Three teams finished the regular season in the top 10 in both points scored and allowed per possession. Two of them now meet in the Finals, a reminder that the “defense wins championships” cliché is far too simplistic to explain a complicated game.
The Heat took out three mediocre offensive teams to get here, but to finish the job, they’ll have to stop a Dallas team that’s scoring at a rate the league has seldom seen in the playoffs. The Mavs’ defense wobbled a bit but ultimately held strong against three very good offensive teams in Portland, the Lakers and Oklahoma City. But the Heat present a super-charged version of the challenges Dallas faced against the Thunder — quick, athletic wing players who would seem too much for both Dallas’ little guards (Jason Terry, especially) and its aging perimeter defenders (Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion).
Each team represents the toughest postseason test so far for the other. Here are some key things to watch when Miami has the ball:
• Is the wing talent finally too much for Dallas?
This was Dallas’ fear when it ran into the James Harden/Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook trio in the Western Conference finals. With those three on the floor — and without Caron Butler, who’s unlikely to play in the Finals — the Mavs would face one huge head-to-head matchup disadvantage on defense, regardless of whether Terry, J.J. Barea or Peja Stojakovic flanked two of the their three best perimeter defenders (Kidd, DeShawn Stevenson and Marion).
The Mavs survived. Terry worked his tail off against Harden, Kidd and Marion have some of the smartest feet in the league, Dallas played some zone and and the Mavs switched when Westbrook and Durant screened for each other. Kidd held his own against the bigger Durant, Marion mostly managed to keep quicker players in front him and Terry, as usual, got back on offense whatever he gave up on defense. Coach Rick Carlisle found minutes for Barea and Stojakovic whenever the Thunder had a more limited offensive player on the floor, and you can bet he’ll do the same in this series.
Carlisle has a mini-edge here: None of the Heat’s perimeter players beyond LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are nearly as threatening as Harden, Westbrook or Durant. But James and Wade, of course, are on a different level from any of those guys, and this might be the moment the Mavs finally miss Butler. In two regular-season matchups, the Mavs kept the two away from the rim in the halfcourt, with Butler and Marion splitting LeBron duty just about equally, according to Synergy Sports. James was just 1-of-8 against Butler in those two games, and Kidd defended LeBron in the halfcourt on just two of LeBron’s 29 shot attempts (not including fast breaks and put-backs). The Mavs were willing to switch Kidd onto Durant, but LeBron can hurt Kidd in ways Durant never could.
Kidd was the primary guy on Wade, and he struggled to keep up with Flash both off the dribble and in the post. Stevenson figures to at least split the assignment with Kidd this time around. The Mavs wanted no part of Terry on Wade, and the more the James/Wade duo plays, the trickier it becomes for Carlisle to split minutes among the Terry/Barea/Stojakovic group — or to play two of those three at the same time. That will hurt the Mavs’ spacing on offense.
Corey Brewer could be a factor here, but we keep saying that, and he stays attached to the bench.
Of course, Dallas has a ready-made solution …
• The Mavs will go zone
Dallas went zone a ton in its two regular-season victories against Miami, and it may have to go that route again here. James and Wade shot just 3-of-17 combined against the zone, according to Synergy’s video log. They were far too willing to settle for long jumpers when Dallas zoned up.
Finals Preview: When Dallas has the ball …
But this is a different Miami team now, and it has all the tools to beat a zone. Wade has always been an active off-ball cutter, and he is good at lurking in the soft spots of the zone along the baseline. James is just as capable, and Chris Bosh can be one of the league’s ultimate zone-busters with his ability to flash to the foul line and hit open jumpers. Even though they missed a ton of shots against the zone, the Heat were also good at sniffing out mismatches when the zone presented them and running pick-and-rolls against it late in the shot clock.
• Eliminating free points
The Heat, like the Thunder, thrive both in transition and at getting to the line. Taking away the free points that come from both of those things is difficult, but Dallas needs to limit at least one of them. It couldn’t keep the Thunder off the line consistently, but Dallas was brilliant at cutting its own turnovers and thus limiting Oklahoma City’s transition chances. The Mavs turned the ball over on 13.6 percent of their possessions in the regular season, the 10th-worst mark in the league. Here are their game-by-game turnover rates from the Thunder series: 11.9, 11.7, 11.8, 11.7, 11.3.
Incredible consistency. To put that in perspective, Houston, Philadelphia and the Lakers tied for the lowest turnover rate at 12.3 percent. So the Mavs morphed from a relatively sloppy team into the most careful team in the league. Doing that against the Heat would be huge.
• The Bosh Effect
Bosh torched the Bulls for 23.2 points on 59 percent shooting in the East finals. He did it the way the Heat must have envisioned when they signed him as a third wheel: by acting as the screener on pick-and-rolls, working as a post-up option late in the shot clock and (especially) as a release valve on the weak side when Chicago overloaded on James or Wade. Bosh is deadly in that last role, raining open jumpers when one of the stars kicks the ball his way, or pump-faking and driving against a defender closing on him.
Bosh should get a lot of room to work in this series. Tyson Chandler got the Bosh assignment almost exclusively in the regular season, and the Heat ran a ton of Bosh-centric pick-and-rolls to get Chandler moving. The pick-and-pop jumper was there whenever Bosh wanted it. Having him guard Bosh also takes Chandler away from the rim, and we saw against the Thunder how vulnerable the Dallas defense can be when Dirk Nowitzki is left as the last man standing.
There probably isn’t a good solution here for Carlisle. Having Nowitzki guard Bosh is troublesome on many levels, and the Bosh/Udonis Haslem front-line combination, seeing more minutes as the playoffs go on, gives Miami two jump-shooting big men who can stretch the floor. Chandler is just going to have to be super-active on defense. Which brings us to …
• Chandler must avoid foul trouble
This is going to be a huge factor. The Mavs were much better this season on both ends with Chandler in the lineup, and though Brendan Haywood has stepped up nicely in the postseason, he just doesn’t have the mobility to keep up with guys like Haslem or Bosh, and he’ll struggle to keep Wade and James in front of him on pick-and-rolls.
Haywood can play a role, especially when Joel Anthony is in the game, but Dallas needs Chandler to average 36 minutes or so to win this series.
• Will the Heat go small?
The Heat ditched small ball against Chicago after the early part of Game 2, but the Mavs are not an offensive-rebounding beast like the Bulls. James should be able to defend Nowitzki, at least in short stretches, and the only other real risk defensively in this scenario is surrendering a post-up bucket here and there to Marion.
The opportunities when Miami has the ball are interesting. The Mavs could elect to stay big and hide Nowitzki somewhere, though the Heat do not have a hiding place quite as convenient as non-scorers Thabo Sefolosha or Daequan Cook of Oklahoma City. It’s easy to suggest Mike Miller, Mike Bibby or Mario Chalmers, but sticking Dirk on those guys carries risk. Dallas finally bent and went small in Game 5 against the Thunder, briefly shifting Nowitzki to center, and it did not go well defensively. This is a weapon Miami coach Erik Spoelstra should revisit.
• The dream lineup
This is a reality now, as Miami is closing games with Miller, Haslem and the three stars. That lineup is filled with shooting and lacks a traditional point guard, so it brings all sorts of matchup issues. But it also presents the chance play a scoring specialist such as Stojakovic or Terry against Miller, just as Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau sent Kyle Korver into the game just about every time Spoelstra called Miller’s number. Miller is a dangerous offensive player when healthy, but he’s not 100 percent, and the Mavs should at least be able to play Terry or Stojakovic against this group. But can they get away with using Barea against such a big lineup?
• Will the Heat crash the offensive glass?
The Mavs’ defensive rebounding has quietly fallen apart in the postseason. Dallas had a top-10 defensive rebounding rate in the regular season, but its rate in the playoffs would have ranked 29th. In all five games against the Mavs, the Thunder grabbed a percentage of available offensive rebounds that would have ranked at or near the top of the league in the regular season.
The Heat are normally not a dangerous offensive-rebounding team, but that’s because they prefer to get back in transition defense rather than crash the boards. They have the athletes to hurt Dallas in this area, and it will be interesting to see if Spoelstra loosens the leash a bit.
Thank : nba-point-forward.si.com