Editor's Note: Front Paged For Awesomeness
It had to be the Heat.
It just had to be the Heat.
There was no other way around it. Destiny is a cop out, but you watched what I watched. You saw two of the more improbable comebacks in NBA playoff history help sway the fate of the 2011 NBA championship. As soon as LeBron took a dribble to his left and rose for a 15-footer with Game 5 on the line, I knew it was fate before it splashed through. Derrick Rose's subsequent miss at the free throw line was just more confirmation...
It had to be the Heat.
For games three through six of the 2006 NBA Finals, I was in Austin. I wasn't in the familiar surroundings of my house or TV back in North Texas. I was in a condo, shared with four other good friends. We were at a UT lacrosse camp, playing a sport that is totally awesome, bro.
They say misery loves company and that couldn't be any more true after that week. As soon as Jason Terry's three clanged off the back iron and the buzzer sounded in Game 6, we turned off the TV. I think someone blasted the remote into the wall. We each went into our separate bedrooms and closed the door.
Heartbroken. Depressed. Pathetic. Call it what you will. That week in June of 2006 will be a moment I never forget. In fact, I think I'll take it to my grave. Yes, I care that much. And If I care that much, I can only imagine what has been going through Dirk's mind for the past five years.To be honest, I didn't think there'd be much of a chance I'd be writing about the 2011 NBA Finals with the Mavericks representing the West. Sure, in December I thought this was the best team in basketball, but I have always felt that the Lakers were the trump card to however well Dallas would play. I had no fear in Portland, Oklahoma City, Memphis or even San Antonio. But the Lakers? Kobe Bryant? The best front court in basketball? The best defense in basketball (when the focus is there)? It was too much.
So after the four game sweep, I was completely dumbfounded. If this Maverick team could make the best team in the league look like they had "Clippers" instead of "Lakers" on the front of their jerseys, they could do anything. No team in basketball had a match up advantage over the Mavs like the Lakers did. How much that was the Lakers pissing that advantage away or the Mavs playing brilliant basketball will be debated for some time. But in four straight games, Dallas was better. They were better than Los Angeles, and now they're better than everyone.
Some mainstream NBA analysts like to pick and choose from the regular season what works best for that argument and forget the rest (see, OKC, POR series). Nothing infuriates me more. If we're going to look at the regular season data to conclude that Portland's offensive rebounding is going to beat Dallas, why can't we also say that Portland's miserable road record will doom them away from the Rose Garden? If Kevin Durant absolutely shredded Dallas in the regular season and will do so again in the playoffs, why can't we say that Dallas will be able to contain Russel Westbrook on some nights because of the regular season? Inconsistencies in arguments like the ones above drive me to drink.
And to a degree it is happening again. Never mind that Dirk Nowitzki has been guarded by Nicholas Batum, Gerald Wallace, LaMarcus Aldridge, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, Ron Artest, Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant or Nick Collison...LeBron's guarding him now! And while the narrative of the best player in the world guarding the most un-guard-able player in the world is cute, let's make the facts straight:
Dirk torched the above defenders in a variety of ways. LeBron is not any better a defender against Dirk then those mentioned above. LeBron will guard Dirk. He will be athletic and quick and have all the supposed "traits." And he will fail. Instead of focusing on this match up (that, let's be honest, probably won't even see much time to make it that significant) let's go to the three defenders who will guard Dirk the most: Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony.
Surprisingly, Bosh is a better defender than you think. "Like a Bosh" might have forever put an unfortunate (although hilarious) label on Miami's third wheel, but against Chicago he was easily their second best (and at times first best) player. Bosh might have succumbed to some Carlos Boozer pick and rolls and let Joakim Noah grab too many offensive boards in Game 1, but overall, Bosh was sound. He held his own against Boozer in iso situations and his offense has never been better. Joel Anthony hasn't done much in the playoffs to speak of and Haslem has enjoyed a rebirth after a devastating foot injury that has sidelined him practically all year to this point.
But here's the most shocking number in my pre-Finals research: 38.6. That was Dirk's field goal percentage in two games against Miami, by far his lowest against any opponent he faced more than once this year. Luckily, there's some handy game tape for the masses to review and it's clear that Miami has ways to make Dirk uncomfortable. Bosh and Anthony aren't easy to back down and both provide some ample length to stay somewhat close to Dirk's midrange jumper. But closer looks also reveal something else: Dirk was just missing shots. Dirk had plenty of good looks in the two Miami games and some didn't fall. After seeing how Dirk has played in the last two weeks, I doubt those kind of shots aren't going to rim out.
There is much argument over to whether we're seeing a new Dirk or not. While Dirk is otherworldly this post season, it isn't unheard of. After all, Dirk is one of three players to average 25 and 10 in the playoffs. He torched the Spurs and Nuggets in the last two playoffs. But yes, something does feel different. If it was the same, then why would the Mavs be on the verge of an NBA title instead of a first round flameout that was the fate of so many previous teams?
Dirk's always been accountable, so that isn't it. But I have never seen #41 yell and scream so much at his teammates on the court. A dumb turnover from JJ Barea? Dirk is the first one chewing him out. Inexplicable pull up jumper from Jason Terry? Again, there's Dirk. Brendan Haywood with a lazy rotation at the rim, allowing an easy basket? Dirk, once again, is right there.
Maybe it's because of Tyson Chandler, and his energy. Maybe he is more comfortable with his teammates. Maybe he knows this year has to be the year. But emotionally and mentally, this Dirk wasn't anywhere near the Dirk in June of 2006. It's so good to see.
As much as Miami posses a problem for Dallas on the defensive end, the two biggest areas I have of concern on individual player defense are Miami's weakest spots -- the point guard and center. If you hark back to my OKC preview, don't underestimate the power of a Tyson Chandler not bogged down to a premier scorer. And while Chandler will be the main man to guard Chris Bosh, the Heat's front court depth is thin at best. Brandan Haywood might find himself having a monster series, gobbling up the Heat's undersized backup bigs. And remember when how good Jason Kidd was when he only had to guard Derek Fisher? Mike Bibby is Fisher's NBA equivalent now: no speed, no athleticism, no defense and an occasional made three. And don't even mention Mario Chalmers. Kidd will have the clear advantage again as the point guard and don't ever underestimate that. Kidd's legs will be fresh to make threes and perhaps guard Dwyane Wade for stretches.
If 2006 happens again, it may be the end of me. It might be the end of Dirk's championship window. It might be the end of the Dirk era for Dallas basketball.
But I know Dirk has been waiting, patiently. I always laugh at how much attention a Kobe Bryant postgame shooting session gets. Never mind the stories I've heard of Dirk heading to the bowels of the AAC after a loss, shooting jumpers and working out for over two hours. As Dirk always says, you never know when this chance will come again.
Five years ago, Dirk wasted it. He threw it away. He...choked it away. There's no denying it. But he has another shot. He will get another chance.
He will win an NBA championship.
Dallas in six.
It had to be the Heat.