TOMORROW morning, the NBA Finals between the Dallas Mavericks and the Miami Heat will start (Thursday evening in Dallas). Not since I was a Sports cub reporter for the Ateneo High School publication (Hi-Lites) have I had such excitement running in my veins as this NBA Finals, one of the most dramatic since the Michael Jordan years of the 1990s.
You can’t have more drama than when the top two seeded teams of the season-- the Detroit Pistons and the San Antonio Spurs -- find themselves so unceremoniously eliminated, San Antonio in the second round and Detroit in the semi-finals, by the two teams who will now vie for the right to claim “We’re number 1.”
Not since 1971 has there been an NBA Finals that was contested by two teams that are both making their first finals appearances. It was in 1972 when two teams competing to become world champions of basketball, as NBA champions pride themselves to be, both happened to be first-timers in the NBA Finals. And these were the Milwaukee Bucks (led by Hall-of-Famers Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Oscar Robertson) versus the Baltimore Bullets who were led by another Hall-of-Famer, Wes Unseld, a small 6-foot-7 center who made his mark in the shaded lane of the giants just like Detroit Piston’s Ben Wallace.
That was Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s first NBA championship. He won four more NBA championship rings with the Los Angeles Lakers during the Showtime era of the 1980s, together with Magic Johnson.
Among the many fearless forecasts of NBA analysts, commentators and newspaper columnists, I subscribe to the assessment of former champion coach, Jack Ramsay, which was posted last Tuesday on ESPN.com. Dr. Jack Ramsay chalked the second-highest number of wins as an NBA coach when he retired, second only to the architect of the Celtic dynasty, Coach Red Auerbach. Ramsay led the Portland Trailblazers to their only NBA championship during the 1977 season.
Jack Ramsay predicts that the Dallas Mavs will win it in six games. Ramsay’s assessment is based on two strengths of the Mavs over the Heat and these are Dallas quickness and depth.
“The problem for Miami and Shaq is this -- the Dallas Mavericks are just not a good match-up for them,” asserts Ramsay.
“The Mavs' trademarks are depth and quickness, two traits the Heat lack,” he added. “The Mavs' starting lineup is quicker than Miami's, and they can bring in a number of talented, athletic players off the bench.”
Ramsay identifies the main problems for the Miami Heat to be forwards Dirk Nowitski and Josh Howard. Dirk Nowitski, he says, is just too much for Udonis Haslem, who is expected to be matched up with the seven-foot German who can kill a team from the inside and with three-point shots. If Dirk is double-teamed, he can assist the other Mavs who can be deadly from both the perimeter and inside.
Ramsay rated the Mavs as a better inside penetrating team than the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls of the 1990s.
Josh Howard is such a versatile player on both ends, the offensive and defensive ends of the court, and he can be a perfect check against Dwyane Wade while rampaging with conversions during offense when the Heat covers Nowitski. Howard is fast and stands taller than Wade, 6-foot-7 to Wade’s 6-foot-4.
If Miami extends their defense to pressure the Mavs’ long range shooters, Dirk Nowitski, Keith Van Horn (a deadly perimeter three-point shooter who is suited for Miami’s slow drag type of game), Josh Howard, Jerry Stackhouse and Jason Terry, the Heat will have to cope with the fast men of the Mavs like Devin Harris driving into the basket.
Against San Antonio, a team that is already known for their speed, Dallas proved faster. Against the pedigreed greyhounds of the Phoenix Suns, the Mavs kept pace and had their fair share of steals and fastbreak points.
Against the Heat, Dallas can play small with just Nowitski and Van Horn (6-foot-10) or play their giants Desagana Diop, the unsung hero of the Suns series who intimidated many of the inside penetration artists of Phoenix including Steve Nash, and Erick Dampier. Diop is all of seven feet and 280 pounds while Dampier is 6-foot-11 and weighs 265 pounds. Unlike the 6-foot-7 (though he is listed as 6-foot-9) Ben Wallace of Detroit, Shaquille O’Neal (Shaq) cannot just as easily push Diop and Dampier around.
In the Phoenix series, when Nowitski and Diop were fielded at the same time, Dallas played its best defense. Diop is only an inch shorter than 7-foot-1 O’Neal, has long arms and can just wait for Shaq to release the ball and then block it. Diop has quick hands for a seven-foot, 285-pound center and shoots better than Shaq from the free throw line. He had an occasion to steal the ball face to face with Steve Nash during the Phoenix series, as if he was a guard.
During the Mavs-Suns series, former NBA player and coach Doug Collins was profuse with praise for Diop starting with game 2 when Diop first saw action and when the Mavs evened up the series at 1-1. Like Dennis Rodman, you don’t see the value of Diop on stats. Intimidation does not register in basketball stats. Boxing out the other team’s big man is also not found in stats. Forcing the other team to abandon their inside offense is not in the stats.
By Game 6 of the Mavs-Suns series, we all saw how the legs of the speedy Suns gave out. Can the Miami Heat do better? What happens to Miami when Wade and Shaq tire from keeping pace with the Mavs whose average age is much younger than that of the Heat players?
The Mavs have a 10-man rotation with Stackhouse, Dampier, Marquis Daniels, Adrian Griffin and Van Horn forming the second team. Miami has only James Posey and aging veterans Gary Peyton and Alonzo Mourning as their reliable sixth, seventh and eighth men. Peyton and Mourning cannot be expected to keep pace with the Mavs, just as the Spurs’s Robert Horry was never a factor in the Mavs-Spurs series.
Howard, Griffin and Daniels have the height and heft edge over Wade as the three are expected to rotate in checking him. Miami is all about Shaq and Wade. Dallas enjoys more options -- Nowitski, Howard, Terry and Stackhouse for offense and Diop, Dampier, Howard, Griffin, Nowitski (a seven-footer is always a defensive factor) and Daniels for defense.
Shaq is an asset, a very big one. But when the end game is a close one, he becomes a liability because of the Hack-a-Shaq.
Let the games begin!
You may e-mail William M. Esposo at: email@example.com.