Midway through the conference semifinals of this year's NBA Playoffs, I questioned whether destiny was intervening and bringing two old nemesis' together for a finals rematch. As it turns out, that was exactly what destiny had in mind as Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat will meet Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks, five years after the former beat the latter by recovering from a 2-0 deficit and winning four straight. This series will be Dirk's shot at playoff redemption, as that series haunts his legacy to no end. Meanwhile, the Heat's LeBron James, so criticized throughout his career for never winning a title, will be seeking to finally silence his critics by hoisting his first championship trophy. One of these great players will finally win a ring after years of playoff disappointment. The other will see his season end with him still searching.
The Dallas Mavericks won the season series against the Heat 2-0, but after the Heat eliminated two straight teams that they were a combined 1-6 against in the regular season, it's hard to put much stock in those results. Here is my analysis of the matchup between the East's champion and the West's champion.
The Case for the Mavericks
Dirk. Dirk. And Dirk again. With the possible exception of LeBron James, Dirk has been the best player in this year's playoffs. He is averaging 28.4 PPG and shooting over 51 percent. With his near automatic perimeter shooting, three-point shot and greatly improved post game coupled with a 7'0" frame, Dirk is perhaps the toughest man in the league to defend. The Heat really don't have a good matchup for him. Bosh may guard him some, but then the Heat have to worry about foul trouble for their third best player. It's likely James and Udonis Haslem will be on him as well. And while Heat fans remember the solid job that Haslem did on Dirk in the 2006 finals, Dirk is a much improved player than he was then. I wouldn't necessarily bet on a repeat performance by Haslem. The Mavericks will be the most explosive offensive team the Heat have faced in the postseason. The Mavs are averaging 99.6 PPG as a team while shooting an impressive 46 percent from the field.
But they are not just an offensive juggernaut, as their defense is good as well. They are allowing 92.3 PPG and 44 percent shooting against, which are not bad numbers. Jason Kidd has played exceptionally well, both in terms of running the offense and playing tight defense. Plus, Tyson Chandler is very active under the basket and could give the Heat problems on drives in the paint. With great role players like J.J. Barea and Jason Terry, the Mavs have one of the league's deepest teams. Finally, the Mavericks are very adept at playing zone defense, which has given the Heat problems at stretches this season.
The Case Against the Mavericks
They won't have home-court advantage in the series. Granted, they have won their last five straight playoff road games, but since 1990, the team without home court in the finals has won the series only 24 percent of the time. The Mavericks also have a similar problem that the Bulls faced in the conference finals: Three of the four best players in the series will be wearing Heat jerseys. Unless, Dirk just dominates the Heat and is the best player on the floor for all seven games, it will be hard to overcome the Heat's Big Three. The Mavericks also have one key problem in their matchup with the Heat: They are primarily a perimeter shooting team. Great defensive team versus perimeter oriented team is not usually a good mix for the shooters of the latter, and guys like Peja Stojakovic and Jason Terry are going to have to find a way to shoot a high percentage against the Heat's tough defense.
One of the big advantages the Bulls had in their series against the Heat was rebounding. The Bulls were an excellent rebounding team, and their crashing of the boards gave the Heat problems. The Mavericks are only the 12th best rebounding team in the postseason, which is the worst of any team the Heat has yet faced. Their defense is also solid, but compared to the type of rough and tumble, points-at-an-absolute-minimum defenses that the Heat have just seen from the Bulls, Celtics and 76ers, the Mavs D is not quite as intimidating. Case in point: One of the reasons the Thunder lost the series against the Mavericks was due to their poor perimeter shooting. They took too many jumpshots when they should have been attacking the basket. The Mavs defense gave up 66 percent shooting in the paint, which is surprising considering the presence of Chandler. If the Mavs give up 60+ percent shooting to Wade, James and Bosh in the paint they have no chance.
The Case for the Heat
Defense, defense, defense. The Heat have the better defense between the two teams. The Heat also boasts three of the four best players in the series. From a matchup standpoint, the Mavericks have no real answers for James or Wade. Shawn Marion will probably defend James, while DeShawn Stevenson will check Wade, but neither of those players will be able to really contain either in this series. The Heat will also have home-court advantage in the finals. Since the finals converted to the 2-3-2 format in 1985, teams with home court in the finals win the series 73 percent of the time. It also helps that the Mavericks are not structured in a way that can exploit the Heat's weaknesses.
The Bulls had a strong inside game and rebounding to give the Heat problems in the paint, but the Mavs are basically a jump shooting team. They have no real inside presence that they seek offense or interior toughness from. Chandler will score on ally-oops and putbacks, but he is not a central figure in their offense. Dirk will be Dirk, but the rest of the Mavs are very streaky and seem unlikely to carry the team to victory in the series without a heroic effort from Dirk. The Mavericks' interior defense has been quite porous at times in the postseason, so expect that to come into play if James, Wade and Bosh are aggressive driving to the basket. LeBron and the Heat have been listening all year from critics, pundits and assorted talking heads about why they cannot win, will not win or don't deserve to win. James wants to quiet his critics once and for all. He will not want to be denied.
The Case Against the Heat
Dirk will be a tough cover. The Heat really have no great matchup against him, and if he's hitting his shots, he makes the fact that the Heat play great defense a moot point. The Heat have had their problems with zone defenses and the Mavs have taken the Heat out of their offense with it this season. Granted, these two teams have not played since January (even the staunchest Heat critic has to admit they are better now than they were then), but they have given the Heat problems. The Heat is a great defensive team, but when the Mavericks are hitting their shots, they are unguardable. Jason Kidd is not as explosive as the two previous point guards the Heat vanquished, but he is more savvy and experienced, and that could translate very well against the Heat's weakest position on the floor. If they get out and run they can be deadly from long-range. They sport solid shooters at nearly all positions. Dirk remembers what occurred in 2006 and wants redemption. If he and his team play inspired basketball (which they very likely will), they will have an excellent shot at winning the series.
The battle of the two players with everything in the world to prove. LeBron wants to finally show that he is not just a guy who fills up a stat sheet, but that he is indeed a winner. Meanwhile, Dirk has played like a man on a mission the entire postseason and wants to finally wipe the bitter taste of the '06 finals out of his mouth and prove that he is a champion as well. LeBron has more to lose in terms of public image from failure in this series, but Dirk and Jason Kidd could be looking at their last chance to win a title as they have been in the league longer.
In an article I wrote back in October 2010, I said that there were only two possible endings to the Miami Heat's season this year: "They would lose the conference finals or they would win the NBA Finals." I see no reason to go back on that prediction now. The Mavericks are a great team and no lead will be safe in any game since both of these teams have shown an incredible resiliency and championship determination throughout the postseason. Not to mention the spectre of "Dirk's Revenge" hanging over the proceedings. But I just can't bet against LeBron James and home-court advantage in the finals. Unless Dirk simply dominates the Heat for 42-plus PPG throughout the series, I can't see James being denied his first ring. The Heat have overcome so much this season to be champions—injuries, universal hatred, media scrutiny, criticism left and right, mocking, etc.—I can't see them not doing it again and overcoming their last obstacle to a title in the Mavericks.
Heat in five.