Sunday, May 29, 2011

2011 NBA Finals Preview: Miami Heat vs Dallas Mavercicks

2011 NBA Finals: Dallas Mavericks vs Miami Heat
For the first time in a while I am really intrigued by the NBA Finals this year. Maybe it has something to do with the fact the two teams in the Finals are not named the Boston Celtics or the LA Lakers? Maybe its because one of the teams is lead by a 7-ft German tagged up with a band of cast-offs from other teams? Maybe its because the other team is lead by, arguably, two of the best players in the league right now? Maybe its because of the drama and controversy surrounding how those two stars shattered decades of NBA superstar etiquette, sacrificing their individual legacies to try win championships (or maybe just to play with their BFFs... lets hope some day the truth will come out)?

The Story Lines

There is no shortage of story lines for this series. The biggest one has to be that this is a re-match of the 2006 NBA Finals. In that series, the Mavs, under Dirk Nowitzki, came in as the clear favorites having the second best record in the Western Conference. They won the first two games at home beating the underdog Miami Heat. To their and everyone's surprise, and with the alleged help of refs, the Heat came back to win the next 4 straight games to take the series in six games. Mark Cuban and Mavs fans have been bitter about this ever since. With their early exit against the Golden State Warriors in Round one the next year, their window to win a championship seemed closed. But little did we know that, the addition of retreads from other teams: Shawn Marrion and Tyson Chandler along with a now 38 year old Jason Kidd would put them back in the Finals. Turns out they also get a chance to avenge the injustice (in their minds) of the 2006 Finals against the Heat.

Wade in the 2006 Finals
If that's not juicy enough, the Heat have another superstar other than Wade on their team this time. Everyone knows about the ballyhooed story of Lebron James 'taking his talents' to South Beach last off- season. (Here was my reaction.) And then he, along with Wade and Bosh, rubbed a lot of people around the league (and casual fans) the wrong way by doing this; even before they had their first practice together. Add a couple of PR slip ups by LBJ and his entourage, it all quickly made the Heat America's most hated team. And all of a sudden, the previously beloved James, was the nations No.1 villain. While the few Heat fans and Band-wagoners are rooting for the Heat in this Final, the rest of the country are waiting for this to blow up in Miami's face.

Apart from these main stream story lines, this series could go a long way in defining the legacy of Dirk Nowitzki. A championship ring here for him could vault him from the club of "very good" to the club of "great" NBA players in its storied history. And this time, the window for the Mavs is probably going to close for real, making this series all the more important to him. Another sure fire future Hall of Famer in this series, who does not have a ring yet, Jason Kidd, would love his career to culminate with a championship. Shawn Marion and Peja Stojakovic will feel redeemed if they win, after countless times they were shunned from getting to the finals with their old teams (Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings respectfully). It could also revitalizing the career of Tyson Chandler (a veteran who is just 28 years old).

Match Ups that favor the Mavericks

Dirk "clutch" Nowitzki
While two of this generation's best players, arguably, are on the Heat; based purely on current form, a case could be made that Dirk is probably playing the best of all players involved in this series. Dirk has been literally un-guardable this post season. He is averaging 28.4 points per game (PPG) and 7.5 Rebounds per game (RPG) this post season. Not to mention his near perfect 130 free throws made of 140 attempts (93%). The skinny on this is that the last few games against the OKC Thunder, the refs stopped calling shooting fouls on some of Dirk's shots, when he was being mauled. The Mavs hope this will not continue in the Finals series. In the 2006 series Udonis Haslem was guarding Dirk and did a good job on him with his physical defense and not letting Dirk get good position for his shots. Haslem is still on the Heat and had a great series against the Bulls, but this time, the difference is that Dirk has perfected his step back fade away shot. He can shoot that over anybody... literally anybody in his current form, even if he does not get good position over the person guarding him, especially on the top of the key..

The presence of Tyson Chandler and Brandon Heywood should give the edge under the post for rebounding to the Mavs. Having said that, it should be a concern to the Mavs that they were dominated on the boards by the Thunder. But, the Heat were also out rebounded by a big margin versus the Bulls. Something's got to give here and the edge on paper is clearly with Dallas.

One of the lesser talked match ups for this series is the point guard position. The combination of Kidd and JJ Barea (of the bench) will be a nightmare for the Heat. The Heat always have struggled against smaller, quicker point guards. The quickness of Barea will be a tough assignment for any player on the Heat to guard. Jason Kidd has been lights out on defense. He even made Kevin Duarnt uncomfortable last series, using his quick hands to even get a couple of steals. Look for him to guard Wade towards the end of quarters or in the 4th quarter. If Kidd can guard Wade any close to how he handled Kobe, in the series against the Lakers, it would force a lot of tough shots for Wade, possibly rendering him less efficient than his career playoff numbers indicate.

Talking about defense, coach Rick Carlisle, is one heck of a basketball mind. His experience clearly trumps that of his counterpart on the Heat, Erik Spoelstra. He will make the Mavs shift into zone defense come crunch time. It's the same defense that Tom Thibodeau used with the Celtics against LeBron (when he played for the Cavaliers). Wade is not a fan of playing against the zone either. They basically force the ball out of the ball handlers, forcing other people to take shots. Ball movement will be key in beating the zone. This will force the Heat to make players not known as James or Wade to take shots. If they knock them down, all power to the Heat. But this will clearly test the depth of the Heat.

Another key advantage for the Mavs is their Bench. They have a bunch of veterans that can contribute to a great extent coming of the Bench. Other than above mentioned Peja Stojakovic and JJ Barea, they have Jason Terry too, who can be a difference maker if and when he gets his act going. The Heat are really thin on the Bench.

X-factor: Three-point shooting. This is not necessarily a match up advantage. But if the Mavs, with their array of players capable of knocking them down (Dirk, Stojakovic, Terry and Barea) can get hot from beyond the arc, it will make it almost impossible to beat them.

Match Ups that favor the Heat

The Heat may not have a vast number of match up advantages like the Mavs do, but they have James and Wade. Enough said. The Heat may not be an athletic bunch as a whole, but with the offense mainly running through these two, we can expect the Heat to play a more athletic brand of basketball; definitely more athletic than the aged and seasoned Mavs.

Wade and James are not going to be as un-guardable as Dirk is expected to be, with Dallas having good sized defenders like Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd to take on the 'Big Two'. Still the two will have more than enough to get their share this series. As always they will thrive on fast break opportunities (Nobody...and I mean nobody in the league is better than this tandem in running fast break points. Got to admit... they are fun to watch). They will also get a bunch of "super star" fouls, deservedly so, that will get them to the free throw line frequently.

in the series against the Bulls, the Heat also seemed to find their edge back with their "big" lineup (Wade, Miller, LeBron, Bosh and Haslem). If this lineup can play as effectively as last series for long stretches, they will be a tough match up for any team, with any size.

The "Two and a Half Men"
While I gave the edge to Dallas on defense on point guard and during crunch time (zone defense), the Heat are capable of playing overall better team defense, especially if Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem are on the floor at the same time.

X-Factor: Chris Bosh. While casual fans tend to call Wade, James and Bosh as the "big three", in reality, Bosh is streaky very good player, who is capable of taking over a game on his day, but not as consistently as a "superstar" should or could. But being just the third best player (a distant third) on the team, if he can contribute with a 20+ pints and 10+ rebounds game, the Heat are more likely to win that game.

The Intangibles

The Heat, mainly LeBron, will be driven by their need to validate that "the decision" to form a "super" team in South Beach was to win championships. They will have the 'me against the world' mentality; which more often than not projects to a strong showing by the team with that mentality. Wade will have the added motivation to beat the Mavs again in the Finals to prove to the world that the 2006 Finals was not a fluke (or rigged). It's no surprise that they are the favorites to win the whole thing at this point.

The Mavs have a number of reasons to play hard. The guys from the 2006 finals (lead by Dirk and Jason Terry), will want revenge. As mentioned earlier, veterans like Kidd, Marion and Stojakovic (Dirk and Terry too) will want to play hard to win that elusive championship, especially given that it is highly unlikely they will ever be back to this big stage.

More than anything, this Mavericks team of cast-off veterans, play with a lot of heart and seem to have the makings of a team of destiny. Lot of NBA "Gurus" picked them to lose to the Blazers in round one (including yours truly). They overcame a monster comeback by the Brandon Roy in Game 4 of round one to close out the series the next game. The 'old' Mavs team of the mid 2000's would have crumbled after such a game. But not these guys, it kind of turned around their playoffs in the opposite direction. Since then they have lost just one game the entire playoffs (to the Thunder after sweeping the defending Champions Lakers in round two). In the series against the Thunder, they were down by a bunch of points in the 4th quarter of almost every game. But had the heart and wherewithal, along with the experience to force the young thunder team to crumble under pressure. Also, they have the most "clutch" player in the league of the last few years in Dirk.

The Pick

While, it is ever so tempting to pick the team with two legit super stars that can dominate any team when they are ON, I am wary about picking against the team (the Mavs) that seems to have Destiny on their side. It is imperative for a team in the playoffs to have luck on their side to come out on the winning side. Especially of late, we have seen how teams, even in other sports, have ridden good fortune to championships. This factor is engraved in my head because my teams have been part of couple of those runs: the SF Giants and the Green Bay Packers.

But whatever the outcome, this has all the makings of a fascinating back and forth series. Can't wait!

Prediction: Dallas Mavericks win it in six games

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