Down to the final four teams, the NBA Playoffs really started to heat up over the last week. The Dallas Mavericks were looking to use the experience of their veteran-laden team to climb over the young and exuberant Oklahoma City Thunder, while over in the East, the Miami Heat had set their sights on the No. 1 seeded Chicago Bulls after getting the monkey off their back against the Boston Celtics in the Semi-finals. With the Heat and the Mavs leading not just their series' but the supporters toward a 2006 Finals replay, here’s a look back at the first week of the Conference Finals.
Dallas Mavericks v Oklahoma City Thunder Series: Dallas leads 2-1 Starting in the Western Conference, Game 1 belonged to Dallas’ superstar, Dirk Nowitzki. Trying to shed the label of playoff-choker and the image of being soft in the post, Nowitzki’s shooting was cold-blooded against the Thunder. With a variety of jab steps, pump fakes and spin moves that a 7-foot man should only dream of, Dirk shot the Mavs to a 9-point victory, going over, around and through any player Thunder coach Scott Brooks put between him and the basket. Whether it be Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison or any of the other 35 players Brooks used to defend him, Nowitzki used his superb shooting touch to drop 48 points in Game 1, including a payoff-record 24 consecutive makes from the free throw line. Throw in his game-high 4 blocks, and Nowitzki’s performance will go down as one of the greatest in NBA Playoff history. After shooting over 53% from the field in Game 1, including an excellent 53 points from the bench, the Mavericks shot under 45% in Game 2. The Thunder, taking a leaf out of Dallas‘ book from Game 1, shot excellently, hitting over 55% from the field. Highlighted by a Kevin Durant posterisation and James Harden showing why he was the 3rd overall pick in the 2009 Draft, the Thunder scored a telling 50 points from the bench. With many NBA observers treating Russell Westbrook’s 4th quarter benching as the first step of the Rapture and not the face-value that Eric Maynor was in brilliant rhythm with Harden and Durant, the Thunder, as a deeply talented and player rich team, were the more cohesive unit on the night, stealing home-court advantage with a spirited 6-point road win. [caption id="attachment_832" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="On a mission: Veterans Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion are determined to reach the 2011 NBA Finals"][/caption] Going home with a great opportunity to take a 2-1 series lead on home court, the young Thunder line-up had their worst outing of the entire postseason. The only thing worse than their 36.5% field goal shooting was their 1-17 statistic from three point range, including an ugly 0-8 from Durant. With his dreadful shooting performance, Kevin Durant is now made only 2 of his 18 three-point field goals in this series. Making matters worse for the Thunder is point guard Russell Westbrook’s blatant refusal to play as a pure point guard in this series. Although he scored a game-high 30 points in Game 3, his 36% shooting has been atrocious. He seems too focused on shooting the ball himself rather than create open looks for better shooters Durant and Harden. In one of the ugliest games of the season, neither side played well, but the deciding factor was frustrating Westbrook into ugly jumpers and a bevy of turnovers. For the Thunder to get through to their first NBA Finals since relocating from Seattle, Westbrook has to start playing the team game, limiting his turnovers and become more aggressive on defense, where he has an atrocious plus/minus rating of -14 over the series.
Chicago Bulls v Miami Heat Series: Miami leads 2-1 All week leading up to the defensive battle between Miami and Chicago in the Eastern Conference finals, all anyone seemed to want to talk about was LeBron’s ‘quest for redemption’ (give me a break) and conjuring up fantasies of ‘what could have been’ if Wade had decided to go home to Chicago last summer. Obviously sick of the hype of the Heat, the Chicago Bulls got straight down to business in Game 1. Pairing Luol Deng’s deft touch from three and an unbelievable amount of energy and hustle, the Bulls hit their shots and clamped down defensively on Miami, showing the basketball world why their defense finished No. 1 in the NBA this season on their way to an emphatic 21-point home win. With a smothering zone and a Gary Payton-like performance from Deng, the Bulls held Wade and James to a combined 37% shooting night forced them into 8 costly turnovers and made their bench ineffective for the umpteenth time this season. Forgotten in the trio of the Big Three, Chris Bosh returned to his Toronto playoff days, sinking 30 points on 66% field goal shooting, but the highlight of the evening had to be Taj Gibson’s posterization of the Dynamic Duo’s Dwyane Wade that whipped the United Center into a frenzy. [caption id="attachment_835" align="alignleft" width="205" caption="Posterized!: Chicago's Taj Gibson threw down this monster jam on Miami's Dwyane Wade in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals"][/caption]
Looking to take a 2-0 series lead, the Chicago Bulls went extremely flat in Game 2. Although their perimeter defense was effective, they lost containment of Wade and James, allowing them to lead the Heat to an important road victory by scoring 53 points on a combined 54% from the field and pull down 19 rebounds while refusing to box them out under the ring.
Although LeBron played extremely well in this game, don’t be fooled by NBA commentators trying to liken his double-double stat-line while playing with a head cold to Michael Jordan’s gargantuan Flu Game, it’s like trying to trade a Ferrari for a Volvo; this one belonged to the defense of the Miami Heat. The Heat’s big men completely closed off the paint from Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, forcing him into an ugly 7-23 night from the field, while also holding the rest of the Chicago lineup to 34% shooting.Game 3 saw the Heat employ the same defensive tactics as they did in Game 2; keep Derrick out of the paint, use their length to shut down his passing lanes and send three men at him whenever he enters the paint. Again, it worked. The suffocating Heat defense limited the NBA’s MVP to 42% from the field but, more importantly, held him to the solitary assist up until the end of the 3rd quarter. To go along with their impressive defensive job, Miami used the speed of Wade, James and Bosh to capitalise on Rose’s missed layups with a fast break offense which may have been the most effective we’ve seen all season long against the Bulls. Watching this match-up, the speed of the Miami Heat’s defensive unit was astounding; they closed down on perimeter shooters extremely well, forcing two shot-clock violations in the second half and contesting everything the Bulls threw at them. From three-point jumpers to lay-ups, a Heat defender was constantly in the face of the Bulls’ ball-handler, making life very difficult for the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed. Unlike in Game 2, the Bulls didn’t play themselves out of this contest. Chris Bosh did. With spiritual leader Joakim Noah forced to sit in the first quarter after two early foul calls, the former Raptor got into a rhythm early, eventually hitting 13 of his 18 field goal attempts to lead all scorers with 34 points. Compare that to the Bulls, whose own power forward Carlos Boozer struggled early, and the loss of containment on Bosh was huge in this one for the Heat. Even though Boozer finished with 26 points, his inability to score after fouls to create three-point play opportunities doomed the Bulls to an 11-point loss and a 2-1 series deficit. With the Heat having stolen home court advantage and looking to win their 8th consecutive home playoff win in Game 4, the Bulls big men need to become more accountable offensively. They need to begin opening up the paint for Rose to get to the rim while also providing an outlet for the young point guard to create plays with his athleticism and court vision. That’s it for this week’s recap. Stay tuned for more breakdowns as we head into the final weeks of the rollercoaster ride known as the 2010-11 NBA Season!