Tuesday, May 31, 2011

2011 NBA Finals preview

By Rick Morris

The cities of Dallas and Miami have met on the grandest stages in sports two times previously – and this hoops clash will serve as the tiebreaker. Super Bowl VI in January 1972 saw one of the all-time great coaching battles between Tom Landry and Don Shula as the Cowboys overwhelmed the Fish, 24-3 – the last loss before the Perfect Dolphins blew through the NFL like rotten chili through the intestinal tract the next season. And, more relevant to these proceedings, the Heat got past the Mavs in six games in 2006 to bring the first NBA Championship to Miami.

That title, controversial though it was – much more on that below – marked the Finals debut of Dwyane Wade and championship series eclipse (probably) of Shaquille O’Neal. It’s strange to think that Shaq came to Cleveland in 2009 to help LeBron James try to win a championship only to see Lebron sidekicking a year later for the player who got the big fella his last title.

Notwithstanding the justifiable ridicule for Miami’s “championship celebration” after the Heat’s sketchy seasons-long efforts to recruit players already under contract bore fruit, nobody can be that surprised to see them in the Finals. They were my preseason pick to win the East and lose to the Lakers – by far the closest thing to a consensus pick among observers this year. Granted, there were some observers who picked Boston to return to the Finals for the third time in four years and a handful who thought Orlando would work their way through for the second time in three years, but the Heat haven’t beaten expectations thus far.

Their opponents cannot say the same. If anyone was going to knock off the mighty Lakers in the West, the Mavs – with their history of playoff flameouts and aging core – were well down the list of potential conquerors. And that was even before they lost Caron Butler (lost for the season to knee surgery in January, although he clings to hope of playing in the Finals)! But the X-Factor has been the astounding elevation in the game this spring of a player who had already cast himself as a future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, Dirk Nowitzki.

The improvements in so many aspects of his game have been key in helping Dallas defy the odds at every step of the way – recovering from missteps against Portland, sweeping LA in one of the most shocking upsets in recent sports history and getting past the West’s first big candidate for Team of the 2010s in Oklahoma City. Their rebuilt core includes big-time players like Dirk (and James, for that matter) who have been to the Finals and come up empty, such as Jason Kidd and Jason Terry.

Unfortunately for the Mavs and all who are rooting for them (which is everyone but the people of Miami and egregious bandwagon-jumpers and jock-sniffers everywhere), the team is not built to take advantage of Miami’s donut-hole down low. Tyson Chandler has been superb in his role for Dallas this season, but he’s not going to make anyone exert themselves to stop his offense. Miami actually outrebounded Dallas this season, 42.1 RPG to 41.4. And even with one of the most top-heavy rosters for a title contender in league history, they still outscored Dallas this year, 102.1 PPG to 100.2 – with Butler chipped in 29 games of 15.0 PPG offense.

Obviously, in light of these numbers, we can state clearly that Dallas would be very, very steep underdogs were it not for the vast improvements in Dirk’s game this postseason. He’s been the most unstoppable player on the planet and if he can keep that up, he can lift the Mavs to victory. The fact that James and Chris Bosh are going to have to log minutes attempting to slow him down when they and Wade have been averaging inhumane minutes in this postseason adds credence to the thought that Dirk can help Dallas win on both sides of the ball.

An additional point in Dallas’ favor concerns the regular-season schedule. The Mavs are way more battle-tested. Our semi-monthly in-season power rankings listed the Southwest Division as the best in the league by a wide margin in our final edition (granted, with the Southeast at #2, but a distant, distant #2).

I would regard this series as almost too close to call were it not for the fact that David Stern takes his lessons on arranged outcomes from Vincent K. McMahon (the coaching matchup between Rick Carlisle and “Coach Spo” doesn’t appear to tilt the scales either way, since it’s the first Finals tilt in 12 years where neither individual has won a title as a head coach). Bill Simmons, in his outstanding tome THE BOOK OF BASKETBALL: THE NBA ACCORDING TO THE SPORTS GUY, correctly labeled the ’06 Finals a festering disgrace since Wade made it to the line every time that he got breathed upon – 97 times in six games and, boys and girls, that averages out to just over 16 times per game. And a whopping 25 of those came in the absolutely pivotal Game Five (as many as all Mavericks combined in that contest). Simmons’ words need to be quoted in even more explicit terms:

“[Miami] scored the game-winning points after Wade got sent to the line on an out-of-control drive where Bennett Salvatore called Nowitzki on a barely perceptible nudge from 40 feet away … For as long as I have my ‘Sports Guy’ column, I plan on referring to that 2006 Heat team as the ‘Miami Salvatores.’”

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Bill. So, let’s take a look at whether the league would be inclined to have the games called any differently five years later.

1 David Stern hates Mark Cuban.

2 See Point #1.

3 Heat owner Micky Arison is one of David Stern’s golden boys, as evidenced by the league turning a blind eye to his son’s tampering with LeBron at the 2008 Olympics (ALLEGEDLY!).

4 David Stern sees money in Miami being the next “team to beat,” taking the mantle from the Lakers.

5 David Stern doesn’t see any money in Dallas winning with their aging core that doesn’t have as clear a path back to the Finals anytime soon (with the possible exception of Dirk being the first foreign megastar to win a title – Stern’s lust for globalization is a tiny counterbalance here).

Nope, I don’t see these games getting called right down the middle, so that takes me from the land of 50-50 to the eventual outcome. FDH’s Nate Noy sees Dallas splitting the first two games in Miami – as do I, but then holding serve completely at home to win in five games. From his lips to God’s ears, from my personal perspective! But I just don’t see it. Miami in six.

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