Well NBA fans, the long national nightmare is over. You can all let out a big sigh of relief.
That’s right, after spending the last 11 months watching and waiting, your prayers have been answered. There will be no parade down Biscayne Boulevard and no awkward dancing from Zydrunas Ilgauskas while Pat Riley smirks in the background. Meanwhile, the only people partying until the break of dawn on South Beach will be those listening to old Will Smith albums, and well, apparently Dirk Nowitzki too.
The Miami Heat are not your NBA Champions. Not this year anyway.
But let’s just stop right there.
Because this series- these entire NBA playoffs really- weren’t about the Heat. They were about the Dallas Mavericks. Dallas was the most mentally and physically tough team since the beginning of April, and were the better coached and better prepared team in just about every Finals game this June. Understand Miami didn’t lose this series. Dallas won it. The Mavericks deserving NBA Champions.
So while the rest of the world is reveling in the Heat’s failures, and in seeing one particular superstar have a breakdown usually reserved for contestants on VH1 reality shows, I’m going to stay away from that (For the most part).
Today is about the NBA Champions. Today is about the Dallas Mavericks.
Speaking of which, I’ve got to be honest: This title surprised me as much as it did you.
Now that’s not to take away anything from the Mavs. After all, you don’t go through Portland, the Lakers and Thunder to win the Western Conference by accident.
The Mavericks won with savvy, but they did it with plenty of talent too, not to mention size, depth and skill. And of course, plenty of experience. Collectively this team was older than a bus full of senior citizens on a day trip to the casino (Want the best stat I saw the entire series? According to NBATV’s press conference after Game 6, Dallas had nine players who’d been in the NBA at least 10 years, all without a title. NINE! Wow!)
But as good as the Mavs are, and as good as they’d been all postseason, that didn’t change how I felt about them before the series; essentially that they weren’t the Miami Heat. Not even close. Miami has skill too, but also speed, athleticism and young legs. Against Chicago they played defense like no team I’d ever seen. And not to mention, it was just two weeks ago that we all unanimously agreed that LeBron James was the best basketball player on the planet. As crazy as that seems right now.
A funny thing happened in these Finals though. At least for one year, and in this one circumstance, Dallas proved that it’s not about having the world’s best player, or even the best trio of players. Winning an NBA Championship is about having the best team, having nine or 10 or 11 puzzles pieces, and having a smart coach that knows how to make them fit. And with all due respect to Miami, you couldn’t say that about them.
Look, I hate to the play the “Heat aren’t a team card,” here. I know it’s an easy angle, and at times that just flat out wasn’t true this postseason. In the first three rounds, Miami passed like a team, played defense like a team, and won like a team. Just not this time around.
Nope, these NBA Finals were about Dallas, the team. And interestingly, as much as people want to make this about one superstar prevailing over the other, of Dirk besting LeBron, that wasn’t the case at all. Because I’ve got a news flash for you: Dirk didn’t play his best basketball in this series. Not even close. At least not by the insane standards he’s set for himself.
Looking across the board, Dirk was actually at his best earlier in these playoffs. He shot 57 percent against the Lakers and 55 percent against Oklahoma City, averaging 32 points a game against the Thunder in the process. But against Miami, Dirk only shot 41 percent in the series, and just 33 percent in the clinching game. Not bad. But not Dirk either.
And when you really think about it, Dallas won this because of everyone but Dirk. As good as he is, he still needed help from everyone else.
Dallas won in large part because of Jason Terry, a player you could argue, should’ve been Finals MVP.
Entering this series, people spoke about Terry in certainties. He couldn’t miss open shots. He had to be Dallas’ second scorer. Even though Dirk was the superstar, no one had a smaller margin for error than Terry did. Essentially, if he wasn’t great every night, Dallas wasn’t going to win. Plain and simple. Which is exactly what happened in Game 1, when Terry went just 3 for 10 from the field with 12 points. In a related story, Dallas lost that night.
But while Dirk wheezed and coughed his way through Game 4, and a shooting slump in Game 6, it was Terry who might have been the Mavs best player. Yes Dirk closed out those games, but it was Terry who kept the Mavs in them, especially Game 6, when he led Dallas with 27 points off the bench. In the final two games of the series, Terry shot a combined 67 percent from the field (19 for 28), a number that is all the more impressive considering that nearly half those shot attempts were three’s (12). Obviously the Mavs wouldn’t have won this series without Dirk. But they wouldn’t have won it without Terry either.
Meanwhile, how about everyone else? How about Shawn Marion, who returned from the dead, to put up an old-school, Matrix-y 14 points and six boards a game in this series? Or Tyson Chandler, who went from getting punked by Dwyane Wade in Game 4 (you do remember the 7’0 Chandler getting blocked by the 6’4 Wade like five possessions in a row, don’t you?) to controlling the paint in Game’s 5 and 6? Hell, how about JJ Barea? The Mavericks went 3-0 after he replaced DeShawn Stevenson (and his Abe Lincoln neck tattoo) in the starting lineup beginning in Game 4, with Barea going off for 17 in the series clincher. As I joked on Twitter Sunday night, “JJ Barea is so much better at life than me.” Actually, come to think of it, I wasn’t joking at all.
Speaking of that Barea substitution, you know who was the most underrated superstar of this series? How about Rick Carlisle?
We always blame the coach too much when a team loses, and never give them enough credit when they win, so for that reason alone, let’s look at Carlisle’s resume from the last six weeks. Carlisle sent Phil Jackson into an early retirement in the conference semifinals. Outcoached Scott Brooks to the point that for a while, talk radio basically turned into a moratorium on “Is the moment too big for Scott Brooks?” Not to mention that Carlisle ran circles around Erik Spolestra in these Finals.
On a different note, remember how everyone spent the last few weeks wondering why LeBron James was struggling so much? Why he wasn’t being aggressive and not scoring points? Did anyone stop to think that maybe- just maybe- it had anything to do with the brilliant defensive coaching moves of Carlisle? How he switched from man-to-man to zone more frequently than a teenage girl switches shoes on prom night? How the entire Mavs defense attacked LeBron off the pick and roll, rather than letting him get in the lane and pick them apart like he did against Chicago?
At some point in this series, the media made this series about LeBron, which is fine (I’ll get to him in a second). At the same time, guess what else? It wasn’t just LeBron who was struggling to score against Dallas’ defense. It was everyone. To the point, here are LeBron and Wade’s numbers from Game’s 5 and 6:
LeBron: 48 points on 50 percent shooting (17 of 34)
Wade: 41 points on 42 percent shooting (12 of 28)
Now to his credit, Wade was injured, and definitely willed himself to the foul line (19 free throw attempts to LeBron’s pathetic six) much more so than his teammate. But to solely say that Miami lost this series because of LeBron’s offense is not only foolish, it’s factually incorrect. How about we give some credit to the Mavs defense? Huh?
(Speaking of LeBron, since I’m a sports writer and since these are this is the NBA Finals, I do feel obligated to weigh in. I’ll try to make this as quick and painless as possible. Here goes:
Look, we can dance around the subject as much as we want, but at the same time, let’s all get real here for a second: Collectively, people are still holding out hate for LeBron because of “The Decision.” As we’ve rehashed many times, not so much The Decision itself, but all the pomp, circumstance and literal fireworks that surrounded it.
And honestly, I’m no different. I hated The Decision when it happened, and even a year later, cringe whenever I think about it. Fair or not, I’ll never look at LeBron the same way because of it.
At the same time, let me make one thing clear: I watch sports for the greatness. I watch sports to see people do things that I can’t, and so that one day I can say to my grandchildren, “Yep, I remember seeing ____ play.”
And really, that’s my thing with LeBron: I just want to see him reach his potential. I want to tell my grandchildren that I was fortunate to see the greatest basketball player ever take the court.
Which is why these last few weeks have been so tough to watch.
Understand, I get no great joy out of watching LeBron fail. Personally, I’d much rather live in a world where the best basketball player on the planet, maybe the person with the most innate skill ever, plays his absolute best in the most important games of his career. I’d rather see the LeBron from the Chicago series than the one from these Finals, and rather go to bed at night saying, “Man I don’t like LeBron…but I will never, ever forget what he did tonight,” rather than “What the hell just happened?” If that makes me an apologist, I don’t care. Imagine a world where someone like Beethoven or Mozart could write the world’s most beautiful symphonies, but whenever they were ready to conduct them, froze and ran off stage. How would the world be a better place because of that? How would music be better? It wouldn’t. Well that’s how I feel about LeBron. How is it better for basketball if the world’s best player simply shrinks under pressure? It isn’t. Only we see it every spring.
On a side note, I don’t generally like Magic Johnson’s post-game analysis, but thought he was right on point last night. After Game 6, he told a story about 1984 (when he was a year younger than LeBron by the way), and how after he blew the NBA Finals that year, he worked harder than he ever had before to ensure it never happened again.
Right now LeBron is at the same point in his career. He has no excuses. He’s picked his teammates, coaches and team. On the reverse side, Dwyane Wade will be 30 by the time the next NBA Finals rolls around (if there’s one at all) and isn’t getting younger. Chris Bosh is who he is. The Miami Heat are who they are. Now it’s up to LeBron James to figure out who he is.
To paraphrase what Magic said last night, does LeBron, “Want to be a billionaire or the best basketball player in the world?” Does he want to be an NBA superstar or celebrity? Does he want to view basketball as a hobby or a passion? Does he want to great or one of the best ever?
It’s up to him, but that last option is very quickly exiting stage left.
It’s sad that he’s the only one who doesn’t realize it.)
Anyway, let’s get back to the Mavericks, because again, this title isn’t about anyone or anything but them. They dominated these playoffs from start to finish. And for a veteran team, they did it in a very old-school way: With no short cuts.
Seriously, think about what Dallas did this postseason. They beat the team of the NBA’s past (Lakers), present (Heat) and likely future (Oklahoma City). They went through Kobe, Durant and LeBron, not to mention Pau, Russell Westbrook and Wade. They beat teams that were small and quick, tall and tough, young and old. And as has been mentioned many times already, they did it by being smarter, stronger and more mentally tough. In these NBA Finals alone, there were four games that could’ve gone either way (Game’s 2-5) and the Mavericks won three of them. If that isn’t the definition of “Heart of a Champion,” I don’t know what is.
As for what’s next, well, your guess is as good as mine.
I’m not smart enough or legally savvy enough to even start discussing this lockout that appears about to happen. My expert opinion is that it seems inevitable, and seems like it’ll last a long time. Other than that, I can’t really help you.
When play does resume, the Heat will again be the favorites in my eyes. The idea that this group will win six or seven or eight titles (like they discussed when they first got together last summer) is laughable at this point, but one or two seems like a certainty. Meanwhile, Chicago and Oklahoma City are right there behind them.
As for the Mavs? Well as I, and many who are smarter than me discussed before this series, 2011 was the window for this team. With so many guys at such an advanced age, the idea that this team would be this healthy, this late in the year ever again just didn’t seem feasible. It was 2011 or bust. And fortunately for Mark Cuban and Co., it doesn’t look like they’re about to bust.
To Dallas’ credit, the window was open, and they went ahead and stepped through it. They did it by being better coached and better prepared, and by executing when it mattered most. They did it because their star shined brighter, and players 2-12 were better too. They did as a byproduct of being a team, and they did it because they were a team.
I don’t know what the future holds, but there is just one thing that’s certain in the present. Dirk, Jason Kidd and Jet Terry never have to hear the whispers again. Neither do Shawn Marion or Peja Stojakovic. And the dream world that JJ Barea already lives in just got a bit more dreamy.
The Dallas Mavericks are NBA Champions.
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