The NBA conference finals are upon us and in an attempt to expose my foolishness once again, I will preview and predict the upcoming serieseses. (Bear with me, I got like 2 hours of sleep last night.)
Both series have the potential to be really special or really short. There are similarities beyond that as well. All teams feature marquee-level stars. And in both conferences, you have a newer team finding it’s identity taking on a more established team hoping to bring it all together.
On the other side of the court, you have the up-and-coming Oklahoma City Thunder. Yes, they’re also a fairly established team, but they also traded one of their key components with only a couple months left in the regular season and had to develop a slightly new identity on the court (which is an underrated feat on the fly for a coach). And while some nights they certainly miss the scoring and length of Jeff Green, they got back something you could argue they needed far more: toughness and experience. Kendrick Perkins might not look like much on the hardwood or the stat sheet, but that is a championship ring on his finger. He knows what’s necessary to bring a championship home and has demonstrated time & again that he will set the tone to be followed on defense. But will it be enough to slow down Dirk Nowitzki & counteract Tyson Chandler?
Dirk & Durant will be the major players offensively, of course, but ultimately they will cancel each other out. This series will ultimately be controlled by the guards. For the Mavericks, coach Rick Carlisle will need to continue seamlessly juggling between the veteran leadership of the Jason’s Kidd & Terry and the young, speedy Rodrigue Beaubois & J.J. Barea. For coach Scotty Brooks & the Thunder, there will be no need to juggle. Russell Westbrook is the only point guard needed, but Brooks’ task will be no less difficult. He must convince Westbrook to take his Game 7 from the 2nd round and replicate at least four more times against a veteran group that will goad him in every way possible to jack-up shots. If you’re watching a game in this series and Westbrook is on pace for 25 or more shots, the Mavericks are winning.
In the East, the Miami Heat are finally fitting the puzzle pieces together at just the right time. All season long, the question of “Can they close out a tight game in the playoffs?” rang in their ears from reporters, pundits and fans. Fortunately for LeBron & Co., they put those questions, along with their Celtic demons, to rest. With a 16-0 run to end Game 5, the Heat became the favorites for the 2011 Larry O’Brien. And I’ll admit, I was swept up in it. I thought, “Well, man, if the Heat could tear down the Celtics’ defense, who can stop them?”
The main thing I failed to realize when watching the Heat/Celtics series was that the Celtics had no bench at all. After Jeff Green, there wasn’t a single person on the bench who the Celtics could consistently rely on for offense or even steady defense. This is not a problem the Bulls have. Their bench players might not frighten anyone offensively, but they are young, athletic, and they flat-out hustle. From Taj Gibson to Ronnie Brewer, Tom Thibodeau knows he can dip into his bench at any time and barely miss a step. Like the Celtics, this is not a weapon the Heat have in their arsenal.
Now that being said, the Heat have more than enough talent to bounce back and win Game 2. Game 1 at the half was 48-48. Then the Bulls opened the 3rd with a 10-0 run and never looked back. The Bulls’ defense is stifling, but I expect Spoelstra to realize what he should have all along which is Dwyane Wade has no choice but to guard Derrick Rose. If he thinks he can get by leaving Bibby or Chalmers on the MVP, this series will be over in five, at most.
If you had asked me on Saturday (which Scizz did on the podcast), I would’ve told you that I thought Miami and Dallas would be squaring off in the Finals. I’m extremely tempted to run away from that pick considering how badly the Heat got thwomped, but I’ll try to stick to my convictions until the Bulls make me look like a fool. My hope is that LeBron & D-Wade realize that this is a whole new level of defense and raise their games accordingly. Even after their impressive Game 1, it's hard for me to imagine Luol Deng & Keith Bogans being able to shut down the Dynamic Duo. On the other side, it’s easy to take Dallas over OKC if for no other reason than the old “experience versus youth” maxim. Oklahoma’s future is certainly brighter in the West, but today, this is their first trip to the conference finals, a stage the Mavericks are plenty familiar with. I’m banking on their experience winning out.
But these playoffs have been all about surprises. And I wouldn’t be shocked to find out there are a few twists left in the tale of the 2011 NBA postseason.