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)

NHL Notes: Islanders fire head coach Jack Capuano

NHL Notes: Islanders fire head coach Jack Capuano

The struggling New York Islanders fired coach Jack Capuano on Tuesday, ending his tenure in the middle of its seventh season.

General manager Garth Snow named assistant GM/coach Doug Weight as Capuano's interim replacement. Snow told reporters Tuesday that the Islanders weren't where they wanted to be in the standings and that everyone's disappointed in their performance his season.

"At the end of the day organizationally I don't think Jack was probably going to be a coach that we were going to bring back," Snow said, adding that the team will begin a full-time coaching search now.

Snow said the halfway point of the season played a role in the timing of firing Capuano a day after beating the Boston Bruins 4-0. The Islanders were 17-17-8 and are in last place in the Eastern Conference with 42 points.

Capuano had been behind the Islanders bench since 2010 and was the fourth-longest tenured coach in the NHL behind Claude Julien of the Boston Bruins, Joel Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks and Dave Tippett of the Arizona Coyotes. Capuano's 482 games and 227 wins rank second in franchise history behind four-time Stanley Cup-winning Hall of Fame coach Al Arbour.

"I don't know that Jack fell short of expectations," Snow said. "When you're a coach in this league sometimes you're a victim of different circumstances."

Snow signed Andrew Ladd to a $38.5 million, seven-year contract in July and the winger has been a disappointment with 12 points in 41 games. The Islanders have also dealt with some injuries and waived veteran goaltender Jaroslav Halak to send him to the minors.

The Islanders under Capuano went 227-194-64 and made three playoff appearances. They have not lived up to playoff expectations this season and new majority owner Jon Ledecky is expected to consider major organizational changes this offseason.

Snow said he takes "100 percent" responsibility for the underachievement but that he doesn't worry about his own job security. He said he has full confidence in Weight, the coaching staff and players to "turn this ship around."

Weight, 45, has been with the Islanders in an executive and coaching capacity since retiring in 2011. Snow said his relationship with all players, including Ladd, was positive and that he called captain John Tavares and others to inform them of the "organizational decision" to fire Capuano.

Snow said assistant coach Bob Corkum would move down from the press box to the bench as part of the restructuring.

Mike Tomlin: Antonio Brown 'foolish, selfish' for locker room live stream

Mike Tomlin: Antonio Brown 'foolish, selfish' for locker room live stream

PITTSBURGH — The father in Mike Tomlin regrets the language he used to describe the New England Patriots during the postgame speech Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown's opted to livestream on social media after a taut playoff victory over Kansas City.

The coach in Tomlin has just as big an issue with one of his team's biggest stars forcing the Steelers to talk about something other than trying to find a way to finally beat Tom Brady when it counts.

A characteristically blunt Tomlin called Brown's decision to broadcast more than 17 minutes of Pittsburgh's giddy locker room to the world -- a move that caught Tomlin using a handful of profanities -- over Kansas City "foolish," "selfish" and "inconsiderate."

"Not only is it a violation of our policy, it's a violation of league policy, both of which he knows," Tomlin said Tuesday.

"So there are consequences to be dealt with from his perspective. We will punish him. We won't punish us."

Tomlin took responsibility for his choice of words, though he was unaware of being filmed as he spoke.

During Tomlin's brief remarks he attached an expletive to the Patriots, who earned a full day's head start on the Steelers by virtue of beating Houston on Saturday night, 24 hours before Pittsburgh outlasted Kansas City 18-16.

"The responsibility associated with being in this thing, just from a role model standpoint, it's something that I personally embrace," Tomlin said.

"It's something that we as a team and organization embrace. So that's why the language, specifically, in terms of the content, is regrettable."

So too is the action of the talented if sporadically diva-like Brown. The former sixth-round pick has evolved from raw project into one of the NFL's best wide receivers.

This season he became only the second player in league history to post four consecutive 100-catch seasons.

His work ethic is universally lauded even as his Q-rating has skyrocketed. Brown can be found on TV pitching everything from soda to credit cards to video games.

The player who -- for reasons he hasn't yet disclosed -- occasionally refers to himself as "Ronald " also has a devoted social media presence, with more than 1.5 million following on Instagram and another 650,000 on Facebook, many of whom got an eyeful and an earful as the Steelers celebrated their first trip to the AFC title game in six years.

While Tomlin has "very little concern" about the content of the video, he has plenty of concern over Brown's lack of judgment.

"You wear on your teammates when they routinely have to answer questions about things that aren't preparation or football-related," Tomlin said.

"It's our desire for him and for everyone to be great teammates, as well as great players. He is a great player. He is a hardworking player. He is respected, largely, in the locker room for those things. But incidences such as this, don't help him in that regard."

The Steelers have grown accustomed to Brown's flights of fancy, whether it's posing for the Mannequin challenge while meeting with reporters, wearing eye-opening (and fine threatening) cleats or his over-the-top touchdown celebrations.

The fallout this time around has been mixed. Long snapper Greg Warren said Monday "AB is AB, he can do what he wants to do."

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger expressed disappointment in Brown during Roethlisberger's weekly appearance on 93.7 The Fan.

Either way, the fact they were forced to respond to questions about Brown before the biggest game of the season only reinforces Tomlin's point, though Tomlin stressed Brown is hardly the only athlete capable of becoming a distraction.

"Those things don't apply exclusively to Antonio," Tomlin said. "It's a global thing in regards to professional sports. I think that's why oftentimes you see great players move around from team to team.

"And I definitely don't want that to be his story. I am sure he doesn't want that to be his story. So, he has to address these things that put him and us in positions from time to time, in settings such as this, where it needs to be addressed."

Tomlin didn't outline the internal discipline Brown faces other than to say it will not affect his availability this weekend.

New England (15-2) pulled away from the Steelers (13-5) in the second half of a 27-16 victory in Pittsburgh on Oct. 23, a game Roethlisberger missed while recovering from surgery on his left knee.

Roethlisberger will be around this time. And so will Brown, who will almost certainly have his phone turned off late Sunday evening regardless of the outcome.

"He has to grow from this," Tomlin said. "He has to."

Notes
LB James Harrison is dealing with shoulder and triceps injuries and could be limited early in the week. ... TE Ladarius Green remains in the concussion protocol more than three weeks after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit against Cincinnati.