So, what happened since I left off? Well, my conference finals predictions were one for two, with Chris Bosh and LeBron James surprising me with their clutch play in the Chicago series. In fact, after his debacle against Boston, Bosh seemed to really settle mentally and emerged as the Heat's most consistent player. Consistency alone does not a champion make, but this was a big stride for someone that can get lost in all the Heatles hoopla. LeBron crafted some great fourth quarters after realizing that scoring before the two minute mark can help. The series also revealed Chicago's drastic lack of depth behind Rose at both point and shooting guards. Mike Fratello noted on a Bill Simmons podcast interview that Chicago needed one more ball handler, and I whole-heartedly agree. C. J. Watson is serviceable against horrible benches, but once Rose had to give it up, no one could really create for himself or his teammates. In this situation, you either have to have a clutch closer that can make things happen against the double team (Rose passed out of them too quickly, even though that is usually the best move), or an ingrained system that can seek flaws in the defense and beat it through execution. Tom Thibodeau joins the long list of lauded defense-first head coaches without much of an offensive system, and if he wants to continue his success, he will need to install a better one.
Mavericks over Thunder turned into a faster series than I imagined, mainly because of the multiple defenders that Dallas threw at Kevin Durant, making him largely ineffective. Durant needs to learn how to not let guys like Jason Kidd, who is 100% physicality, crowd him. Time after time, Kidd would rip the ball away in clutch moments, and that cannot happen. Durant needs to improve his post mentality, keeping the ball high and making quick decisions.
Two things that he specifically tends to do is A) wait for the ball, or B) wait with the ball for the defense to unfold in order to see the floor more clearly. Waiting does not win championships. Countless times, as the Thunder execution would turn to pot in the fourth quarter and pick-and-roll offense would become the norm, Durant would float on the edge of the three point line, sometimes calling for the ball, but never really demanding it. You can wave, yell, shout, whatever, but if you are not in a position to do something with the ball, your chances of getting it are slim. As the idiom goes, actions speak louder than words. Where did all those back-cuts for ally-oops go? Where did the back screening for open jumpers go? And that's why Durant didn't get the ball.
When he did, Durant often waited too long to initiate his offense. This turned out to be not only a huge difference in this series, but also the Finals. Time after time, Durant would get the ball on the elbow, turn, face (both of which are good things to do), scan the defense, read Jason Kidd (the primary defender in crunch time), and then decide what to do. At least he was decisive; he usually seemed to have a direction. One of the one times he didn't was that fade-away three that Shawn Marion blocked, which was setup again by his initial hesitancy when he receives the ball. However, the two or three seconds he waited allowed the Mavericks to do two things: identify angles for help defense (the Mavericks this year were brilliant at this), and let Kidd really crowd him. Do you really think Kidd is quicker than Durant? But time after time, Jason would arrive at spots before Kevin, getting the 38 year-old in perfect position to contest or steal the ball. Kidd is a veteran. He has no qualms about being on an island against anyone. You can't stare him down and make him blink. You have to be quick, decisive, and keep him on his heels. He is a different beast from Shane Battier, who is more of a reactive guy, someone who doesn't foul but doesn't get that aggressive (Kidd gets more calls than Battier). Kidd was aggressive, and that really threw Durant off his game.
The Thunder are young and these can be corrected, but Scott Brooks needs to be concerned. Don't worry about Russell Westbrook. He would be a fool to act out with the usage that he gets. Worry about your team's mentality down the stretch.
On the other hand of the equation, Marion was great, the defense was good, Terry was Terry, and Dirk was outside of his mind. We were all impressed with Dirk during the L.A. series. But this was fabulous. I was watching a movie with Emily during part of Game 1, and I kept checking the box score and exclaiming: "oh my goodness, this is the greatest performance I have ever seen," and, "you don't understand! this is historic! Jordan never did this!" How did he do it? compare him with the two points I made at Durant. Dirk is constantly moving. When you take away his favorite spots, the Mavericks find ways to get him the ball. Whether it's ball screens or back screens, Dirk constantly works to get himself open. And when he gets the ball, he is decisive and quick. Don't get me wrong, he's not the fastest guy in the league, and he certainly doesn't rush. But he is such a veteran that he no longer cares what the defense looks like or what his defender is doing. He has seen the same looks so many times (another factor that would come into play during the Finals) that he knows exactly where to go and what to do. For proof, look at the ways Dirk passes out of double teams (I apologize for not being able to provide the video). He knows every time he gets the ball is a double team opportunity, and he has either a move for himself ready (some of which are ridiculous circus shots, but whatever you boat float is ) or knows where to get rid of the ball. He knows exactly where the man in the corner open for three is and is able to make the pass quickly and accurately. During one sequence in the Miami series, he froze a defender with a pass fake and made a better pass into the corner for an open three. He was unconscious. All those good things the telecasters were saying were right on target. I have been a huge Dirk fan for years, but I don't see how you can call this any other way: the man had a tremendous series.