Q. Which team has the coaching edge?
E-dog: Push. Rick Carlisle enters this series as the more decorated of the head coaches, having won Coach of the Year honors in 2002 with Detroit. But it’s tough to choose based on the two teams’ performances in this year’s playoffs to date, especially each team’s performance in late-game pressure situations. Both teams have been masterful in such situations, outperforming not just younger, less experienced opponents (the Thunder and Bulls), but also more experienced, supposedly savvier opponents (the Lakers and Celtics). For Erik Spoelstra, these playoffs have vindicated his season-long approach of staying the course and letting the learning process play out in the wake of numerous late-game failings by his team during the regular season. Ultimately, the way both teams have played make this a choice too tough to make.
Brown Mamba: Mavericks. I’m not sure, as E-dog says, that Spo is the reason the Heat have pulled it together. In my mind, the reason they are here today is because both Lebron and D-Wade have ratcheted up their level of intensity in the playoffs (as great players are wont to do). Carlisle has been an underrated coach throughout his career. He was the assistant coach with late 90s Pacers team that posted some of the best years in Indiana history, won COY with Detroit as E-dog mentions, and then came back to Indiana as head coach where he immediately led the Pacers to the best record in the NBA. Now, with Dallas, he has the Mavericks peaking at exactly the right time, having dominated two tough teams in the Lakers and the Thunder.
Q. Who is/will be the best player in the Finals?
E-dog: LeBron James. It’s actually a two-part question. Dirk Nowitzki enters the Finals as the best player, based on a simply stupendous run in the West Finals and the fact that the drop-off from him to the Mavericks’ next-best player and scoring option is far deeper than that of the Heat. But his play has been only slightly more stupendous than that of LeBron, who has settled scores in each of the past two rounds while becoming the crunch-time killer that he often wasn’t during the regular season. In the end, I like LeBron’s chances of being the best player in the Finals a little more simply because of his ability to dominate on defense as well as on offense, something with which the Bulls became intimately familiar in Games 4 and 5 of the East Finals.
Brown Mamba: Lebron James. No debate here. Nowitzki is playing off the charts, but even his dominating self, is just Lebron on a good day. Also, I agree with E-Dog that the true difference here is James’ defense. How much of a luxury will it be for Spo to rotate James onto Nowitzki (the fact that people are actually considering the notion is a testament to Lebron’s toughness and versatility). In the end, expect for this Finals to delineate the arrival of Lebron, legitimate candidate for GOAT.
Q. Who is the “X factor” for each team?
E-dog: Shawn Marion for Dallas, Udonis Haslem for Miami. Each player will get his turn in the spotlight guarding his opponent’s best player. Marion is still a solid defender after all these years and figures to get the primary defensive assignment on LeBron. For Haslem, the Finals represent a case of déjà vu, since he and James Posey were primarily responsible for keeping Dirk. This time the Heat may utilize LeBron, among others, to share defensive responsibilities on Dirk, but the desire to avoid getting LeBron in unnecessary foul trouble means that a heavy burden will fall on Haslem – again.
Brown Mamba: Jason Kidd for Dallas, Chris Bosh for Miami. Why are each of these guys X-factors? Because in each of their cases, if they play well, it will go a long way toward their team winning. Kidd’s major influence will be his ability to control tempo and the poise of a Dallas Mavericks team who will be under duress from the Heat’s explosiveness. Additionally, it will be interesting to see what kind of chaos he can create on the defensive end. For Bosh, if he plays well, it is difficult to see how the Heat could lose the series. You can pretty much count on James’ and Wade’s performance (and Haslem always seems to average 8 and 10), so any bonus from Bosh should make this an easy series for the Heat.
Q. Which player has the most riding on these Finals?
E-dog: Dirk Nowitzki. It’s tempting to say LeBron, since “The Decision” pretty much guaranteed that this season would become a referendum on him. However, as disappointing as it would be for LeBron if the Heat were to lose the Finals, the fact remains that he is still just 26 and is just entering his prime; time is still on his side. Dirk, meanwhile, turns 33 this summer and has 13 seasons in the books. While he is clearly defying any suggestion that he is on the decline, it is also just as clear that he cannot count on many more opportunities for the title. Moreover, these Finals represent a rare shot at redemption for Dirk. He was simply transcendent through the first 3 rounds of the 2006 playoffs, willing the Mavericks past long-time nemesis San Antonio in Game 7 (37 points, 15 rebounds and the game-tying 3-point play in the final seconds of regulation) and then past Phoenix in that year’s West Finals (including a 50-point effort, 34 of them coming in the second half, in the pivotal Game 5). Then, after Dallas took a 2-0 lead in that year’s Finals, he and his team failed to step on Miami’s throat and paid the price for it. That series (along with the 2007 first-round flop against Golden State) is the reason why Dirk is considered in many circles to fall just short of greatness. This year’s Finals are perhaps Dirk’s last truly good shot to just win a title but to join the company of indisputably great players. Honorable mention on this question goes to Jason Kidd, who at 38 is running out of time for his title quest even faster than Dirk and who, with a win in this year’s Finals, would solidify his claim to being the best point guard since Magic.
Brown Mamba: LeBron James. Sorry E, I 100% disagree. Let’s not be mistaken: while Nowitzki is on a nice run here, these Finals are all about James and his legacy – specifically his ability to rewrite NBA history. A loss here would be devastating for James, and probably would render his pursuit to be the GOAT moot. He simply cannot lose and still expect to be mentioned in the same breath as Michael. For Nowitzki, the current playoff run has already gone a long way towards cementing his legacy. While a ring would be nice, it probably wouldn’t move his place among the all-time greats more than a few notches one way of another. On a side note, for non-players, a victory for the Heat would place Pat Riley in rarefied air, having been a integral part of 3 different championship teams (and really the architect of the last two).
Q. The 2006 Finals were (a) a great comeback by the Heat, (b) an abysmal collapse by the Mavericks and/or (c) a little fishy.
E-dog: (a) and (b). With rare exceptions, comebacks and collapses tend to go hand-in hand; the former are generally not possible without the latter, and the latter don’t matter without the former. It is indisputable that the Heat greatly raised their level of play in the 2006 Finals from the final minutes of Game 3 onward, not just getting superstar performances from Dwyane Wade but also getting vital contributions from a talented supporting cast. It is just as indisputable that the Mavericks melted down over the same period, with the Game 3 giveaway (remember Dirk’s missed free throw in the final seconds with the Mavs down 1?), Jerry Stackhouse’s flagrant foul in Game 4 which drew an ejection and a suspension for Game 5, and the bone-headed timeout call before Wade’s go-ahead free throw in the final seconds of overtime in Game 5, among other miscues. I did not include (c) because, while the foul calls generally went in Miami’s favor, there is no hard evidence that this was deliberate, and there was a very good reason for this discrepancy: Avery Johnson’s insistence throughout those Finals on double-teaming Shaq and playing Hack-a-Shaq on him as though it were 2000, which put Dallas in the penalty early.
Brown Mamba: (a). I could cop out and pick (a) and (b) like my friend E-dog over here, but I’ll go with just (a). For my money, Dwyane Wade’s performance in the 2006 Finals was still the best I’ve seen (regardless what you think of the refereeing). While Dallas may not have played fully up to its capability and Avery Johnson definitely made some questionable moves, you still have to give credit where credit is due. Wade was simply brilliant.
Q. For the Mavericks, the memory of the 2006 Finals are (a) a mental millstone, (b) a motivation, (c) both or (d) neither.
E-dog: (c). The Mavericks are saying and doing all the right things so far with respect to questions that have arisen on the 2006 Finals, pointing out how the team is different (Dirk and Jason Terry are the only remaining Mavericks from that series) and how the opportunity of a championship trumps everything else. Certainly it would appear, for now, that if those Finals are on their minds at all, it is as a source of motivation. But what will happen the first time that a dicey call goes against them, or if a free-throw discrepancy emerges in Miami’s favor? Will the Mavericks be able to put aside any thoughts that may arise about the series being “rigged”, as Mark Cuban famously shouted after Game 5 of the 2006 Finals, and focus on what they need to do in order to win? Until they can prove otherwise, that seed of doubt will be there.
Brown Mamba: (a). Picture this. The series is tied 1-1. The Heat come back in Game 3 and go up 2-1. You don’t think visions of the 2006 collapse are going to creep into Nowitzki’s head. Absolutely. And Nowitzki has never proven himself to be the toughest minded player in any event. As E-dog mentions, while motivation might be there at some level, these are by and large different teams, so I don’t suspect Rick Carlisle will have much bulletin board material to feed his team’s fire (“Let’s do it for Stack!”).
Q. The 2010-11 NBA champion will be …
E-dog: The Heat (barely). It’s tempting to pick the Mavericks, based on their level of play during these playoffs, their 14-game regular-season winning streak over the Heat and the notion that they are due for redemption after what happened in 2006. But the Heat have been giving off a vibe of their own during their playoff run. They have won their last 7 playoff games in which the outcome was in doubt (and in many of which they trailed) in the fourth quarter against two proud, determined teams in the Celtics and Bulls. That type of run, especially in the wake of their Game 5 comeback over Chicago, can’t help but fuel a sky-high level of confidence that they will impose their will when the game is on the line and will find their way out of sticky situations. I think that this will manifest itself in a game or two that the Heat will “steal” with a late rally, and that will make the difference in a stirring, dramatic 7-game triumph.
Brown Mamba: The Heat in six. As I’ve stated before, as much as the Mavericks appear to be a team of destiny (and as some would have you believe, “America’s team”), this line of thought rarely seems to work in basketball – whereas it completely works in baseball, football, and hockey. In basketball, on the other hand, talent and homecourt often seem to dictate the eventual winner. In this case, both of these factors are on the Heat’s side. In addition, you have two individuals who are among the best defensive players, best closers, and best “national TV” performers. I give the Mavs two just because the Heat have shown a lack of focus this season from time to time. It’s been a great run for Dallas, but barring some unforeseen development, we will be seeing some good times on the streets of South Beach in a few weeks.