With both teams winning their respective conferences, the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks are on a collision course for a rematch of their 2006 clash in the 2011 NBA Finals.
Everyone remembers that series for a few things. Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks jumping to a commanding 2-0 lead then tragically collapsing to lose the next four. Dwyane Wade getting free throws every time someone breathed on him. The NBA assigning official Danny Crawford to Games 3 and 6, both Mavs losses by three or fewer (Dallas is 4-18 in playoff games officiated by Crawford, including a 1-16 stretch).
Dallas fans are both haunted and outraged by the developments of that tragic series. Dwyane Wade was historically good, though his efforts were augmented by shooting 73 free throws in the last four games. The Mavs were only two wins away, then lost three heart-wrenching games out of four.
That is as close as the Dallas Mavericks have come to winning their first NBA championship.
Now, they're playing as well as any playoff team in recent memory, led by the possessed Dirk Nowitzki. They steamrolled the Lakers and dismantled the Oklahoma City Thunder on their way to the Finals and a revenge date with the Heat.
Miami might be playing just as well, with beatdowns of the Boston Celtics and a perplexing domination of the Chicago Bulls. All year long everyone doubted that this team could win a title, questioning how three superstars could ascend the NBA mountain with so little help. They're currently in the process of answering all questions and criticisms, leaving detractors with nothing but admiration.
The history and stage are set for Heat-Mavs II. Let's break down the matchup position by position.
The old and slow Jason Kidd has morphed into the ageless Jason Kidd overnight during these NBA playoffs. The 38-year-old veteran of 17 NBA seasons is playing some of the best ball we've ever seen from him.
Kidd has totally satisfied the tasks that the Dallas Mavericks ask of him: hit open threes, set teammates up with open looks and out-rebound the opposition's guards.
What wasn't expected from Kidd was the inspired on-ball defense he's played the last several weeks. Since the first time it mattered, Kidd frustrated Kobe Bryant all series in the Dallas sweep. Kobe got his 23.3 points per game, but really didn't do anything else to help his team with just three rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. Kidd's physicality was a major determinant of Bryant's ineffectiveness.
After being defended by Kidd, Bryant was the one who looked old and slow.
Kidd will be matched up against the Miami Heat's Mike Bibby, at least for the start of games. Bibby starts for Miami, but has only played 22.3 minutes per game in the postseason. He is a shell of his former self at age 33. Long gone are the days of killer pick-and-pops with Chris Webber in Sacramento.
Bibby's impact has been minimal. He hasn't scored in double figures in 14 playoff games or collected five assists or rebounds in a game.
Bibby, though, can have an impact on this series that isn't captured in the stat sheet. He can positively affect his team's chances by neutralizing Jason Kidd in the early minutes of each game.
The Mavs feed off of momentum and contagious three-point shooting. Getting that started is one of Kidd's specialties, either by finding teammates for open looks early on, or knocking down a three himself.
Coach Erik Spoelstra won't expect Bibby to contribute anything offensively, but if he can slow Kidd until backup Mario Chalmers subs in, the Heat will avoid playing from behind due to a hot Dallas start.
Advantage: Mavericks and Kidd, significant
There's not a whole lot to debate about who will win this matchup.
Dwyane Wade, the 29-year-old Miami shooting guard, will have his mouth watering all series long at the prospect of going against Dallas' DeShawn Stevenson. There's always a possibility that Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle sticks Jason Kidd on Wade as he did with Kobe against the Lakers and Kevin Durant at times against the Thunder.
However, Wade is a different player from both Bryant and Durant. Kobe can't get to the rim anymore and Durant usually settles for jumpers; Wade will use quickness that is superior to both players to relentlessly attack the rim. You need only look at his numbers from the 2006 Finals to be convinced of that.
Kidd isn't the best defender for Wade because he won't be able to stay in front of him. Stevenson, though not an amazing athlete himself, is sufficient to slow down Wade from getting to the basket.
Whoever guards Wade will need to keep him off the glass, where he killed the Sixers and Celtics in the first two rounds.
The Mavericks won't be able to stop Wade from getting his points, but, if that's the case, they need to limit his impact on the pass. They can't allow 25 points and eight assists per game to Wade. They need to make him as one-dimensional as possible with Stevenson or Kidd.
Speaking of DeShawn Stevenson, he's not going to get a lot of minutes. With Jason Terry playing a lot off the bench, Stevenson only gets about 15 minutes per game with a stat line mirroring Mike Bibby's.
Advantage: Miami and Wade, major
Both LeBron James and Shawn Marion are playing very well at this point in the postseason.
Marion has stepped up in Caron Butler's absence, which is exactly what his team needed from him. He looks like 2005 Shawn Marion all of a sudden. He's not his team's first, second or even third scoring option, but the 11.2 points per game in the postseason and 26 points in the West-clinching Game 5 have helped Dallas get where it is now—the NBA Finals.
Marion's defense has also been a major contribution. In the West finals against the Thunder, the Mavs harassed Kevin Durant into a few unsightly shooting nights. Three times in five games Durant shot 41 percent or worse, including a 7-of-22 Game 3 performance.
The Matrix and Jason Kidd deserve all the credit for pestering Durant into poor shooting and general inefficiency. The Game 4 comeback win was indicative of the whole series, when Durant turned the ball over nine key times in a close loss at home to put his team down 3-1.
Looking ahead at the matchup with the Miami Heat, Marion will be called on to do the same to LeBron James that he did to Durant: force him to stay on the perimeter, then contest jump shots.
The only difference between LeBron and KD is that LeBron would rather attack the basket and Durant would rather take a jumper. When LeBron starts putting the ball on the deck and lowering his shoulder, we'll find out just how effective Marion's defense is.
If Marion can use his quickness and length to keep LeBron in front of him, then James won't be as effective as he was against the Bulls, who had no one who could guard him. You can't stop LeBron, but if you can slow him a little, it makes a big difference.
Still, he's been so effective on the court this postseason that slowing him in one phase means that he could simply take over another.
LeBron's defense and determination to win are impressive in these playoffs. We're seeing a killer instinct and an ability to close from him that we haven't really seen before. This is reason No. 1 why the Heat are playing so well and winning tight games in crunch time.
Advantage: Miami and James, sizable
This is a finalist for the best matchup of this series with the small forward pairing. The similarities of Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Bosh in style, finesse and perimeter skill could create a dazzling back-and-forth throughout the Finals.
What superlatives remain to describe Nowitzki's body of work this postseason at age 32? Brilliant, masterful, superb, magnificent, immaculate. This is the lofty level of verbiage reserved for his continued performance in the last six weeks.
The word that I keep coming back to as I watch him play is possessed. It looks like his body was taken over by a better version of himself, one that suddenly knows what it takes to win a title and everything leading up to it. Everything he's touched has turned to gold, as if he was the Greek King Midas.
The platitudes for Dirk's offensive performance are unending. He's shooting over 60 percent from the field in the last two series with about 29 points per game. He's reached 40 points twice in the West finals; both instances required 20 shots or fewer. He shot 59-of-61 from the free-throw line against the Thunder, including 24-of-24 in Game 1 and 14-of-15 in a comeback Game 4 victory.
You can go on about Dirk's offense all day, but I want to talk about his unexpectedly stellar defensive effort. His Mavericks swept the Lakers easily, and his defense on the moribund Pau Gasol was a huge reason why. The Lakers All-Star got pushed out from the low post by Dirk, who consistently outmuscled Gasol and made shots tough. Against a strong inside team, Dirk upped his rebounding to 9.3 per game, which is nearly two higher than his full playoff average.
In the Oklahoma City series, Nowitzki simply wore out whoever Scott Brooks threw at him with a smattering of fall-aways, one-legged jumpers and three-point bombs. They truly had to guard Dirk everywhere on the floor, because his zone is so focused that he is a threat to score from anywhere.
He was already the consensus top international player ever, but this postseason run he's got the Mavs on is earning him a spot in discussions with names like Barkley, Malone and Erving. If he wins a title this year, you'll hear him mentioned with another low-post legend: Duncan.
Chris Bosh has had one major responsibility this postseason: make the opponent pay for giving too much attention to stop Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. He's done that, just as he did all regular season, with uncannily similar averages. Bosh has two key increases from his season averages though—minutes and field-goal percentage. He's focused and aggressive, and his efficiency numbers are a positive outcome of that.
Bosh has stepped up several times in crunch time when the Heat needed him. In playoff games decided by 10 points or fewer, Bosh is averaging 17.4 points and 9.8 rebounds and just fills out what Wade and LeBron miss.
He really owned the Chicago series, when being at his best mattered most. With defensive stalwart Joakim Noah guarding him, Bosh sunk 64 percent of his shots in the series to the tune of 24 points per game. That's a real testament to his aggressiveness and efficiency.
Both Dirk and Bosh are humming on all cylinders right now. Each of them is hitting shots at a ridiculous clip and has been largely unstoppable offensively. Whether they guard each other in the Finals is uncertain, but if they do, it will pit two All-Stars playing similar styles successfully.
Something will have to give in each player's toughest defensive assignment of the playoffs.
Advantage: Mavericks and Dirk
Miami center Joel Anthony has been an afterthought, a placeholder for the Heat. It was as if Erik Spoelstra knew he had to start a center, but didn't really want to, and Anthony was the lucky one chosen to do that. He'd defend tall opponents, block a shot here and there and rebound anything that came directly at him.
For the regular season that was Anthony's job description, but he's been so much more since then.
The 28-year-old Canadian has become a valued defensive weapon, blocking 2.1 shots per game and pulling in 5.3 rebounds. With a short rotation in general, and in the post specifically, Anthony has received a huge spike in minutes. He hasn't used them poorly, which is an imminent possibility for a role player that suddenly sees himself on the court much more, and in critical situations.
Anthony wreaked havoc on the Bulls inside, effectively rendering Carlos Boozer a non-factor (or maybe Boozer did that to himself—a perplexing downturn in his performance). His 15 blocks in five games against Chicago led all players for the series and helped his team own the paint against the favored Bulls.
The importance of Joel Anthony is that the minutes he has to get by default are not "empty calories," so to speak. He's not just filling space; he's contributing, little by little, to the toughness and hard playing of the Miami Heat.
Opposite Anthony is Tyson Chandler, whose performance has ostensibly been the inverse. Chandler's averages are lower than his regular-season marks, but he's done enough to help his team control the paint. Nowitzki's brilliance, which has filtered down low, has made it possible for Chandler to be average.
His matchup with Anthony will likely be uneventful, but if one of the two gets off in one game, his team will be really tough to beat.
If one of them is capable of having a big game, I'd pick Chandler to do it over Anthony.
Advantage: Mavericks and Chandler, slight
Very little to address here, except Dallas' major advantage over Miami. The main concern for the Heat (depth) is quite possibly the Mavs' greatest strength. The Heat play just eight guys per night and cross their fingers that A) one of the starters doesn't get injured and B) Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem play well. The margin for error against Dallas will be almost zero.
Jason Terry, Jose Juan Barea, Peja Stojakovic and Brendan Haywood have been superb all postseason long. Terry's shooting has been consistent and stretches the floor for Barea's speedy drives to the basket. Stojakovic has stood in the corner, knocked down open threes to stretch out defenses and hasn't hurt his team. Haywood has played tough in relief of Tyson Chandler, providing resistance to opposing scorers.
I can safely predict that the Heat will get killed when the benches come in. Don't be surprised when Dallas rips off a couple of 10-2 runs upon Terry and Barea entering the game.
If Spoelstra wants to avoid the headache of getting outplayed on the bench, he could ramp up the minutes for Wade, James and Bosh to roughly 45 minutes per game. That, of course, creates different problems.
Even if the starters are rested enough to play against Dallas' subs, they'll have horrible matchup deficiencies. If you stick Wade on Jason Terry, the perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate will help Barea knife up whoever is guarding him.
I've gone to a length of words to convey how much of an advantage Dallas has on the bench. If the Mavs just play the Heat even with their starters, the bench will take them to the promised land.
Advantage: Dallas, almost unfair
The last time each of these teams reached the NBA Finals, a dramatic turnaround preceded an underdog's upset of a shell-shocked giant. The horrors of that experience still haunt Mavericks like Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry, who are playing in desperation of winning the title they felt they deserved five years ago.
They are back to the Finals in an ironic twist of fate against the same team that hollowed them out in 2006. Dirk is on a mission and will not stop until he's got his own Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Standing in his way will be a taunting Dwyane Wade, a determined LeBron James and a confident Chris Bosh.
This is going to be one heck of an NBA Finals series.