Like the rest of the basketball-following world, most of my reactions to Sunday afternoon’s game can be summed up in one word, "Wow."
The LA Lakers have become the seventh defending champ to be swept out of the NBA Playoffs, and a lot of it has to do with their internal collapse. They have looked fractured on both ends of the floor, they are obviously banged up and there are clearly chemistry issues happening for the Purple and Gold. But they’re also out, so let’s focus on who’s still here.
Of the seven teams still standing, you could make a solid argument for any one of them being the new NBA champs (except for Atlanta. Sorry, but you are the weakest link).
But even in light of the Lakers’ fold-up job, it is the triumphant Dallas Mavericks who must now be considered the favorite. Let’s take a look at a few important reasons why.
Outside northern Texas, there were very few informed parties predicting the Mavericks would eliminate the Lakers. A week ago, few would even have believed a sweep of the champs was possible. But Dallas pulled it off, and you had better believe they will be riding high going into the Conference Finals.
Is there any bigger boon a team’s confidence can receive than to eliminate the defending champions? Dallas, if they didn’t before, now knows they are good enough to win the whole thing. Confidence, and the aggressiveness that confident teams usually put on display, are big time factors in playoff success.
Whether it’s OKC or Memphis, the Mavericks will face a younger, more athletic team in the next round. But with the additional days off following a short series and the swagger that comes from knocking the crown off the reigning king, the Dallas Mavericks will be primed to run with the kids and return to the NBA Finals.
The Dallas Mavericks, led by Dirk Nowitzki, have won 50-plus games for 11 years in a row. But they’ve been as far as the Conference Finals only twice during this stretch. A lot of people will say that as hot as they sometimes look, the Mavericks always prove inferior when a more complete championship squad inevitably emerges.
But, as old as most of their regular contributors are, this might be the best of the 50-win units. A lot was made of Dallas’ acquisition of Tyson Chandler to complement Brendan Haywood.
Neither of these 7-footers offers a ton offensively, but it doesn’t matter. Everyone knows they were brought to Dallas to counter the bigs of the LA Lakers. Size is usually cited as one of the main reasons LA had won three straight Western Conference crowns.
The seeds of Dallas’ success were planted with these personnel moves, and now the Mavericks are enjoying the fruits of their strategy.
With great size comes great defense. The Mavs were able to clog up the lane and slow down Kobe Bryant’s attack, and Pau Gasol all but disappeared. Dallas is a strong defensive team in 2011, and that hasn’t really ever been true in the Dirk era.
If that interior pressure keeps up, Dallas could surprisingly be the latest example of the old wisdom, “Defense wins championships.”
Lights-out shooting has always been a part of Dallas’ formula, which makes sense given Dirk Nowitzki’s historic talents in that regard. But with Jason Kidd, and, since January, Peja Stojakovic, Dallas has a trio of all-time range shooters. Jason Terry can get hot too, in case you missed his playoff record-tying three-point performance in Game 4 against the Lakers.
This may or may not be the best shooting team Dirk has played with in Dallas. But they’re hot, and all four of the primary shooters have tons of playoff experience. They won’t be shying away, even when the word Finals is printed on the floor.
Speaking of experience, we know how important that is in the NBA Playoffs, especially in the late rounds. Emerging teams are often sent away by the grizzled vets who’ve been in these battles before.
With the Spurs and Lakers watching at home, the Mavs are now rivaled only by the Boston Celtics in terms of playoff experience on the roster. The Celtics are hurting and up against the staggering talents of the Miami Heat, so maybe Dallas is in the best position to put their experience to good use.
Dwyane Wade did lead the Heat to a championship in 2006, but that pretty much sums up the playoff resumes of the other five teams. Chicago, Atlanta, Oklahoma City and Memphis are all as deep into this thing in Round 2 as they’ve been in their current incarnations.
Regardless of the opponent, Dallas will have a big mental advantage for the remainder of the playoffs.
The talent and athleticism on display in the NBA Playoffs is what makes it the most exciting tournament in American sports. There are so many names, old and new, to put on the list of players who’ve made us jump up and shout over the last three weeks.
No disrespect to Zach Randolph or Derrick Rose, but Dirk Nowitzki has been the MVP of the playoffs so far.
He's averaged 27.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, great numbers to be sure. But anyone watching this team has seen the future Hall of Famer’s fire, his charisma and his incredible performance in the clutch.
These are the attributes that have made him the best to this point, and we all know these are the calling cards of champions. If you’re looking at the Vegas odds, you might want to throw down on Dirk to be the 2011 NBA Finals MVP.