Monday, May 30, 2011

2011 NBA FInals Preview - 2006, the sequel!

In 2004 nobody gave the Detroit Pistons a chance to beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the finals. The Lakers had two all-time greats still in their primes, and they had won three of the last four titles; Detroit simply didn’t have enough talent on paper and would never be able to score enough points to keep up. You just don’t win a series when the other team has the two best players, right? Well normally you can’t. But in retrospect we ignored some obvious advantages – namely that Detroit had a transcendent defense that made more of an impact than any one player on the Lakers, that their bench and their team was significantly deeper and more versatile, that the coaching matchup was beyond unfair (Phil Jackson is an all-time great but he was on total vacation check for this series), and above all Detroit, a team full of castoffs and misfits, had an enormous chip on its shoulder that reared its head on every loose ball, every rebound, and every fourth quarter.

In 2011 nobody is giving Dallas a chance to beat Miami, not when Miami has the two best players in the league in their primes, not when Dallas simply lacks the talent to contain Miami. But are we ignoring a lot of smaller advantages that can allow Dallas to steal the series? Like their ridiculously efficient, borderline unstoppable offense? Like their ridiculous depth and versatility? Like their experience and vast array of hungry, rabid veterans who have been turned back on the biggest stages so many times and are desperate for redemption? Like their 7-foot assassin who transcends matchups and lifts his team to greater heights not quantified by the sum of their parts?

To me this will be an extremely close, hard-fought, exquisitely well-played series; and given all the subplots, storylines, and notoriety of the stars involved this could be a historically entertaining clash and the perfect way to close out this era of hoops before the lockout. With that here are my thoughts on what will decide the series.

Dallas on offense: My first instinct was that Dallas’s offense would falter against Miami’s athleticism. Miami has so much speed on the perimeter and rotates so aggressively that they will close on Dallas’s shooters and stymie their biggest weapon. Dallas doesn’t have slashers who are great at attacking off the dribble when defenders close out hard, so you would think they would struggle against a defense that’s even better and more athletic than Seattle.

Not so fast, however. First of all, Dallas has such good ball movement, spacing, passing, and hoops IQ on offense that if anyone can make Miami’s defensive rotations work against Miami, it’s Dallas. There have been times this year when disciplined teams like San Antonio and Boston have been able to take advantage of Miami’s aggressiveness on its rotations by swinging the ball around and then sending cutters to the open spots against, thus making Miami’s constant motion and rotation on defense work against them. Nobody has been able to consistently solve Miami’s defense in the playoffs, but if any team is well-suited to pick apart Miami’s defensive schemes then to me it’s this Dallas team.

Second, Dirk is playing at such a high level that I think he can make their offense go against a defense as good as Miami. He commands so much attention (I like Bosh but Dirk has torched the likes of Aldridge, Odom, Gasol, Ibaka, Collison, and everyone in between; there’s no way Miami is single-covering Dirk) that his presence will create space for Dallas’s shooters. Derrick Rose could be schemed against by making a few adjustments to the pick and roll defense that didn’t compromise the integrity of the overall defense. Guarding Dirk is a completely different animal – he’s a 7-foot shooter that Dallas can go to at any time, a guy who can serve as a release valve from any point on the floor; you can’t single cover Dirk, and because he can score on from so many different spots there’s no way they can guard him effectively without toning back some of the aggressive rotations – they’ll have to be more disciplined against him. Miami is the best defense Dallas has faced in the playoffs, and while they will come down from their blistering pace I still think they’ll be able to score enough points to win.

A couple of smaller notes: first, this is by far the smallest frontline that Tyson Chandler has gone up against, so he might be able to turn the series if he can absolutely destroy Miami on the offensive glass. Kevin Garnett and Joakim Noah couldn’t do it but Chandler is a better rebounder than either of them, so we’ll see if he can punish Miami on the boards. Second, there were a lot of times in the western conference finals when Seattle was running after pretty much every long rebound; they were simply so much faster and more explosive than Dallas and made them look like the old, slow team that they are in the open court; Miami won’t force too many turnovers against a smart, veteran team that executes well and values the ball, but I think LeBron and Wade could convert a lot of missed 3-pointers into fast break points the way Westbrook and Harden did.

Miami on Offense: Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion were excellent defensively in doing what they could to slow down Westbrook and Durant and not let them go ballistic; However LeBron and Wade are a much tougher challenge; LeBron won’t let Marion push him off his spots and catch the ball 30 feet from the rim; he won’t start floating on the perimeter and stop going to the rim if the game isn’t going his way; he’s not going to let smaller defenders guard him without taking them to the post; he’s not going to allow the team to take terrible shot after terrible shot to without giving him the ball at the end of games. Conversely Wade isn’t going to freeze out LeBron and shoot his team out of games like Westbrook; Durant and Westbrook were a year away from conquering a team like Dallas, but that’s not the case with Miami’s guys.

Chris Bosh has been nothing short of fantastic in the playoffs, dominating his matchups with Carlos Boozer and Kevin Garnett; his midrange shooting, finishing at the rim off cuts, dives, and screen and rolls, and his ability to post up smaller guys while driving on conventional big men has been on full force over the last two rounds. He needs to continue being aggressive by spacing the floor for Miami’s slashers, getting Tyson Chandler in foul trouble, and making Dirk expend energy on defense should the two ever be matched up. I think Chandler and Dirk can handle him a lot better than Boozer and Noah did, but if Bosh puts up the same production against Dallas that he did against Chicago then we can probably start fitting the rings for the Heatles.

Dallas runs the zone better than anybody in the league and will undoubtedly utilize it a lot in this series, but they probably can’t use it for extended stretches since LeBron and Wade will figure out ways to attack it; this will also be a big factor, because not only can it help them contain dribble penetration but it will force Miami to give more time to guys like Bibby over Chalmers and compromise their defense; if Miami’s shooters make shots then that takes away one of Dallas’s big advantages – this is why they brought in Mike Miller, for situations like these, now will he deliver?

The Benches: Dallas has had the deepest and most versatile team all year. They can bring all types of players off the bench and they can play big or small whenever they need. Jason Terry and J.J. Barea have been about as good as it gets these playoffs in terms of coming off the bench to inject energy and absolutely light it up; Haywood has played extremely well in relief of Chandler and will be huge against a Miami team that penetrates so easily and forces your big men to protect the rim and be good help defenders. Rick Carlisle can go to either Brewer or Peja depending on whether he needs shooting or defense. Obviously Dallas has a big edge over Miami in that department, yet not enough for that to be the deciding factor. Remember, everyone said that Boston and Chicago would destroy Miami because their benches were so superior and Miami was a 3-man team, but when Haslem and Miller are healthy Miami’s bench isn’t laughable anymore. I refused to fall into the trap of picking Boston or Chicago based solely off the benches, and although Dallas has the best bench in the league I’m not going to fall into that trap again – Dallas has an advantage here, but not a big enough one to win the series based just on this factor.

Coaching: Eric Spoelstra has gotten better as the season went along (especially in terms of opening up the offense and taking advantage of his offensive talent). He’s a good defensive coach that could use some more creativity on offense (Jeff van Gundy-lite, if you will), but I can’t complain with the job he’s done so far. That being said, no coach has been better this spring than Rick Carlisle. He’s made all the proper adjustments, handled his rotations perfectly, and gotten his team to execute down the stretch better than any coach in the playoffs. He’ll play the right guys for all the different game situations against Miami, and if there’s any coach can draw up offensive schemes to pick apart Miami’s defense then its Carlisle.

The Crowds: this is a bigger mismatch than anything else in the series. Dallas has good fans and a crowd that will help them in the games; I can’t say the same for Miami, the ultimate bandwagon town (even more so than Los Angeles). I’m not saying that ALL heat fans are fair-weather – I follow enough people on twitter to know that there are some legit heat fans that were rooting for the team while they were in 45 a year; however I don’t think it’s very debatable that the majority of Miami fans have only been fans since LeBron took his talents to South Beach; they’ll show up late to the games, they’ll pull lame shit like the whiteout, and they’ll be owned by their Dallas counterparts.

Intangibles: One of the reasons I’m so excited for the series is that both of these teams have been by far the best in the playoffs at executing down the stretch. Lebron and Dirk have not only been the best players in the playoffs, they’ve been the most clutch; if there’s any guy who can stare down Wade and LeBron and Wade in crunch time and match buckets with them, it’s Dirk. I can’t wait for some of the fourth quarter duels that are in store.

Early in the season pundits thought they were cracking under the pressure of having the biggest bulls-eye in the league; instead they’ve embraced that role and used it to fuel their dominance. They take pleasure in ripping the hearts out of teams on the road like no one since Jordan and Pippen’s Bulls. Yet despite that I’d still give the intangible advantage to Dallas because of their hunger and the adversity all of these guys have overcome. I know it’s been beaten to death in the lead up to the finals but it’s true: Dallas is composed of a crew of veterans for whom getting so close to the top only to be rebuffed is the collective story of their careers. Dirk has gone through so much failure and disappointment in his career, been kicked in the teeth so many times, been questioned and dismissed so often, and instead of folding he’s held on to become stronger for it. He’s come so far and let so many opportunities fall through his fingers that I can’t see him allow himself to not shine in the finals; as much as Miami’s big 3 have gone through, their hunger can’t compare to Dirk’s; ditto for guys like Jason Terry (Dirk’s running mate through all of Dallas’s recent failures), Jason Kidd (pushed flawed Nyets teams to a pair of finals only to never taste that kind of success again for the next decade), Shawn Marion (such a huge and underrated part of those wildly entertaining Suns teams that were always good never great enough or lucky enough), Deshawn Stevenson (someone who’s Wizards teams were personally rebuffed for three straight years by LeBron’s cavaliers), and Peja Stojakovic (key cog on some excellent Kings teams that couldn’t get over the Lakers or the Refs). Miami wants this to prove the haters wrong; Dallas wants this even more for personal redemption; nevertheless for both of these teams the adversity of the journey will make the victory that much sweeter – Thomas Paine would be proud.

The Bottom Line: On paper Miami should be huge favorites because of their talent and athleticism; I can’t come with a way that Dallas will stop LeBron and Wade; they’ll defend Dallas’s sets, they’ll get out in transition, they’ll attack the rim whenever they want and Dallas will be in trouble. But on paper Dallas never should have beat Portland, they never should have beat Los Angeles, and they never should have beat Seattle. At some point we have to throw out the paper with this team and recognize that they’re simply a well-oiled machine that is better than the sum of its parts and cannot simply be reduced to the individual matchups. So even though all quantitative and tangible evidence points to Miami, I’m picking Dirk play the series of his life, put a team and a city starving for a ring on his atlas-like shoulders, and rise from the ashes of 2006 to exact his revenge on South Florida.

The Pick: Mavericks in seven
Finals MVP: Dirk Nowitzki