The most fascinating NBA finals since 2004 (when the starless Detroit Pistons beat Shaq and Kobe) if not 1977 (when the clockwork Portland Trail Blazers stunned the high-wire 76ers of Dr. J and Darryl Dawkins and World B. Free) have imparted some lessons. We’ll see if the Atlanta Hawks take note.
Lesson No. 1: Mesh matters more than manpower. This is the NBA, where talent is supposed to count above all. But talent didn’t. If you were drafting from the two finalists’ rosters, you’d have picked one Maverick in the top four. Of Dallas’ four leading playoff scorers, the youngest is Dirk Nowitzki, who turns 33 next week. Yet the Mavs had a clear understanding of what they could and couldn’t do, and the Heat had no idea. Miami’s biggest shot in Game 6 — a 3-pointer (that missed) with Dallas up by 10 and 2:16 remaining — was taken not by LeBron James or Dwyane Wade but by Eddie House, who hadn’t played in the first four games of the series. It seemed, sad to say, rather Hawk-like.
Lesson No. 2: Coaching matters, too. Not to pile on Erik Spoelstra, who was handed an uncoachable roster, but this was among the greatest tactical routs in the history of tactics. The team with the lesser players dictated matchups and tempo. The former Hawk Mike Bibby, who started the first five games of the series, wasn’t even used in Game 6.
Lesson No. 3: Zone defense is the great equalizer. Dallas, then coached by Avery Johnson, blew the 2006 NBA finals because it couldn’t stop Wade from driving. Dallas, as coached by Rick Carlisle, defused a hard-driving team that blew past Chicago — which played the NBA’s best defense this season — in the Eastern finals by zoning it up and rendering Wade a bit less active and turning James into the basketball equivalent of Roberto (”No mas”) Duran. NBA teams tend to use the zone as a change of pace, but Carlisle and his defensive coordinator made it a core stratagem.
Lesson No. 4: When in doubt, hire a defensive man. The aforementioned Dallas defensive coordinator is Dwane Casey, who was the frontrunner to become the Hawks’ head coach last summer before ownership took a harder look at in-house assistant Larry Drew and his share-the-ball offensive schemes. Drew did OK: The Hawks lost nine more games than they had the season before but put up a better fight in Round 2. The Bulls, who eliminated the Hawks, went from 41-41 to 62-20 by hiring Tom Thibodeau, who’d been Doc Rivers’ defensive whiz in Boston, as head coach.
Lesson No. 5: Continuity counts for something, but not as much as Hawks’ general manager Rick Sund might hope. Only two Mavericks remain from the losing 2006 finalists, and one of those (Jason Terry) has gone from starter to sub. By way of contrast, the Hawks still have three players who were starting in 2006 — Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Marvin Williams — and Al Horford arrived in 2007. The Mavericks suffered through a spate of embarrassing playoff exits but kept tinkering, trading for Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion and Caron Butler (who was hurt and didn’t play in the playoffs) and Tyson Chandler. Better to be wrong than static.
Lesson No. 6: In the biggest games, your biggest name has to be the best player on the floor. Nowitzki was. James was not. Too often Joe Johnson hasn’t been — and he’s under contract through 2016.
Lesson No. 7: It’s never a good idea when your two best players play the same way. Not all great players need the ball all the time. Kobe Bryant doesn’t. Nowitzki doesn’t. LeBron and D-Wade do. If one has it, the other cannot. In all the hoopla over “The Decision,” this essential point got lost. The Dallas defense divided the two and conquered the Legion of Superheroes.
Lesson No. 8: Wade was correct when he said “choke is an overused word,” but it applies here. LeBron reached the stage he wanted with the team of his choosing — and was so ineffective he wouldn’t have made the all-finals team if the NBA had such a thing. Afterward he snarled at his detractors, telling reporters: “They have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life they had before.” But he has to live with the knowledge that he was outdone not just by Nowitzki but by Jason Terry, who seven years ago was jettisoned by the Hawks.
By Mark Bradley