HoopSpeak’s NBA Finals Preview: a gentleman’s debate

Rob Mahoney writes The Two Man Game, a Dallas Mavericks blog.

Beckley: Let the narratives of opposites begin!

Miami was all hype, Dallas came out of nowhere.

Miami has the Big Three, Dallas has Dirk and the Dirkettes.

Miami has won with the playoffs’ best defense, Dallas has had the most effective offense.

Miami’s offense relies heavily on the individual creative talents of LeBron and Wade while Dallas is an exhibition in ball movement and spacing made possible by the nightterror of matching up with Dirk Nowitzki.

Everyone is picking Miami to win what could be the first of many titles, while Dallas is a bunch of old, cagey underdogs on that last chance power drive to the finals.

That “everyone” is picking the Heat may not be accurate, for while it includes me and other intellectually lazy types, you, Rob, have your hometown Mavs in an upset. So tell me, why is everyone wrong?

Rob: Well, the only forecasters who are hideously wrong are those who expect a lopsided series in either direction. Something has to give when elite offense and elite defense collide, but the matchup dynamics of this series speak to a hard-fought six-or-seven-gamer. I’m waffling in my prediction of the verdict at the moment — the only outcome that seems as likely as the Heat winning in seven is the Mavs winning seven, or six, or losing in six, or what have you — which is really only indicative of the slightest of margins that separates the performance of these two fantastic teams.

Dallas will have a lot to contend with; their problems go beyond LeBron and Wade diving into the paint, as the offensive complications Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, and Mike Miller provide could end up deciding the series. Miami has a lot of focused firepower in their best five-man lineup, and the aforementioned defensive prowess to boot.

But the Mavs didn’t come this far by way of luck or some trickery. Dirk Nowitzki is, as you may have heard, that good. Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, and Jason Kidd provide the framework for an incredibly versatile and prolific offense. I’m still not convinced that the Mavs will win the series, but I fail to see why they can’t. Dirk is as unguardable as any player in the Finals, and provided that Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood can manage some way to negotiate their responsibilities as both on-ball defenders against stretch bigs like Bosh and Haslem and as perfectly vertical monoliths protecting the rim from the James/Wade barrage, I’m not seeing what makes the Heat anything resembling an overwhelming favorite.

Beckley: I wrote that the Mavs were fortunate to have multiple statistical outliers fall their way in the Western Conference Finals, but I agree that they were the better team. The reason: consistency and precision. Whether it’s coaching, in-game decision making, or drilling open corner threes, the Mavericks just don’t make mistakes. Their methods for creating good shot opportunities are not nearly as impressive as their ability to exploit even minor advantages– the slightest defensive rotation error resulting in two quick passes and a made trey.

I just don’t see that ability being enough in this series. In each of the previous three rounds, Rick Carlisle masterfully out-coached his competition, always one step ahead of his adversary’s adjustments. But Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has the acumen and personnel to make the adjustments say Scott Brooks, with his young squad, could not. Assuming that these two excellent coaches are unable to make the check mate adjustments they did in previous rounds, the Finals comes down to the players.

Now while I agree that the Mavericks are loaded with talent, unorthodox as the team’s composition may be, I doubt it will be enough firepower to outflank LeBron, Wade, and Bosh. Unless the Mavericks use a heavy dose of zone (something I expect), the Heat will force Nowitzki to constantly defend two of the most deadly pick and roll players in the world. On defense, the Heat have the ability to trap, rotate, and switch so quickly that even for a team as adept at exploiting matchups as are the Mavericks, doing so in the 24 seconds allotted may prove too difficult.

Rob: And at the risk of destroying any semblance of clash in this pseudo-debate, I think that’s a perfectly reasonable perspective. The Heat are tough as hell to match up with, and if the Mavs fall short for all of the reasons you just described, Beckley, I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest.

But I will say this: I think you slightly overlook the impact of minor advantages. Playoff series don’t have to be decided by one huge glaring matchup problem; more often it’s a small advantage or a series of small advantages that tip the scales between two dead-locked teams. It certainly did take good fortune for the Mavs to get this far, but their victories over the Thunder came down to things like Tyson Chandler’s ability to make Kendrick Perkins look silly, J.J. Barea’s continued success, and Shawn Marion’s ability to find the seams in the defense. Dirk was the transcendent club that the Mavs used to beat the

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Thunder senseless at times, but he wasn’t necessarily the singular factor that pushed his team over the top.

The Heat certainly have their beneficial matchups in this series, but if defended with any adequacy, the numerous points of potential advantage for the Mavs could begin to make a series-turning impact. The success of the Barea-Nowitzki pick-and-roll is certainly an element of this series to keep an eye on, as the synergy and patience of that duo make their execution make them a far more difficult to cover than Derrick Rose and Carlos Boozer. Marion is also more than capable of backing down any opponent that doesn’t claim a significant size advantage on him, which could make for an interesting post weapon against the likes of Mike Miller, James Jones, and even Udonis Haslem. Such

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minor plot points may not provide the inherent intrigue of LeBron’s omnipotence or Nowitzki’s excellence, but they nonetheless create — and disrupt — the balance that makes this series so riveting.

If the Mavericks become NBA champions, it will have everything to do with Dirk Nowitzki, but perhaps even more to do with the way his teammates creates specific points of slight advantage.

Beckley: You’re right that framing this series as LeBron vs. Dirk is seductive from a rhetorical standpoint, but there’s also some truth to it. All those little Mav matchup advantages you speak of derive almost entirely from one man’s presence. When Dirk is off the court, the ball movement

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falters, and suddenly these players who appear so dangerous against mismatches created by Nowtizki’s gravitational pull are revealed as what they are: smart, skilled, but ultimately quite limited players.

The Heat should force Dirk to beat Bosh and Haslem one on one and focus on shutting off Dallas’s deadly shooters. That is, I think Spoelstra will devise a gameplan built to address all those smaller matchups, keeping things relatively simple when it comes to bothering Nowitzki. But there’s no shutting down Dallas. They’ll hit shots and keep things close even when Miami plays well. At the end of games, the Mavs have the guts and poise to run their stuff for big buckets.

But I can’t see how the Heat won’t shred Dallas defensively. When the Thunder had two competent pick-and-roll players and Durant on the court at the same time, they got whatever they wanted. Three potent offensive weapons appear to be too many for Dallas’s strong team defense to overcome, especially when Mavs have their shotmakers on the court.

The Heat are, 1-5, bigger and faster, and should win the rebounding battle. To me, these extra possessions solve what is a fascinating puzzle of matchups. There will be a couple games where the Mavericks shoot the lights out and make up for the possession deficit. But I don’t see it happening four times in seven games. If the Heat remain as focused and disciplined as they’ve been since meeting Boston, their best will be too good.

Rob: Thus far in the playoffs, the Mavs have faced three superior rebounding teams. The Blazers were an elite offensive rebounding club filled with high-energy, long-armed athletes. The Lakers had all the size an NBA outfit could possibly ask for. The Thunder were a strong rebounding collective, and ranked well in the playoffs in both offensive (second) and defensive (sixth) rebounding alike. The idea that Dallas will lose by way of the boards is nothing new, and yet the Mavs have made an impressive habit out of winning despite their rebounding limitations. That may not save Dallas if Miami goes into maximum rebounding overdrive, but I just don’t find the Mavs’ relative weakness to be all that convincing of a reason for their potential demise. The Mavs will have to do consistent work on the glass to keep the rebounding margins close, but they’ve proven that they’re plenty capable of doing just that, even against teams with strong rebounding across the board.

The concern of the Heat overwhelming the Mavs’ defense is certainly a valid one, but I think you might overrate Miami’s offensive efficiency just a bit. The Heat are an awesome team capable of exploding for a decisive run at any time, but let’s not forget how stymied they were in the Eastern Conference Finals. The flaws are there, and regardless of whether the Mavs explicitly stick to their matchup zone for long stretches, they’ll have plenty of room to cheat off of Joel Anthony, Mike Bibby, and Mario Chalmers. Even though Dallas’ defense isn’t nearly as formidable as Chicago’s, there are weaknesses in the Heat attack that will allow the Mavs to run quasi-zone coverage as a blanket defensive tactic. It won’t solve every problem in containing LeBron, Wade, and Bosh, but as the Bulls showed: it can go a long way.

I’m not saying there’s a blueprint for the Mavs, or even a likelihood that they’ll win the series — just that there are easily observable avenues that would potentially allow them to succeed, or conversely, a lack of overwhelmingly persuasive evidence that would indicate their imminent demise. The offense — Dirk-centric though it may be — will function with the same resilience and commitment in working toward the best possible shot. The Dallas defense is a question mark, but not as completely outmatched as one might think. Regardless of what exactly dictates the difference in the photo finish (offensive rebounding, bench

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a damn close one.

Beckley: Mr. Mahoney, are a gentleman and a scholar. But I think you’re wrong.

As JJ Barea would say, this series should be hella close.

Each team presents issues and complications that the other has yet to face. Each has flaws that the other seems built

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to exploit. What solves the toss-up for me, as reductive as it sounds, is that the Heat possess three of the top four players in the series. They will play fewer flawed players at once than the Mavs will. You might counter: But the Mavs’ role players have fewer glaring flaws than those of the Heat!

We’ll find out just how much we don’t know in Game 1. For now, it’s enough to know that it will be a fascinating, beautifully played Finals.

Twitter: @RobMahoney, @BeckleyMason

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