Even if you’ve waited until the Conference Finals to jump into the NBA Playoffs, we’ll help you sound like you know what you’re talking about.
Chicago Bulls 1, Miami Heat 0
The Eastern Conference Finals matchup everyone—outside of Boston and Atlanta—was hoping for is here. The Bulls and the Heat were the primary movers and shakers last summer, and we have a matchup of the two Eastern teams that project to be perennial powers for the next few years. It’s a matchup that pits current MVP against former MVP and a team whose media narrative is largely defined by their vanity to one defined by humility and hard work.
It’s not going to live up to it’s own hype, because despite whatever brilliance LeBron and Wade have in store for us, Chicago has the talent, size, and depth to exploit the Heat’s “garishly unbalanced roster”.
The Heat haven’t played anyone nearly as good as the Bulls these playoffs. Say what you want about Philadelphia’s moxie and Boston’s pedigree, the Heat outclassed Philly and by the end of the series, the Celtics sidelines looked more like a disaster triage than a bench—battered and maimed by Hurricane Dwyane as it was. Like Boston over New York, Miami’s wins made them look a little better than they are, and they were exposed in game one.
Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra made it clear he was going to go small from the jump. LeBron spent a lot of time at the power forward spot, and cement-footed center Zydrunas Ilgauskas spent all his time in a suit on the bench. Miami, as Spoelstra hoped, matched the speed of Chicago’s big men, but weren’t able to take advantage of them offensively.
Chris Bosh was superb in game one, while LeBron and Wade had mutually awful games. It’s a safe bet that Miami’s two superstars will figure out how to score on this Chicago team. The expected brilliance of LeBron and Wade won’t matter, though, if Derrick Rose is as much of a force of nature as he was last night, his supporting cast is as active as they were, and if the Heat can’t collectively rebound much better than they did. Chicago’s big men were superlative in the second half, underlined by Taj Gibson giving LeBron fits in the fourth quarter.
Chicago obliterated Miami on the boards, especially on the offensive end. If the Heat continues to go small, it’s only going to exacerbate a rebounding disparity that will end up defining the series. If they go big, Chicago will blow past them.
Chicago will win in five or six, given that the adjustment that Miami needs to make—to get rebounders who can bang with Chicago’s size—isn’t one you can make until the off-season.
Dallas Mavericks 0, Oklahoma City Thunder 0
Dallas is a team filled with aging players who’ve been here before and lost. Maybe that’s why they’ve been the most locked-in team throughout the playoffs, every player determined not to repeat the failures of the past. The Thunder, on the other hand, has been experiencing growing pains throughout the playoffs. Aside from Kendrick Perkins, this is uncharted territory for a team of mostly under-24-year-olds.
Dallas, humbled through previous shortcomings, and Oklahoma City, humble by nature, rob us of a fan favorite-versus-heel type matchup. The fact that they’ve both never won anything robs us of an underdog-champion matchup. Both teams have talented, balanced rotations, and where Dallas relies on experience, Oklahoma City looks to athleticism.
The same could be said about each team’s star. The spotlight is on Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki, facing off against each other for the first time. Dirk has been the best and most unstoppable player in the playoffs, locked in like his team. Durant has been right there with him (especially in closeout games), but had his own growing pains in game six against Memphis. Even though they probably won’t guard each other, it’s especially interesting as a head-to-head matchup, because Durant is an evolutionary Dirk. Both bear more similarities to each other than to anyone else in the league. Both can hit shots from anywhere on the floor, are matchup nightmares at their positions, get to (and convert from) the line, and are the hearts of their teams.
Game seven proved that it’s much more enjoyable to watch all-phases-of-the-game Russell Westbrook than it is to analyze his 20-foot pull-up jumpers. All-phases-of-the-game Westbrook is going to need to put a stamp on the series, because the consensus is that a large part of the Mavericks’ strategy for Westbrook will be to lay off and bait him into those long jumpers. Hopefully, he responds by throwing more of those gorgeous alley-oops to Kevin Durant.
A truckload of storylines runs through this series. Dirk, Durant, and Westbrook are just the beginning. Both teams’ benches were major parts of their successes in the second round, and James Harden and Jason Terry were huge in each team’s closeout game. One of them is going to be a significant factor in his team advancing to the finals, but which one is it going to be?
Likewise, will J.J. Barea be as effective with Serge Ibaka roaming the weak side? Will Peja “Lazarus” Stojakovic be as lights-out as he was against the Lakers? Who on Dallas is going to step up and guard Durant? Nick Collison gave Z-Bo fits at points in the Memphis series; will he bother Dirk the same way? Which of the scoring-phobic, dirty-work centers will come out on top, Kendrick Perkins or Tyson Chandler? How will Kendrick Perkins’ knees and Serge Ibaka’s ankle hold up? How will the long layoff affect Dallas? And will Scotty Brooks be able to keep up with Rick Carlisle, who has been coaching the pants off these playoffs?
Those are the questions that will determine the series. Before the playoffs started, I picked the Thunder and the Bulls to face off in the finals. That was a pick from the heart, and I’m sticking with it. The Thunder will win in six, because if it goes to seven, they won’t win.
—Photo AP/Alonzo Adams