From a league of 30 teams that was whittled down to a playoff field of 16 roughly six weeks ago, just two teams remain to battle for the NBA Championship.
The Miami Heat, somewhat consensus preseason favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference, will be challenged by the Dallas Mavericks, champions of the Western Conference.
Seeded third behind the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and top seeded San Antonio, Dallas has blown through the playoffs, winning 12 of 15 games.
Remarkably. the Mavs covered in 13 of their 15 playoff games. Of their dozen wins to date, all but one has been by at least four points with a quartet of the wins by double digits.
Miami has been just as impressive, also winning 12 of 15 games and, in fact, winning each of their three series in five games. The Heat covered just twice in getting by pesky Philadelphia in the first round and then covered in eight of their next 10 playoff games in getting by Boston and the East’s top seed, Chicago.
Five of Miami’s dozen wins have been by double digits. The Heat remains unbeaten at home in the playoffs, winning all eight contests. The Mavs have been almost perfect on their home court, losing just once in eight games.
This series is a rematch of the 2006 NBA Finals in which Dallas got off to a 2-0 lead, winning the first two games at home, before dropping the next four in a row to enable Miami to claim its first NBA Title.
Only Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry remain from that disappointed Dallas team while Dwyane Wade remains the most prominent member of the Heat squad that won that title five seasons ago.
Nowitzki has been brilliant in this season’s playoffs as he’s been virtually a one man wrecking crew, although he’s been ably supported by Terry, Jason Kidd, Tyson Chandler and Shawn Marion to name a few.
Miami, of course, following last season acquired both LeBron James and Chris Bosh to team with Wade to create arguably the most talented top trio in the NBA.
Although they struggled for much of the regular season, and gave many cause to worry whether this Miami team was ready to win a title, those doubts and concerns have been all but erased during their playoff run.
And there are those who believe Miami should be an even larger favorite than they are as they will not have to face the Lakers or Spurs as many had expected would be the case for much of the season.
Miami pretty much opened as a -180 series favorite over Dallas but the early money has slightly favored the underdog Mavericks. Currently Miami is -175 to win the series with the takeback on Dallas at +155 or so.
Although this is not always the case there could be one key factor that explains why both Miami and Dallas have made it to the Finals. The Heat and Mavs tied for the best road record in the league this season, 28-13.
It’s a truism in almost every sport the ability to win on the road separates the contenders from the pretenders and the ability to excel on the road turns contenders into champions.
Miami has the home court advantage in what will be a 2-3-2 format with the Heat hosting Games 1 and 2 and potentially Games 6 and 7.
The Heat earned the home court by virtue of winning one more game during the regular season, 58 vs. 57. However Dallas did sweep the two-game season series, winning 106-95 at home back on Nov. 27 and again on Dec. 20 in Miami, 98-96.
These teams have not met in over five months.
Following Miami’s elimination of Chicago last Thursday, the Heat opened pretty much as a solid 4½ favorite in Tuesday’s first game of the best-of-seven series. There has been very little movement in that line while the total has moved only slightly, down a half point to 187.
Miami was extremely impressive in getting past Chicago in the manner in which they did. Despite the flow of the games after being blown out in the opening contest Miami was able to win the final few minutes of the next four games. The Heat did this despite being out-rebounded due to Chicago’s size advantage.
Miami is a much deeper team with Udonis Haslem back after missing virtually the entire season and early playoff rounds due to injury.
Dallas will be a formidable foe but in the end Miami should achieve the goal sought last summer – winning the NBA Title. If Miami wins the first two games at home this series might last just five games. But if Dallas can achieve at least a split in Miami, the Heat will need six games to capture the title.
In James and Wade the Heat have a pair of reliable late game options with Bosh not bad for yet a third possibility in crunch time. Dallas is much more reliant on Nowitzki.
The tenacious defensive ability Miami showed against Chicago’s Derrick Rose should ultimately be what decides these games come those critical final few minutes – regardless of what may have happened in the first 40 minutes or so to arrive at cliffhanger time.
In betting the individual games, the first preference will be to look at the road team getting points when there is no more than a one-game difference in the series. That is, Dallas looks attractive as an underdog in Game 1 and would again be attractive as a dog of at least +4 in Game 2.
Should the series head to Dallas with Miami up 2-0 in games then Dallas would be playable as a small favorite of less than four points back home in Game 3.
If the series is tied at a game apiece or Dallas somehow sweeps the first two games in Miami then the Heat would be the play in Game 3.
Should either team be going for a four-game sweep that team would be the play in Game 4.
If Miami is up 2-1 after three games then Miami would be playable at +4 points or more in Game 4 while Dallas would be playable if favored by four points or less if looking to square the series at 2-2 in Game 4.
The NBA Finals will be revisited in next week’s column, which could be the last such column for quite a while with an owners’ lockout looming on the horizon.
Even more of a reason to enjoy this season’s finale to the long NBA season.
Let the games begin!