Tuesday, June 28, 2011

2011 NBA Season Postview, Part 2, The Finals

Lots have been written about this already. I'm going to try some semi-original thoughts.

First, let's congratulate your 2011 NBA World Champions, the Dallas Mavericks. I'm including the word "World" in that title because basketball was invented in America, this is our highest league, and whenever the Europeans or Africans or whoever wants to send a team Champions League style, they are welcome to play by our rules on our turf. This is an American sport, and we dictate the rules of play. Don't tell me European basketball is pure or anything like that; NBA players may not always play the game well, and Europeans may be better at a few specific things (okay, a lot of things, but their clogging-the-lane-stuff is so old), but American basketball is the way basketball should be played. We care about things like the World Championship and Olympics out of hubris; we care about the Finals because it matters. Take Dirk: he could have been a pansy, stayed in Europe, dominated all the soft big men, and won more than a few titles. But he, being a basketball guru, decided (before his time) to come and play with the big boys, and now, sportscasters and fans alike are proclaiming his toughness, guts, and spirit.

But I digress. This championship was the Mav's to lose, and I believed that even after they took a few licks. We've all heard how this was a different Mavericks team, but remember, many people were saying that while the Mavericks had leads in each of their Western Conference series. What would happen to the team when they found themselves down 1-0, and then 2-1? Turns out that they adapted just fine. Rick Carlisle's team never panicked, which was good, because Erik Spoelstra's didn't either. For all the pundits said about LeBron choking, I don't buy it, but more on that later. I loved what Carlisle said about watching how his team played. The Mavs were purer than any team Spain or Greece or Russia could field. They played amazing team and individual defense, guys were moving on offense and getting to open spots (here's a tip kids, open spots don't come to you, you have to find them), and converting clutch plays. They swallowed their ego's (Stevenson, Stojakovic, Haywood - I didn't see him moping on the bench at all), and played beyond themselves (Cardinal, Mahinmi, Barea). They knew when to give the ball to their superstar, and they knew when to carry him.

Oh, and they had Dirk. So he didn't have a great shooting series, but he was all over everything else. I don't remember seeing him dive to the floor for loose balls and rebounds the way he's done it these playoffs, and that energy continued into this series. How many times did he dunk it in the regular season? And yet he always seemed to have the legs for it in the playoffs. He had a different sort of confidence, both in himself, and his teammates, allowing him to survive a terrible shooting performance in the series' clinching game and still come up with 10 points in the fourth quarter. I think all the superlatives about Nowitzki's play have been uttered, but I'll say one again: Dirk played with heart.

As for the Heat, yeah, this season was a failure compared to their self-imposed standards. But Miami was never going to be a team like Boston. Don't get me wrong-they could have won the championship, and below we'll tell you how-but they just didn't have the same sort of continuity, coaching, and bench that Boston had in the run up to the '08 title. I still think that this year was a success. Lebron and Wade ground out some rough edges in learning how to work together. They have some things that they can work on, but those areas have been identified. They are still the leading contender in the East, and if anything the gap will only grow unless Chicago can solve its shooting guard problem (here's a tip, general managers: if you ever have a chance to improve your team, forget chemistry and do it: guys will find ways to play with better guys). Some of the network guys were wondering whether they should make a major trade for a guy like Dwight Howard, someone who might (emphasis on "might") fit better with the rest of the team, but I don't buy it. They have a great team, but like Dallas, needed to work some things out.

As far as the series, what was the story? I think Dallas won for more than a few reasons, but I'll highlight some key issues here. First, there was the Dallas defense. Lots of people have talked about this, mostly pointing to the zone (which was and wasn't effective), but I think the Dallas defense had less to do with breaking Miami runs and more to do with dictating the flow of the game. Many analysts noted that in the Chicago series, the Bulls could not afford to play grind-it-out defensive games all the time, that they eventually would need to score to win. I totally agreed with that viewpoint, noting that the Bulls could play great defense at a faster offensive pace by utilizing their possessions more effectively (not walking the ball up, shorter plays, more decisiveness offensively). Many of those analysts also noted that Dallas would need to play even faster if they wanted their offense to have enough possessions to win. But Dallas showed instead that it was committed to defense, committed to not letting the Heat get fast breaks, committed to rebounding, etc. By dictating pace and not trying to run against a more athletic team, Dallas showed it's maturity, resourcefulness, and will to win.

Look at game one: it was a slow affair with plenty of defense, precisely the game the Heat wanted to play. But Dallas played that game, and if not for a bevy of missed shots either wide open or at the rim, they would have won. I actually thought to myself during and after the game: if the Mavericks lose, it will be a very OK loss. They came to Miami and were within a few blown layups of winning? They can live with that. And in the subsequent games, they played the same pace and had better outcomes. They dictated. If anything, I fault the Heat offense for not dictating. They have the more athletic team! I know that the guys are tired (LeBron especially-more on that later). But THIS IS THE FINALS! You are playing an opponent who is older and slower! Don't let Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Brian Cardinal, beat you down the floor! Don't tell me that your superstars can't give you four games of extraordinary effort, that by the end of those four games, Carlisle has to drag Dirk off the floor during timeouts. I couldn't understand when the Cavaliers of last year played slow against Boston, and I don't understand the Heat now. How many times did we see them come on a fast break, only to see the Mavericks hustle back, forcing a reset of the offense? How many times did we see LeBron or Mario or Mike walking the ball up the court, finally getting to the offense with 16 seconds left? Miami thought they were dictating the pace with their slow play, but in reality, they played right into Dallas' hands.

Beyond pace, Dallas' defense was different from Miami's in another way: they were better individual defenders. LeBron James was the best defensive player in the series. Joel Anthony can protect the paint, and Dwayne Wade is a ballhawk. The Heat played a better team defense, with their switching and trapping and running and blocking. But Kidd, Marion, and Chandler are all better individual defenders (excepting LeBron). What Dallas didn't have was team defensive speed, but Miami never found a way to take advantage of that. Instead of running the Mavericks ragged with relentless ball pressure, driving and dishing, and moving without the ball, the Heat played a lot of one-on-one games. In the few possessions where they did drive and kick, they often found spectacular results. Many times, their one-on-one possessions were the by-product of not having enough time on the clock to break down the defense. You really think that Kidd can keep up with LeBron, or Wade? And yet, that's what he did. On the other hand, Dallas knew that Miami had a great team defense, but had the one guy that could break it. Dirk was sensational, especially passing out of double teams. Carlisle was great get Terry by himself through staggered screens. Dallas attacked Miami's terrific team defense with individual greatness, while Miami went after Dallas' individual stalwarts with team crappiness. And there went the series.

The Heat, for all their hubris, showed a remarkable willingness to be dictated to, and that starts at the top. Erik Spoelstra flat-out got schooled by Rick Carlisle, joining Nate McMillan, Phil Jackson, and Scott Brooks in the coaches undressed by the unflappable Carlisle club. His rotations were awful, and that was a year-long thing. Really, it took him five games to realize that Bibby couldn't play? And his solution was Eddie House, who was a hero for making threes in Game Six, but only AFTER he let Jason Terry get lost on defense (I think JET won that matchup). His offense was tepid and his confidence was un-inspiring (c'mon, you don't have a better catchphrase than "stay the course"???). But Spoelstra will get better. They should keep him. Like others in the out-coached club, there is no shame to getting schooled by Carlisle, because Carlisle coached his own pants off. The double screens, the plays to get Dirk open, the confidence in different guys to put them in, all were great. The trust in the zone was huge, as detailed on Carlisle deserves all the props in the world for this phenomenal coaching job.

Finally, we come to the Big three. I know the talk is about LeBron, and I will be the first to say that he didn't have a fantastic series, or even a great series. Unlike others, I will say that he had a very good series. Bosh also had a good series. In fact, his only weakness was not getting the ball enough. When Dirk and Chandler had to sit with fouls in Game Six, what was Erik Spoelstra THINKING!? Dallas is playing guys like Cardinal and Mahinmi, Bosh is a good foul shooter, you have to enter the ball to Bosh! And yet number one kept getting lost within the offense while Mahinmi and Cardinal were playing unbelievably. Spoelstra did not have a good series, that's been hashed over, but in Game Six (!!!!), he had this advantage and he didn't press it, and that is unforgivable. Bosh was the most consistent Heat player in this series, and was probably the only weapon they had against Dirk, and Erik didn't use him. Think about it: Portland, LA (with Gasol disappearing) and OKC all didn't have anyone to attack Dirk defensively. Miami did, got 41 in foul trouble, and then let IAN MAHINMI hit buzzer-beaters.

I digress yet again. The point is, Bosh was fantastic. he did all that he was asked to do. On the other hand, Wade was terrible. Four points in the second half in Game Six, a slew of missed free throws, dribbling the ball off his foot, getting his pocket picked by Terry, and blown defensive assignments. While people are ripping LeBron, I remember many analysts before the season started calling the Heat "Dwayne's team." Many thought LeBron would morph into a facilitating Magic, and that Dwayne would be the closer. That was certainly the case on the 2008 Olympic team: when USA needed a bucket in the clutch, it was either Dwayne or Kobe. LeBron and Carmelo just shied away from the ball during those big moments. I thought that in an elimination game, Dwayne would take it upon himself to score in the second half; I was mistaken. And that's a huge difference between this team and the 2006 team that won the title. Lots of people blame LeBron; I fault Dwayne.

But this article wouldn't be complete without talking about James. He made a lot of the same mistakes as Kevin Durant in the WCF (see that post for more). In Game Six, he looked too willing to give up the ball, especially when he got into the paint. It's interesting that he was so apt to attack in that game, after two games of others' complaining about his lack of aggressiveness. After Game One, his jumper seemed to leave him, which affected his game a lot. I am disappointed with him, and the Heat certainly could have played better  with him on top of things. But there are two things that people seem to forget about him. First, he is the best defensive player on his team, perhaps even more so than when he was in Cleveland and had guys like West, Varejao, etc., who would play good defense. As such, he was tasked with chasing Marion around, and later, chasing Terry around the court, through all those screens, and especially on fast breaks. He was constantly tasked with guarding the Mavericks' best perimeter player, and that had to take a toll on him. Second, and I re-hash this, this was Dwayne's team. I don't fault him for sometimes drifting on offense, because A) there wasn't a set offense a lot of the time, and B) Dwayne should have been the closer. You can't ask one thing of LeBron and expect another. Sure, his scoring went down a historical amount, but there are others things to basketball than scoring. LeBron helped his team get very close to beating a better team, and that's that.

And we end with the better team coming out on top. Sure, the Heat could have fixed a few things (gone to Bosh, pushed the pace, not miss free throws, Dwayne Wade), but ultimately, Dallas has proven that their team is better. And what a team it was. There was remarkable unity on this team, showing you that being unified on the court is more important than being superfriends off it. When Mahinmi hit that killer buzzer-beater in Game Six, Dirk, DeShawn, Tyson, Brendan, everyone was off the bench to congratulate the unit on the floor for holding serve. No one sat and moped over his minutes in a crowded rotation, no one shook his head at Dirk missing wide-open jumpers, and everyone was ready to contribute and do whatever it took to when. Rick Carlisle described his team in one word as "resourceful." Whatever it was, the Mavericks had it, and that's why they are the best team in basketball. You can make the call, but this seems like a wrap for Dallas.

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