Athlon’s NBA Finals Preview: Can the “King” Earn Some Jewels?
Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki matched up in the 2006 NBA Finals, and Wade pulled out a hard-fought win. Neither man has been this close to the Larry O’Brien Trophy since then.
The Heat had to completely burn the house down and rebuild with an all-new supporting cast for Wade. Perhaps you’ve heard of them. Dirk’s got a whole new crew surrounding him as well, but the other Mavericks aren’t quite as feared as the players who flank D-Wade.
So, who takes the 2011 edition of the NBA Finals? Wade and his hired-gun running mates LeBron James and Chris Bosh? Or Dirk and his veteran backing group of Kidd, Peja, Tyson and the Jet? Here are a few key questions to ask along the way.
QUESTION No. 1: How outside-the-box will Erik Spoelstra’s defense get?
We’ve seen Heat coach Erik Spoelstra sic LeBron James on Derrick Rose, and watched the MVP completely implode. It’s academic that he’ll save LeBron for late-game situations on Dirk as well.
But what of another major matchup?
Jason Kidd could breathe a sigh of relief over seeing Mike Bibby or Mario Chalmers lined up against him. Compared to chasing around Russell Westbrook and Eric Maynor in the Western Conference Finals, this series could seem like a vacation. Unless, of course, Coach Spo wants to keep Kidd off-balance from the get-go and makes him contend with Dwyane Wade.
If Jason Terry’s in the game this isn’t a likely scenario. However, what do the Heat really have to lose from putting Wade on Kidd if DeShawn Stevenson is the other guard on the court? Stevenson’s last double-figure scoring game came against the Knicks on Feb. 2, and scoring 10 on the Knicks is about as difficult as outdriving Sheriff Buford T. Justice.
Wade could have a little bit of flexibility to roam and help out on Shawn Marion or even on Dirk, since he can be trusted to cover a lot more ground than Bibby or Chalmers in getting back to stop Kidd’s jump shot, which is only slightly less creaky than Charles Barkley’s golf swing.
Letting Kidd calmly examine the defense and find the best spots to attack is inviting disaster. If the officials want to call the game tightly and make it hard for LeBron or Bosh to swoop in with last-second blocks, the Heat will lose a large defensive advantage.
QUESTION No. 2: Are we forgetting about Dallas’s inside game?
With every pair of eyes on the court straining to keep Dirk in focus, the possibility of early production from other sources increases. Hard cuts to the basket by Shawn Marion or sneaky Kidd lob passes to Tyson Chandler could prove dangerous weapons in the Mavericks’ arsenal. If the Heat have to sag any further into the lane, players like Terry and Peja Stojakovic could make a very decent living picking up the leftovers from outside.
Having the veteran presence of Udonis Haslem may be the biggest bonus of all for Miami in this series. If Joel Anthony was left to his own devices, he’d be unlikely to last long, unless the officials let him body Dirk the way Nick Collison sometimes did in the West finals.
Haslem’s got famous experience against Dirk, and being able to utilize him allows Anthony to play in a more comfortable role as a help defender. If Marion catches LeBron eyeballing Dirk and gets into the lane for a pass, Anthony’s quick enough to get into position to contest. More Haslem means less of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Juwan Howard, or Jamaal Magloire, none of whom were quick-footed defensive giants even in their primes.
QUESTION No. 3: How good a chess player can Rick Carlisle be?
Jason Terry is not a great defensive stopper, but for Dallas’s humming offense to remain so, he’ll need to play a lot of minutes. It’s likely that when Miami has the ball he’ll be the guy shadowing either Bibby or Chalmers whenever one of them is on the floor. This could be a problem.
J.J. Barea and Peja Stojakovic have their difficulties defensively as well, and if Terry’s following the point guard of the moment it’s hard to find someone for them to cover. LeBron and Wade would get to the basket at will against those two, turning every game into an ABA-style track meet.
Dallas is not equipped to run with Miami all night, every night, so Rick Carlisle has to watch diligently in search of chances to play Peja and J.J. Both have the ability to make the Mavs’ offense one to fear, but they make the defense easy to forget.
Whenever LeBron and/or Wade is on the bench, a sight which will become increasingly rare as the series wears on, expect to see one of Dallas’s bench weapons sprint to the scorers’ table. If all three Mo-Heat-os are playing all 48 minutes, though, Carlisle could be playing Russian roulette leaving his gunners on the court for long stretches.
Perhaps against the Heat’s interesting new crunch time lineup (LeBron-Wade-Bosh-Haslem-Mike Miller), Peja could be hidden out against Miller. But, given that Miller went for 12 points and nine rebounds in Game 4 against the Bulls, even that might be dangerous.
QUESTION No. 4: How much can Dallas rely on a zone defense?
When the Mavs and Heat faced off in the regular season, it was the height of the “OMG, Miami’s a .500 team, we knew these guys were a bunch of egotistical scrub failures” craze. LeBron and Wade were perfectly content to sit back and fire up jumpers against the Mavs’ zone, to the tune of 3-for-17 from the floor, according to Synergy Sports.
This new, improved Heat team has a little more patience to calmly and intelligently attack a zone. Wade knows how to find the soft spots, Bosh has the ability to hit foul-line jumpers over smaller defenders, and someone’s going to feel like they’re standing in front of a tank if they want to draw a charge on LeBron.
Haslem, Miller, and James Jones may get the occasional look if the defense overplays onto the big three, but it’ll still be hard to stay back and passive against a more hardened Heat team.
QUESTION No. 5: Could Chris Bosh win Finals MVP?
On a team with LeBron and D-Wade, it seems ludicrous to think that Bosh could get much in the way of credit if the Heat win the championship. It’s less ludicrous than it seemed two weeks ago, though.
In Game 4 against Chicago, Wade took some ill-advised shots and occasionally reduced himself to a spectator role. In Game 5, he came alive in the fourth quarter, but there was still the matter of his nine turnovers. He’s been far enough out of sorts in the last couple of games that there’s still recurring speculation that he’s not 100 percent coming into the series.
Meanwhile, Bosh is in the center of the storm in these Finals, being the man expected to lead the charge against that irresistible force Dirk Nowitzki. He scored over 23 points per game against the Bulls, shooting 59 percent from the field. If he equals or betters those numbers, it’s a good series. If he helps hold Dirk below those levels, it’s an epic effort, the Heat win the series easily, and…well, okay, LeBron’s probably still going to win MVP because few will remember to look at Dallas’s stat sheet too.
QUESTION No. 6: Who are the most important guys that no one’s talking about?
For Dallas, it’s Tyson Chandler. Chandler has to be able to protect the rim from the slashing LeBron, Wade, and Bosh. He has to produce offense on the low block to take heat off of Dirk’s mid-range game and disrupt defensive rotations. And he has to do all this while staying out of foul trouble. If the Mavs have to resort to playing Dirk at center, things could get very ugly very fast, as they did against the Thunder. Likewise if Brendan Haywood has to play long minutes.
For Miami, James Jones has been a forgotten man. Since playing 24 minutes in Game 1 against the Bulls, he’s played a grand total of two. If the Heat have problems cracking the Dallas zone, his 3-point stroke may prove handy. Mike Miller was brought in during the offseason feeding frenzy to be the designated floor-spacer, but he’s only shot 4-for-19 from deep in the playoffs. Jones has hit 17 of 37.
QUESTION No. 7: Who’s winning the series?
Seven questions, seven games. This series should go the distance, one way or the other. There will be a couple of games where Carlisle’s able to get his bench scorers some minutes. There will be a couple of games where the Mavs can’t keep anyone away from the rim. The Heat will have a game where Wade and LeBron settle for jumpers all night. LeBron will come close to at least one triple-double, and Dirk will go for 40 at least once.
Unfortunately for everyone who’s dying to see LeBron get his comeuppance for trying to rig the NBA season, it seems very difficult to predict the Mavericks winning. Dallas’s weaknesses seem to dovetail perfectly with what Miami does well. Meanwhile, Miami’s weaknesses, inconsistent point guard play and a lack of depth, can be easily papered over. LeBron and Wade can handle the ball most of the time anyway, and the Heat have been scaling back to an eight-man rotation since they’ve stopped using James Jones and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
PREDICTION: Heat in 7.