NBA Playoff Predictions: The Finals
Win sixteen more.
Those are the words I used to sum up the playoffs in my Round One predictions. With three rounds, and twelve wins behind them, the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks have got just four more wins to go. And after watching these teams go through the regular season 82 game grind and three quarters of these playoffs, myself and the rest of the basketball world have said and written enough about these two teams.
With so much talk already starting to fly, a no nonsense, player-by-player match-up analysis just seems the way to go. By now we know the players and what they can do, it’s which players can take advantage of which match-ups that will decide this series. Miami and Dallas are significantly different teams that hold distinct advantages over each other in different areas. What follows is a breakdown of each team’s starting five, going by position and/or defensive match-ups, as well as a quick look at the guys coming off the pine. After that comes my all important call on the series, because, of course, after six or seven games only one team takes the ‘chip.
POINT GUARD Jason Terry vs. Jason Williams
Neither of these players are known for their defense, so discussing how they’ll defend one another doesn’t make for much of a discussion. The Jason vs. Jason duel may end up being a jump shooting contest. Both of these players are more than comfortable behind the three-point line. Terry especially tends to pull up for mid-range jumpers, maybe more than he should. These two will likely trade jump shots throughout this series, but the player who decides to put the other guy on his heels by taking it the basket will have the advantage. The key in this match-up will be who forces whom to play defense.
OFF GUARD Dwyane Wade vs. Devin Harris/Josh Howard
Dwyane Wade and Devin Harris should be an exciting matchup to watch, but don’t be surprised to see Josh Howard checking Wade on the defensive end. Howard is the Mavericks best perimeter defender and thus will naturally find himself on Wade more than a few times in this series. The problem with Howard guarding Wade from the start of the game is that Devin Harris will be left on Antoine Walker, a 6-9 power foward playing the three. When James Posey or Gary Payton is the game (I.E: a three guard lineup for Miami), then Howard and Harris can safely switch defensive duties. Each defender provides a different look for Wade; Harris is smaller than Howard, and while he’s listed at a 6-3, just a couple of inches shy of Wade’s 6-5, he lacks the upper body strength to keep Wade out of the lane or off the low block. His quickness will be a benefit to staying in front of Dwyane, but then Wade is known to pull up for jumpers over smaller defenders. Josh Howard is the best matchup for Dall! as against Wade; at 6-7 with a formidable wingspan, Howard has the length and size to bother Wade’s jump shot as well as provide himself the appropriate spacing so as to not get beat off the dribble too easily. And yet, as good a defender as Howard is, it will take a team effort to stop Wade. Double teams, traps, and quickly collapsing lanes will be key to containing Dwyane Wade. One overlooked aspect of any matchup involving Dwyane Wade is that he has to guard somebody too. A key to slowing down any potent offensive player is wearing him down by forcing him to play active defense on the other end, thus proving true the old adage, "the best defense is a strong offense." Devin Harris in particular is a tough cover for anyone with his quickness and aggressive slashing style. Aside from forcing Wade to expend energy to keep up with him, Harris could also get Wade in foul trouble, potentially stifling the Miami offense. Dwyane Wade is an elite player, so he’ll get his by the end of the game, the key for Dallas is to make him expend an excessive amount of energy to do that. The key for Wade is to play smart enough to remain aggressive while not forcing anything and keeping his teammates involved.
FORWARD Josh Howard vs. Antoine Walker
Aside from checking the man they call Flash, Josh Howard will also likely be matched up against Antoine Walker. Antoine Walker has been a tough cover for small fowards and power fowards alike throughout the playoffs. His size coupled with his shooting ability and ball handling skills make him a well rounded offensive threat who can score from anywhere on the court. Fortunately for the Mavericks, Josh Howard is a versatile defender capable of guarding a variety of offensive players, including one as crafty as Walker. The only concern for Dallas should be how well Howard deals with Walker on the block. Howard is listed at 210 pounds, meaning he gives up between forty and fifty pounds to Walker. If Walker decides to post up on the smaller Howard, a quick double team may be required. On the perimeter, however, Howard has the advantage on both ends. With respect to Walker, he isn’t half the athlete Josh Howard is. Josh Howard is a slasher and a damn good one at that. In truth, Ja! mes Posey may be coming off the bench early, or maybe even crack the starting lineup, if Walker starts having problems staying in front of Howard. The key in this matchup will be which of these players capitalizes on their respective advantages the most.
POWER FORWARD Dirk Nowitzki vs. Udonis Haslem/Antoine Walker
Dallas has made a habit of going of small in these playoffs, often playing with four guards (if you include Howard as a guard), and Dirk Nowitzki. I’ll discuss both scenarios, but for the purposes of this analysis, I’ll start by breaking down the matchups of the respective starting lineups. That being said, we will see Udonis Haslem guarding Nowitzki at some point. At first glance, that may look like a mismatch, a careful look, however, reveals Haslem may not be at such a disadvantage. While he may not be a household name, Udonis Haslem is a good defender and, contrary to the sterotypical power forward mold people may be sticking him into, he has enough foot speed to make sure he isn’t a liability when guarding Dirk. Haslem may not be the ideal matchup against Nowitzki, but he is certainly capable. A better matchup for the Heat may be Antoine Walker on Dirk Nowitzki. Walker isn’t exactly running a 4.40, but like Nowitzki he’s quicker than most guys his size and is more comfo! rtable out on the perimeter than Haslem. As for Nowitzki guarding either of these two players, don’t expect much. Dirk isn’t about to negate anyone else’s offensive game. A more interesting scenario is when Dallas goes to their small lineup. Most likely playing Terry, Harris, and Jerry Stackhouse at the guard spots, and moving Howard to the four with Nowitzki at the center position. This lineup could be potentially dangerous for both teams. A Nowitzki-Shaq matchup would be straight crazy. Dirk would likely force Shaq into foul trouble quickly, but not before Shaq crumples him up into a Euro ping-pong ball and stuffs him through the basket a couple of times. Both teams would be wise to try and go to a zone defense in that scenario. Even strong double teams against Dirk wouldn’t be successful considering his passing skills, and quite frankly Devin Harris and Jerry Stackhouse hanging on either of Shaq’s arms won’t stop him. What’s interesting is how Miami will deal with the small lineup beyond just the Shaq-Dirk matchup. It isn’t Riley’s style to go small, but I wouldn’t put it beyond him if he thinks a small Heat lineup could contend with the M! avs mini crew. Something like Jason Williams, Gary Payton, Wade, Posey, and Walker would be a formidable team against the Mavericks’ small lineup. Team implications aside, guarding Dirk Nowitzki at any position is no easy task. The key for Dirk is knowing how to take advantange of each individual matchup, without getting outside of himself and what’s been working for him thus far in these playoffs. The key for Miami will be recognizing what kind of defense to throw at Nowitzki and when.
CENTER Shaquille O’Neal vs. DeSagana Diop
The presumption about Dallas is that they will be totally inept at guarding Shaq. And while this may have been true of past Mavericks teams, DeSagana Diop is one big reason why that isn’t the case anymore. Diop truly is an underrated player. At a legit seven feet, 260 pounds Diop is a big presence in the paint. His lengthy wingspan makes him able to block at least a couple of shots a game and change many more. From an athletic standpoint Diop is an able defender on Shaq, he has the appropriate size and length to contend with Shaq, but from an experience standpoint, the fifth year center may be in for a long series. Lets not forget Rick Smits and Todd MacCulloch, were big centers who faced Shaq in the Finals, and look what happened to them. Diop will need to learn quickly how to defend the Big Fella, using his length to his advantage and denying Shaq position on the low block. Unfortunately for Diop, however, nothing may be able to stop the Diesel if he really gets it going. We all know Shaq is money in the June, and even though his age may be catching up with him, Shaq has him some extra incentive. The way I see it, Shaq lost to Hakeem Olajuwon in the 95′ Finals (vowing never to lose again if he made it back to the Finals) and it took him nine years and three championships later to lose again. By that formula Shaq is a lock to dominate and the Heat to win — at least in Shaq’s mind.
THE BENCH Miami Reserves vs. Dallas Reserves
The reserves for these two teams are an interesting topic of debate; while many would argue Dallas has the superior depth, I actually favor Miami’s bench. While the Heat’s rotation only goes about eight deep, the bench trio of Payton, Posey, and Mourning seem to have found their groove on this Miami team. Mourning and Payton can still give you solid court time when it counts the most and James Posey has proven to be an invaluable asset off Miami’s bench. In particular I think Posey can have a big influence on this series if he gets his chance to guard Josh Howard, arguably the Mavs’ second best player. Dallas is continually touted for their depth, but as for actual performance their bench goes about as deep as Jerry Stackhouse — that’s it. I’ve never been sold on Erick Dampier or Keith Van Horn and neither of them has proven me wrong so far. As long as Devin Harris remains in the starting lineup and Marquis Daniel’s minutes remain limited (the man deserves more than 12.2 m! inutes per game), offense isn’t going to be jumping off the Dallas bench in any huge amounts. Adrian Griffin and Dampier provide some defense, but beyond that you won’t find much past the Mavs’ top six.
The Heat are a team, that doesn’t believe they truly got beat by the Pistons in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, and a team that believes they would’ve faired better against the ’05 Champion Spurs then Detroit did. Now redeemed by their win over Detroit this year, essentially the Heat come into this series considering themselves a championship caliber team, yet with all the hunger of a first year playoff team. And as impressive as Dallas has been, Miami has two superstars able and eager to will their team to victory. And as you just read, I also see the Heat as having superior depth to win in the Finals. The key, however, in this series, more than anything else is Dwyane Wade. Wade is the best player in this series, has been the best player in the playoffs, and may be the best player in the league. Dwyane Wade is a great player, not just in the scope of current players, but compared to any player, ever. The comparisons to MJ are becoming eerily more accurate with each game. If you don’t believe me yet, just wait. Wade can take over a game at will like few players can, he’s a fierce competitor, and a winnner. Wade will be the difference in this series. Shaq will regain some of his Finals form from years past, Wade will raise himself and his team to a new level, and the supporting cast is in place to fill in the blanks. Heat win.