Wednesday, June 07, 2006

NBA: The First Finals

Miami Heat vs. Dallas Mavericks
Finals Preview

About two years ago, I worked on an article explaining why professional basketball has regressed dramatically over the previous 4 years. The fan base was quickly deteriorating and the quality of games was sinking to “unwatchable” levels.
Fast forward to the 2006 playoffs, the mark of the league’s probable resurrection. There were four highly entertaining seven-game series, another six series went for six games (that is 10 competitive series out of played 14). Lots of these games were good enough to be considered instant classics. A few stars reached superstardom levels (LeBron, Wade, Dirk, maybe Elton Brand), a few lesser- knowns achieved star-like recognition (Boris Diaw, Josh Howard, Tayshaun Prince), and a lot of the so-called stars did not bother to show up (you know yourselves Carmelo and Co.). All in all, this year's playoffs offered the drama that “re-interested” the casual fan, while featuring very good basketball.

The main complaint so far has been the officiating. When the games are that close and competitive, the league cannot afford to have all these errors and “innocent” mistakes in game calls. The accusation that the NBA is fixed, staged and is nothing put pro-wrestling is ridiculous, but the referees took a lot of heat from the media and the players, and at times, it was justified. (The most irritating was the back to back traveling- no-call game-winners by LeBron James against the Wizards, followed by the “prematurely -crowned king” announcing “I don’t travel, I don’t even know how to travel”).

In conclusion, two well deserving teams made it to the Finals for the first time in the history of their respective franchises. The Dallas Mavericks has finished each of the past five regular seasons with around 60 wins . They were consistent and were considered a title contender throughout the season, (their longest losing streak was 3 games and it only happened once) .They beat the reigning World Champs on their way to the finals. The Miami Heat took a little longer to achieve chemistry with a lot of new faces and a head coaching change, but they were also in contention all along. They won 10 in a row and 15 out of 16 between mid February and mid March, and eliminated the back to back conference champs in the Eastern Finals.
In a seven game series the position by position match ups are constantly changing. Adjustments based on effectiveness of the match up, injuries and contribution of the player at the position are expected. Starting line-ups and playing time is subject to constant change. Players can fill in different positions, other tha theones they are listed to play, based on the game flow.

Postion by position:

Point Guard:
Jason Terry Devin Harris
vs.
Jason Williams Gary Payton

The point guard play was one of the main reasons Dallas is in the Finals. After initial doubt that this tandem of a rookie, who struggled with injuries throughout the year, and a shoot-first point guard would be able to replace the departed Steve Nash, both players ended up doing a better than expected job. The total number of assists from the position dropped, but when they shared the same backcourt (especially during the San Antonio series) they gave their team a combination of speed attack to the basket (Harris) and long range shooting (Terry), and constantly caused match up problems.
Williams and Payton are both different players from what they were earlier in their careers. Payton is no longer “the Glove” defensive stopper, but he provides Miami with veteran leadership, Finals experience and clutch performances when called upon. J-Will is no longer doing his “white chocolate” stuff. He will not be running and gunning nor dishing elbow-passes (to fans in the stands). He is more mature on the court and his old style does not fit Miami’s approach. He has been bothered by injuries all year long, but he had a couple of above average games in the playoffs. Payton and Williams can share the backcourt as well especially in relief of Dwayne Wade.

Advantage: Dallas

Shooting Guard:
Adrian Griffin Marquis Daniels
vs.
Dwayne Wade

Adrian Griffin was signed as a free agent in the end of November for his defensive effort. As he proved during a previous stint with the team, he continues to be a hustler and a hard worker with little offensive contribution. He should contribute in guarding Wade. As for Daniels, after a good post season performance and a long term contract last year he fell out of favor with the coaching staff and saw his minutes decline. He missed some action due to injuries. He remains an asset coming off the bench, especially when others players are in foul trouble, but he is inconsistent and mistake prone. Dallas uses Terry and Stackhouse at the position when such match ups give Dallas an advantage.
Wade stapled his superstar status he achieved last year. After missing game seven against Detroit last year he came back against them with vengeance, and shot 70% from the field for the first few games. (He finished with 61.7% for the series, still a ridiculous number for a guard). He attacks the basket relentlessly (and gets up eight times for every seven he gets knocked down! , This shoe campaign slogan does not make sense but I will accept it and give him credit for signing with Converse, on a second thought Nike owns Converse so no credit here).He shoots a high percentage at the free throw line (essential to a player who is constantly cutting to the basket), but his long range shooting is sporadic (34 % in the playoffs but only 17% in the regular season). A key player in the series, whom Dallas will try to contain using different players.

Advantage: Miami

Small Forward:
Josh Howard Jerry Stackhouse
vs.
James Posey Antoine Walker

Howard has made the jump into the public eye and gained the attention of the casual fan this year. Dallas paid Michael Finely 50 million dollars to go away, being certain that Howard will be a better and younger replacement. When the second year player missed games during March due to an injury, the Mavs felt his absence at both ends of the floor. He is one of the leaders of the defensive revolution of the team, and at crunch time he usually guards the other team's best perimeter player. During the playoffs he is the Mavs third best scorer (only 0.4 points behind Terry) and their second best rebounder, and I own his replica jersey (bought it on sale when Juwan Howard was traded, Josh wears the same number). Stackhouse is not the star he was in Detroit (at a time when the NBA had a shortage on good players), but he was a sixth man of the year candidate (Mike Miller himself athinks Stack should have won it). He takes too many shots at a low percentage (volume shooter which stands for bad shooter) and almost cost his team the San Antonio series. But he remains a valuable veteran who can play multiple positions.
Miami is vulnerable at this position. Posey does not bring anything to the table, and he was temporarily scratched from the starting line-up during the season. Walker can play this position or the other forward position. He spent last year in Dallas playing at the “point forward!” and was an obvious misfit all along. It has not been long since Walker was a super star in this league, but he looks overweight, slow and disinterested. He is taking less 3 point shots at a higher percentage, but he does not look like a difference maker anymore.

Advantage: Dallas

Power Forward:
Dirk Nowitzki
vs.
Udonis Haslem

This year’s playoffs will mark Nowitzki taking the next step. His 50-point game against Phoenix could be the exact point where he sprung to that last level. He made the All-NBA first team for the second year in a row, and was one of the top three players in the league. He won the 3-point shooting contest during the All-Star weekend, but he still went almost 4 playoffs games without attempting a 3-pointer, because he does not settle for long jumpers anymore. Everybody agrees that he is the toughest match up in basketball; his trademark jumper from around the free throw line does not miss, and he drives to the basket to either finish strong or sink his free throws. Easily the best player in this years' playoffs.
Haslem is a good hustle player. He does the dirty work, setting up screen and fighting for loose balls and rebounds. He has a good mid range jumper from the top of the key. He will have trouble if matched up against dirk, and Miami’s coaching staff will provide him with help, or alternate him with a smaller player.

Advantage : Dallas

Center:
Erick Dampier Desanga Diop
vs.
Shaquille O’Neal Alonzo Morning

Dampier is a below-average player. Mark Cuban’s 73-million dollar investment in a big man to be his ticket to the championship had lost his starting job midway through the season for a guy who had 4 total starts on his NBA resume (Diop). Ericka (as Shaq like to refer to him) is a big body and looks in shape, but his slow feet and clumsiness gets him in early foul trouble. He has bad hands around the basket. This is his chance to prove to Shaq that he belongs to the NBA not the WNBA. Diop is a leaner more athletic player who puts more effort, especially on the boards. When the coaches finally decided to use him against Phoenix he clogged the middle efficiently and eliminated easy lay-ups. Both players are not expected to contribute offensively (averaged 7.8 points combined in the playoffs).
Miami has the best center tandem in the league. (Most teams do not even have one legitimate center). Shaq’s performance is highly dependable on the way he is officiated. Will he be allowed to get away with elbowing, shoving and rolling over defenders on his way to a dunk, or would he be more fairly called for all those offensive fouls that will keep him on the bench? (The latter has been more occurring this year. When Shaq was younger and faster it was harder to catch him while executing his trademark move, since the whole thing (the elbow, the back shove, the body slam and the dunk) happened in one quick fluid motion.) Shaq is playing better in this year playoffs than he did in last year’s or in the regular season, but he is no longer the Diesel that terrorized Dallas in the past.
Mourning actually played better than Shaq during the limited action he saw. They even shared the same frontcourt during some stretches. He tore a muscle in his calf late in the regular season but he recovered in time for the playoffs and finished the regular season third in block shots per game, despite averaging less tan 20 minutes a game. Despite his 2003 kidney transplant, he is in good shape and plays hard whenever he is on the court.

Advantage: Miami

Benches and other possible contributors:
The above comparison shows that the Mavs have the edge when it comes to the deeper bench. Other players that may see some playing time for Dallas are Darrell Armstrong who could play in relief of the point guards, he can take care of the ball and plays hard. Keith Van Horn was a decent player a long time ago, and after he broke his wrist earlier this year he would not contribute much even if he were on the court. Miami's bench is thin. Derek Anderson and Shandon Anderson could see limited action with little expected production.

Advantage: Dallas

Head Coach and Coaching Staff:
Avery Johnson
is the won this year's coach of the year award. He changed the culture of the team from the mad-scientist-all-out-offense Don Nelson style to the playoffs-winning- basketball mentality. The players responded to him and to his approach that motivated them, convinced them to play defense and helped them become a tougher team. He has a very good coaching staff (His assistant Del Harris is a veteran NBA head coach who keeps getting job offers) that should help him make on and off court adjustments.
Pat Riley built this team and eventually took over coaching it. Riley paces the sideline in his Italian suites and his slicked back hair with a slightly intimidating presence. He owns the rights to the trademarked term “three peat”, and “No man has led more black men to the promised land than Coach Pat Riley”. He is not going to be out coached by a rookie coach.

Advantage: Miami

Prediction:
Predicting the outcome of sporting events is meaningless. It is illogical and will never comply with what is “on paper”. One key player gets hurt or one player comes out of nowhere and catches fire, and all professional analysts look like idiots.
I will not predict …..
Ahh, I cannot resist…
Mark Cuban is An idiot, but..
Dallas wins 4-1


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