NBA Finals preview: Mavs-Heat

By John Carroll

The Dallas Mavericks and the Miami Heat have earned trips to the 2011 NBA Finals, five years after they met in the 2006 championship series. This year's series has a lot of star power, with Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Unfortunately for the Mavericks, three of those players are on the Heat.

The Mavericks are one of the top offensive teams in the NBA. Every player on the floor can score. They are a deep team with one of the best benches in the NBA led by former Sixth Man of the Year Jason Terry. But the Heat have become one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. They made the Chicago Bulls work for every basket they got in the Eastern Conference finals, and have tremendous length, speed and athleticism at almost every position.

The Chicago Bulls showed the blueprint of how to beat the Miami Heat in Game 1. They dominated the glass, knocked down shots at a high percentage, outplayed the Heat’s bench, kept LeBron in check and got efficient scoring from Derrick Rose. The problem for the Bulls is that they did not have the ability to carry out that blueprint consistently for three more games, and did not have enough weapons to beat James, Wade and Bosh three more times. However, the Mavericks may have the depth and weapons to do that.

Dallas can shoot the lights out, and it has an efficient No. 1 option in Nowitzki. Whether they can dominate the glass and keep LeBron in check, though, is still up in the air.

There are a lot of question marks about this series that we will have answered after Game 1. Who will defend Dirk Nowitzki? Will LeBron cover him in the fourth quarter? Can anyone on the Mavs defend LeBron? Will the Maverick bench be able to offset the Big Three of the Heat? How much zone will the Mavericks be forced to play? Tip off is at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday night on ABC. In the meantime, we'll do our best to figure things out:

Five Keys to the Series

1. Defending Dirk

Nowitzki must have a big series for the Mavericks to win. He has been the single best player in the NBA playoffs this year, averaging 28.4 points per game and shooting 51.7 percent from the field. He has been efficient and unguardable.

In addition to being a scorer, Nowitzki has become a very good facilitator for the Mavs. He trusts his teammates and has shown the patience to read the defense and find the open man. The Heat have no answers for Dirk, so he must be dominant in order for the Mavs to win. But the only way that the Mavericks have a chance against Miami's Big Three is if Dirk plays at a very high level to offset the other superstars. If he plays well they lose; he must play great.

With that in mind the Heat will do everything in their power to stop him. They are a great defensive team that was able to control Rose in the Eastern Conference finals. The Heat will play Dirk very strategically. They have analyzed every aspect of his offensive game and will attempt to take away his strengths and not let him roam freely. The first thing they will take away is his air space. They must get up into his body and be as physical as they can be. Nowitzki loves to operate at the top of the key area. Dirk loves to go to his left and the Heat will try to make him go to his right. When he goes left, everything in his arsenal is available to him. Nowitzki has become a better player because of the pace he plays at. He has slowed down his game which has allowed him to read the defense. He trusts his teammates more than he did in 2006, when he felt he had to do more in order to win.

Still, Dirk will be a tough cover for the Heat. When he is making shots, there is no defense that can guard him. Look to see if the Heat guard him one-on-one the best they can and not leave to double. Doubling causes a lot of problems because Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd, Peja Stojakovic, and Tyson Chandler all become better players when they are left open.

2. Defending Lebron

People can say all they want about the Big Three, but it begins and ends with LeBron. He is the guy the Mavericks have to stop in order to win this series. Wade is a scorer and he can beat you on a given night. Bosh is a scorer who will make you pay for all the attention given to the other two players. But LeBron is the guy with the ball in his hands, the guy who can beat your team by himself. He can create his own shot, get to the rim and take a beating. He can pull the 3-point shot in your face or get to his sweet spots and hit the mid-range shot. Somehow, some way the Mavericks must limit his ability to take over this series.

In order to play LeBron you must realize that you cannot stop everything. So the Mavericks must stop his drives to the rim and not put him on the foul line. If they can limit his ability to do these two things in this series they will help themselves win. If they make him shoot contested jump shots as much as possible in this series they will have given themselves the best chance to win. The problem for the Mavericks is that James is playing at a very high level. He is showing much more patience than in the past, not settling and being more accountable than ever. He is finishing games like he did in Cleveland and the Mavericks have a big job on their hands at trying to slow down Lebron James.

3. Protecting the Rim

The Mavericks must make the Heat beat them from the perimeter. They must protect the paint and the rim. They must stop the Heat from getting the ball to the rim in transition and in the half court. The Mavericks must make the Heat beat them with contested jump shots and not get easy baskets or allow them to march to the foul line.

During the regular season the Mavericks did a masterful job of protecting the rim during their two games with the Heat. The Heat shot a very high percentage during the regular season when they drove the ball to the basket. From 3 feet and in they shot 66 percent from the field, but against the Mavericks, Miami shot 52 percent from the same distance. That is one of the biggest keys at beating the Heat. Not allowing them to get to the rim and score or get fouled.

The Heat killed the Bulls from the foul line. The Mavericks cannot allow the same thing to happen to them. Chandler will be one of the most important players in this series for the Mavericks. (If Dirk Nowitzki is the key offensively, then Tyson Chandler is the key defensively.) If Chandler can defend and protect the rim without getting into foul trouble, the Mavs have a much better chance of defeating the Heat. However, the Heat are a much better offensive team than they were in the regular season, so it will be interesting to see how they move Chandler and try to put him into pick and rolls to get him away from the bucket. The Heat will attempt to move the ball and their players so that Chandler cannot load and be waiting for their drives to the rim.

4. Bench

The bench playcould play a big part in who wins this series. The talent of the Heat starting five s so good that the Mavericks must offset that with big-time performances from their bench throughout this series Terry, Stojakovic, JJ Barrea and Brendan Haywood need to outplay the likes of Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller and Mario Chalmers. The problem for the Mavericks will not be on the offensive side of the ball with their bench, it will be on the defensive side.

The Heat will pose a big problem for coach Rick Carlisle and the Mavs bench. The Heat like to use a very short rotation and like to keep their Big Three of James, Wade and Bosh on the court for heavy minutes. Terry, Stojakovic, and Barrea are below average NBA defenders and cannot defend the Heat if they have their starters on the floor. This will force Carlisle to play more zone in this series when these guys are in the game. If the bench can match the Heat when they are in the game it will allow Carlisle to rest Kidd, Nowitzki, Marion and Chandler. If the subs cannot stay with the Heat when they are in the game, it will be a big problem.

5. Free Throw Line

This series may come down to who can keep the other team off the free throw line. The Heat and the Mavericks lived on the free throw line in their previous series. The Heat went to the free throw line 27.8 times versus the Chicago Bulls. They attempted 139 free throws knocking down 115 (82.7 percent). The Mavericks attempted 153 free throws versus the Oklahoma City Thunder, knocking down 134 (87.5 percent). The Heat scored 34 more points during their series or 6.8 more points per game versus Chicago.

The problem for the Mavericks in their series with the Heat may be their inability to keep the Heat off the line. They could not keep the Thunder off the foul line in the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder attempted 155 free throws in their series for an average of 31 per game. The Heat are an aggressive athletic team with even more weapons than the Thunder. They thrive on getting to the foul line. They have relied on getting to the free throw line so far in the playoffs. It has been the difference maker for them in their low scoring playoff wins. These two teams thrive at getting to the line and shooting the ball at a very high percentage when they get there. This will be a key statistic to watch as this series unfolds.

Prediction: Dallas Mavericks in seven