The Miami Heat, for all their bluster last summer about the number of championships they were going to win and talk about assembling the “greatest team” in NBA history, have gone about this season – and postseason – in a workmanlike fashion.
They owned a 58-24 regular season record, securing the second seed in the NBA Eastern Conference, and handily dispatched the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, and the Chicago Bulls, owners of the league’s best record, in the the first three rounds of the playoffs. They are relatively young, and, rumors of an injury to Dwyane Wade’s shoulder notwithstanding, are largely healthy.
On the other hand, the Dallas Mavericks, with an average player age of 33, are one of the oldest teams in the NBA, and have had to struggle through two post-season series against Portland and Oklahoma City – though along the way they completely humiliated the Los Angeles Lakers in four games in one of the most lopsided playoff sweeps in NBA history.
They have matured as a group to the point where they fight through double-digit deficits to win where previously they might not have. The Mavs, with a 57-25 regular season record, are nearly evenly matched with the Heat, though Dallas won the two regular season meetings between the two teams.
They’ve accomplished much, even without the services of one of their very strongest players, guard-forward Caron Butler, who is not expected to see any action in the Finals. Jason Terry, in an interview earlier this week, said the team is dedicating their pursuit of the NBA title to Butler.
The Heat largely play a perimeter game. They love head fakes, and drawing fouls near or beyond the arc. They also are very fast off the transition, where LeBron James and Dwyane Wade excel in an open path to the bucket with virtually unparalleled athleticism. They have not been as strong inside the paint, where the Mavericks tend to excel.
Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavericks strong forward/center, can score from anywhere, and he is particularly strong at drawing fouls after posting up his defenders. When the two teams met in Dallas last November, the Mavericks won 106-95 - largely through the 48 points they scored in the paint. They will need to keep that pace up this series.
Guard Jason Kidd, who has the second most assists in NBA history, will be instrumental in getting the ball inside to Nowitzki, where he can score from anywhere. On the other side of the ball, Mavericks’ center Tyson Chandler will need to grab rebounds while staying out of his usual, chronic foul trouble.
Kidd, forward Shawn Marion and guard Jason Terry have to force the turnovers with the same efficiency they managed most recently against Oklahoma City. However, Dallas will have a much more difficult time guarding the Heat because of the three weapons they have. In Dallas’s series against Oklahoma City, forward Kevin Durant, and to a lesser extent, guard Russell Wesbrook, could be double-teamed with effectiveness. But the scoring proficiency of Miami’s Wade, James and Chris Bosh makes this strategy much riskier.
No one matches up with the Mavericks in their ability in making the extra pass to an open man. Ball handlers J.J. Barea, Jason Terry, and DeShawn Stevenson should get some good looks around the arc as a result, and if Dallas continues their solid pick-and-roll play, the speedy Barea may prove to be a factor.
But, in a playoff series, with all else being equal and everything on the line in the final few minutes, you’ve got to have clutch players. In Dallas’s case, it’s all about getting the ball to Nowitzki in the final ticks. As for Miami, one of the main reasons they assembled the triumvirate of James, Wade and Bosh was to give them extra options at crunch time, and they have performed extraordinarily well at this.
Dallas will have to hold Miami’s transition points down by slowing the pace, and not only getting the ball in to Nowitzki, but by being patient on the perimeter so that Terry and forward Peja Stojakovic can make it into double figures, scoring.
Have no illusions, Miami has the greatest amount of pressure on them to win a title. Dallas is trying to avenge their humiliating 2006 Finals loss to Miami, and with the experienced team they’ve assembled, are fully capable of preventing the kind of embarrassing implosion they experienced in that series five years ago.
This Dallas team is probably the best ever assembled. They’re patient and resilient - and with a successful veteran coach in Rick Carlisle, have demonstrated greater motivation down the stretch and unlike in past years, have generally avoided collapsing in the clutch. This is their best chance for winning over Miami’s lofty expectations, and that’s why Dallas takes the title in seven games.