NBA Finals Preview
And then there were two - the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks, both making their first appearance in the NBA Final. This is good news for a few reasons:
It means that, within the next two weeks, either Shaq or Mark Cuban will hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Both of these scenarios bring me immense delight.
We don’t have to watch the Pistons or Spurs, for once. Offense may rule the day for the first time in recent finals history.
This is one of Shaq’s last chances to get a ring. He’s on the downside of his career, and the Heat have a window of one, maybe two years after this, before he starts to seriously break down and some of the younger clubs in the East leapfrog them.
Disco Dirk gets to continue his epic playoff run, while Dwyane Wade gets to make his mark.
Any time that there’s the possibility of a David Hasselhoff cameo, it’s a good night.
The series kicks off tomorrow night, so now seems like an opportune time to preview and predict the final round of these NBA playoffs. I correctly predicted the result of both conference finals, boosting my record to a solid 10 for 14 this spring.
With that in mind, here are the big questions I see for the final.
Who Guards Nowitzki?
He’s proven to be the most difficult match up in the playoff round. Whenever he’s guarded by a big man, he takes them outside; whenever he’s guarded by a smaller player, he posts them up. Athletic forwards like Shawn Marion have given him the most trouble, and Miami has two of them in Antoine Walker and James Posey. Can one or both of them slow Nowitzki down? I think Posey’s the better defender, but lacks the size to contain him in the post. Between the two of them, they may keep him from springing for a 35-40 point game, but they won’t slow him down considerably.
Who Guards Shaq?
Shaq’s presence should keep the Mavs from going small, unless they plan to try and guard the Diesel with a forward like Nowitzki or Keith Van Horn. This should mean a greater role for Erick Dampier and DeSagana Diop. Diop’s presence and shot blocking aptitude may affect how aggressive Dwyane Wade is in attacking the basket too. Regardless, neither of them is a spectacular one on one defender, which means it’s entirely possible that Shaq springs for one of his turn-back-the-clock, 36 and 20 performances.
On the other hand, you have to think that these quotes will make it onto the Mavericks locker room wall:
It’s expected that Adrian Griffin will be back in the lineup to guard Wade, putting an end to the offensively gifted, but defensively challenged duo of Jason Terry and Devin Harris. Terry will still start, and unless Pat Riley puts Wade on him, will probably have a big series feasting on Jason Williams and Gary Payton.
Thanks to their depth, the Mavs have the option of fielding a big lineup, or a smaller, more athletic lineup. Look for them to go big more often with Shaq on the floor, but the Heat could have trouble defending a smaller Mavs fivesome. About as small as they can afford to go is moving Antoine Walker to the 4, which still leaves them with either Shaq, Alonzo Mourning, or Michael Doleac at the 5. If Shaq is on the bench, and Nowitzki and Van Horn are playing the 4 and 5 for Dallas, the Heat could be in trouble.
Both teams have good depth. As I mentioned, the Mavs have more flexibility, and more talent on paper. Jerry Stackhouse is certainly good enough to start for most teams, and Keith Van Horn, Marquis Daniels, DeSagana Diop and Devin Harris are very good players. The Heat have a veteran presence in Gary Payton and Alonzo Mourning, along with talented players such as James Posey, Shandon Anderson, and rookie Wayne Simien, but they don’t match up athletically with the Mavs.
The Third Wheel
Both teams have a lead duo (Nowitzki and Terry vs. Shaq and Wade) that will score. While the Heat has a clear advantage here, this series might turn on who can step up for each team as the third option. For the Mavs, it will probably be Josh Howard, a strong defender and clutch shooter, while the Heat are going to need Antoine Walker to be judicious with his shots, and make some big baskets when his star teammates are double-teamed.
Though young, Avery Johnson has established himself as one of the best motivators, and brightest minds in the game. He also has a large, talented staff of assistants who help him run the game. Meanwhile, Pat Riley is Pat Riley.
I’ll give the Mavs the edge in depth and athleticism, and perhaps generously, call the coaching matchup a push. Meanwhile, the Heat has the better starting five, and the two best players on the floor, though not by much. The Heat also holds the edge in experience.
Prediction: I can see this series going both ways, but in the end, I have to think that experience will rule the day, and the Heat will pull out a series win. At the beginning of the playoffs, I predicted them to make it through the East, where they would meet (and probably dismantle) the Clippers. The Mavs are a tougher matchup, but the Heat will take a couple of close games, and win it on home court.
Heat in 6, with Shaq winning the MVP award.
Look for a special NBA column tomorrow.