With the 2011 NBA Finals set to start tonight, let’s answer some of the pressing questions entering the series.
What’s The Coolest Part Of These NBA Finals?: How about the simple fact that we’ve got the two best teams playing? Is that enough?
It sounds stupid, but think about it: While the Finals are always compelling, doesn’t it sometimes seem like the wrong teams are there? That if one or two plays had gone another way, maybe a different team would be playing for the title? Last year, what if Ron Artest wasn’t in the perfect spot for a put back in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals and the Lakers lose? Would it have Phoenix in the Finals? What if Trevor Ariza hadn’t gotten his steal at the end of Game 1 against Denver the year before? One play in each year could’ve led to totally different results.
Well this year, there are no ifs, ands or buts. Dallas and Miami might not have entered these playoffs as the No. 1 seeds, but have earned their way to the Finals by dispatching everyone in their paths. Each has only lost three games all postseason, and neither went past a Game 5 in either of their last two series’. These two haven’t just been winning. They’ve been dominating.
Who’s Playoff Run Has Been More Impressive: To me, it’s been Dallas.
It’s easy to forget this now, but entering the playoffs, it seemed like just about every expert had the Mavericks losing to Portland. According to ESPN.com, Tim Legler, Chad Ford and Chris Sheridan all had them going down in six. Now understand, I’m not saying that to be critical, since, no one makes more bad picks than I do. But it was the tenor of the mood at the time, and the way people thought: Dallas wasn’t that talented. They weren’t built for the playoffs. They were going to lose.
Also, you know what else has been impressive about this run? Dallas has beaten just about every kind of team you can to get to this point. The Mavericks have beaten a team that’s fast and young (Oklahoma City) and older and experienced (Los Angeles). They’ve beaten one which is perimeter oriented (Oklahoma City) and one that relies on guys in the paint (the Lakers and Portland). They’ve slowed down great guards (Russell Westbrook), wings (Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant) and low post players (Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge). For lack of a better term, they’ve seen and done it all.
And they just kept winning.
Who Had The More Impressive Conference Finals Win: I’d say Miami.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a big believer in the Bulls. It’s like I said last week, to me Chicago seems like they’re one perimeter guy, and one year away from being a real championship threat. And even then, they may need to have Carlos Boozer kidnapped and shipped to a Siberian gulag to make that happen.
With that said, it doesn’t make Miami’s run through Chicago any less impressive though.
For one, Chicago had home court advantage. It’s now obvious that Miami was the better team, but that’s irrelevant to the point. The fact that Miami took two games- including the clincher- on the road still means something.
Also, don’t forget about that whole “toughness,” thing. It’s basically what we heard all season, “Get in Miami’s face, knock them down, hit LeBron, poke Chris Bosh in the chest, whatever. Just get physical with them.” Well that’s exactly what the Bulls did, and to the Heat’s credit they didn’t back down. If anything, it only made them stand taller. You do remember the epic run they made in Game 4 after Boozer’s flagrant foul, don’t you?
Speaking of which, that’s what has impressed me most about Miami: They took the Bulls best shots, and didn’t back down.
Which is why I thought what Miami did last round was more significant.
As impressive as Dallas’ win over Oklahoma City was, it didn’t have the effect. If you watched the Thunder closely- I mean really watched them- you could tell early on in their series with the Mavs, that they were worn down. Worn down from Memphis in the previous round. Worn down from the constant “Why is Russell Westbrook taking all those shots,” chatter. Worn down from running the disastrous offense that Scott Brooks apparently picked up from “NBA Coaching For Dummies.” By the middle of that series Oklahoma City was toast.
But Chicago? They aren’t as talented as the Thunder, but it’s hard to deny that in a few of their losses (Game’s 4 and 5 in particular), they played about as well as they possibly could, and it still wasn’t enough. Miami was just better.
After my mom watched the Heat one night, she casually said to me the next time we spoke, “It seems like they’re toying with people.” Actually, I disagree. The answer is much scarier. Miami can just “turn it on” when they absolutely have to. They’re that good.
What Is Dallas’ Underrated Quality Which Could Help Them In These Finals?: This is a totally random thing, but I’m surprised more people aren’t talking about Dallas’ team passing. Maybe it’s because they’re so experienced, I don’t know. But I don’t ever remember a team with this much passing ability and this much ability for everyone on their roster to find the open man than this Mavs team.
Random side note: You when how when you start playing CYO basketball, one of the first rules the coach teaches you is, “You break the press by passing, not by dribbling?”
Well to me, that’s why Dallas has been so successful these playoffs.
Yes, they’re a bit slower than the competition. No, they’re not as athletic. But they make up for it with the ability to move the ball and to turn an aggressive defense against itself. It’s crazy to think about how many easy dunks Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler have gotten this postseason, and how many wide open three’s Jason Terry has hit. And it’s because of the passing.
So what does it mean for this series?
Well obviously, when it comes to sheer athleticism, this matchup is no contest. It’s like putting Minka Kelly up against Rosie O’Donnell in a bikini contest. Why even bother, right?
Except while Chicago spent all of last series against Miami trying to take them off the dribble (well except Derrick Rose in Game 4 apparently), Dallas won’t do that. They won’t try to create off the dribble or go one-on-one, unless it’s Dirk in the post. That’s just not their game. Instead they’re going to move the ball, and get more easy buckets than anyone-even Boston- has been able to get against Miami this season.
That alone might be enough to steal them a game or two in this series.
What Is Miami’s Underrated Quality Which Could Help Them In These Finals?: I’m going to show some love for the man no is talking about, Big Z, Zydrunas Ilgauskas!
Kidding! Did I fool you there for a sec?
In a seriousness though, how about Erik Spoelstra?
That’s right, the man that heard all the criticisms this year- that he wasn’t big enough for the job, that he wasn’t handling his players right, that his hair was scaring small children- well that guy has freakin’ killed it the last month or so. In the last two rounds he’s out-coached Doc Rivers, and straight up coached the pants off the reigning NBA Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau (Or ‘Thibs, as the kids on the street call him). Yet still, Coach Spo gets no love.
Now I already know what you’re thinking: “Woah, woah, woah. Aaron, chill out. Spo’ ain’t all that. He’s usually got the two best players on the court, and sometimes three. Give me a whistle and tight polyester pants and I could’ve gotten that team to the Finals.” To which I say, first of all, please don’t wear polyester pants. They’re terrifying. And secondly, really?
Because for all talk about just rolling the ball out and letting his team play, I think Spo has been the best “coach” in these playoffs. He hasn’t been afraid to shake things up when they need shaking, and stay out of the way when it’s time for that too. And even though he doesn’t have a ton of moving parts besides the Big Three, he has still made key lineup changes every series (James Jones for big minutes against Boston and less against Chicago. Same with Big Z.) which have helped.
Forget about the talk that Coach Spo isn’t big enough for the moment. He’s living in it right now.
Let’s move on to the players, and ask…
So, Wait A Second, Can We Finally Say This Is LeBron’s Team?: My God. What idiot comes up with these questions? Yes it’s LeBron’s team, fool! (What a dope this guy is, huh?)
Seriously, LeBron has been incredible. As I’ve mentioned several times in this space, after everything that has happened over the last year, I don’t want to like him…but man, I just can’t help myself. It’s too fun not to watch him play basketball.
This postseason has been extra special for a few reasons. For one, I don’t know if it’s a newfound sense of urgency in Miami, or just that’s he’s got more help on offense, but all of a sudden, LeBron’s defense has been outstanding. Incredibly, he is the best perimeter defender in the league.
Just as important is that whole “Learning how to close,” thing. You remember those daggers in Game 5 against Chicago, right? Or the last 10 points against the Celtics, don’t you? LeBron has gone from not being able to close, to the best darn closer in the league. Basically if you can’t appreciate everything LeBron has done at this point, chances are pretty good that you’re either from Cleveland (which is totally understandable), or that you don’t understand basketball. It’s really that simple.
As for the talk about “who’s team,” this is, well personally, I always thought it was kind of a stupid discussion anyway. Not that I know them personally, but I sense that if LeBron or Dwyane Wade were worried it being “their,” team and not someone else’s, they would’ve never signed up to play together. Since day one the stated goal has been winning, and to their credit both LeBron and Wade have backed it up.
But with all that said… There’s no denying this is LeBron’s team.
First of all, that previously mentioned Boston win LeBron was just about as good as it gets. LeBron scored the last 10 points including a pair of 3’s, ending the Celtics season, and maybe the Garnett-Pierce-Allen era as we know it.
Really though, this still goes back to Game 4 against Chicago for me. That was the turning point in the series, and the point that you basically had to say, “These guys have no chance.” And you know what? LeBron played about as well as anyone could on both ends of the floor that night. His defense against Derrick Rose got all the attention, but remember, he also put up 33 points that night too. As for Wade, he scored six points in overtime to pad his stats a bit, but finished with just 15 on the game.
All postseason long, LeBron has gotten the ball down the stretch and made plays.
This is his team.
What About Dirk?: Like I’ve mentioned previously, I’m not an NBA historian, so don’t ask me where Dirk ranks all-time. I have no idea. I also don’t know if he’s better than Larry Bird, so don’t ask that either. Quite frankly, I’m not even sure if he’s the best “Dirk,” in NBA history. My hunch is to say yes, but really I’m not sure. Again, I’m no NBA historian.
What I will say though, is that Dirk’s game does seem to have changed. He’s still unstoppable in the post when single-guarded, and seems more willing to pass out of the double team and find open cutters and shooters than ever before. As I mentioned a few bullet points ago, Dallas is an unbelievable passing team. That most certainly includes Dirk.
But when the game is on the line, Dirk is killing it (As the old saying goes, “Get that man some coffee, because he’s a closer!). All that “passive aggressive, getting his teammates involved” crap? Not so much late in games. He wants the ball, and he finishes. Obviously the best example was in Game 4 against the Thunder, when he made that insane run and scored 12 points in the final five minutes force overtime. He hasn’t been quite that good every game. But even going against Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, there has never been a doubt who was the best player on the court.
Name One Player Who Might Swing This Series For Dallas?: I’m thinking Shawn Marion. Because as crazy as this sounds, as washed up as he’s looked at times, and as much as his hairline is receding, Marion has actually played really well. Especially when he was matched up with Kevin Durant in the last round.
To a degree, the numbers don’t show it; after all, Durant did shoot 43 percent from the field, and score 28 points a game in the series against Dallas. But if you dig deeper, that’s where Marion’s defense starts to show up. Durant shot just 23 percent from three-point range in the series, and shot just 24 for 64 from the field (37 percent) in the last three games. Plus, after a 40 point outburst in Game 1, he didn’t reach 25 the rest of the series. And it was in large part to Marion (As well as DeShawn Stevenson, who helped on Durant, but doesn’t play nearly as much).
If Marion can be half as good against LeBron, that could singlehandedly swing the series.
How About An Important Player For The Heat?: I wouldn’t want to hear this if I were a Heat fan, but how about Chris Bosh?
To his credit, Bosh more than handled his own against Chicago. Of course at the same time, the Mavericks are bigger, stronger and more athletic than the Bulls could ever pretend to be. Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood are both massive, with each standing a legit seven feet. There are no undersized, bearded Carlos Boozer-ish oompa-loompas on the Mavs roster. Well, none in the paint anyway.
The thing too is that not only does Bosh have to be good in this series, more important, he’s got to be tough. It isn’t just about getting points, as much as it is about not letting Chandler control the boards, control the paint and get into his head.
Bosh more than held his own against Chicago. Let’s see what he can do against Dallas.
Why Dallas Can Win This Series: I wrote about this last week, so I won’t get too deep into it here. But I think everyone on this Dallas roster knows this is their last run at a title. And I think the urgency they’ll play with will show accordingly.
Quickly browsing the league, these title runs are only going to get harder. Here’s how the current landscape looks: Miami, Chicago and Oklahoma City aren’t going anywhere. You just know Boston and Los Angeles will re-tool. Memphis is terrifying and plays the Mavericks well. San Antonio is always tough. Who the hell knows what’s going to happen with the Knicks. You obviously can’t worry about anyone but yourself if you’re Dallas, but that doesn’t mean the road back to the Finals will be easy either.
Especially when you start looking at their roster. Everyone talks about Dirk as a veteran, except, well, pretty much this whole team is too. Dirk is 32-years-old. Jason Kidd is 38. Peja Stojakovic is 33. Marion is 33. DeShawn Stevenson is 30. Jason Terry is 33. In other words, just about everyone on this roster other than Chandler and JJ Barea are on their last legs.
As I said last week, there’s no logical reason for anyone (including the Mavs themselves) to think that with the way this team is constructed, they will ever be this healthy, this late in the year again. Dallas doesn’t have a window beyond this year. Their window is now.
Why Miami Will Win This Series: Two words: LeBron James.
The more I think about LeBron, the more I realize how different he is from his Cavaliers days. Remember those goofy dances and handshakes he used to do? Gone. And the self-proclaimed nickname “The King?” Adios. At the very least, LeBron is definitely more mature.
And that’s the thing. Maybe he needed to leave the protective cocoon of Cleveland to reach that level and grow up. Maybe he’s figured out how to use all those boos that were thrown at him all year as a positive. I don’t know. What I do know is that there’s been a different sense of urgency with him right now than ever before.
To put it in a different way, the guy is out of excuses.
In Cleveland, he had plenty: His teammates. Mike Brown. Whatever. And to some degree, you can’t deny they weren’t valid. No one, not even LeBron, can be transcendently great every, single, night. Only that’s exactly was asked for him for the better part of seven years. Quite frankly, that’s why I think his defense has been so good this postseason: Because he hasn’t had to burden such a load on offense.
Either way, this playoff run has seemed different for LeBron.
Again, it’s more urgent. Again, he’s out of excuses. LeBron picked his coach, his team and to a large degree his teammates. Understand that people who have criticized LeBron for years haven’t always been justified, but if Miami doesn’t win the title this year, they will be.
As much as I love Dirk, LeBron will be the best basketball player on the court this series. After all, he is the best basketball player in the world. There’s a reason we used to call him, “The King.”
We will again in a few weeks.
Dallas is going to handle the Heat better than most expect, and I think they will win Game 1. But give me the best player over the course of the series. Give me LeBron.
The Heat will win the 2011 NBA Finals in seven.
(Love the article? Hate it? Disagree with something Aaron said? Let him know by commenting below, or e-mailing him at ATorres00@gmail.com.
Also for his continued take on all things sports, and updates on his articles, podcasts and giveaways, be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook.com/AaronTorresSports or by downloading the Aaron Torres Sports App for FREE for your iPhone or Android Phones)