Throughout the leagues and tournaments I've organized, coached in, and played in, I've seen a lot of adults play basketball in my lifetime. This year in the NBA, I observed a lot of the lessons about basketball -- lessons which I learned the hard way through mostly painful losses and a few exhilirating championships -- come to fruition.
And now it's come to this, the 2011 NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat. Deciding this one isn't any easier than it was deciding last year's duel between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. However, I'm sure you can agree that there is a decidedly different feel to this one.
(Warning: this is another one of my excessively long posts, over 3,000 words per the automated SB Nation word counter.)
Instead of watching two storied franchises which seemed to have had innate, perhaps unfair, personnel advantages over various dynasties of time, we have two teams which seem to be reflecting an era of basketball while at the same time possibly ushering in a new era, with the Lockout looming and strongly indicating a change to the business of basketball as we know it.
You have the "uber-owner" in Mark Cuban, who some like Phil Jackson have said is buying his way to a championship, using savvy and years of experience mastering roster movement in the NBA to build a veteran, complete team, each player ready to fit into his role. And you have the "Superfriends" squad, the penultimate AAU team, perhaps the most athletic trio ever to put on basketball shoes, surrounding itself with willing and capable teammates ready to sacrifice personal achievements to be led by them.
As the elimination of both the Lakers and Celtics might signal the end of GMs "getting duped" into providing the last piece of a Big Three, will the winner of this series suggest the beginning or end of that particular model of roster construction?
So whom do you root for? Do you pick with your head or your heart? I tell you what, I'm picking based on karma. Yup, the basketball gods. I have dealt with them oh so many times. I think I have finally figured them out, what lessons the gods are trying to teach us. Some of them can actually be applied to the Warriors (more on that later). And yet, because I'm revealing my thoughts, I'm probably going to be wrong.
Best player on the planet right now. (via d.yimg.com)
Picking with your head: the Miami Heat
Did anyone see the first quarter of Game 3 against the Chicago Bulls? My goodness, that was LeBron James at full strength (i.e., not fatigued, right from the get-go) coming out and unleashing his defensive dominance on every corner of the court. That was perhaps the most impressive extended string of individual defense I have ever seen.
Dwyane Wade. Sure, he dribbles too much on offense, but that regular season game where he had 4 blocks in under 60 seconds? That is unreal. And we've seen flashes of that at critical moments in the playoffs (blocked shot of Derrick Rose).
When the Miami Heat are playing their best defense, it's very nearly impossible to score on them. We're talking not only LeBron and Wade's ninja status (actually a better martial arts reference would be judo), but also the help side abilities of Udonis Haslem, James Jones, and Mario Chalmers (seen them get a lot of charges these playoffs). And yes, Chris Bosh is indeed a smart defender in that he stays on the floor and keeps his hands outstretched like you teach big men early on. Granted, the Mavs' team D is pretty rock solid as well, from their zone thrown in by genius Rick Carlisle at opportune moments, to their spot-on rotations. Even Brendan Haywood -- not known for high IQ -- looked pretty good at times when he was focused in on the help D.
However, the Heat have one thing on defense that the Mavs don't: athleticism. Yes, I'll give Dallas the edge on the last-line-of-defense shotblocker in Tyson Chandler, but that's about it. And that athleticism works both ways, too. What's the only thing that can beat great-yet-not-so-athletic team defense such as the Mavs? The hero shot. LeBron and Wade have demonstrated in these Playoffs that they can bail out the Heat just a tad bit more with hero shots than Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry have for the Mavs.
As the saying goes, defense wins championships and while the Mavs' defense is stellar, the Heat's is "all-time great" caliber. If I'm betting with my head, I pick the Heat.
Product of the Bay. (via d.yimg.com)
Picking with your heart: the Mavs
The main thing I want to say about The Decision is this: I didn't watch it. I was probably too busy that day. But I'm a different cat. You see, with me, more often than not all I really care about is people showing up to their games on time, giving their all, and demonstrating sportsmanship. I mean that, literally. In my leagues and tournaments, I'm there behind the scorer's table running the clock and everything. From there, I see what I see. I've been trained by my job to make judgments based on that vantage point, between two baselines 94 feet apart, painted on a hardwood floor. I realize I am probably different than you.
Fact: There has been at least one person who has gone to jail for armed robbery, who has played in my league. Yet I don't really have hard evidence nor was I actually involved in the case. So I can't really judge anyone who walks through those doors coming to play basketball, unless they actually commit some sort of crime right there on or near the court. And that's why, for me, it doesn't matter whatever LeBron did to Cleveland. It does not affect how I watch a basketball game.
Not to go on too much of a tangent, but that's precisely why I can't stand Kobe Bryant. The arguing with the refs, the vitriol in doing so, the body language that suggests he is entitled to certain calls from the refs, the "under-biting evil chipmunk" face, those are all disgusting oncourt behavior, in my opinion.
Me no-likey. (via 1.bp.blogspot.com)
Back to my aside on LeBron: Someone recently told me on Twitter that "LeBron claimed Cleveland", then he left them, and in a distasteful way. Well, since I don't know any better because I don't go outside the gym, I would argue that Cleveland claimed LeBron (with the #1 draft pick), not the other way around. I would also argue that LeBron probably expected his fans, most of whom were really Cavaliers fans (a gross miscalculation on his part), to be happy for him in announcing his freedom to go play where he wanted, and with his friends Wade and Bosh, who happened to be all-stars as well, to take on such non-transparent buddy-buddy-GM-manipulated (sorry, Jerry West!) squads such as the Lakers and Celtics (Danny Ainge with Kevin McHale). Obviously, that backfired for LeBron, but I don't see him being as spineless as the rest of you do. And, again, that's because I don't get out much.
However, it does matter to me that Dirk lost to the Heat, at the hands of Wade, five years ago. Dirk has learned from that setback, as well as the subsequent victimization by Warrior fans' beloved We Believe squad. Dirk's dedicated himself to have nerves of steel in clutch situations and he's learned to never quit. This reminds me of what Andre Agassi once said about what he thinks made him great: "I just kept fighting." Notice, he doesn't talk about wins or losses. He talks about a single foundation of consistency. That ability to never, ever give up. We are seeing Dirk master that, right before our eyes.
On the Bay Area tip, it does matter to me that Jason Kidd has a chance to get his first ring. This coming from a former Cal student who had the privilege to camp outside Harmon Gym (now known as Haas Pavilion) for season tickets to see him play.
Finally, Mark Cuban. His picture ought to be next to "much maligned" in the encyclopedia of sports cliches. Yet, he's already etched in stone at the Temple of "You Only Need to be Right Once". I just love his perseverance. And guess what, he was right about Jason Kidd!
My heart says to root for Dirk, J-Kidd, and Cuban, and while Wade and LeBron have certainly felt heartache as well, mostly at the hands of the Celtics in recent memory, as well as the sea of hate after The Decision, Dirk and J-Kidd's ticket to the record books has been left sitting in the to-do box for quite some time now.
In the natural progression of NBA champions and Hall Of Famers, LeBron and Wade will have their time. Dirk and J-Kidd's window is now and perhaps only now. And a loss to the Mavs could prove to be more helpful to the Heat if we are talking dynasties. The deeper the pain, the hungrier you are. In order to put multiple trophies on display in Miami, LeBron and Wade will need to stay hungry.
Some people couldn't escape the basketball gods' wrath. (via d.yimg.com)
Succumbing to the basketball gods: Pick the Mavs
I know better than to pick with my head or my heart, though. After all, we have already seen countless messages from the basketball gods this season:
- The LeBron and Dan Gilbert pendulum shift of karma. LeBron's Decision followed by Gilbert's email followed by LeBron's return to Cleveland followed by LeBron's "karma is a b****" tweet followed by the Heat's loss to the Cavs. It goes on and on.
- Paul Pierce's "talents to South Beach" tweet, followed months later by the Celtics' elimination by the Heat.
- Jerry Sloan resigning from the Utah Jazz then owner Greg Miller later saying that he was hurt by that. Geez, a man can't even walk out on his basketball job without hurting someone? Shows you that hoops is a zero sum game. Whatever you do, something else balances it.
- Matt Barnes and his tweets after the Lakers beat the Mavs.
- The Oklahoma City Thunder and Chicago Bulls both showing youthful mistakes and being eliminated by more veteran-laden teams.
- Bulls personnel winning MVP and Coach Of The Year awards, only to not make the Finals. How many times has the MVP and Coach Of The Year actually been on a Finals championship team? Not as many times as when they haven't been, I would guess.
- The Lakers tanking the last 5 regular season games in a disrespectful-for-the-game lackadaisical manner and ultimately paying the price at the hands of the Mavs.
- Kobe insisting that the Lakers could come back from a 0-to-X hole. First it was "it's only two games", then it was "they come back from 3-0 all the time in hockey", as well as never giving the Mavs props until he had finally been eliminated.
- The Lakers and OKC insisting on keeping with their starting lineups. Unfortunately, NBA coaches are too fearful of their jobs. In amateur tournaments, where there's the similar competitive urgency such as one-and-done, we coaches have no problem making the necessary adjustment to avoid elimination. Oh, and it's usually for defense. The Lakers should've benched Andrew Bynum and started the more mobile Lamar Odom to defend Dirk. Granted, Phil Jackson wasn't afraid to lose his job, but there's a certain stubborness and locker room dynamic that NBA coaches aren't really able to fully master. OKC should've benched Kendrick Perkins and started Nick Collison on Dirk. Ditto for James Harden over Thabo Sefolosha. The NBA Playoffs is for the near future to step up to the here and now. This is common sense, folks. The basketball gods get particularly upset when common sense is not utilized.
- Before I leave the topic of coaching, I should point out last year's Game 7 loss by the Celtics to the Lakers. In a nutshell, late in the game with the trophy hanging in the balance, the Lakers trapped the Celtics ballhandler as they crossed halfcourt. Did that a few times. Yet after the first time, Doc Rivers made no adjustment. We all know what happened next. (Thou shalt make adjustments!)
- "An inch of doubt grows to a foot." The airball by Eric Maynor. The missed free throw by D.Rose. Younger players are more susceptible to doubting themselves. It's the fear of losing to the mighty Heat that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's Maynor, in the blink of an eye, not quite sure if he's ready to handle the onslaught of 20,000 people cheering and loving him, if he were to actually sink that clutch shot. Doubt is a very difficult thing to manage.
- The Mavs with their beautiful runs involving the extra pass, not caring who takes the shot (except for Peja Stojakovic at the buzzer in the lone Mavs loss to OKC -- see?), and impressive interior dish-offs. The basketball gods like to reward such teams. After all, that is how basketball was intended by Dr. Naismith.
- And the overall theme in which the younger players have to get beaten up first before they can taste the glory. I've seen it time and time again in my leagues and tournaments. Unless a team is dominant athletically, it sure takes awhile for the newbies to break through the bonds created by the teams that were already there in the first place and had figured out -- albeit maybe not yet achieved -- what was necessary to win a championship.
- Finally, the trade of Perk. Here were my words: "You don't do that in basketball."
- I'm sure I forgot to list many, many more lessons of the basketball gods from this season.
Paying for your sin. (via www.celticstown.com)
You see all of that? This is why I never talk smack before, during, or after a game. I don't mess with a good thing. And I absolutely make the adjustment when it is painfully obvious that I need to do so. Believe me, I used to be blind to the karma of basketball. This was before I became cognizant of hoops as a zero-sum game.
I never knowingly instigate anything on the court. And the only reason you would do it is because you're trying to create artificial confidence (you're not mature enough to know how to have it) or you're covering up fear (you haven't lost enough yet to know that losing's not the end of the world). Or you're Michael Jordan and you're that much better than everybody else, like Neo became in Matrix, and have the athleticism as well as the skill to flip everything upside down.
What about Pat Riley after he declared the Three-Peat for Showtime and accomplished that? Wait, you think there wasn't karma there? Let me ask you, did Pat feel any pain and suffering after that? Of course he did. The Knicks and the Heat after that. See what I mean?
Don't do it. Don't mess with basketball karma.
I am so fearful of the gods, that I instruct the teams I coach never to say, "Win!" coming out of a huddle. I mean, think about that. That's kind of a silly thing to say, right? First off, it's pretty obvious that we want to win. Secondly, our desire to win is not necessarily more important than our opposition's desire to win. After all, the basketball gods want us to learn something from the process of winning, not the actual winning.
So here's my point. At 60,000 feet, the Mavs' way of playing basketball "the way it should be played" trumps the Heat's "best AAU team ever assembled". That is the ultimate lesson we are supposed to be taught this season.
Perhaps it will make the Heat an even more invincible team the next time around. Can you imagine if they dumped their dribble-dominant approach for a passing-style offensive system? If that ever happens, we might be talking about one of the greatest teams ever. But they are a long ways from that. The good news is, they have time on their side.
Warriors, are you paying attention?
I promised I would relate some of my observations back to the Warriors. There are two that immediately come to mind: the veteran vs youth approach and the importance of the individual defensive abilities of the 2-guard.
Can the Warriors possibly reach a similar level of perimeter and, more importantly, interior passing as the ultra-experienced Mavs have demonstrated? Does the Warriors' personnel have the basketball IQ to reach that of the Mavs on defense, with its rotations? Quite frankly, neither seem remotely possible right now. This is something for Joe Lacob to start thinking about. You have to witness the benchmark at some point. There's no better benchmark than the most recent NBA Finals.
We must be wary of the Celtics' Big Three approach, which Lacob has routinely referenced. It might be antiquated as we speak. Perhaps the model is to go out and stockpile veterans, and find the glue that binds them.
Wade and DeShawn Stevenson have done very commendable jobs on individual defense. Wade's ability to block shots is bar none at his position. But let's not forget Stevenson. He's played tough, physical, fearless, hustling defense, while not really contributing that much beyond an occasional open spot-up trey on offense.
It should come as no surprise when I, once again, knock the small 1-2 backcourt of the Warriors in Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis. However this time, with the NBA Playoffs as the smoking gun, I hope actions speak louder than words. You've seen it on TV these past two weeks. At least one guard must be at least 6'4" and 215 lbs. There are no ifs, ands, or buts. This is the NBA Playoffs.
No team has ever won Game 7 on the road
I truly think this could be the best-ever NBA Finals. When you think about it, last year's was pretty epic. How can it possibly top last year? I'll tell you how. The road team finally winning a Game 7 on the road. Incidentally, the home team has a 20-6 record since the inception of the 2-3-2 format.
I submit that decades from now, when people talk about the only team to have won a Game 7 on the road, they could be talking about this Mavs team because, well, they are so evenly matched with the Heat. Both teams have made amazing comebacks in the Playoffs. Both teams have at least one guy who can take a hero shot. And I will also say that both teams can get into similar funks -- offensive droughts and defensive lapses that their respective coaches need to take timeouts to help combat.
These teams are like the yin and yang.
Therefore, I'm predicting that the Mavs "steal" Game 1, then each subsequent game is won by the other.
Am I confident with this prediction? Heck no. It's one of those things where now that I've said it, it won't happen. The gods will find something else to teach me about basketball this time.
But then again, it's not the actual predicting of what happens that makes me write this piece. It's the sharing of some or most of what I've learned with basketball as my livelihood, in the context of such an exciting and highly anticipated series.
It's the process of predicting that's actually more important.
For more basketball ranting, follow me on Twitter at @poormanscommish.