Perhaps the Dallas Mavericks’ biggest upset of the season was not their Finals Championship over the Heat but their four game dismantling of the Los Angeles Lakers—capped off by Game 4’s 36-point shellacking—122-86—in front of a giddy home crowd.
For many fans, the sweep of Kobe Bryant and the heavily favored Lakers provided the first glimpse of hope that maybe this Mavs team was different—in a good way—from the rest.
Skepticism still ran high as the Mavericks prepared for the Oklahoma City Thunder. They knew that putting up 122 points might need to become the exception rather than the rule if they were going to take down Kevin Durant’s high-scoring squad.
For the second straight playoff series, the Miami Heat needed just five games to dispatch the Boston Celtics. However, the Eastern Conference Finals brought forth the Chicago Bulls, the first time LeBron James’ boys would face a team with a first-place seeding.
MIAMI HEAT VS. CHICAGO BULLS—EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
Although the national media had decided sometime after LeBron’s Decision last summer that they would go to bed with the Heat, there was a large contingent that felt that the Chicago Bulls would be a formidable foe to foil the Big 3.
After all, the Bulls had the most regular season wins during the 2011 NBA season (62) and their defense was viewed as a possible foil to the Heat’s explosive offense.
If you were building a franchise around one player, who would you take?
And with a Game 1 win—103-82—over the Heat in Chicago, there were whispers that the Bulls might be headed to the NBA Finals instead of the Heat.
The Heat took the Game 1 defeat (a 21-point deficit, their largest all postseason) in stride and proved in Game 2 that they don’t have to have a big night offensively to garner a win.
In their Game 2 win—85-75—the Heat were carried by a LeBron James double-double and their defense which was able to hold Derrick Rose and his Bulls to just 75 points. And just like that, the Bulls’ three game playoff winning streak was over.
Despite Carlos Boozer’s reemergence in Game 3, with a double-double—26 points and 17 rebounds—LeBron’s double-double and Chris Bosh’s 36 points gave the Heat what they needed to take the series’ advantage 2-1 and the game 96-85.
Game 4 was the first time the Heat hit triple digits since Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals but they would need overtime to reach it. Carlos Boozer had yet another double-double but LeBron’s 35 points were too much and the Heat were just one win away from the NBA Finals.
Game 5 would go the way of the Heat, in an extremely low-scoring affair—83-80. LeBron had another double-double as did Chris Bosh, and Derrick Rose’s 25 were left by the wayside.
The Heat had averaged just 89.4 points per game and allowed just 87.2 points per game in their dismissal of the Chicago Bulls. Miami managed to win four-straight against the Bulls by the slimmest of margins—averaging just 2.2 more points than the Bulls per game. It was a series that highlighted just how dominant the Heat's defense can be.
DALLAS MAVERICKS VS. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER—WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
The Oklahoma City Thunder, led by Kevin Durant—the NBA's leading scorer—and Russell Westbrook, were the most formidable offensive team that the Mavericks had faced in the 2011 postseason. They were fifth in the NBA in points per game during the regular season with 104.8.
For all of their offensive prowess, the Thunder were merely adequate on defense. It took them all seven games—two overtime games, including a triple overtime win—to finally put away the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference Semifinals.
Aside from a Game 5 blow out win—99-72—the Grizzlies exploited their defense and held on much longer than their talent should have allowed.
The Thunder had hit triple digits in six of their eight wins heading into the Western Conference Finals. The Dallas Mavericks had hit the century mark in just three of their eight wins. Once again, if you believed the national media, nobody thought Dallas had much of a chance.
No one, that is, except for Dirk Nowitzki and the rest of his increasingly-clutch Dallas Mavericks.
In Game 1, despite 40 points from Durant, the Mavericks would win by nine, 121-112. It was the first time all postseason that the Thunder had lost when Durant scored 40 or more.
Dirk had 48 points and Jose Juan Barea netted 21 from the bench, and Jason Terry put up 24 of his own. Dirk and the Dallas bench scored 101 points combined.
Game 2 saw the Thunder’s bench do a Mavericks impersonation as they had 50 points—21 more than the Mavericks' bench—good enough to squelch a Tyson Chandler double-double and 29 from Dirk. The Thunder's 106-101 win evened up the series 1-1.
The Thunder victory also snapped the Mavericks’ seven-game playoff winning streak.
Game 3 had a Kevin Durant double-double and a Westbrook 30-point night. But Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks got a big night on defense, as Dirk and Marion led their team with just 18 points each. Jason Kidd had 13 points, and more importantly, the Mavericks had the series advantage once again 2-1 on the strength of a 93-87 win.
Game 4 went to overtime, but in the end Dirk’s 40 points and Jason Terry’s 20 from the bench beat Kevin Durant’s double-double, 112-105.
With that win, the Dallas Mavericks were just 48 minutes away from their franchise’s second NBA Finals berth.
But the Thunder would not flee as faintly as the Los Angeles Lakers had.
The Oklahoma City bench had 40 points in Game 5 and Westbrook had another solid night with 31 points. Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion once again shared the team’s scoring lead with 26 each and Jason Kidd’s 10 assists were just too much for the Thunder as they lost the game 100-96 and were eliminated in just five games, 4-1.
The Dallas Mavericks had now set a course for the NBA Finals. If Dallas was to win it’s first NBA title, they’d have to go through the Miami Heat—the franchise that had stolen the championship from them by winning four straight after trailing 0-2 in 2006.
To say that the Miami Heat would be favored in the 2011 NBA Finals is like saying that LeBron James might be a tad egocentric. The Dallas Mavericks had been underdogs all postseason long and had thrived in the role—but could they muster enough offense (and defense) to stifle the Heat's truculent trio?