The NBA Finals are upon us, and it is certainly not short on story lines. The best player on each team is still searching for their first championship. Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James have each tasted the finals, but neither has been able to break through and actually win a championship.
Although both teams had difficult roads to the championship, this year might be considered easier than most.
The number one seeds in each conference weren't built for a title. The Spurs were too old and injury prone, and the Bulls were too young and reliant on scoring from Derrick Rose who struggled mightily against good defense in the playoffs and shot very poorly.
When specifically examining each team's road to the finals we have to look at the complete body of work throughout the playoffs.
When it comes to the Mavericks, it all starts with Dirk Nowitzki. The big German is averaging 28 points and eight rebound thus far in the postseason. He has thrusted himself into the conversation as a Top 20 All Time Player.
Is he better than Malone? Is he better than Barkley? I don't think we can say just yet.
Dirk's all time standing will depend heavily on how he performs in his second chance at a title, because he may not get a third.
Where would you rank Dirk in comparison to Malone and Barkley?
During the 2011 playoffs, Dirk has shot the ball like we have never seen, comfortably in the 50-40-90 club to this point. He is currently shooting 52 percent from the field, a shocking 52 percent from behind the arc and 93 percent from the free throw line.
Dirk is in 50-50-90 club.
The word "unguardable" has been thrown around quite frequently this offseason in regard to Dirk and his unbelievable performance. Opposing defenses have done just about everything they can to stop him but they just can't.
He's going to get his shot off because he's so tall; when he fades away there's simply nothing you can do to stop it; and when he puts up that shot all you can do is hope.
In the first round, the Mavs beat the Blazers in six games, losing in two close games on the road. The Blazers were seen as a dangerous low seed going into the playoffs, and the did give the Mavs trouble, but ultimately Dallas was just too much.
In the second round, we saw the Lakers absolutely implode. It's hard to say whether that series said more about the Lakers or Mavs.
I believe it probably has to be both.
The Mavs are playing like they never have before and the Lakers are definitely on the downside of their run after winning back to back championships.
In the Western Conference Finals, the Mavs played an inexperienced Thunder team that beat themselves. The power struggle between Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant was evident, and it really hurt the team's chemistry. Ultimately, the Thunder are talented but they lack maturity and they couldn't handle the Mavs.
One could argue that the West was weak this season. The Mavs didn't have to face the number one seed; the second seed turned out to be a train wreck; and the four seed just isn't ready yet.
Although the West may be weak, this by no means suggests that the Mavs are unworthy of the Finals.
After all, they have only lost three playoff games to this point. They dominated the West during the postseason and they are a team that is playing extremely well at the right time.
When it comes to the Heat, you have to look at the big three.
Wade, Bosh, and James have all played very well this postseason. They have really played well off each other and made it work during the playoffs.
During the playoffs, it seems as if LeBron has taken over the role as the superstar on the team.
Is Miami better or worse than the '08 Celtics?
Everyone thought the Heat would always be Wade's team, but it would seem as if no single player is necessarily the leader of that team.
Sure, LeBron is the brightest star, but it would seem like there is no clear leader. The Heat are all about getting as much as possible from their big three, and having different guys step up when necessary.
The Miami Heat have had a target on their back the entire season, and it hasn't been an easy road to this point.
But they haven't had much of a problem in the playoffs to this point. They lost one game on the road in each of their three series.
This series features two teams with extremely different styles and strengths. In fact, they are almost complete opposites; Miami being a team that is centered around three players and having the rest feed off those guys; Bosh, James, and Wade account for almost 75 percent of Miami's playoff scoring.
Comparing Miami to a past champion is pretty easy. We have to look just a few years back to the '08 Celtics. They also had three players at the same three positions who accounted for a large percentage of the scoring.
Wade and LeBron are clearly better than Pierce and Allen, but Garnett was definitely more valuable than Bosh because of his defense and leadership.
Finding a comparison for the Mavs was a little tougher, but I came up with three so-so comparisons. First, the '77 Blazers who relied heavily on big man Bill Walton to drive the offense. They were a balanced team who could hurt you in a variety of different ways with eight players averaging at least eight points per game, sounds a lot like the Mavs.
Dallas has many players who can score and they are a deep team. The '77 Blazers were better, but remember I never said these were perfect.
The other two teams that remind me just a little bit of this Mavericks team were the '89 and '04 Detroit Pistons. In both cases, the point guards were the best players on the team, but they were both teams who were balanced and were deep without a variety of superstars.
The '89 Pistons had Isiah just like the Mavs have Dirk, but in almost all cases these days a championship requires two superstars. If there is a team that has won a title without two stars since 1980 besides these Pistons teams, that's news to me.
It could be argued that the '04 Pistons didn't have any stars, which is obviously not like the Mavs, but still, Dallas only has one clear All-Star level player. No one else is even close.
Who will win the series?
Yeah, yeah I know Kidd was on the All-Star roster this year but just because he was on the All-Star team doesn't mean he's playing like one. Eight points and eight assists a game while shooting 36 percent from the field is nothing to write home about. He's solid, but he's not playing at an all-star level.
Either way, the Mavs are a team that has many specialists and players that play specific roles.
This series is going to become a question of matchups. Dirk is the most unstoppable player in the league, and LBJ is the most physically dominating player in the game today.
This may be the first time ever that the three best players in the league are all playing in the finals. Wade and LBJ were considered to be two of the three best, and with Dirk playing like he is he is top three as well. Dirk may not be top three overall, but during these playoffs, he may be number one.
If there was a league-wide five on five tournament tonight instead of the finals, you can't tell me that Dirk wouldn't be one of the first three picks. The way he's playing right now, he's just too good.
Now it becomes, who will guard Dirk? There have been rumors that LeBron will be the guy, but I have a hard time seeing that happening, especially in the post.
Who is the best player participating in the finals?
If Dirk can get his shot off over a 6'11" Nick Collison, he can get it over a 6'8'' LeBron. Dirk isn't all that athletic, and someone a little bigger may be a better choice.
There is no question many different guys will get a shot to guard Nowitzki. I think you have to give the job initially to Chris Bosh. He is long and fairly quick and he might have a shot at disturbing Dirk's shot more than any other Heat player.
If they do go with LeBron he has to deny Dirk the ball, and they are going to need to double Dirk in the post. I'm not sure what the Heat will do to stop Dirk, but if they are even moderately successful their chances to win substantially improve.
The Heat have to stop one guy; the Mavs have to stop three. Chris Bosh will be contained by Chandler well enough, but with the Mavs preferred lineup there really isn't anyone to guard Wade and LeBron for extended time.
Expect Marion to get a shot at LeBron, and the Mavs to try to stick Kidd on Wade. At least Wade is a small shooting guard.
The problem is, both of those guys are older, and after playing so many games already, I'm not sure how they will hold up over the course of seven games.
I also expect to see a little more of Corey Brewer in this series. He is a defensive specialist who has barely been used at all during the playoffs after signing with the Mavs during the season. With two unbelievable offensive wings, Brewer could be usable for small stretches to keep the other guys fresh.
The Mavs are really playing their best at the right time and they are coming together as a team. JJ Barea has emerged as a solid role player; Terry and Stojakovic have been great shooting the ball; Chandler is solid on defense and a good rebounder; Kidd has been hitting open jumpers and passing as usual; and Shawn Marion has revived his career and been valuable during their playoff run.
It's also important to note that Erik Spoelstra is coaching in the playoffs for the first time, while Rick Carlisle is a much more experienced coach.
I expect that Carlisle will have his team prepared for the finals, and Dirk will continue to do his thing. Dirk can't drop 40 every game (probably) but the other Mavs players have stepped up in a big way during the playoffs and I expect that to continue.
My prediction is Mavs in seven. I admit I have jumped on the Dirk bandwagon, but I think the Mavs are a deeper team that will be ready for the finals. Either way, this will undoubtedly be one of the most interesting finals in recent memory.
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