Tue May 31 11:35am EDT
The NBA Finals start on Tuesday night, with the Miami Heat hosting the Dallas Mavericks. Kindly join me, and the staggering genius of Dan Devine and Eric Freeman, as we break down the final round of the NBA's playoff bracket.
The way I see it, the way I expect these Finals to shake out? I believe things are about to get weird.
Or, they're about to get great. There really are only two options. This has been a playoff run that, just about from Day 1 during mid-April, hasn't been touched by too many postseasons in recent memory. In fact, the only thing that comes close to it, in recent memory, is the 2006 playoff run that featured a litany of fantastic, close contests. That postseason also finished with the Heat and Mavericks in the Finals, though longtime readers of this site will no doubt deduce that I term that a coincidence and nothing else.
Really, the only step for either team this time is to either give us a Finals for the ages (no complaints there), with the requisite two blowout games being surrounded by four or perhaps five close and crazy ones, or something much stranger but no less entertaining. This is why, on a fluke, Dallas could take two games to start in Miami, winning by a total of five points, with the Mavericks pulling away for some late and shocking reason that could include a strange hot hand showing up, or unrepresentative play from a Miami stalwart.
(Also remember that any member of the Big Three falling short in the clutch, now, would be termed "unrepresentative," and that's progress. Three months ago this team was, honestly, betraying itself and the game of basketball with its unfocused and inefficient play down the stretch of close contests. The team appeared to prefer to play the martyr more than it wanted to do what was needed to win, and it was insulting. Now? The Heat just look like what it is -- a group featuring the best small forward and shooting guard in the game, with an All-Star power forward, surrounded by workable rotation parts. That is to say, a should-be champion.)
All I can see is strangeness, though. Dallas winning even if Udonis Haslem(notes), Chris Bosh(notes) and LeBron James(notes) hold Dirk Nowitzki(notes) to sub-40 percent shooting. Miami sweeping by a total of seven points in four games. Mike Bibby(notes) coming out of nowhere, Tyson Chandler(notes) averaging 12 minutes per game due to foul trouble. Jason Kidd(notes), Finals MVP. Toss it all out there; I think it feasible based on the smarts and talent these two teams possess.
Though Dallas isn't exactly the 2005 Phoenix Suns in terms of pushing the ball, I do think Miami spent most of its time off between the Eastern Conference finals and NBA Finals working on transition defense. The team was brilliant in often shutting down Chicago's transition work, but it understands that Dallas is another monster in that regard. Kidd will find the finishers that Derrick Rose(notes) could and would not, and Dallas owns finishers that Derrick Rose did not have to pass to (two different things, by the way). As a result, look for Miami to average about 1.7 offensive rebounds per seven quarters.
Dallas has to be potent from just about everywhere. DeShawn Stevenson(notes) has to hit or die, Jason Terry(notes) needs to have Bibby flailing to keep up or Mario Chalmers(notes) muttering to himself for following the ball, and Dirk has to continue to take good threes and follow-through like the beast that he is. Chandler has to hedge without hacking, Kidd has to help on the boards, and pretty much the entire team has to play the game of its life, every night.
Miami? It just has to play its game. Because the team's typical game should be more than enough to topple a team like Dallas. That's not a slight to the Mavs. To say "a team like Dallas" is to say, "a championship-worthy team that could have you down by 20 before you knew what hit you." Dallas is fantastic. But Miami? The Heat are something beyond that. Ungodly defense, most times. Unstoppable offense, especially providing they go smart with their perimeter decisions.
Even still? Ah, what the hell. Keep the playoffs weird.
Mavs in six.
Well, gang, this is it. Just one more visit from our old friends before they go away on summer vacation. Yes, it's kind of sad, but it's also been some kind of journey, hasn't it?
When we started way back when, tomboy Joey was in love with her lifelong friend Dawson, but didn't know how to tell him about how her feelings for him had changed. Now, after so much life has been lived, Joey's a fast-rising junior editor at a New York publishing house and Dawson's producing a teen TV drama. So much has changed!
Now that I think about it, it's very possible that I'm remembering a different journey. Oh, well. I think we can all agree that "Dawson's Creek" would have been a lot more fun if the blonde film dork was played by a 7-foot German. Plus, Rick Carlisle would've made a great Pacey.
The series finale of "PLAAAAAAAAAAYOFFS!" follows. Here to offer their made-up perspective on the NBA Finals are 7-foot-4 Utah Jazz center-turned-celebrity motivational speaker Mark Eaton and 310-year veteran/olde-tyme crustbucket Ol' Man Howard. Feel free to read it while sitting on a dock beside a calm body of water, staring at the setting summer sun, and listening to Paula Cole on your Discman.
Mark Eaton: The NBA Finals start Tuesday night, and for the first time in your illustrious career, Olie, you're going to be a part of it. How are you feeling?
Ol' Man Howard: Better'n expected. That bout of grocer's itch has cleared, and I've nary a touch of the King's Evil this morning. Haven't felt this good since before Rutherford B. Hayes leg-whipped me in Cincinnatuh back in '60.
ME: That's great to hear! And I've got to say, as successful as you've been, you and your teammates on the Heat haven't looked this good all season. With that stifling half-court defense, more balanced contributions from a second unit led by the now-healthy Udonis Haslem, and LeBron James taking over down the stretch to put games away, it really seems like you're rounding into form at the right time.
OMH: Can't start thinkin' like that now. We may've played like the Akron Goodyear Wingfoots thus far, sure, but if we don't stay focused, we'll wind up just like the Oshkosh All-Stars. Seen it happen too many times, 'specially when the other side's got someone like that tall blonde job they got.
ME: To be sure, Dirk Nowitzki has been sensational this postseason. Dallas' offense seems to work best when he's able to draw the attention of more than one defender, opening up passing lanes that he can take advantage of with his height and vision, which leads to the Mavericks moving the ball quickly to find an open look for one of their gifted shot-makers. How do you handle Nowitzki without giving his teammates free reign?
OMH: Ain't my place to talk too much about it — the young feller's got all a plan and all manner of charts, same as always. Let us just say, for argument's sake, that it'll be "interesting" to see how well the German shoots no-footed jumpers.
ME: Ah, I see — so the plan is to get physical with Dirk, then?
OMH: Let us just say it'll be "interesting" to see me beat him to the floor with a hickory switch until he wails for mercy, then kick him on the ground until he wails for more mercy, of which there will be none, only a new switch.
ME: That's completely illegal! You'll be disqualified, probably suspended and possibly arrested!
OMH: Let us just say it'd be "interesting" to note that I'm "utterly disposable," "only valuable in very specific contexts" and "acting under express orders from President Riley."
ME: What a disgusting way to enter the NBA Finals.
OMH: Disgusting like a fox.
ME: That's not even a thing.
OMH: Sure 'tis. Disgusting like the rabid fox that's going to sic that Holger guy before Game 3.
ME: I want no part of this. You've changed, partner.
OMH: Maybe that King's Evil persists after all.
ME: Well, I don't think your creepy and ridiculous actions will pay off. I think Dirk's too strong to be beaten to the floor by an old man, and I think Dallas' offense is too good to be stopped, even by rabid-dog defense. I'm picking Dallas in seven.
OMH: Villainy. Someone's got to do it. Heat in five.
Eric Freeman's Reputation Index
The regular season counts, but the postseason is where reputations are made. Tracy McGrady never won a playoff series and will always be seen as a disappointment. Derek Fisher lacks several fundamental basketball skills but will always be seen as a champion because he makes big shots when it counts. Chauncey Billups owes his entire nickname to the 2004 playoffs. The point being that playoff performance skews national perception of NBA players beyond all reason. In that vein, behold the BDL Reputations Index, your guide to what's at stake for the top names in the conference finals.
LeBron James: The Heat exist to win championships, not play for them. So while LeBron has seen some rehabilitation to his image over the past few weeks, particularly in the sense that pretty much everyone with half a brain now agrees he's the best player in the world, he's still going to be viewed as a selfish jerk until he hoists the Larry O'Brien Trophy above his head and engages in a rehearsed celebration with his fellow Heatles. "The Decision" put James on enough people's bad sides to ensure that he'll have his detractors even if he wins one championship; at this point it may only be enough if he surpasses Michael Jordan's six rings. But winning this series and a Finals MVP award would help put him past True MVP status and make him The Once and Future King for at least another year. That would also be great news for Nike, because they've sunk too much money into the Witness campaign to abandon it now.
Dwyane Wade(notes): Wade is pretty well established as one of the five best players in the NBA, but it says something about his secondary status with this year's Heat that they were able to beat a very good Bulls team in five games despite his relatively poor performance. If Wade plays an average Finals, whether in victory or defeat, it's possible that he'll feel something of a backlash, or at least a growing feeling that he's the rare superstar whose team doesn't really depend on him much to win. That's hogwash, of course: Anyone who watched the Heat regularly this season knows Wade has been a huge part of their success. Regardless, anything short of magnificence may put him in a class similar to that of Scottie Pippen, another amazing player who is often underrated because he happened to play next to a once-in-a-generation basketball savant.
Chris Bosh: The butt of jokes since he signed with Miami in July, Bosh isn't likely to become free from mockery if the Heat win a championship, because he's a goofy personality in a league where machismo reigns. Still, a strong performance that helps the Heat to a championship would do him a world of good, particularly given his strong performances against Chicago. Bosh can become a ridiculous person while being widely recognized as a surefire All-Star who gives the Heat a different look at the offensive end. He'll never be a banger, but that doesn't mean he's worthless. A championship would remind the world of the considerable talents that made him such a prize last summer.
Erik Spoelstra: Spo has never been mentioned among the best coaches in the league, so his job security on a team with players of this caliber depends almost entirely on rings, not process, or improvement, or anything else that normal coaches can depend on for extensions. If the Heat can't beat the Mavericks, whether in four games or seven, then there will almost certainly be some talk that Spoelstra isn't the right man to lead his team. Perhaps Pat Riley would even consider making a change this offseason. However, if the Heat capture a title, then Spo will be conferred with legitimacy almost immediately and gain new levels of respect from peers and fans alike.
Dirk Nowitzki: Only the most stubborn fans still think Dirk is soft, and a choker, and all those other bad words hordes heave at any star player who has the misfortune of putting up great numbers on a good team that doesn't accomplish much in the postseason. Few players can match his career — the defining controversy shouldn't be whether or not he's the best foreign player in NBA history, but by what margin he holds that title. But even if Dirk deserves a great deal of respect right now, there's no question that a championship would vault him to another level of historical greatness. People will remember how great Dirk Nowitzki was on a basketball court. The major issue for his career now is how hushed their tones are while they do so.
Mark Cuban: Few owners in sports history have been as immediately successful as Mark Cuban -- the Mavericks have not had a single mediocre season since he took over in 2000. However, his antics and continuing criticism for referees have made him difficult to accept for many sports executives, including MLB commissioner Bud Selig, who didn't ever seem too thrilled about the prospect of Cuban buying the Chicago Cubs. An NBA title wouldn't necessarily justify Cuban's behavior, but it would make him less of an outcast among the old guard of sports owners and executives. Who knows, maybe we'd even see him at the helm of a downtrodden baseball team soon after.
Jason Kidd: No matter what happens in this series, Kidd will be best remembered as one of the two or three best pure point guards of his era. A ring would add to both his legacy and resume. Over the past few years, Kidd has been considered too old to lead Dallas to ultimate glory, and at times the subject of the trade that robbed the team of much-needed athleticism in the form of Devin Harris(notes). Leading the Mavericks offense to a championship would put a bow on the late period of Kidd's career, turning it from a nondescript decline to a graceful transition to another style of play.
Jason Terry: There have been a lot of players like Terry in NBA history: borderline All-Star talents who aren't quite stars but nevertheless do lots of important things for good teams and are only remembered by the fans that rooted for them and a select cadre of NBA diehards. Championships make these players much easier to remember and sometimes even turn people into Hall of Fame candidates. Terry has been a dependable second option for close to a decade, but he doesn't have one accomplishment to make him an especially notable semi-star. If the Mavs win this series, Terry will likely have a huge role in the upset. If that's the case, he'll surely grab people's attention.
My pick? Heat in six.