the last two standing. Although I feel no love for either team, I expect a fantastic series. After all, it’s not often the two best players in the postseason meet with the title on the line. Hopefully, we’re in for a long, tightly contested series… at least until the referees take over as they did in 2006.
I’ll start by offering my explanation for disliking both teams. As you may know, I’ve always had a soft place in my heart for the San Antonio Spurs. San Antonio and Dallas have been vicious rivals for the better part of a decade. Seeing Mark Cuban happy about his basketball team brings me great pain. I’ve also never been a fan of Jason Terry, JJ Barea gives me the creeps, and Dallas is also where the Cowboys play. As for Dirk Nowitzki, I like him more now than I ever did before, mostly because I respect his undeniable talent. Still, seeing Cuban, Dirk, and the rest of the yuppies in Big D celebrate a title would ruin what has been a wonderful NBA season. But even that wouldn’t be as awful as the Heat winning.
I despise Miami. Everything about the Heat is wrong; the narcissism, the fake, fair-weather fans, the self pity. Even their endless showboating makes me wish I hated the NBA. I haven’t decided if the Heat is/are (seriously, that’s annoying), really this good or simply the product of the dominos falling at the perfect time. (Boston trading Perkins and battling devastating injuries, Orlando’s midseason garage sale, Chicago’s inexperience, the Sixers needing two superstars. Ok, that last one was a joke.) Regardless, Miami is here and they have the best player playing the best basketball at the most important time. Kudos to them.
So that’s how I feel. It’s not rational. It’s not justified, and it’s hardly educated. But I’m a fan. I can choose to be as ignorant as I want. Now let’s assess each team’s advantages. We’ll start with the underdog.
The Heat has the superstar trio but little else. The Mavericks have a strong core that goes at least eight players deep. I know what you’re thinking; Isn’t that what we all thought about the Celtics and Bulls? Yes, but take another look. Boston had no depth. Delonte West and Big Baby Davis were Boston’s bench. Big Baby went M.I.A. in MIA, so really, West was it for Boston. Add the nagging injuries of the O’Neal’s and Rondo’s horrific dislocation to the lack of depth, and it’s clear why Boston went out without much fight.
The Bulls, on the other hand, had plenty of depth but lacked experience. Taj Gibson disappeared after Game 1, Kurt Thomas was left stranded on the bench until it was too late. Kyle Korver was horribly off the entire series and Carlos Boozer proved you can consistently disappear in big moments throughout your NBA career and still be considered a star. Let’s review; Boston wasn’t deep, the Bulls lacked experience, and Carlos Boozer stinks.
Conversely, the Mavericks have proven commodities at every position. I’ve never seen Jason Kidd overwhelmed on the court. Jason Terry still rises to the moment. Maybe not as often, but he still does it. Shawn Marion is either on an illegal substance or rededicated himself in Dallas. JJ Barea has “little man’s syndrome,” – regardless of the stage and opponent, he thinks he’s unstoppable, and I must say, he’s been right more often than not. I could go on and on. You get the point.
Advantage: Interior toughness.
Make sure to set your DVRs because we may see Brendan Haywood’s most significant (and arguably first) contribution of his NBA career. Haywood, along with Tyson Chandler, gives Dallas the physical presence and toughness to defend the rim and keep LeBron James and Dwyane Wade from easy buckets. Neither Boston nor Chicago could deter either player from attacking the rim. Boston was too old and small without Perkins. The Bulls were too soft with Joakim Noah on the bench and Boozer cowering in the corner. Dallas won’t have that problem. Chandler is an elite defender and athletic shot blocker. I’m also pretty sure Haywood believes he’s Bill Russell.
Don’t get me wrong, James and Wade will still get to the rim, but those points won’t come easy. By Games 3 and 4, they’ll certainly think twice before darting into the lane.
Also, DeShawn Stephenson is the league’s new Ron Artest. We just don’t know it yet. He’ll clothesline either James or Wade at some point. Maybe a head butt or drop-kick, too.
Advantage: Postgame “smooth.”
Seriously, is there another player in all of sports that looks as smooth as Dirk at the postgame table? In case you’ve never seen him in action, Nowitzki casually sits down for his post game press conference, grabs the microphone from its stand and leans back in his chair, and answers questions like he’s sitting on his couch at home. ESPN’s Marc Stein touched on this in the opening of his column today. Anyway, does this translate to anything tangible on the court? No. But it’s still awesome.
If there’s anything we learned in the Conference Finals, it’s that young coaches don’t win playoff games. In fact, they lose them. Scotty Brooks and Tom Thibodeau were as flustered and discombobulated as their young superstars. Erik Spoelstra didn’t get exposed because Thibodeau was even greener than him. Now, Spoelstra must match wits with Rick Carlisle. Carlisle is one of the NBA’s most respected, accomplished, and underrated coaches. He won’t panic. He’ll make adjustments. And you can be sure he won’t be outcoached by Pat Riley’s lackey. Oops. A little bias slipped in there. Sorry.
Advantage: Best Player. Best Closer.
As wonderfully as Dirk has played throughout the 2011 postseason, LeBron has been better. More importantly, LeBron has been lights out in the 4th quarter. Unlike his early years, LeBron doesn’t push to control the game right from the tip. He allows his teammates to help carry the load. If someone else is feeling it, James becomes a facilitator, making sure the ball goes through the hot hand. Then, as the game’s most crucial moments present themselves, LeBron steps up. It’s been an amazing display. The cold-blooded threes to finish off the Celtics in Games 4 and 5 were, dare I say, Jordan-esque. By the close of the Chicago series, I expected James to hit any shot he took late in the 4th quarter. Love him or hate him, LeBron made the leap over the past month from superstar to winner. He’s also clearly established himself as Miami’s alpha dog along the way.
Essentially, unless you’re winning by 12 points or more with less than two minutes remaining, you’re going to lose. Dirk has been amazing. LeBron has been unstoppable.
In nearly every game of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bulls suddenly became offensively challenged in the 4th quarter. While I chalk some of this up to squeezing grapes between butt cheeks, Miami’s defense still deserves the bulk of the credit. The Heat smothered Derrick Rose and dared the rest of the Bulls to hit open shots and make plays. I expect Miami to take the same approach with Nowitzki.
Aside from Dwight Howard, I don’t think there’s a player in the NBA that LeBron can’t lock down. Dirk could be the other exception if his fall-away, rainbow, “you can try, but you won’t stop it” signature shot is falling. We’ll see. Either way, winning a close game in the NBA Finals boils down to who get can stops. The Heat has proven they can get stops.
What bothers me most about the Miami Heat is that everything seems staged and premeditated. I’m not talking about the games and I’m certainly not accusing the NBA of fixing the playoffs. I’m referring to Miami’s reactions and demeanor in certain moments, mainly, LeBron James’ and Dwyane Wade’s. Following Chicago’s loss in the Eastern Conference Finals, Joakim Noah called Miami, “Hollywood as Hell.” Unfortunately for the Bulls, this was Noah’s greatest contribution to the series. But he was totally right, nonetheless.
On a number of occasions, I’ve watched as the Heat prepares to leave the arena tunnel for the court. Every time, LeBron and Wade arrange themselves at the back of the line. They HAVE to be last. Watch for yourself, it never fails. You’d expect this out of a high school jock, but a professional athlete? Last I checked, winning was all that mattered, not who looks the coolest leaving the locker room.
Charles Barkley was dead on when he announced on TNT’s broadcast that James and Wade think they’re a whole lot more important than they really are. Like the Chuckster, 95% of us like to watch both of them play basketball. And that’s it. Save the charades and staged performances for your Moms.
Although Nowitzki and Barea will give Miami headaches, the Mavericks don’t match up well with LeBron or Wade. Sure, Stephenson is a solid defender, but he’s a little overrated. He effectively bullied Kevin Durant and could stay in front of an aging Kobe Bryant, but Wade is much stronger than Durant and quicker than Kobe. Likewise, LeBron is bigger, faster, stronger, and more explosive than anyone on Dallas’ roster (and the rest of the NBA for that matter). When in his prime, Shawn Marion may have been sufficient in containing LeBron, but those days are gone.
As I mentioned earlier, Dallas’ best defensive players are in the paint. However, Miami’s paint players have little offensive impact for the Heat. Even Chris Bosh prefers to play outside the paint, so the Mavericks’ advantage isn’t going to significantly disrupt Miami’s offense. As a result, and not to discredit Dallas’ defensive improvement, I think the Mavs will need to win this title on the offensive end.
While I fear LeBron’s time may have finally come, I refuse to pick Miami. If the Heat wins, everything I’ve believed about basketball collapses. Mavericks in six.