Hey there folks. I'm back after a two week hiatus, due largely in part to law school finals. However, now that I'm graduated (FINALLY), I can get back to writing. I wrote these this weekend, but am only now having a chance to post them. Because both teams I picked are now down a game, I regret the decision to post them late, as I now look like a fool.
(1) Chicago Bulls v. (2) Miami Heat
Alright everybody, here's the matchup we've wanted to see all season. Miami vs. Chicago. Let the games begin. The Bulls asserted themselves as the most consistent team throughout the regular season, and I kept thinking how great it would be to see them play the Heat in the playoffs. The possibilities are endless. Now that this series is upon us, I'm oozing with anticipation for tonight's game. Here's a few of the storylines that make this series Must See TV.
1. LeBron James—the "heir apparent" to Michael Jordan—is on a mission to win a title. And now, he has to go though MJ's Chicago Bulls to do it. The irony of the situation is unparalleled. If the Heat win, Cleveland will burn to the ground. Again.
2. Derrick Rose, at age 22, is looking to bring the first non-Jordan era title to Chicago in just his third season. He the youngest MVP in league history, but will he fold like a card table in crunch time with the pressure on against a hardened, veteran Heat team?
3. You have the NBA's most consistent team pitted against the NBA's most closely scrutinized team. It's drama city in this series, people. There may be tears in the locker room, fights under the rim and anything else under the sun. It wouldn't even shock me if Heat GM Pat Riley fired coach Erik Spoelstra mid-series to get another title under that oh-so-finely gelled mop of his.
4. The Heat romped through an overmatched 76ers team and then pulled away from an aging and battered Celtics squad. The Bulls were challenged a little bit too much for my liking against both the Pacers and the Hawks, two teams that lacked anything resembling a true league superstar. How will these squads stack up against talented, healthy and driven competition?
5. Both teams are considered to be top defensive units, and this is going to be a slugfest. While the Heat were labeled "soft" this season, James made the All-Defense team and Dwayne Wade is known as a shutdown perimeter defender. Meanwhile, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson will be bullying in the post for the Bulls. If they rub Heat center Joel Anthony the wrong way, all hell could break loose on the court.
Those are the first five things that popped into my head about this series. I'm sure if I thought about it for awhile, I could come up with 15-20 more. With all that being said, let's dive into the series a little bit more.
Series Stud: LeBron James. For those who aren't familiar, I pick a player in each series that I think is going to be the MVP. I went with DWade for the first two Heat series. While I was right in Round 1, in the conference semis either James or Wade could have been deemed the Series Stud. However, James came through with some clutch shooting, stout defense and almost 10 rebounds a game.
I look for James to continue the hot play and take over this series—he's going to do it by being a jack of all trades. The "decision" is how Spoelstra wants to use him. Defensively, he's going to be with Bulls' guard Luol Deng on a regular basis. But James could be called upon to guard Rose's penetration into the paint. He also may provide a body in the post to frustrate Noah and Boozer. James has to do it all.
Offensively, he's going to play a significant amount of both point and power forward. While running the point, he'll need to facilitate the offense and penetrate to create points. As the power forward in a small lineup, he's going to need to face the basket and hit a lot of short jumpers, a la Michael Jordan in his later years. While posting up, he's going to have to hit slashers cutting into the paint.
If the Heat are going to win, LBJ is going to have to average close to a triple-double for the series by filling any role that is called upon him. I think he can do that.
The Bulls: Derrick Rose runs the show—we all know that. His Hawks series averages of 29.8 PPG, 9.8 APG and 4.3 RPG prove that he has been the man so far this postseason. His effectiveness here hinges on how the Heat can come up with ways to stop him. Will they stick Mike Bibby and Mario Chalmers on him and rely on help defense? Or will they plug the hole at the source and stick James and Wade on him all the time? I don't know what the best way to defend Rose is, but that's why I'm not coaching.
If I were Tom Thibodeau, however, I would look to alleviate some of the offensive pressure off Rose and see if the Game 6 resurgence of Boozer continues against the Heat. Chris Bosh and Big Z are overmatched on the defensive end when playing against chairs, let alone actual basketball players. Boozer can have his way down low if he wants against these two, and if his Game 6 line of 23 points and 10 rebounds is the norm, the Heat will have problems.
Joel Anthony is a great defender down low (he has the highest +/- rating in the Playoffs so far) and I'm interested to see how he handles the superior post play of the Bulls. Noah, Boozer and Gibson hit the offensive glass hard, and if they get the rebounds, it could spell trouble for the Heat.
The Heat: I kind of hit on this earlier, but I think the Heat's success against the Bulls lies on how they stop Rose. If they can shut down passing lanes when Rose penetrates, it will frustrate the Bulls into an offensive scheme they are unfamiliar with. If Kyle Korver isn't on the court, the situation gets even worse as the Bulls lose their best (and only) three-point shooter.
The Heat's success also relies on their ability to initiate a competent half-court offense against a Bulls team that plays defense with the best of them. James and Wade need to utilize the pick-and-roll often, so the ball stays in the hands of their two best players. Minimizing the control that Mario Chalmers and Mike Bibby have on both ends of the court, as well as pressure on Bosh—who inexplicably admitted to being nervous against the Celtics—are of utmost importance.
The X-factor is the type of impact that Udonis Haslem will have. He returned from injury in the last series and was largely ineffective. But if the extra practice results in providing even 10 meaningful minutes a game, he will bring veteran nerves and much needed depth to a thin Heat lineup. He would also add intensity in the post that the Heat desperately needs. If the return of Haslem means the Heat can box out and protect their defensive rebounds, they will gladly run with the Bulls in the transition game. James and Wade are unstoppable when given a chance to create on the fly, and if they can push the pace of games it only benefits them that much more against a Bulls team that wants to create a half-court game.
The truth is that while the teams are very different, this series is extremely even. The Heat have the two best players, but the Bulls are the more complete team. Both teams need to play into their strengths and try to force the game into their type of tempo. Whoever controls the pace the most will win the series.
Prediction: While the Bulls were the most consistent team in the NBA over the regular season, the Heat have been on a mission since LeBron and Bosh made the move to Miami last July. These teams both have the talent to win a championship, but I think that heart and desire are going to decide this series. Whoever wants it more will win. My buddies and I do a year-long fantasy sports competition called the Gentlemen's Betting League. Before the regular season began, I picked a Heat-Thunder NBA Finals.
I'm not changing my prediction now. Heat in 6.
(3) Dallas Mavericks v. (4) Oklahoma City Thunder
Yowza. These two teams couldn't have gone through two more contrasting series in the conference semifinals. The Mavs brushed off the Lakers like a fly on the wall, while the Thunder went through a seven-game dogfight with the Grizzlies.
The Thunder got beat up battling Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol down low in the post in a matchup resembling a heavyweight title bout. The Mavericks were beat up—literally—through a few cheap shots at the hands of Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom.
The Mavericks effectively ended both a dynasty and one of the greatest coaching careers in history, while the Thunder ended a Cinderella story.
About the only similarity between the two series was that both teams closed out with a bang, blowing out their opponent to clinch a spot in the conference semifinals. But enough looking backward, let's peer forward into my little crystal ball to see what's on tap (I'll prefer a Sam Adams Summer Ale if you're asking) for the Western Conference Finals. It should be a good one.
SERIES STUD: Dirk Nowitzki. I mean, it's gotta be right? I could have picked either Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook for this spot, but those two have the luxury of knowing that if one has an off night, the other can pick up the slack. Who's picking up the slack for Dirk if he has an off night? Jason Kidd? Shawn Marion? Jason Terry, the Sixth Man who thinks he's an All-Star? (Note: I know Terry shot 9-10 from behind the arc in the closeout game against the Lakers. That's not happening again). I just don't see anyone taking over a shift if Dirk cashes out for a game.
If the Marc Cubans have any chance at winning, Dirk has to be the guy to carry them. We know Dirk is capable, as he practically took a team on his back to the brink of an NBA championship in 2006 until the referees handed the title to the Miami Heat. He has a toolbox full of offensive moves. He is one of the game's best shooters, he can post up, create in traffic and basically do whatever he wants on the offensive end. So far in the 2011 Playoffs, Dirk has averaged 26.5 PPG, 8.4 RPG and 2.8 APG. Those are pretty solid numbers. They have to be even better here.
I think they will. And it still may not be enough.
The Mavericks: This is a team that is high on heartbreak. Dirk and Jason Terry lost in the 2006 NBA Finals. Shawn Marion came close on multiple occasions with the Phoenix Suns, including the fateful series against the Spurs a few years back when A'mare Stoudemire was suspended for going onto the court during a scuffle. Jason Kidd lost back to back finals with the Nets, and Peja Stojakovic was on the 2002 Sacramento Kings team that was screwed by the refs in Game 6 against the Lakers.
Can this team get over its demons? Or will it be unable to rise to the occasion and chase another title?
The Thunder are not the Lakers. I never saw the Lakers getting back to the NBA Finals. Kobe's legs are giving out, Bynum is not as good as advertised and the bench was weak. They could only go as far as Kobe could take them. But the Thunder? Different story. I picked them to get to the Finals at the beginning of the season, and the Mavericks have to stop an intense, feisty and hungry team that sees the sky as their limit.
It all starts on the defensive end of the court. How will the Mavericks stop a potent OKC offense? Tyson Chandler will be effective on the boards if he can stay out of foul trouble, but if Westbrook and Durant are filling up the bucket his presence won't matter. Dirk isn't quick enough to guard Durant on the perimeter, and Jason Kidd hasn't played defense in years. The Thunder could put up a 110-point average in this series. I think the Mavericks put Shawn Marion and Deshawn Stevenson on Durant and Westbrook, respectively. Does anyone out there think that will matter? Marion is not the defensive mastermind he was in his prime, and Stevenson is not capable of staying with Westbrook as he drives into the paint.
On the offensive end of the floor, the Mavs need to keep getting red-hot three-point shooting. In particular they need Jason Terry to continue playing the second superstar role. If he can do that, Dallas may be able to keep up with the rapid pace of scoring that the Thunder want in this series.
The Thunder: Similar to my concerns about Dallas' ability to stop Westbrook and Durant, OKC isn't going to stop the Germanator. Coach Scotty Brooks has to be wrestling with the decision of either stopping Dirk or letting him have his way. By the way, how can a grown man still go by Scotty? I know Pippen did it, but anyone still using a "y" at the end of their name better be under the age of 14. It undermines his credibility.
In my opinion, the Thunder's best defensive option is to guard Dirk one-on-one and try and force him into the post. As far as who the Thunder use to cover Dirk, I'm not really sure. Thabo Sefolosha may be the best option. Part of me wants Serge Ibaka on him, but I also don't want to see him rack up foul after foul. He's better served roaming the court.
If you can get someone to limit Dirk in a one-on-one battle, you can focus on stopping the other four guys when they have the ball. I want my perimeter defenders closing passing lanes and putting pressure on Terry and Stojakovic. Jason Kidd is the world's worst three-point shooter that is considered a good three-point shooter. And Shawn Marion can't shoot a jumper to save his life. Let them jack up shots all day.
We all know about Durant and Westbrook, but what impressed me the most about the Thunder in the Grizzlies series is the quality minutes they received from their bench. James Harden really stepped up and started playing like the third overall pick he is. Daequan Cook came in at times and offered a spurt of offense with three-point shooting. Eric Maynor has proved a very cerebral, capable backup for Russell Westbrook, and I even saw him playing point at times when Westbrook was playing the off-guard role. Finally, Nick Collison provided some much needed post presence off the bench when Ibaka or Perkins got in foul trouble.
This team has proven that it's not just about Westbrook and Durant. They are the definition of a team that is young and hungry. They are young, but they did not crumble in either of the first two series. They won't back down here either.
Prediction: Dirk is going to go down as one of the best players in league history. Unfortunately, as time goes on, the clock keeps ticking on his window to win a championship.
I think think the Thunder learned a lot from their seven games with the Grizzlies. Dirk may want it more, but I'm concerned about the rest of the team's ability to keep things going. My guess is that the studly German follows the paths of Malone and Stockton and continues to seek a title. To me, whoever wins this series is the team that comes up with a better defensive scheme.
Ultimately, I think OKC's one-two punch proves to be too much for the Mavericks. The Young Guns move on in thunderous fashion in an exciting series. Thunder in 7.