NBA Finals Preview: Does the Heat Dynasty Begin This June?

NBA Finals Preview: Does the Heat Dynasty Begin This June?

Going into this year's post-season, it seemed like chances were pretty good that the Heat's predicted dominance over the NBA would not start for another year or two, if indeed it started at all. Health, chemistry and mental makeup issues dogged the team all regular season, and a number of high-profile late-game meltdowns—often in marquee matchups against elite teams—made it look like this was a team that was still a long way away from competing with the league's top dogs. Hell, even their five-game, first-round victory over the Sixers, a series that while close in parts left no doubt as to who the better team was, made them look vulnerable due to their tendency to let the Sixers get out to early leads, and their inability to put the games away in the fourth quarter. Surely a veteran team with championship pedigree like the Celtics, or a young, talented, versatile squad like the Bulls would be able to exploit their flaws in a seven-game series.

But unfortunately for the rest of the NBA, this ended up being pretty damn far from the case. The Heat congealed at exactly the right time, partly due to the return of valuable role players like Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller from injury (or general ineffectiveness), and partly due to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade seeming to find their balance playing together, reminding the league that these are two of the three or four best players in the NBA right now and that stopping a team that has both of them turns out to be a mildly tricky proposition. They made the Celtics look old, and they made the Bulls look predictable. Now only one team stands between them and all heavenly glory: The Dallas Mavericks.

As doubted as the Heat were before the playoffs started, at least everyone predicted them to get safely to the second round. When the post-season started, the limping Mavs were forecast by many to drop their first-round series to the younger, trendier Portland Trailblazers. But after eliminating the Blazers in six, the Mavs went on to really shock the NBA world by taking out the two-time-defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in a four-game sweep, an upset that rivaled even the eighth-seeded Grizzlies' takedown of the top-seeded Spurs in terms of playoff intrigue. And thanks to some late-game magic and a couple peerless performances from ex-MVP power forward Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs were also able to silence the Oklahoma City Thunder in the conference finals, to move to their second finals in franchise history, the first since 2006.

Of course, 2006 was also the last time the Heat were in the finals, back when LeBron and Chris Bosh were still biding their time in Cleveland and Toronto, and Shaquille O'Neal and a cast of ringless veterans on their last legs (Alonzo Mourning, Gary Payton, Antoine Walker) provided the support system for Dwyane Wade. Though the Mavs won the first two games in Big D, the Heat went on to take the next four, largely thanks to a couple superhuman efforts from Wade. Many claimed, however, that Miami's victory was largely referee-assisted, as Wade averaged an unthinkable 16 free throw attempts a game, and several late-game calls came under particular scrutiny for being alleged phantom fouls, particularly one towards the end of game five that allowed Miami a series-swinging victory.

So will the Mavericks be able to re-write history five years later, allowing Dirk (whose play in a couple of the finals losses, as well as the next season's first-round upset at the hands of the "We Believe" Warriors, was highly subpar) to exorcise his demons and bringing Dallas and owner Mark Cuban their first-ever Larry O'Brien trophy? Well, conventional logic would certainly seem to point against it. From a talent standpoint, the Heat have the Mavs crushed, with Miami boasting three guys who were considered legitimate franchise players in the '10 off-season, and Dallas not even having a single player besides Dirk on the roster who was an All-Star this year. The Heat had a better regular-season record, ranked higher in offensive and defensive rating for the year, and have home court advantage in this series. It shouldn't even be a contest.

That said, the Mavs do have a couple things to cling to. For one, they were two-for-two against the Heat in the regular season, and in fact have never lost to the Heat in the ten head-to-head regular season games the two have played since Miami won the '06 finals, though obviously those were against some very different teams than the one they'll be playing in the finals. And as hot as the Heat have been this post-season (no pun intended), the Mavs have been just as scorching, matching Miami's 12-3 post-season record, sharing the ball brilliantly and getting big contributions from every player, from super-over-the-hill veterans like Peja Stojakovic and Jason Kidd to younger energy guys like J.J. Barea and Tyson Chandler. And of course, Dirk has been the single most unguardable player this post-season, averaging over 28 points a game on unconscious 64% True Shooting, with no single Heat player likely to be able to contain him.

What will the Mavs need to be able to beat the Heat, then? Well, there's a lot to analyze, from player matchups to team defensive strategies to coaching substitution patterns, but in my opinion, the thing that Dallas is going to need most is plain old luck. The Heat's two big guns—and even Bosh's play in the Chicago series has arguably nudged him back into that headliner discussion–are so ridiculously talented that if they make a high percentage of the tough shots they're forced to take (which they have so far this post-season, as they have with unnerving consistency for most of their careers), there's really no way to beat them whatsoever. The Mavericks need the Basketball Gods to be on their side, and to have significantly more of those fall-aways, powered-through layup drives, and shot-clock-beating three-point heaves rim out than not, because otherwise, the Heat are just gonna win no matter what. Hardly the most sabermetrically astounding analysis, but I really believe it's that simple—force them to take tough shots, and then pray.

Personally, I don't think the Mavs are going to get enough good fortune to have much of a chance in this series. It's possible that some combination of Jason Terry, DeShawn Stevenson and Shawn Marion can hold Wade and LeBron reasonably in check for stretches, and that Dirk can just go nuts for 30 or so a game on the other end. But considering that Dallas has already been playing ridiculously over their heads for the whole playoffs—Terry, Marion, Stojakovic, and Barea have all been playing their best basketball of the season through the first three rounds—and that most of those guys are well past their prime at this point, I think a far more likely scenario is that Dallas's supporting cast starts to slip, and there are one or two games where their shots just don't fall and Dirk is left holding the bag on his own, like he was for most of the last two NBA post-seasons. As great as Dirk is and has been, he can't win a title on his own, not against a Heat team this skilled on both sides of the ball.

However, if you're an NBA fan, I do believe it's something of a moral imperative for you to watch this series and pull as hard as you can for the Dallas Mavericks. The Heat may or may not be evil in the traditional sense—my judgment on this matter is too clouded to speak objectively—but their eventual reign over the NBA, whenever it comes, will be one of arrogance, athlete-as-celebrity hype, and general insufferability. (Though to be fair, it will also be one of some of the best, most lyrical basketball we've ever seen played.) Meanwhile, the Mavericks are a squad with four or five of the best players of the last 15 years to never win a ring shooting for that first taste of championship glory—led by Dirk, one of the league's greatest, most lovable and most singular superstars, who in all likelihood will never get a chance like this at a title again. Oh,
and if all that's not enough, I shouldn't have to remind you that the Heat did beat the Sixers in the first-round this year, with LeBron referring to wrapping up the series in Game Five as "finishing [the team's] breakfast." You shouldn't need to do too much debating about which team to be rooting for in these here finals.

Regardless, I gotta say Heat in five for my series prediction. I pray that I'm wrong, but I think the dawn of the South Beach chapter of basketball history begins this post-season. If not...well, maybe there is some sort of divine NBA power after all.

(Photo: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE)

As Eagles enter bye, Doug Pederson aims to thwart complacency

As Eagles enter bye, Doug Pederson aims to thwart complacency

The Eagles are 3-0. They’re alone atop the NFC East and have been the biggest surprise of the young NFL season.

Doug Pederson’s message to his team: You haven’t done anything yet.

Although the Eagles are riding high, Pederson doesn’t want his team to change its outlook or hard work. That’s what teams have to worry about once they’ve found some success.

“The biggest thing is complacency,” Pederson said Monday. “You think you've arrived. You think you are all that. When that creeps in, that's when you get beat. It's my job not to let that creep in. I've got to keep the guys focused and grounded. I told them this week they're going to travel and go home and people are going to pat them on the back and say how great they are.

“But next Monday, I'm going to tell them, ‘Hey, we're back to work. We're 0-0. This is Game 1 and let's go.’ That's just the way it has to be. You are building for one ultimate goal and that's a few weeks down the road. That's what you are trying to get to. But you can't get there unless you take care of the next opponent. It's my job to keep them focused that way.”

Being 3-0 (they’re one of five 3-0 teams) gives the Eagles a head start, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee them a playoff spot. This is the ninth 3-0 start in franchise history. They’ve made the playoffs just five times in the previous eight. And they recently missed the playoffs after starting 3-0 in 2014 under Chip Kelly.

In NFL history (before this season), there have been 276 teams to start with 3-0 records. Of them, 200 (72.3 percent) have made the playoffs.

“We just have to approach it the same, one day at a time,” Pederson said. “That's the way this business goes. You are on top of the world one minute, and you can be at the bottom of the heap the next. Just got to keep things even-keeled and can't get too high, can't get too low. Approach it the same. Like I mentioned earlier, you can't substitute for hard work. That pays off on Sundays. We just have to stay the course. Again, a lot of football left.”

While the Week 4 bye comes pretty early, the Eagles have a couple key players who will use the time to get healthy. And Connor Barwin pointed out that the bye is coming about closer to the halfway point between when the team started its tough training camp and the end of the season.

Pederson told his players to use the week to get away from football and free their minds. Meanwhile, Pederson and his coaches will use the extra time to self-scout and prepare for the final 13 games of the regular season.

With a first-year head coach and a rookie quarterback who was thrust into action a week before the opener, expectations outside (and perhaps inside) the building were tempered.

The Eagles aren’t an underdog anymore.

“We kind of enjoyed flying under the radar, but obviously a win like this against a team like the Steelers will open some eyes around the league,” Malcolm Jenkins said. “For us, nothing different. We’ll keep our preparation the same. We’ll stick our heads down and focus on the work day to day and understand what’s gotten us to 3-0.”

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Ivan Provorov displays durability, versatility in Flyers' preseason loss

Ivan Provorov displays durability, versatility in Flyers' preseason loss

BOX SCORE

NEWARK, N.J. — How much of a horse is Flyers defensive prospect Ivan Provorov?

Well, consider this:

The 19-year-old logged a game-high 28:48 of ice time Monday night during the Flyers' 2-0 split-squad loss to the Devils in which he also quarterbacked the first-unit power play (8:03) and had the most penalty kill time (3:58) (see story).

“I thought I played well,” Provorov said. “It took me a few shifts to get into the game. I competed as hard as I could.”

He said he was used to playing more than 25 minutes in Brandon (WHL), anyway.

“Of course, this is a better league, high pace and it will take a few games to adjust,” Provorov said.

Because the Flyers have yet to work on power play, the results aren’t there. They were 0 for 7 in the game.

“We haven’t done anything on the ice, but have done some video on the PK on the board but nothing on the power play,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “There’s other priorities now with so many players (64) in camp.”

Provorov worked both points on the power play and had just one official shot in the game.

“We didn’t get to do much power play [in camp],” he said. “It will get better as the preseason goes on.”

Rookie forward Travis Konecny worked the low slot on the top power play. He logged 18:34 of ice time, including 6:01 PP time. Konecny had two shots in the game.

He was on Andy Miele’s line with Scott Laughton. Konency had the only shots on his line.

Hakstol said Konecny and Provorov each “settled in” as the game went on. Hakstol isn’t sure if one or both will play Tuesday night at the Wells Fargo Center against the Islanders.

Konecny’s body language in camp exudes confidence unlike a year ago when he was skittish in his first-ever Flyers training camp. Now he sits back, takes it all in and has that look on his face of been there, done that.

In fact, he was trying to calm down some of his buddies, Anthony Salinitri and Connor Bunnaman, who were seeing the lights before the game.

“Me and [Ivan] Provorov were just talking,” he said. “We feel a lot more comfortable this year.

“I’ve been in this position here. I have my guys Salinitri and Bunnaman, we all hang out together and it’s their first year.

“They’re excited for their first preseason game just like I was last year, but I’m not thinking, ‘Wow, it’s an NHL arena.’ I’m thinking about the game and getting ready to play.”

Konecny was impressive last fall as an 18-year-old and Hakstol said he takes everything into account with more emphasis on the now than the past.

“Your body of work includes your season last year,” Hakstol  said. “Includes everything. The most important information is what you do right now. No question in my mind. I take everything into account.”

Take this into account: Alex Lyon is going to be a contender with Anthony Stolarz for the starting job in goal with the Phantoms this season. He was outstanding with 28 saves on 29 shots.

“They spent some time in our zone and had their big guns out there,” Lyon said of being under siege for two-thirds of the game. “They had a few shots but we did a good job keeping them to the outside. No super grade A opportunities.”

Lyon stopped two breakaways by Beau Bennett, one within three minutes of play.

“I felt like a newborn deer and could barely stand up,” quipped the former Yale goalie. “I was so nervous. It felt good to stop the first one.”