Miami Versus Dallas PreviewNBA Finals
Miami (58-24) vs. Dallas (57-25)
Season series: Dallas, 2-0
Dallas can win if…the Mavericks minimize their turnovers--particularly live ball turnovers that can be converted into transition scores by the Heat--take quality shots and shoot a very high percentage. Dirk Nowitzki must continue to play at an MVP level but he must also receive timely scoring help from Jason Terry and the other Dallas long range snipers who shot down Dallas' first three postseason foes. The Mavericks must build the proverbial wall defensively in the half court set, forcing LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to shoot contested two point jump shots.
Miami will win because…LeBron James is showing no signs that he plans to quit during this year's playoffs. It really is just that simple; James has been the best regular season player in the NBA since 2009 and he has been a very good playoff performer overall but during last year's playoffs he quit in the biggest game of the postseason as his Cleveland Cavaliers were poised to take a 3-2 lead versus the Boston Celtics. I don't know why James quit but I know what I witnessed firsthand--and I know that there is absolutely no indication that James has any intention of quitting now. James is leading the Heat in minutes, scoring and assists during the 2011 playoffs and he is second on the team in rebounding (trailing Chris Bosh by just one total rebound in 15 postseason games). James has repeatedly hit big shots to close out tight games and his suffocating defense made 2011 regular season MVP Derrick Rose completely disappear down the stretch in games four and five of the Eastern Conference Finals, an effort that James punctuated by blocking Rose's three pointer to snuff out Chicago's last attempt to tie the score at the end of game five.
James left Cleveland because he supposedly carried an impossible burden for the Cavs but the reality is that MVP level stars who lead their teams to championships must perform at a high level even when their teams are talented (like this year's Heat) and/or deep (like the 2009 and 2010 Cavs teams that each posted the best regular season record in the league); think about the statistics posted by legends like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant as those all-time greats led their teams to at least three championships apiece in the past four decades. James averaged 44.0 mpg, 26.0 ppg, 8.9 rpg and 5.5 apg in the first three rounds of the 2011 playoffs, so "taking his talents to South Beach" has hardly entailed going on vacation and riding the coattails of Wade or anyone else; James is carrying a heavy load for the Heat, just like Kobe Bryant carried a heavy load in the 2008-2010 playoffs when Bryant led the Lakers to three straight Finals appearances and back to back titles. The difference between James in Miami and James in Cleveland is that now James is embracing the idea of doing whatever he has to to do for his team to win as opposed to pouting about supposedly not receiving enough help.
Dwyane Wade has been up and down during the playoffs but even when he has a bad overall game he is still quite capable of making some key plays at either end of the court. Wade is not the best player on the Heat nor is he the team's closer but he is easily better than the second option on any other NBA team--and third option Chris Bosh would be a great second option (and a good first option) for most NBA teams. During much of the regular season, the Heat ran what I colorfully described as a "clown car" offense that consisted of either James or Wade dribbling the ball in isolation while the other Heat players wandered around aimlessly like clowns piling out of a car at the circus; this relegated James or Wade to a spot shooting role for which neither player is well suited and it reduced Bosh from a versatile perennial All-Star to a glorified Horace Grant clone living off of weak side scraps. The Heat's half court offense is still very much a work in progress but the Heat are lethal in the transition game because no team can match their athletic ability, enabling James and Wade to eschew their erratic midrange games in favor of thunderous finishes at the hoop (and/or trips to the free throw line).
Other things to consider: Dirk Nowitzki has supposedly reached a new level and/or reshaped his legacy during this year's playoffs but that is a bunch of media hype. It is certainly true that Nowitzki has played brilliantly during the 2011 playoffs but that is nothing new; Nowitzki long ago established himself as one of the great postseason performers in NBA/ABA history--he is one of just four players with career playoff averages of more than 25 ppg and more than 10 rpg, joining an elite club with Hall of Famers Elgin Baylor, Bob Pettit and Hakeem Olajuwon. During last year's playoffs, Nowitzki shot higher from the field, three point range and the free throw line than he has so far in the 2011 postseason but his teammates did not perform as well as they have this year and the Mavs were bounced in the first round. Nowitzki has always been great but during this year's playoffs he has received more help than usual from his supporting cast. Nowitzki was clearly the best player in the Western Conference playoffs but he is not better than LeBron James; James can do more things well than Nowitzki can, not the least of which being that James could potentially guard Nowitzki in the final minutes of a close game while there is no way that Nowitzki could guard James.
The Heat were supposed to win 70-plus games this season and then cruise to multiple championships. I said that they would win around 60 games and be a viable contender that would ultimately fall to Boston or Orlando; I was right about the Heat's regular season status but I did not foresee that the Celtics and Magic would effectively self destruct (via trades that backfired) nor did I think that Chicago would emerge as "Boston light" (the Bulls are a tough, defensive minded team in the Boston mold, but a squad that lacks the offensive punch provided by the Celtics' multiple All-Stars). Even when I criticized the Heat--including the article that referred to the "clown car" offense--I also acknowledged the very real possibility that the Heat could figure things out, make it to the Finals and possibly win the whole thing. That seems to be exactly what is happening: the Heat's defense is stifling, they are finally utilizing Bosh offensively and they have yet to run into a team that is disciplined enough to force the Heat to score consistently in the half court set.
After the Heat eliminated the Bulls in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals, Chicago center Joakim Noah offered this very apt description of the Heat: "They're Hollywood as hell but they are still very good, so you have to give credit where credit is due." The Heat prance and preen and strut too much for my taste but they also play ferocious defense and they relentlessly attack the hoop in the transition game--and those latter two characteristics are why they will emerge as the 2011 NBA champions.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:16 AM