Tonight at 9PM EST, the Mavericks and Heat will finally take the floor to start Game One of this highly anticipated NBA Finals. The Finals hopefully will be the culmination of what has been an exceptional regular season and playoffs. It is not simply the fact that we're getting a re-match of the 2006 Finals and all the drama and controversy that followed, or that for only the second time in the past 12 years the Finals feature two teams not named the Spurs, Celtics, or Lakers. It is the fact that, on paper, the series appears to be an extremely close match-up featuring two teams of contrasting styles and of two guys (LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki) who seem hell-bent on revitalizing their big-game reputations. They have both elevated themselves in the eyes of many in these playoffs, and I think that forward push is going to continue to proceed.
We pondered whether it would be fun to add a game thread to WTLC, but I personally feel that when it comes to team support and discussion, it is best to refer you guys to the respective SB Nation sites to participate in their game threads.
Both of those blogs are great, so show them some love and max them out as your primary source for these Finals. We will do our best to track the various twists and turns of the Finals, but please be sure to check out those two sites for the best coverage and discussion.
Now, in no particular order, are some random elements, questions, and prognostications that I have for the Finals. It is not a preview per se, but more of a curiosity on the things that I will be looking for over the next two weeks.
1. The Mavericks won the regular season, 2-0.
The wins are relevant, but I don't know how much of a predictor they can be for what is going to transpire. For starters, the Mavs still had Caron Butler in their first win, and Butler is likely not going to suit up in this series due to injury. On the other side of the court, Udonis Haslem, missing from those two games, has fought back from his own injury to play a key role in the Heat's toppling of the #1 seeded Bulls. I think Haslem's recovery is going to play a huge role in these Finals. If you remember, he was on that 2006 team that beat the Mavericks and so he, along with Dwyane Wade, will be the ones with the most winning experience in these Finals. Haslem also offers much needed energy and rebounding, since the Heat's big weakness is in their front line.
2. Speaking of 2006
Five years has passed since the Mavericks were effectively swept in losing to the Heat. Yes, I know that the final score was 4-2 in Miami's favor, but those were four consecutive losses after the Mavs opened up with two home wins. The collapse was staggering. As you are probably aware by now, both Dirk and Jason Terry were part of that 2006 team, and the loss sent the Mavs into a bit of a post-season tail-spin. If they are to exorcise their demons, it is fitting that it comes against the Heat.
3. The Decision Was Bad, but LeBron Is Good
If it is possible for a career-altering moment to run the gamut of public opinion, LeBron's ill-fated public announcement qualifies. However, what James has the opportunity to do much sooner than everyone had anticipated is make that moment a small footnote rather than a character-defining pockmark.
The element that I think makes LeBron's re-emergence so compelling is that he has done it in a way that is impossible to gloss over - he has done it by maximizing all of his supreme physical skills on the defensive end of the court. I did not think it possible for a latter-day Scottie Pippen to surface (at least for one post-season), but take a look at James' body of work. James was assigned to guard Derrick Rose, league MVP, and purportedly one of the fastest and most explosive men on the court. James made him look like a 7th grader. James almost single-handedly won the series against the Bulls because he committed to playing great defense against the guy the NBA said was this year's best.
3. Dirk's dominance
All of the above means that the Finals is going to really be about what James does against Dirk. I don't know if there could be more contrasting styles between Rose and Dirk, but James is going to be tested against both. We wrote her extensively on ways that a team can match up against Dirk, and in Games Two and Three the Thunder did an admirable job against him. The Thunder did it by using Nick Collison, who is good at positional defense but not as long or quick as Serge Ibaka, and the increased physical play bothered Dirk into two less than stellar performances. LeBron is at least as strong as Nick but also as quick and long as Ibaka, so from a purely physical standpoint, LeBron does have an edge in defending Dirk.
That said, after Game Three Dirk made some remarkable adjustments in his offensive approach. He started posting up at different parts of the floor and made fuller use of his all-around offensive game. By the end of the series, Dirk book-ended his amazing Game One performance with a game almost as dominant and effective. In other words, Dirk accepted everything the Thunder tried to do against him, some of which was very, very good, and elevated his game a step beyond it.
It is probably unfair to expect of Dirk to continue to elevate his game, but for better or worse it is probably the only way the Mavs can beat the Heat. Dirk must force LeBron to cover him, because LeBron is the only one who can, and then beat him in the match-up anyway.
4. Dwyane Wade is the key
As important a cog that James is, just as in 2006, Wade is the key to the series. The Heat beat Chicago because, like OKC, the Bulls have not yet learned how to close out games. James gave Miami a shot to win because of his defense on Rose, but it is the mere threat of Wade on the court that allowed the Heat to surge offensively in the clutch. Wade has not had the continuous high level of performance in these playoffs, but he is still an explosive scorer who can rip off individual scoring runs by himself and the Mavs don't have any easy solutions to stop him.
The task will likely fall to Jason Kidd and DeShawn Stevenson, because Shawn Marion will have his hands full with James. Out of all the things that surprised me most in the Thunder series, one of the biggest surprises was how effective Kidd was against both Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. While neither Durant or Westbrook boast the experience of Wade at this point, they are still more physically talented than Kidd, yet Kidd held his own through the use of defensive technique and quick hands. Kidd won't always win the match-up, but I am intrigued to see how wel he can slow down Wade.
5. Defensive rebounding will turn games
One of the elements of the Thunder series that has not gotten a lot of attention is that the Mavs were pretty bad on the boards. yes, they got some key rebounds when it mattered most, but if you look at Game Four for example you can see that the Thunder out-rebounded the Mavs 55-33 overall and a crippling 20-5 on the offensive glass. Unfortunately for the Thunder, they could not make the Mavs pay (25 turnovers will do that to you) but that rebounding deficiency should be huge cause for concern.
The Heat's biggest advantage over the Mavs is their overall athleticism, and there is nothing Wade and James like to do more than get out on the fast break and use that advantage to its fullest. To borrow a phrase from Bill Simmons, James shrinks the court when he is out on the break. The easiest way for the Heat to get this part of their offense rolling is to control the defensive boards. If the Mavs cannot keep this rebounding competition close, they will be in serious trouble.
extra: No Lakers
It was painful to watch the Mavericks vanquish the Thunder in five games. There is no question that the organization and fanbase feels that this was a series that escaped the talented but inexperienced hands of the Thunder. Regardless of how you feel about the Mavs though, let it be known that they still did a very good thing - they got rid of the Lakers. For that, we are all Witnesses.
My prediction: I'm going to go against the majority of public opinion and say: Mavericks in 6.
I think the Mavs will continue to have answers for everything that gets thrown their way, Dirk will continue his march to complete one of the greatest individual post-season runs in history, and the old dogs will be able to add an unchangeable attribute to their NBA tombstones - NBA Champs.