It’s not the epic Lakers-Heat matchup many predicted back in October, but the 2011 NBA Finals still figures to be immensely intriguing. Of course we have the rematch from five years ago, a series in which Dallas seemed poised to take a commanding 3-0 lead before granting the Heat a small window of opportunity in Game 3. Dwyane Wade and the refs did the rest, propelling Miami to four straight wins and its first NBA championship. Now in their 31st year of existence, the Mavericks will look to claim their first title and thwart the beginnings of a potential dynasty in South Beach.
One of the storylines I’ll be following with great interest is the showdown between LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki—who have been the two best players in the NBA since the playoffs began. James’ greatness has been apparent for several years, but now, with other reliable scoring options for teammates, James has been able to embrace the role many saw him filling in Miami, that of the consummate creator. LeBron has deployed his many tools—speed, strength, passing—to ensure that once the ball leaves his hands, the Heat have the best chance at scoring. That could mean a pass to Chris Bosh for an 18-footer, or it could mean two quick steps and a drive to the rim. His decision-making has been fantastic (he’s averaging just 2.8 turnovers per game in the playoffs, compared to a career rate of 3.3 per game), and he’s been incredible at the end of games. Just take a look at what he did in the Chicago series. In Game 2, with the score tied with five minutes to go, James tallied three rebounds and a steal over the final five minutes while personally out-scoring Chicago 9-2 on the way to an 85-75 victory. With Miami up four with 29 seconds left in overtime of Game 4, James hit a dagger to put Miami up six and seal the game. Two nights later, with the Heat down three and 1:01 to play in Game 5, James hit a huge three-pointer to tie the game at 79. James stole the ball on the ensuing possession and hit another jumper with 29 seconds left to put Miami up two before blocking Derrick Rose’s potential game-tyer as time expired. And to top it all off, James is playing merciless defense. League MVP Rose was 1-for-15 (1-for-15!) when guarded by James in Games 4 and 5. James leads the playoffs in Defensive Win Shares, and is fourth in defensive rating, behind only Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, and Joakim Noah—all three of whom play in the paint and serve as the anchors of their respective defenses.
James’ stellar rival on the Heat, Dirk Nowitzki, has not been the all-around force that James has been for Miami. His defense is merely average and he can’t pass as well as James, but can do one thing better than anyone in the league right now: score. His 28 PPG ranks second in the playoffs, even though his 52% FG% ranks way ahead of anyone else in the top 10 outside of Dwight Howard. Dirk’s shooting a ridiculous 52% on threes, and has one unblockable shot (the fadeaway off of one leg) that is money. His 48-point, 12-for-15 FG, 24-for-24 FT performance in Game 1 of the Western Finals was one of the greatest playoff outings of all time, and he hasn’t missed more than one free throw in a game since the first round, despite ranking third in the league with 140 attempts in the playoffs. OKC tried throwing a bunch of different guys at him, but nothing worked. I think Miami may have slightly more success on him simply because there a much better defensive team. But I don’t see Bosh (who will likely start on Dirk) slowing him down; Udonis Haslem has a better chance to do that, though I don’t see why the Heat wouldn’t put LeBron (their best defender on Dirk). Sure, Dirk could shoot over him, but LeBron’s hyper-athleticism and ball pressure would do more to stop Nowitzki than Bosh or Haslem. If Dirk destroys the other two, Erik Spoelstra will likely switch things up, but in my mind, a head coach should put his best defender on the opponent’s best offensive player unless the matchup makes no sense. While I think even James will struggle to contain Dirk (there’s just no good way to play him—he handles so well and can drive, yet he kills you from mid-range or outside), he’s the Heat’s best bet in the long run. With Dirk at the helm, don’t look for Dallas’ crunch-time offense to stall as Chicago’s did. It became obvious that Rose was the only threat to score, and Miami played him accordingly. But while Nowitzki is clearly the Mavs’ top scoring threat, Jason Terry, JJ Barea, and even Jason Kidd have all hit big shots in these playoffs. If Miami leaves one of those guys open, Dallas will make them pay.
Another reason for the neutral fan to be excited about this series (though I think that most traditionally-neutral fans will have a vested interest one way or the other) is the propensity for comebacks displayed by both teams in the Conference Finals. Miami trailed by 12 with 3:14 to go in Game 5 but came back to dispatch the Bulls. Suddenly Miami, a team that struggled mightily to close out games in the regular season, have turned the tables on the opposition in the playoffs. No team has done a better job erasing deficits; for the Mavs to win the series, they can’t let off the gas in the fourth quarter. An eight-point lead has to turn into a twelve-point lead, because Miami is like that desperate guy looking to score the hot girl in the bar; they won’t go away unless you make it absolutely clear they have no shot. Working in the Mavs’ favor, though, is the fact that they have some comeback experience of their own this postseason. In Game 4 against OKC, Dallas looked sunk after Kevin Durant hit a three with 5:06 to go to put the Thunder up 15. Yet the Mavs battled back to force overtime and won (on the road, no less) to seize a commanding 3-1 series lead. So don’t go to bed if some team’s up 10 with five minutes to go, or else you might just miss the best game of the series.
So what are the biggest questions in this series? Glad you asked. Let’s look at them, one at a time.
Will Dallas’ aging offensive stars find success against the Heat’s pressuring defense?
Yes, to a degree. Dallas obviously won’t score as much as they did against the Thunder, but they have more options offensively than the Bulls, who basically put the ball in Derrick Rose’s hands and said "go." Peja Stojakovic and Jason Terry can flat-out shoot, and JJ Barea is a nightmare to defend. The Mavs will have to take care with their passes though, because Miami does a great job filling lanes and picking balls off. Terry, in particular, needs to continue to come up big for Dallas, as he did the last time these two teams met in the Finals (including a 32-point, 13-for-18 night in the Mavs’ Game 1 win).
Who’s stopping LeBron and Wade when they have the ball?
I think it’s a bad sign for Dallas that I don’t know the answer to this question. Shawn Marion should do an adequate job on James, but he’s giving up an inch and 20-30 lbs in that matchup. But the real issue is with Wade. Jason Terry isn’t a bad defender, but at 33, I’m wondering if he’s going to be able to guard Wade on defense and still run around screens to get open for a jumper on offense. At least Marion isn’t a key part of the Mavs’ offense; he can afford to get tired. This is the main question teams asked themselves at the beginning of the season, and the fact that we still don’t have a good answer is the main reason Miami is still alive in these playoffs.
How effective will JJ Barea be?
Mario Chalmers will likely draw this assignment while he’s on the floor, and how well he does on the streaky Puerto Rican will probably determine the outcome of at least one game (though I could see the Heat putting Wade on him if the Mavs go with their two-PG set). Barea is definitely capable of heating up and carrying the Mavs’ offense for short bursts, and a hot fourth quarter from him could swing a game in these Finals. The key for Chalmers will be to step behind Dallas’ screens or for Miami to switch onto him quickly if Chalmers gets tied up. He killed the Lakers in Game 4 and the Thunder in Game 1 by driving uncontested off screens to the rim. Put a defender in his way, and suddenly any shots released from his six-foot frame become a lot more blockable.
Who are the x-factors for each team?
For the Mavs, I think it is a combination of Barea and Peja Stojakovic. Dallas already has a bunch of offensive threats, but we pretty much know what the starters + Terry are capable of right now. But if you throw in another guy Miami has to account for? There will be a mismatch somewhere on the floor, and Dallas will find it. I don’t really see an x-factor for the Heat. At this point, it’s clear that the Heat will go as far as their superstars will take them, and if their top three combine for 80 or more points a game, they’re going to be hard to beat. I suppose if I had to pick, I’d choose Erik Spoelstra. He’s not a player, but it’s been a whirlwind last 10 months for this guy, and now he’s coaching on the biggest stage of his career. He’s performed admirably so far, but it will be interesting to see what he does should Miami fall behind in this series.
Is the center matchup relevant?
In all likelihood, no. Tyson Chandler can score a bit (he averaged 10 PPG in the regular season), but that’s dropped to 7 PPG and the Mavs have no reason to start going to him now. The Heat usually avoid getting Joel Anthony the ball in the post, so Chandler’s biggest role on defense will be as a help defender when the Heat’s stars drive to the rim. Anthony will play essentially the same role for Miami, though Dallas does not rely on penetration as much as Miami. You’ll mostly want to pay attention to these guys when they’re stationed under the rim, getting ready to block a shot or snag a rebound, not when they’re guarding one another.
What movie character best parallels LeBron James?
Okay, this isn’t one of the biggest questions of the series, but I happened to be watching Star Wars Episode II last weekend and I was profoundly struck by the revelation that LeBron James=Anakin Skywalker. After performing a quick Google search, I found that I was not the first person to make this connection (the most in-depth analysis came from this article), but please allow me a brief sidetrack in listing the relevant details.
-Neither LeBron nor Anakin had a strong father figure. Anakin was conceived by immaculate conception, while LeBron’s father abandoned him, leaving his mother, Gloria, to raise him on her own.
-Both showed tremendous talent at a young age and were heralded as the Chosen One (LeBron even has a tattoo that says so on his back); LeBron as the one to finally deliver a championship to Cleveland, Anakin as the one to bring balance to the force and destroy the Sith.
-Both thrived with their original teams (Cavaliers and Jedi) leading them to great victories (2007 Eastern Conference Finals, Clone Wars), but each were seduced into joining the Dark Side. Anakin was lured by Palpatine’s promises that he could prevent Padme’s death; LeBron was lured by Dwyane Wade’s promises of success in Miami. Neither expected their switch to go over so badly—Padme ends up dying because Anakin broke her heart, and the fans of the 29 other NBA teams now detest James and the Heat. Neither was strong enough to survive the ups-and-downs of the good side, instead allowing emotions and the chance at quick success to cloud their vision. Jedi padawans can only become Knights after completing the trials; the same goes for becoming an NBA champion. By bypassing these steps, LeBron and Anakin cemented their decisions to join the Dark Side.
From there, Anakin went on to become a great Sith and rule the galaxy—yet he was always in the shadow of the emperor (Wade) and could never really claim the galaxy for his own. It was only once he teamed up with his replacement and heir-apparent (Luke) that he could finally conquer the emperor and restore balance to the force. So, in keeping with the film, here’s hoping that LeBron teams up with his heir-apparent (Kyrie Irving?) and overthrows Wade and the Heat, finally restoring balance to the city of Cleveland.
Who will win the series?
I went with Chicago in the last round out of a sense of loyalty to the picks I made at the start of the playoffs, as well as a sense of desperation. The bad guys won’t really win, will they? They can’t win—that’s not allowed to happen. Unfortunately, this isn’t some science-fiction movie; it’s the NBA playoffs, and in the NBA playoffs, the best team wins. And that’s Miami. Dirk is playing out of his mind and will no doubt have a great series. But LeBron is playing very close to Nowitzki’s level (and he plays defense!) and Wade ripped through a younger (though different) Mavs team five years ago for the title. Miami’s main flaw in the regular season, the ability to close out games, has disappeared in the playoffs, and they’ve yet to lose on their home floor (guess who has home-court advantage). Dirk deserves this title, but barring a key injury, he’s going to go home empty-handed once again. Heat in 5. [Editor's Note: I have the Heat in 6.]