And the Winner is….

Kurt —  June 8, 2006

If you’re looking for a safe pick for a champion, go with Brazil. There doesn’t seem to be one in the NBA Finals (smarter people than I, such as Kevin Pelton writing for 82games/Sports Illustrated, agree).

My initial gut reaction to a Dallas v. Miami series was that Dallas would crush them, maybe intentionally dropping one game in Miami so they could spend a few more days in South Beach, but that’s it. However, the more research I did, the more I thought about it, the more I more I thought this match up a good one.

I still think Dallas will win, but I now expect it to go six or seven games and this to be a close and exciting Finals

First things first — don’t expect Dallas to run the Heat out of American Airlines Arena (either one). That gut first reaction I had — something echoed by some scouts and media members — was that Mavs should stay small and just “go Phoenix” on the older, slower Heat. Except, the stats don’t really bare that out — against the 10 fastest-paced teams in the league, the Heat won 75% of their games. However, they won just 54% against the 10 slowest paced teams in the league.

Where the Mavs have the advantage is match ups and Chicago gave the Mavs the blueprint for beating Miami — guards (and others) using dribble penetration to break down the Heat. The Bulls had success with a three-guard lineup — usually Hinrich-Gordon-Deng, sometimes Duhon-Hinrich-Gordon. Hinrich and Gordon had good series and the quick lineup did a few things: The Bulls got shots in the lane; it got Shaq in some foul trouble; and it forced the Heat play the elder statesmen of Gary Payton and Derek Anderson way more than Pat Riley wanted.

The Mavs have a lot of depth at the guard/swingman spot and that is going to create even more match up problems for the Heat —Josh Howard should really benefit. First, he’s going to get a lot of time covering Wade, and while nobody stops Wade Howard may be able to make him less efficient. As for how you do that, well the previously linked Pelton article stole my thoughts — force Wade to go left. Nobody stops Wade but he is considerably weaker and less efficient when forced left, and the length/athleticism of Howard (and Griffin) can force him that direction more often. It’s something to watch for at home, which way is Wade getting to go on his drives.

Another match up advantage Avery Johnson has is to put out lineups that force Antoine Walker to cover either Howard or Stackhouse, which is a huge win for Dallas either way.

The big match up problem for Miami is Dirk Nowitzki, a job now in the hands of Udonis Haslem, although he is going to need some doubles to help out. The problem is, the quick perimeter guys on the Mavs will make the Heat pay for those doubles with penetration. Pick your poison, Riley.

Of course, the match up problems go both ways — how do you deal with a motivated Shaq? You can go with Dampier, but then you give up a lot of offense. Diop? At times. I think the key with Shaq is to give him a lot of looks — front him at times, double him sometimes, single coverage another, and there’s always hack-a-Shaq. Change it up and make him think. The problem is Shaq has seen it all over the year and knows how to defeat them. His mind is willing; the question is if his body can still do it for seven full games.

Shaq presence and Wade’s penetration are a big part of the Heat’s success this postseason — 40% of the Heat’s shots are coming close to or at the basket, while only 30% of their opponent’s shots are that close. It’s why the Heat as a team have an effective field goal percentage of 53.8% in the playoffs, second only to the Suns.

The bit key for the Heat has been defense — they have a defensive rating of 100.2 (points given up per 100 possessions) in the playoffs, the best defensive rating of any team that made it past the first round. For comparison, is Dallas 105.1 on defense, although to be fair remember that the Mavs had the harder road thus far, going through San Antonio and Phoenix, while Miami’s last round was against offensively-challenged Detroit. On offense, the Mavs have and offensive rating of 110.8 (points per 100 possessions) in the playoffs, compared to the Heat’s 106.6.

The Heat are peaking at the right time, and Shaq can still turn it on for a few games. But I think it is the match up problems the Mavs create and their versatility — they can play well with a big or small lineup — will ultimately tilt the floor in their favor. Still, this is going to be fun to watch.

Update: A few quick thoughts from game one of the Finals:

• Not shockingly, Jason Terry led all players as a +12, but Dampier was +11 and Howard was +10, which speaks to what they did defensively. On the other side, Posey was -11 and Williams -10, those two are really going to have to pick up their play and match what the Mavs can do on the perimeter if the Heat are going to make a series of this.

• Look at the game flow and you can see the depth problems the Mavs present, lots of players to choose from and create match up problems with.

• On one hand, you can’t expect Terry to score like that every night, shooting 83% (eFG%), on the other you can’t expect Nowitzki (35.7%) and Stackhouse (36.4%) to be that off every night.

• In Miami, Haslem gets those calls.

• Free Darko (with quote via True Hoop) may have hit the nail on the head:

With the Heat in this series, I think the question is not can they adjust, but did they ever really hit a championship stride in the first place. In the same sense that the Frankenstein Lakers never really did, and probably only lost to the Pistons because of that. Not saying that they would have definitely won, or that they could have gotten to that special place, but their failing to do so definitely seems to have settled shit in advance.