The Dallas Mavericks punched their ticket to the NBA Finals on Wednesday night, and now, they await the winner of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls, a series Miami leads, 3-1. A Heat victory in Thursday's contest (TNT, 7:30 Central) assures a rematch of the 2006 Finals, where Dwyane Wade led the Heat to victory after falling behind, 2-0, to Dallas. The Bulls, obviously, need to win out in order to prevent that rematch.
It's overwhelmingly likely, however, that Mavs/Heat will be the pairing. So, as you, dear Mavs fan, prepare for Game 5 between Miami and Chicago, here are a few things to watch for.
How often do the Heat go small, and how successful are they with small units?
The Heat tend to play traditionally, insofar as they put five players at their primary positions. But sometimes, they go small, shifting LeBron James to power forward and Chris Bosh to center (the irony of a 6-foot-8, 260-pound locomotive of a human being being called "small," even in basketball terms, is striking). Against Dallas, that group could present some problems. Dirk Nowitzki can't guard LeBron at power forward, nor can he capably defend Bosh when he's on the attack; if he's settling for long jumpers off pick-and-pop action, that's more Dirk's speed.
One solution might be trying to hide Nowitzki by assigning him to check whoever the Heat put at small forward. Sometimes it's James Jones, whose only real responsibility is to stand in the corner and await a pass for a three-pointer. Dallas also has the luxury of being able to use a zone defense, which takes pressure off Nowitzki to keep James in front of him.
Can the Heat stop dribble penetration?
The Mavs don't run the most dynamic of offenses. Don't get me wrong, they're a great offensive club, and "dynamic" is a descriptive term, not an evaluative one. At all rates, they rely on crisp, unselfish ball movement to find the open man, who tends to be a jump-shooter. If all else fails, they give Dirk the ball.
But they also have, in Jose Barea, a waterbug point guard who can disrupt most defenses off the dribble. Such play can spark an offense off the bench, as we saw in the Mavericks' second-round sweep of the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.
And, because the Heat lack a great rim protector--though Joel Anthony average 1.2 blocks per game this season--they'd seem to be susceptible to the sort of penetration Barea, and at times Jason Terry, provides. Yet the Heat have effectively bottled up Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, the league's seventh-leading scorer, in the Conference Finals. The MVP is shooting just 36.3 percent from the field against the Heat's defense. Further, he's shooting just 54.5 percent at the rim (down from 60 percent in the regular season), according to HoopData.com. In the regular season, shot attempts in the immediate basket area accounted for nearly one-third of his overall shots; against Miami, they make up less than one-quarter of them. Miami's cut off the lane so effectively that he's having to hoist off-balance shots before he can even get to the rim.
And if Rose can't get to the basket against the Heat's defense, the likes of Barea and Terry don't stand a chance. Dallas will have to look for other ways to disrupt Miami's D.