Monday, May 23, 2011

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly and How Each Team Can Advance to The NBA Finals

By Charlie Scaturro

Photo Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America
Both the Western and Eastern Conference Finals are shaping up to be great series and even though both are far from over, a lot of things have already transpired on the court.  Dallas and Miami both have 2-1 series leads but considering how much talent both the Bulls and Thunder have, it would be foolish to count either team out at this point.   

So consider this a quick round up of what's transpired thus far in both series which includes a look ahead to what each team has to do in order to advance to the NBA Finals. 

Dallas Mavericks

The Good: The conversation obviously starts with Dirk Nowitzki's historic game one performance but he also posted 29 points on 10/17 shooting in game two and although he had seven turnovers and shot just 7/21 in game three, the seven footer hit some incredibly clutch baskets down the stretch to fend off a furious comeback by the Thunder.  Too often do we call a player "unstoppable" in today's NBA, but during long stretches of the Western Conference Finals Dirk has been just that.  Whether he's posting up, spotting up, or taking the ball to the basket, the Thunder have had few answers for Nowitzki thus far.

The Mavericks bench has also provided a huge boost through three games and the likes of Jason Terry, J.J. Barea, and Peja Stojakovic, have carried the team at times.  Barea's ability to penetrate and hit the outside shot has made him a nightmare to defend in pick-and-roll situations and Terry has been his usual self- playing Robin to Drik's Batman.

As always, Jason Kidd has been the reliable steady veteran point guard who has kept Dallas running smoothly.

Tyson Chandler has been a menace on the boards while also providing an intimidating presence at the rim and refusing to back down to Kendirck Perkins macho head games.
Photo Credit: Pool/Getty Images North America
The Bad: Losing game two at home and temporarily relinquishing home court advantage to an inexperienced Thunder team wasn't a good way to follow up Dirk's historic night (although the Mavericks rebounded nicely by taking game three).
Considering that they got a career night from Dirk in game one and the Thunder couldn't hit a three pointer in game three, the Mavericks could be up 3-0 at this point if they would have taken care of business at home in game two, but that didn't happen.  It's highly doubtful that lighting strikes twice and Dirk has another record breaking night, nor is it likely that the Thunder shoot 1/17 from three again, so it would seem as if Dallas is letting a young and explosive Oklahoma City team hang around in this series.

Being up 2-1 is certainly a nice place to be, but Dallas would be wise to finish off OKC while Westbrook and this Thunder offense is out of sync.     

The Ugly:
Brendan Haywood getting a facial from Kevin Durant is about as ugly as it gets for a center whose main role is to protect the basket.

How they can advance:
Like I said above, you can't rely on Dirk to go for 48 again, but his clutch performance in game three shows how the Mavericks can operate and be successful in late game situations by spacing the floor and letting Nowitzki exploit the mismatch.
Tyson Chandler will have to continue to play huge in the paint, especially as a help defender because the Mavericks don't have anyone who can stop Westbrook from penetrating.  Chandler's play on offense is also very important as it seems that the Thunder will continue to utilize their smaller lineup late in games which will allow the 7'1'' center to feast on the offensive glass.  If the physical defense of Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd, and DeShawn Stevenson can continue to make it difficult for Kevin Durant to get the ball, it bodes very well for Dallas as things seem to break down when the Thunder's best player isn't able to get free.  Finally, it's been extremely tough for Oklahoma City to effectively defend the Mavericks pick and roll when they've paired J.J. Barea or Jason Terry with Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas should continue to exploit this.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Good: Stealing game two in Dallas was huge for the Thunder and a road playoff win like that is a great confidence builder for a young team that will need to pull out another one later in the series if they're going to advance.  James Harden, Nick Collison, and Eric Maynor have given Oklahoma City some very productive minutes off the bench thus far and it's clear that these three plus Daequan Cook have the potential to turn the tide of this series in the Thunder's favor.

In the first two games of the series, Kevin Durant was his usual brilliant self and although he struggled mightily in game three (7/21 overall and 0/8 from deep), it's doubtful that one of the most talented and lethal scorers in the NBA has another uncharacteristic shooting night.  Not to take anything away from the defense that Dallas played in game three, but Durant missed a lot of shots he usually makes and if a few of those go down that might have been a completely different game.

Photo Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America
The Bad: There's really no nice way to put this, but Kendrick Perkins has not played very well thus far.  Even when he was with the Celtics, Perkins was never a guy whose numbers told the whole story so I'm not even talking about the fact that he's averaging under five rebounds per game thus far or that he hasn't seen much action in the fourth quarter.

Perkins simply doesn't look like himself on the court right now and I truly believe that he's still recovering from that knee injury he suffered less than a year ago.  It also doesn't help that Dallas doesn't have a primary post scorer who he can bully and intimidate like he usually does.

The Thunder have also fallen victim to some bad decision making on offense during the first few games of this series and I'm not talking exclusively about Russell Westbrook.  As the team's point guard, Westbrook is certainly a major culprit but some blame needs to go Durant's way for not making every possible effort to get open and demand the ball. 

Ill-advised shots, poor spacing, and general confusion have plagued this team during certain stretches in the series.  In game three, after cutting a 22-point Mavericks second half lead to six with three minutes to play, the Thunder had the ball with a chance to ignite the crowd and put Dallas in a very tough spot.  Instead of working the ball around to find a good shot or even trying to take the ball aggressively to the basket, which was a major reason for their fourth quarter comeback, Westbrook jacked up a long three just six seconds into the shot clock and after OKC got another stop, Daequan Cook did the same thing (although he had a very good look on his attempt).  Neither shot went in and this essentially sealed the Thunder's fate and ended their chances at a comeback.      

The Ugly:
Nate Robinson only played six minutes in game one and aside from looking surprised to be on the court, he played like it too.  Not only did the reserve guard miss all three shots he took, but Robinson's defense against J.J. Barea simply lacked effort.  An accurate description of Robinson's defense in game one would be indifferent, and it resulted in easy basket after easy basket for Barea until Scott Brooks pulled him from the game.

How They Can Advance:
Players like Westbrook, Harden, and Durant can't settle for contested jumpers, and they need to use their athleticism to force the issue around the basket.  If they take it strong at Tyson Chandler and can get him in foul trouble, Dallas is a much more vulnerable team when he's not patrolling the middle.  In addition, Durant needs to make more of an effort to get free from his man so that he can receive the ball, while Westbrook and the rest of the Thunder need to keep getting it to him.  Especially in crunch time.

Photo Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America
The Thunder are the superior athletic team and when they've been successful in this series it's generally involved getting easy baskets in transition.  The likes of Westbrook, Durant, Harden, and Maynor need to push the ball and play to their strengths. 

Dirk has terrorized the Thunder thus far, but Nick Collison came up with some impressive defensive stops in game three, and in conjunction with some timely help defense, they did a great job of forcing Dirk into tough spots when he put the ball on the floor.  There isn't anyone on Oklahoma City who stands much of a chance trying to guard him one on one, but as long as the primary defender guarding Dirk crowds him and the help defenders swarm to the ball when he makes his move, OKC has a chance.

Westbrook also needs to continue to recognize defensive mismatches when J.J. Barea and Jason Kidd are guarding him and take full advantage of the situation.  Every time either player is in front of him, Westbrook should be looking to attack the basket and get high percentage shots either for himself or open teammates.

Miami Heat

Photo Credit: Marc Serota/Getty Images North America
The Good: Whether it's happened all of a sudden or it's the result of playing an entire season together, the Heat have finally become the team most thought they would be.  The trio of LeBron, Wade, and yes, even Chris Bosh have all shown that they're capable of carrying this team and it's made life very tough on the Bulls defense.

Chris Bosh has received a lot of criticism for playing soft, but that's basically the player he's always been and as long as he continues to be a reliable scoring option for Miami and can take over a game like he did in game three, I don't think anyone in South Beach is going to care if he's soft or not.

When Bosh's midrange jumper is falling it's basically impossible to account for him, LeBron, and Wade at the same time even if you are as good defensively as the Bulls are. 

In addition to Bosh's great play, the Heat's role players have also stepped up their games.  The return of Udonis Haslem has worked wonders for a Miami team that lacked a gritty inside presence.  Haslem's 13 points in game two and 8 points in game three were just the shot in the arm this team needed and as long as he can give them solid minutes off the bench, it's going to be tough to beat Miami.  Especially in game three, guys like Joel Anthony, Mario Chalmers, and Mike Bibby made their presence felt on the defensive side of the floor which was instrumental in helping Miami take a 2-1 series lead.     

The Bad:
Mike Miller's role as the Heat's spot up three point shooter who could take advantage of the attention that opposing defenses were giving to LeBron, Wade, and Bosh really didn't materialize this season.  He was slowed out of the gate by a thumb injury which caused him to miss nearly half the regular season and he's hit just one three pointer in the playoffs thus far.  Miller has played some solid defense and the seven rebounds he grabbed in game two were a welcomed contribution, but at the end of the day, Miller is a three point shooter who isn't hitting (or even really looking for) his shots.

The Heat have also been vulnerable on the boards during this series and although they're holding a 2-1 advantage, we've seen players like Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson, and Omer Asik crash the boards hard and earn Chicago extra possessions.  If LeBron, Wade, and Bosh continue to take turns hurting the Bulls it probably won't matter, but if any of the big three should falter, the Bulls rebounding advantage could give them a chance to make things interesting and help generate some easy offense for a team that's struggled on that side of the ball.        

The Ugly:
Despite the fact that the Heat won game two, Mario Chalmers was a walking disaster.  The third year guard saw just five minutes of floor time in game two and although the Heat came away with a win, Chalmers didn't do very much to help his teammates.  He missed the only shot he took from the floor, scored no points, turned the ball over three times, and committed three fouls before Erik Spoelstra pulled him from the game.  Chalmers obviously put that game behind him because he gave Miami 21 productive minutes in the next game, but his game two performance was certainly ugly.

Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images North America
How They Can Advance: The Heat have to feel great right now, they're up 2-1 and have managed to wrestle home court away from the Bulls.  They've obviously exposed and exploited the fact that Chicago doesn't have a consistent second scorer who can take some of the burden off Derrick Rose, and until someone on the Bulls proves they can fill this role consistently, there's no reason to change the way they're playing defense.

Everyone on the Heat is keying on Rose and they haven't allowed the league MVP much breathing room with consistent double teams on any pick and roll that the Bulls try to run.  Rose has been getting his points, but Miami has done a great job preventing him from doing much damage at the line and has made him earn everything. 

If Chris Bosh is going to continue to have the hot hand, the Heat can keep going back to him, allowing LeBron to be more of a distributor which worked to perfection in game three.  Obviously, the beauty of this team is that any of the big three can go off for 30-plus on any night but the Heat also shouldn't forget about their role players.  This team is at it's best when the big three doesn't try to do everything themselves and whether it's looking to get Haslem a few easy buckets or trusting the defense of Chalmers and Bibby, good things happen when others contribute.

Chicago Bulls

Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images North America
The Good: It was business as usual for the Bulls during their game one win over Miami as their strong defense combined with Derrick Rose's brilliance led Chicago to victory.  Luol Deng also gave Rose the support he needed and the rest of the Bulls chipped in on the offensive side of the ball as well.

Deng has also done an admirable job of guarding LeBron and while he's not as strong or physically gifted, his size and length has been there to contest LeBron pretty much every step of the way.  It's a small part of what Chicago needs to do in order to win this series, but having a player that can at least make life a little tougher on LeBron is never a bad thing.

Taj Gibson has also made a difference for the Bulls coming off the bench and the Heat haven't had much of an answer for his highlight reel finishes at the rim and tough play around the basket.  Gibson brings plenty of energy and passion with him and both he and Ronnie Brewer are the types of players who can continue to give the Heat trouble off the bench.     

The Bad: With the exception of Derrick Rose, the Bulls haven't had a consistent offensive threat in this series and this has made things relatively easy on the Miami defense.  Carlos Boozer finally woke up in game three posting 26 points and 17 rebounds, but his seven-point disappearing act in game two was a big reason why the Bulls weren't able to protect their home court and are currently trailing 2-1 in this series.  As I mentioned above, Luol Deng had a nice game one but since then he's just 11/28 from the field, including 3/12 from behind the arc.

The Bulls have relied heavily on Derrick Rose all year but even he can't trade blows with LeBron, Wade, and Bosh for the duration of a seven game series, and unless his supporting cast starts to assert themselves more on the offensive side of the ball, it's not going to matter what Rose does or how hard this team plays on defense.         

The Ugly:
It never ends well when a professional athlete gets involved with the fans of another team and Joakim Noah's alleged gay slur, which was directed at a Heat fan who was sitting behind Chicago's bench, is about as ugly as it gets.  Even if you disregard the fact that he used this language during a time when homosexuality is a hot button issue in the NBA (after Kobe Bryant did something similar a few weeks back and after the Suns president and CEO, Rick Welts, announced he was gay recently) it's still a horrible idea to engage in any kind of conversation with an opposing fan, especially while the game is going on.  Whether or not this incident had an effect on Noah's performance is anyone's guess, but the energetic Bulls center collected just 1 point and five rebounds in 29 minutes of floor time.

Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images North America
How They Can Advance: It's going to be an uphill battle for the Bulls to beat a Miami team that is playing some very good basketball right now.  A good place to start would be for the supporting players around Derrick Rose to hit their outside shots and make the Heat defense pay for leaving them open.  If guys like Luol Deng, Kyle Korver, and Carlos Boozer can help Rose shoulder the scoring load it would go a long way in balancing out the Bulls offense and it would also give Rose some breathing room to penetrate.

In turn, Rose has to continue to take the ball strong and look to draw contact which will help him get to the line, a place where he's done plenty of damage this postseason.

Chicago needs more out of Joakim Noah, who will have to put the ugliness of game three behind him and get back to dominating on the boards while not allowing Chris Bosh to get into a groove on offense like he did in games one and three.  If this means getting physical with Bosh then so be it, because we've seen the Heat forward get very comfortable and make a major impact on this series.

As well as the Heat have played thus far, we have yet to see them win a game that comes down to the final seconds.  If the Bulls are able to play them tight throughout and not let the Heat distance themselves in the fourth quarter, the pressure will be on Miami to execute down the stretch- a situation which has not worked out very well for them this season.        

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