The Dallas Mavericks are back in the NBA Finals, a feat very few people outside of Texas considered a possibility.
Dirk Nowitzki will get another opportunity to win that elusive ring, and he’ll have to go through Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat yet again. This time, Wade has some good company. He’s got wingmen LeBron James and Chris Bosh along for the ride. James and Nowitzki are six regular-season MVPs who’ve never won an NBA championship. One of them will breakthrough this season.
Here are five things to watch in the 2011 NBA Finals:
Mavs try to exorcise their demons from 2006
Five full seasons have already gone by and yet Dirk still gets asked what happened in the 2006 NBA Finals when his Mavericks were up 2-0 and lost the next four to the Heat. If the Mavs lose again to the Heat, Dirk will never be able to live down his failures, which is probably unfair because he’s a future Hall-of-Famer and maybe the best shooting 7-footer the league has ever seen. It’s quite obvious the loss in The Finals in ’06 still stings. Owner Mark Cuban hasn’t gotten over it, Dirk brings it up seemingly every year, Donnie Nelson said the Mavs need to “exorcise demons” and even former coach Avery Johnson becomes bummed whenever the subject of the ’06 Finals comes up. The best way to overcome a fear is to come face-to-face with it and deal with it. When Game 1 of the 2011 NBA Finals tips off on May 31, the Mavericks will be facing their worst fears in the form of the Miami Heat and it’s either they run away from it or overcome it.
Dallas’ bench mob
It’s safe to say that the Mavs wouldn’t be in The Finals if not for the great play of their bench, led by point guard J.J. Barea, Jason Terry and Peja Stojakovic. Terry and Stojakovic have been lights out from 3-point range, while no one has been able to contain Barea on pick-and-rolls. Just ask Andrew Bynum and Lakers. Barea has made Roddy Beaubois an afterthought, and his energy off the bench is the perfect complement to the walk-it-up style of veteran Jason Kidd. The Heat will counter with Mario Chalmers, but it is highly doubtful he’ll be able to check Barea. Throughout the Western Conference playoffs, the Mavericks killed teams by raining 3-pointers at a record rate. They averaged almost nine 3-pointers made each playoff game and much of their 133 threes came from the fingertips of Terry, Barea and Stojakovic. One way Miami can take control of this series to run Terry and Stojakovic off the 3-point line and make them shoot off the dribble. As for stopping Barea? This may be Miami’s biggest challenge (other than stopping Nowitzki) on defense because Barea is capable of scoring off the dribble or spotting up behind the 3-point arc.
Who will guard LeBron?
Shawn Marion should get the assignment, but don’t be surprised if Mavs coach Rick Carlisle calls DeShawn Stevenson’s number to guard LeBron. It won’t matter. LeBron should dominate this matchup. Right now, James has his jumper working, which is a bad sign for Dallas. James is getting better with his mid-range shot, and has shown a post-up game.
Who will guard Nowitzki?
Ditto for the Heat. Expect Bosh will start on Dirk and then Haslem, who did a decent job on the Mavs superstar in the 2006 Finals. Then, in the fourth quarter, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra should assign LeBron to put the clamps on Dirk – something no one has been able to do in the playoffs. Nowitzki is playing the best basketball of his life, and LeBron and Co. will have their hands full.
Heat vs. Mavericks’ zone defense
The Heat will play their usual air-tight man-to-man defense, but the Mavericks will try to slow down the LeBron, Wade and Bosh using a matchup zone defense. The zone was extremely effective against the Lakers and Thunder, so look for Carlisle to use it against the Heat as a change-of-pace scheme and also to force the Heat to make jump shots and prevent LeBron and Wade from getting to the paint. The Sixers, Celtics and Bulls were unable to keep LeBron and Wade from getting to the free throw line as the Heat made 349 free throws in the Eastern Conference playoffs. One way to keep the Heat from getting to the foul line is keeping LeBron and Wade from driving to the basket and make them make tough jump shots. Expect Spoelstra to use 3-point specialists James Jones, Mike Miller and Mike Bibby to attack the Mavs’ zone defense and space the floor, helping create driving lanes for his two superstars.
Prediction: Heat in six.