Monday, June 13, 2011

Dallas KOs Miami

Congratulations to the Dallas Mavericks, who defeated the Miami Heat four games to two to win their first championship in franchise history!

No one who saw Dallas play in the '90s could have ever imagined that this day would come.

But Dallas played with the heart of a champion and won a series which will go down as one of the most memorable and entertaining of all time.

It was so good that I wish it didn't have to end.

The heavyweight fight analogy is the only way to describe what happened.

Miami came into this series like the undefeated heavyweight champ who had won all of his fights by knockout in the first five rounds.

And when LeBron James hit that fade-away, 25-foot three-pointer at the end of the third quarter in Game 1, judging by Dallas' body language as they walked off the court, you wondered if they wouldn't be Miami's next quick knockout victim.

James' two powerful and sensational dunks to finish Dallas off that game were like a fighter flashing his skills and showboating against a dazed opponent, and by early in the fourth quarter of Game 2, Dallas was clearly on the ropes.

But they somehow landed a lucky punch (might have even swung with their eyes closed) and cut the champ.

And when they saw the champ was cut and bleeding they realized he wasn't so invincible after all, and the champ's aura of invincibility, his greatest advantage, disappeared forever.

Toward the end of Dallas' unbelievable comeback in Game 2, you could see that the dynamics of the series had completely shifted.

Dallas had gained confidence and had its swag on full throttle, and when Dwyane Wade's shot missed at the buzzer you knew that if nothing else Miami would be in for the fight of its life if they wanted to win this time.

The two teams sparred for the next two rounds (Game 3 and Game 4), with round four being a battle of wills like few we have ever seen.

Both teams were exhausted by the end, and it ended up being less about basketball and more about courage, determination, character, heart, guts, endurance, will power, mental toughness and every other sports cliche you can think of.

Whoever wanted this game would have to pull something out of themselves that maybe even they didn't know they had.

And with Dirk Nowitzki playing with a fever which sometimes reached 102 degrees, Dallas was the team that did it.

Dallas looked up after four rounds and saw they were even on the scorecard when every other contender had been knocked out by then, or at best was on the verge of being knocked out.

And what happened next is what typically happens to champs who routinely knock their opponents out early: They don't have the stamina to last into the later rounds.

Dallas took the fight to the champ in the next round (Game 5) and put its entire array of punches on display in the process, from the quick jab (JJ Barea) to the body blow (Brian Cardinal), and at the same time was able to consistently land their knockout punch (the three-pointer) for the first time.

By the time the second half of Game 6 arrived, Miami was out on its feet.

All of the outward indicators which told you the fight was still on where there, the crowd, the announcers, the two teams still going at it, the fact that it was only round six; but Miami had nothing left.

Even the body language had turned completely around by then.

When Shawn Marion got an offensive rebound over Dwyane Wade and scored on a put-back in the third quarter, Miami's body language said it all.

And the look on Dwyane Wade's face after he scored over Dirk Nowitzki and was fouled early in the fourth quarter said even more.

There was no swag, no mean glare, no nasty snarl, nothing.

Guys in the NBA who make a play like that almost always celebrate it, and Wade should have been chest-bumping, giving high-fives to fans behind the basket and posing in front of the nearest camera to let everyone know that he is the mf'er.

But there was none of that.

Wade didn't have the look and swag of someone about to lead his team to a championship in the next two games; he had the look of someone who wanted to be knocked out.

And over the next several minutes, Dallas did knock him and Miami out and put them down for the count.

And when it was all said and done, the invincible champ was flat on his back, knocked out cold by a more skilled and more experienced fighter with more endurance and a much better trainer.

Coming into the series, I felt Dallas had the following advantages: Rick Carlisle, Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler, shooting and their bench.

And Miami had these advantages: youth, the talent of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

But Erik Spoelstra took away Miami's youth advantage by playing James too many minutes.

A young guy playing extra-heavy minutes against an older guy playing the right amount of minutes is more or less a wash, and you could argue that the extra-heavy minutes took away the talent advantage too because fatigue drains talent.

And whatever talent advantage which might have been left was stomped away by the paint dominance of Tyson Chandler and his ability to redirect ventures into the paint and take away dunks and layups.

Before the Oklahoma City series I wrote that Dallas was better at playing winning basketball than Oklahoma City was, and they were better at it than Miami as well.

What I mean by winning basketball is Dallas passes the ball around until they get a good shot, and then and only then do they shoot the basketball, with no regard for who ends up taking the shot.

That's winning basketball!

But a lot of teams can't play like that because they don't have enough guys with the skills to pass the ball without committing turnovers, the unselfish mentalities to not care who scores or the experience to read complicated NBA defenses.

Dallas has all of the above and more, and that is why they are the best team in the NBA.

There are so many lessons from this win, one of which is how much better Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry got late in their careers.

Nowitzki is much better with his shot selection. Kidd is a better shooter. And Terry is a better passer and playmaker.

Dallas doesn't win it all without those individual improvements.

And from playing Corey Brewer against Los Angeles to benching Peja Stojakovic in favor of Brian Cardinal to starting JJ Barea, everything Rick Carlisle did in the playoffs turned to gold.

Kevin Pelton wrote that Carlisle out-coached the opposition in every playoff series, and I would have to agree with that 110 percent. He put on a coaching clinic and made all the right moves at all the right times against every opponent.

Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd carried Dallas on defense. And Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd and JJ Barea carried them on offense.

Throw in a little DeShawn Stevenson, Brian Cardinal and Brendan Haywood and what you got was a total team effort which was a joy to watch.

Finally, Mark Cuban, Donnie Nelson and their support staffs deserve credit for putting this team together. And the coaching staff deserves credit for developing it.

Now that Cuban has the blueprint, there may be no stopping him.

When you consider how far this franchise has come, enough can't be said about Cuban and Nelson and the jobs they have done.

On to Miami, they deserve credit for getting this far and coming so close to winning it all.

Dallas is simply better than they are.

To those who want to throw Erik Spoelstra under the bus, I won't argue with you on that one.

At the same time, I would like to see him with a better team before I make a final judgment.

Miami needs a Tyson Chandler.

We all knew they were weak at center before the season started, and while Joel Anthony does a good job, remember that he is only 6-9 and the only true shot-blocker Spoelstra used.

That means when Spoelstra chose to play Udonis Haslem up front next to Chris Bosh, Miami was essentially playing small ball with no interior presence in the paint who could block or alter shots at the rim, a formula for disaster.

I've railed against small ball so much that I don't feel like touching it right now, but you all know how I feel about that coaching decision.

Bosh and Haslem averaged .5 blocks apiece and were no match for Nowitzki or Barea on their drives into the paint.

After helping Miami get here with his defense on Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose, Mike Bibby couldn't break out of his shooting slump or contain JJ Barea.

And LeBron James could have been better, but I won't kill him for his performance.

I give all of the credit to Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd, DeShawn Stevenson ("Blow the Whistle"), Brian Cardinal and the rest of the Mavericks.

As Zach Lowe pointed out, they put James in a vice; and there was little he could do surrounded by three to five guys at a time other than play the team game and pass the ball to the open man.

Their defense clearly had him flustered and confused.

But remember that he is only 26 playing against a more experienced, deeper and better-coached team.

In all likelihood, he will one day shred those same schemes as he gets older and as Miami surrounds him with better and more consistent and versatile contributors.

I never expected James to carry Miami to a championship by being Michael Jordan.

And I've always known that basketball is a team game, so this series wasn't a reminder of anything to me.

And Miami plays a team game. It's just that Dallas plays it better.

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