Tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, the 2011 NBA Finals will finally tip off in South Beach, which was almost expected when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh decided to join forces. What wasn't expected was that the Dallas Mavericks would be the ones representing the Western Conference in the final series of the season.
All season long, everyone expected the Lakers to flip the champion switch in the postseason and reach the Finals with the chance at another three-peat for Phil Jackson. Or for the Spurs to miraculously find the fountain of youth and make more go of it. Or for the up-and-coming Thunder to expedite the growing process with the addition of Kendrick Perkins and claim their perch as the king of the conference sooner than expected.
What everyone forgot about was the team with the high-profile owner, understated superstar, Hall of Fame point guard and roster full of hungry, ready, battle-tested veterans dying to get their hands on the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
When you stop and look back at it, it's almost humorous how foolish we all were. I mean, take a long, hard look at the make-up of this team. Dirk Nowitzki is one of the most uniquely talented players of all time, truly an original. The man has been unguardable his entire career, and he's become even more efficient the older he gets. Jason Kidd may no longer be the best point guard in the NBA, a claim that was certainly true for years, but he is perhaps the smartest and most physical, still. Tyson Chandler was quietly one of the best and biggest offseason acquisitions in the entire league, possibly the biggest outside of anyone related to "The Decision."
Shawn Marion and DeShawn are two versatile, hounding defenders, with Marion adding strong offensive skills as well. Jason Terry has been one of the most lethal shooters and bench scorers throughout his entire career. And when Caron Butler went down for the season — imagine if he was healthy! — Mark Cuban brought in another deadly shooter to come off the bench, adding Peja Stojakovic to the mix. Then there is J.J. Barea, who looks like Steve Nash 2.0, to come in and spell Kidd, not to mention Brendan Haywood's big body and a team devoid of ego.
That's about as complete a team as you'll find anywhere. And it's a team that's going to win the 2010-11 NBA Finals. Here's why.
Sure, the Miami Heat have three of the four best players in this series. It would be really hard to argue against that. But the Dallas Mavericks have a deeper, more complete team, a team that knows how to win playing multiple styles and players that are willing to stick to their roles. Oh, and they also match up better against the Heat than any other team in the entire league.
Let me explain.
For starters, Dirk Nowitzki is playing the best basketball of anyone on the planet right now, and when his shot is falling, he is as unguardable as it gets. This postseason it's been falling all the time. Even when defenders have played him perfectly, he's simply knocked down shots anyway with his nearly unblockable jumper and array of shooting angles. There isn't really a defender alive who can bother him when he's in the zone, evident by Nick Collison playing him about as tough as anyone can — routinely getting away with fouls — and Dirk still torching him left and right. Do you really think he's going to slow down with 2006 on his mind?
Conversely, while LeBron, Wade and Bosh are all nearly impossible to stop, the Mavericks have the horses to try and contain them. DeShawn Stevenson and Shawn Marion can make LeBron and Wade work on the perimeter, pretty much interchangeably. Of course no one stops those guys, but that duo is about as good as it gets defensively. Plus, Jason Kidd is no slouch himself, able to cover Wade in spurts so long as he can keep him in front. And Tyson Chandler can play Bosh straight up, athletic enough to step out and stay with him on those 18-footers and big and strong enough to bother Bosh down low. Oh yeah, Chandler and Brendan Haywood can help protect the paint against LeBron and Wade as well.
Then offensively, outside of Dirk's dominance, Dallas has plenty of what the Chicago Bulls lacked — shooters and scorers around their superstar. Miami disposed of the Bulls by doubling Derrick Rose and clogging the paint, forcing others around him to beat them. Chicago didn't have the players to do that. Dallas does. Not only do the Heat have the contend with one of the game's elite scorers in Dirk Nowitzki, but they also have to worry about Jason Kidd and the lethal three-pointer he's developed the past few years; Jason Terry, a true scorer who can get you 20 off the bench on any given night; Peja Stojakovic and his incredible shooting; Shawn Marion, who can score in a variety of ways, be it putbacks, floaters, jumpers, etc. Double Dirk at your own peril. The Mavericks would love to see you try it.
And of course, there is the clear advantage at the point. Jason Kidd may not be what he once was, but he is still one of the most important players in left. He's been truly remarkable this postseason, outplaying and outfoxing players half his age. And in crunch time, there isn't another player in the NBA you'd trust more to make the right decision with the ball.
While the Heat have certainly figured out this end-of-game thing in the postseason, there is still the question of who is going to make sure the right guy gets the ball in the right spot each and every trip in the 4th quarter. There are no concerns about that with Dallas, because in every game this postseason, the veteran has made sure each possession runs through Dirk, the team's best player, and then goes from there. Jason Kidd is the smartest basketball player in the Finals, and that means a lot.
When you add it all up, it means the Dallas Mavericks are really the team to beat. Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, Peja Stojakovic, those guys have been through all the wars. They've seen it all, won't be awed or overwhelmed by Miami and its three-headed monster. There's only one things these players haven't accomplished, and that's getting that ever-elusive ring. They know what it's like to climb the summit only to fizzle out before reaching the top. They know these opportunities don't come around as often as you think. And they know their time is running out.
They also know this is their time. Just ask Jason Terry.
The Dallas Mavericks aren't as young and athletic as the Miami Heat. They aren't as well-known or polarizing. What they are is a veteran team that knows what it takes to win, knows how to win and is primed to get four more victories. They have a hunger that you really can't get until you've been around as long as they have and never won it all. And they have a team built to finally exorcise the those demons.
That's why the Dallas Mavericks will win the NBA Finals and finally put the ghosts of 2006 to rest.