NBA Finals Preview: Dallas Mavericks vs. Miami Heat

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SEASON RECORDS
Mavericks: 57-25 (No. 3 seed in Western Conference)
Heat: 58-24 (No. 2 seed in Eastern Conference)

SEASON SERIES
Dallas swept the season series 2-0. After a slow start to the season Miami went on a 22-2 streak — but both of those losses were to Dallas. That said, both games were before Christmas, so don’t read much into them.

PLAYOFF SERIES
Mavericks: defeated the Portland Trail Blazers 4-2, Los Angeles Lakers, 4-0, Oklahoma City Thunder 4-1
Heat: defeated Philadelphia 76ers 4-1, Boston Celtics 4-1, Chicago Bulls 4-1

SERIES SCHEDULE (times Eastern)

Game 1 – Tue. May 31 at Miami 9:00 PM
Game 2 – Thu. June 2 at Miami 9:00 PM
Game 3 – Sun. June 5 at Dallas 8:00 PM
Game 4 – Tue. June 7 at Dallas 9:00 PM
Game 5 * Thu. June 9 at Dallas 9:00 PM
Game 6 * Sun. June 12 at Miami 8:00 PM
Game 7 * Tue. June 14 at Miami 9:00 PM

All games broadcast on ABC

KEY INJURIES
Mavericks: Caron Butler likely will not play this series, he has been out with knee surgery since the middle of the season. Rodrigue Beaubois is back from injury, but it hasn’t mattered he isn’t playing. The Mavs have made the finals in spite of all that.
Heat: Mike Miller has injured two thumbs you couldn’t play NBA 2K11 with, but he will be out on the court.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE PLAYOFF RANKING (points per 100 possessions)
Mavericks: Offense 114.1 (1st in NBA playoffs); Defense 106.1 (8th)
Heat: Offense 107.2 (4th in NBA playoffs); Defense 101.7 (3rd)

THREE KEY MAVERICKS:

Dirk Nowitzki. He has been a marvel, the single best player in the playoffs. He is averaging 28.4 points per game on 51.7 percent shooting grabbing 7.5 boards, and yet the numbers simply do not do his performance justice. He is efficient. His rainbow, one-legged, turnaround fadeaway is both the most devastating shot in the game today and completely ungaurdable. His passing has been phenomenal. In this series it will be interesting to see how the Mavericks use him on defense — hide him on Joel Anthony or let him cover Chris Bosh? Whatever he does, expect a monster series from him — like everyone else the Heat will have no good defensive answer for him.

Tyson Chandler. Through the regular season, the Miami Heat shot 66 percent when they got within three feet of the basket. But in two meetings with the Mavericks, they shot 52 percent. The key to beating the Heat is to turn them into jump shooters and not let them get easy baskets in transition and at the line. A lot of that falls to Chandler — he has to defend the rim without fouling. If he can do what he did in the regular season the Mavericks have a huge advantage. But it will not be as simple as it was back in December (the Heat’s ball movement and movement of players off the ball is far better now than the last time these teams played). Remember, at the end of Game 5 the Bulls did what they wanted and turned LeBron and Wade into jump shooters from three, and they knocked the shots down.

Jason Terry. He represents the entire Mavs bench here — J.J. Barea, Peja Stojakovic, Brendan Haywood. They have been key to the Mavericks success by providing scoring in a variety of ways, but now they face a very different challenge — the Heat have gone with a very small three-man rotation, keeping their big three on the floor for heavy minutes. The Mavs bench is going to have to match up to that — if they can it will mean rested Mavericks starters and a boost or them, but if the bench lets them down and Miami makes runs, it will be a big hole to dig out of.

THREE KEY HEAT

LeBron James. The Heat’s evolution through these playoffs into a team that trusts each other parallels James evolution. He has always had a well-rounded game in him, he’s always been willing to make the pass, but on his previous teams him shooting over a double team may have been a better scoring option than passing to some of his teammates. In the last few games against the Bulls James really seemed to settle into a facilitator role with the Heat. Of course, he’s still scoring 25.9 points per game and pulling down 8.7 rebounds per game during the playoffs so it isn’t all just making passes.

Dwyane Wade: He just did not look right last series, in the end shooting 40.5 percent and by Game 5 passing up open looks to feed more covered teammates. Well, that was until the game was on the line in the final four minutes when he hit three key sots. This series the Heat will need his offense — in the past Dallas has struggled to contain good two guards. Wade should be able to score easily on DeShawn Stevenson and he’ll need to. This is a matchup the Heat need to exploit.

Udonis Haslem. He brings a real toughness and energy to the Heat — this is one of the guys on this team with a ring (from the 2006 Heat). He also is here to represent the guys on Miami — Chris Bosh, even LeBron James — who have to cover Nowitzki. They need to be able to often single-cover Nowitzki because the Mavericks spread the floor with shooters and you can’t leave them. Haslem hounded Nowitzki and kept him in check during the 2006 finals and will be asked to reprise that role. The time off until next Tuesday and the amount of time between games in the finals should help keep him healthy (he had foot surgery early in the year).

OUTLOOK

This is going to be one entertaining finals. These teams are here because they were the teams executing at the end of games — both sides have tremendous come-from-behind wins and both have just simply out executed their opponents in the clutch. Both have seen their best players — Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James — win games with jump shots.

No lead will feel safe in this series, especially late. That said, both teams benefited from playing teams that helped out with tight play and poor execution under pressure last series. That will not be the case now, one team will need to step up.

One key so far is that Dallas has not played fantastic defense, they’ve been just pretty average through the playoffs. Dallas has won with their offense. Miami’s defense, on the other hand, has been impressive. Their athleticism challenges everything, takes away passing lanes and they have been physical with everyone. This will be a different kind of test because Dallas is a jump shooting team — pack it in to take away the paint like the Heat did against the Bulls and the Mavs will shoot and make right over the top, something Chicago failed to do. Either Miami’s defense or the Mavs offense has to give way, and that will be key.

Dallas needs to exploit the point guard play of Mike Bibby or the lack of size inside by the Heat — who go with a small lineup having 6’9” Joel Anthony at center — to win. The Mavericks need to hit the offensive glass hard, harder than the Bulls did, to get the series win. Rebounding will be another key.

Bench play also will matter — Dallas has gotten scoring from everyone it seems, but how will that bench fare against heavy minutes from the big three of the Heat.

PREDICTION

Dallas has been playing fantastic ball, but Miami has been playing better defense so far. Plus, the versatility of their three stars gives them more ways to attack and adjust as the series wears on. Dallas will put up a fight, and they have surprised us before these playoffs, but while this will feel different it will end just like it did in 2006.

Heat in 6.

Dwight Howard on Hornets’ coach Clifford: “It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you”

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Dwight Howard‘s game is much better than his reputation among fans.

He’s not the Defensive Player of the Year/All-NBA/MVP candidate level player he was back in Orlando, but Howard is still one of the best rebounders in the game, he’s strong defensively, and he’s an efficient scorer inside. He’s a quality center, if he plays within himself and is used well. His perception as a guy who does not take the game seriously and held back Houston and Atlanta in recent years has validity (he plays better in pick-and-roll than on the move, but wants the ball in the post), but the idea he is trash is flat-out wrong. He’s still good.

Howard wants to change his reputation, rewrite the final chapters of his career, and told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Steve Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets are the place that is going to happen.

“The other places I was, the coaches didn’t really know who I am,” Howard told ESPN. “I think that they had perception of me and ran with it. Cliff knows my game. He knows all the things that I can do. I’m very determined to get back to the top. It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you. They aren’t just saying it; they believe it. It really just pushed me to the limit in workouts: running, training, everything. I want to do more.

“In Orlando, I was getting 13-15 shots a game. Last season, in Atlanta, it was six shot attempts. It looks like I’m not involved in the game. And if I miss a shot, it sticks out because I am not getting very many of them. But I think it’s all opportunity, the system. I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Howard averaged 8.3 field goal attempts per game in Atlanta, which is about five a game below his peak. Last season 75 percent of Howard’s shots came within three feet of the rim — is is not there to space the floor, however, he can still move fairly well off the roll and is a good passer for a big.

Last season, 28 percent of Howard’s possessions came on post ups, and he averaged a pedestrian 0.84 points per possession on those. On the 21 percent of shots he got on a cut, he averaged a very good 1.36 PPP. When he got the ball back as a roll man (again on the move), it was 1.18 PPP. The challenge long has been Howard is better on the move but doesn’t feel involved unless he gets post touches, and if he doesn’t feel involved and engaged he’s not the same player.

Maybe Clifford can make this all work with some older plays where Howard feels comfortable.

Charlotte, with Howard in the paint and on the boards, should get back to being a top 10 NBA defensive team, not the middle of the pack as they were last season. Clifford is better than that as a coach, and Howard is an upgrade in the paint (on both ends). Charlotte should be a playoff team again in the East.

But it all will come back to Howard. Fair or not. And Wojnarowski is right, this is Howard’s last best chance to write the ending he wants to his career.

Friday afternoon fun: Watch James Harden’s 10 best plays from last season

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James Harden had a historic season in Houston.

Since it’s Friday afternoon and your sports viewing options consist of watching guys about to be cut from NFL rosters try to impress, why not check out Harden’s best plays from last season. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.

Mavericks sign Jeff Withey to one-year contract

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Jeff Withey‘s ex-fiancée accused him of domestic violence, but he was not charged.

That frees him to continue his basketball career, which he’ll do in Dallas.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks could use another center, even if they re-sign Nerlens Noel. Salah Mejri is the only other true center, though Dirk Nowitzki will now play the position.

Withey is a good rim protector. Just don’t ask him to do anything away from the basket.

Dallas annually brings excess players to training camp and has them compete for regular-season roster spots. Whether or not his salary is guaranteed, Withey will likely fall into that competition.

Marc Gasol: If Grizzlies don’t share my goal of continued growth, we might have to revisit things

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The Grizzlies’ Grit & Grind era has ended.

Zach Randolph signed with the Kings, and Tony Allen appears likely to leave Memphis, too. The Grizzlies are prioritizing younger/cheaper players like Ben McLemore and Tyreke Evans.

Marc Gasol via Ala Carta, as translated by HoopsHype:

I’m very ambitious and I’ve wanted Memphis to be a great franchise. We’ve grown a lot the last 6-7 years, but we have to keep growing. If this is not lined up, maybe we may have to revisit things.

Gasol has been loyal to Memphis, and his first wish is probably winning there. But Giannis Antetokounmpo put it well: Teams must also do right by their players. Gasol is 32 and doesn’t have much time in his prime left. I see why rebuilding wouldn’t interest him.

But what will he do about it if the Grizzlies don’t prioritize the present? They made their push last summer with a max contract for Chandler Parsons, but because Parsons can’t stay healthy, that deal only inhibits team growth.

Gasol is locked up for two more years before a player option. He doesn’t have much leverage. This is part of the reason LeBron James keeps signing short-term contracts. Gasol doesn’t have the same ability to steer his team in his desired direction

On the potentially bright side, rebuilding teams often don’t have much use for 32-year-olds guaranteed more than $72 million over the following three years. If the fit devolves, Memphis becomes more likely to trade him.