DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – After five years of anticipation, frustration and international humiliation, the Mavericks have rebounded and reclaimed their position as Western Conference Champions.
But the final step on the course will almost certainly be the toughest to pass through. The Mavericks will be going up against the very franchise that ended their journey in 2006. But like Dallas, Miami has undergone a dramatic facelift.
A History Lesson: Miami, April 2011-May 2011
The first round saw an offensive approach typical of what’s expected from the high-powered Heat. Wade took the most shots, James scored the most points and Bosh put up an impressively efficient performance. Miami didn’t circulate the ball as well as usual, but didn’t need to, depending on isolation plays in which they manhandled a clearly inferior Philadelphia 76ers squad.
Defensively, LeBron imposed his will on the 76ers’ best player, Andre Iguodala. The small forward shot 42 percent from the field for a mere 11 points per game. However, power forward Elton Brand more or less roamed free, leading the team in scoring and sinking 54 percent of his shots.
The Heat are a good defensive team, but depend on great individual play as opposed to positive team defense. When Philadelphia moved the ball well, Miami struggled to defend the basket. But when Iguodala, Brand or Lou Williams tried to break the Heat down off the dribble, they simply played into their hands.
Second Round: In an outcome that unfolded differently than many imagined before the season, the Heat beat the Celtics with physicality. The two teams shot equally well, but Miami dominated in the post, nearly lapping Boston in blocks and far out-rebounding the aging Celtics.
Wade truly shined in this series, taking advantage of Ray Allen and an injured iteration of Rajon Rondo during the last half of the series to the tune of 30 points a game.
One wonders how this series would have panned out if the Celtics boasted a legitimate center, as Boston’s O’Neal/O’Neal/Davis trio came up way short in protecting the rim.
Coach Erik Spoelstra deployed LeBron on all sorts of different targets at the other end of the court. His main opponent was Paul Pierce, but James found himself draped over Kevin Garnett, Jeff Green and even Ray Allen at times.
If the Celtics weren’t quite so creaky this would have been a different series. But Garnett’s not a dominating low-post star anymore, Pierce doesn’t have the same explosive burst and the fact that Rondo even played after seemingly destroying his left elbow bordered on the miraculous.
The third round Heat victory here is most worrisome for Mavs fans, as the Bulls may have matched up with them better than any other team in the league.
The inside presence created by Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, an MVP point guard and a very good defensive small forward were supposed to give Miami fits. Despite this, Chicago was thoroughly bested four straight times after coming away with game one.
Why? For one thing, James ran wild. Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau played Luol Deng nearly 43 minutes a game in an attempt to frustrate Miami’s imported King, but to no avail.
James wasn’t especially efficient, but he was effective, leading his team in points, rebounds and assists. Chris Bosh also had his best series, taking advantage of Boozer and an overtasked Noah, who was trying too hard to guard everyone at once.
Wade looked nothing like the player who torched the Mavs in 2006, though he maintains he’s not injured. If his play in the championship games matches his performance in the Eastern Finals, the Mavericks will have one less bullet to dodge.
Miami’s greatest defensive strength was clear after this series, and it’s one that should have been crystal from the start. During crunch time, James will always guard the opposition’s best player. In this case, it was Derrick Rose, perhaps the quickest player in the league.
Not only was the league MVP hampered, but he was contained, swallowed and spit out a nervous shell of the image conveyed in his new Adidas commercials.
According to the ESPN Stats and Info Department, Rose made 6.3 percent of his shots when defended by James. That’s the kind of awe-inspiring number that should elicit its own article.
Rose also turned the ball over 19 times and was held to only 33 assists, limiting the production of weapons Chicago needed to compete. (Case in point – Boozer: 72 points. Noah: 32.)
The rest of Miami’s defenders were able to simply play one-on-one, taking away perimeter threats like Kyle Korver and Keith Bogans. In the end, Miami recovered quickly from game one’s stumble. Their weaknesses did not disappear; the team’s strengths were too overwhelming for them to matter.
Devising a Strategy
The Heat have clearly risen to another level during this playoff stretch.] First and foremost, rotations are cut down in the tournament. Miami’s three major stars are playing more than they ever did in the regular season, and as those minutes replace subpar players, the difference is huge.
Secondly, they’ve simplified their attack to best make use of their strengths. James acts as point forward, Wade and Bosh spot up for isolation opportunities, the team’s center stands in the post and tries to look busy and a designated jump shooter coasts around the rim, looking for open space. Much like the Triangle offense preached by Phil Jackson, it’s a gameplan that only works with the proper personnel. It’s a difficult scheme to stop, but the Mavericks may have the proper strategies, creativity and players to battle it.
Mavs coach Rick Carlisle has shown throughout his tenure with the team that he has no fear of mixing things up. He’ll use three guards, start the most offensively limited member of his rotation, sit his second center in favor of his third and guard 6’10 superstar Kevin Durant with 6’4 NBA senior citizen Jason Kidd, who will be the oldest NBA player to ever play in an NBA finals game.
That willingness to go off the beaten path will serve Carlisle well against a rigid system like Miami’s. If one strategy doesn’t work, he can scrap it and shoot for another. The Dallas roster boasts versatile defenders like Kidd, Stevenson, Marion and Chandler and they’ll undoubtedly be assigned to different parts of Miami’s attack throughout the series. The Mavericks have shown a willingness to play zone, one way to combat Miami’s isolation-heavy gameplan.
The key to this series will be the fourth quarter. Neither team dominated the meat of the game in their previous series, but they both took four of five by completely taking over against inexperienced squads late. In this battle of The Unstoppable Force vs. The Immovable Object, the winner proves difficult to forecast. According to 82games.com, Dallas ranked as the league’s top “clutch” team in the regular season and Miami checked in at seventh. But the playoffs obviously change things.
Late in games, expect to see a lineup of Kidd-Terry-Marion-Nowitzki-Chandler against Bibby-Wade-James-Bosh-Anthony. Kidd will likely guard Wade, and Terry will shadow Bibby. Marion will get the primary responsibility on James, but he’ll have help from the Mavs’ two bigs if James penetrates.
Chandler and Nowitzki will alternate on Bosh, with the other remaining within ten feet of Anthony while watching the rest of the court. This is as good a defensive matchup as the Mavericks could expect against so talented a squad. Optimally, you’d like a bigger defender on the 250-pound James. But he’s such a varied player that the only one truly up to the task is either himself or perhaps Dwight Howard.
Offensively, the most glaring mismatch for the Mavericks to exploit is at Point Guard. Jason Kidd will be matched up with a combination of Mike Bibby and Mario Chalmers, which bodes very well for Dallas. The Mavericks have benefited greatly from having a coach on the floor, and this advantage is a crucial component to a Mavericks victory.
The Heat will try to frustrate Dirk with a combination of Udonis Haslem, Chris Bosh and LeBron James. Haslem performed admirably on Nowitzki in 2006, but this series features a limited Haslem and a scarily efficient Dirk. On the other hand, the late-game chess match between the two teams’ pivotal stars should be fascinating.
Miami’s excellent perimeter defense will be tested in this series, as the Mavericks have shown no shyness about deploying Peja Stojakovic, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd and DeShawn Stevenson behind the arc. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra expressed a lot of respect for J.J. Barea during the pre-series press conference, so don’t be surprised if Wade or James spend a little time on the diminutive backup point guard.
Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood may also get some play in this series, as they have a pronounced height – and in Chandler’s case, skill – advantage against Miami’s primary center, Joel Anthony. A combined 15 points a game wouldn’t be too surprising considering the attention that will be afforded to the Mavericks’ other weapons.
At the end of the day…
Miami’s stars present a nightmarish matchup for any team in the league.
Early in the season, they lacked chemistry and were easy to manipulate, as the Mavericks showed when they emerged on top in both regular-season meetings.
But as they’ve gelled, the team’s holes became much less pronounced. The Mavericks have played fantastic basketball and seemingly have more to lose.
But it’s hard to argue they have an overall advantage, despite boasting arguably seven of the series’ top ten players. If Nowitzki’s brilliance does the unparalleled and bests James’ sheer athleticism, the Mavericks will have won the main battle.
But the war also hinges on keeping Dirk, Chandler and Kidd out of foul trouble, defending a top-10 player in Wade and making Bosh look like he did throughout the regular season. The narrative is beautiful and sets up phenomenally for a dramatic Mavs championship, complete with gobs of sweet emotion.
But all Mavs faithful can do is cross their fingers, hope and pray Cuban’s proclamation after the game Western Conference Finals proves prophetic.
“We ain’t done yet.”