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)

Team USA overpowers Argentina in 1st Olympic exhibition

Team USA overpowers Argentina in 1st Olympic exhibition

LAS VEGAS -- New team. Same old result.

Full of new star power -- and dominant on the inside -- the U.S. men's basketball team opened its bid for a third straight Olympic gold medal Friday night with a 111-74 exhibition romp over Argentina.

A game that was over almost before it began showed the U.S. has to improve its shooting and conditioning. It also showed that there is plenty of talent among a group of players that seem to want to play well for each other and their country despite the absence of Olympic stalwarts Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

"There's a willingness from these guys to work on anything we need and to work hard," coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "These are very good guys."

A U.S. team that hasn't lost a game in 10 years had little trouble with Argentina, which some consider a medal contender in Rio. Paul George scored 14 first-half points, Kevin Durant added 12, and the U.S. blew open the game early before an appreciative crowd on the Las Vegas Strip.

Even with Bryant retired and James taking this Olympics off, there was no real talent drop off on a team heavily favored to win gold once again. The depth of the U.S. showed as coach Mike Krzyzewski rotated players in and out, searching for the right combinations on a team with 10 new players from 2012.

"Nothing is for sure," Durant said. "We want to get this gold and right now we have a job to do. We have to prepare the right way."

Count the Argentines among those who were impressed at the first real game for the Olympic team.

"Obviously, they have the best talent and the best size in the world," Argentina's Luis Scola said. "That's a big difference in their favor."

The game was the first of five exhibitions the U.S. will play before traveling to Rio to defend the gold medal. The U.S. team has spent the last week practicing in Las Vegas in preparation for the tour and the games.

There weren't any opening night jitters, though the U.S. shot only 45 percent and missed all but 14 of 41 3-pointers. With DeMarcus Cousins pulling down 15 rebounds in just 16 minutes, the U.S. dominated inside, outrebounding Argentina 53-30.

"The big thing is getting in shape and they are not there where they will be," Krzyzewski said. "But we really have an inside presence on the boards."

For Durant the game was a chance to play with a pair of his new Golden State teammates, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. It was also a chance for Durant and Carmelo Anthony -- the only two players from the 2012 team -- to demonstrate that this will be their team in Rio.

Both players cheered from the bench as the minutes were spread around, jumping up to clap for teammates. Every U.S. player got quality time, with Green's 12 minutes the least played by any American.

"We're going to have fun and we're going to enjoy ourselves," Anthony said. "If it's not fun it's not worth it. We're going to enjoy ourselves but at the same time we're going to be focused in trying to get that gold medal."

Durant finished as the game's high scorer with 23 points, while George had 18 and Carmelo Anthony 17. Andres Nocioni had 15 for Argentina, while Manu Ginobili added 11 for Argentina, which lost to the U.S. in the semifinals of the 2012 Olympics.

Though at times little defense was played, there was plenty of offense to keep the crowd at the new T-Mobile Arena happy. The teams combined to put up 70 3-point attempts, 41 of them from the U.S.

Oddsmakers had made the U.S. a prohibitive 29.5-point favorite in what at times looked a lot like an NBA All-Star game. But while the U.S. team is loaded with 12 NBA players, the Argentines had only three on their roster and the talent difference showed.

While the team is full of new players, the gold medal run will be the last for Krzyzewski, the national coach for the last decade. His teams have lost only one game during his reign, which will end after the Olympics with San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich taking over.

Best of MLB: Yankees stay hot with win over sloppy Giants

Best of MLB: Yankees stay hot with win over sloppy Giants

NEW YORK -- Giants Gold Glove shortstop Brandon Crawford made three errors for the first time in his career, with his wild throw in the eighth inning giving the New York Yankees a 3-2 win Friday night that sent San Francisco to its season-worst sixth straight loss.

The Giants held the best record in the majors at the All-Star break, but haven't won since. They also lost catcher Buster Posey, who fouled a ball off his right foot and left with a bruise. X-rays were negative and he was listed as day to day.

Masahiro Tanaka shut out San Francisco for six innings, giving up four singles. Giants ace Madison Bumgarner went seven innings, allowing two runs.

The Giants nicked Dellin Betances in the seventh, pulling within 2-1 on a walk, a double by Denard Span and a wild pitch. That ended a streak of 31 scoreless innings by Yankees relievers.

A double by Giants pinch-hitter Mac Williamson off Andrew Miller (6-1) tied it in the eighth.

But the Yankees bounced back for the fifth win in six games, and didn't need to hit the ball hard to do it (see full recap).

Kemp homers twice in Padres' victory
WASHINGTON -- Matt Kemp homered twice and drove in four runs, rookie Luis Perdomo pitched seven solid innings and the San Diego Padres beat the Washington Nationals 5-3 on Friday night to snap a four-game losing streak.

Kemp hit a solo shot in the first inning and gave San Diego the lead for good with a three-run homer in the fifth. He has six homers in his last six games and the Padres have homered in 20 straight, the longest streak in the National League this season.

Perdomo (4-4) gave up two first-inning runs, then limited the National to two hits over the final six innings of his longest outing. Brandon Maurer pitched 1 1/3 innings for his fourth save.

Jayson Werth and Daniel Murphy homered for Washington. The Nationals have lost four of five.

Tanner Roark (9-6) turned in his shortest outing since June 5, lasting just five innings. He allowed five runs on four hits and surrendered two homers in a game for the first time this season (see full recap).

Fowler sparks Cubs' win over Brewers in return
MILWAUKEE -- Dexter Fowler led off the first with a homer and drove in three runs in his first game back from the disabled list, powering the Chicago Cubs to a 5-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday night.

Fowler went 3 for 4 with a walk and scored twice after being sidelined more than a month with a strained right hamstring. His two-run double to left with the bases loaded in the second drew rousing cheers from the bevy of Cubs fans visiting Milwaukee.

Jason Hammel (9-5) allowed four hits and two runs over five-plus innings for his second victory since the All-Star break for NL Central-leading Chicago. He never trailed after Fowler slugged a 3-1 pitch from Jimmy Nelson (6-8) over the center-field wall to lead off the game.

Hernan Perez had a run-scoring double for the Brewers, and Ryan Braun hit a solo homer.

There were so many fans in Chicago shirts that their boos drowned out cheers from Brewers backers when Braun stepped to the plate in fourth. Braun went deep to center on the first pitch of the at-bat from Hammel for his 14th homer of the year.

Hammel departed after allowing a leadoff double to Scooter Gennett in the sixth with the Brewers trailing 4-2. Reliever Carl Edwards Jr. then retired the Brewers' 3-4-5 hitters in order, capped by strikeouts of Jonathan Lucroy and Chris Carter on six pitches total (see full recap).

Zach Eflin tosses 1st shutout in Phillies' win over Pirates

Zach Eflin tosses 1st shutout in Phillies' win over Pirates

BOX SCORE

PITTSBURGH — Zach Eflin wasn’t the normal youth pitcher while growing up in Oviedo, Florida.

Though the lanky right-hander had the arm strength to overpower hitters, he concentrated more on pitching inside and keeping the ball low in the strike zone than trying to blow his fastball by everybody.
 
“I didn’t start throwing a slider or curveball until I was 16 or 17,” Eflin said. “I was taught at an early age that establishing the inside part of the plate allows you to throw your changeup effectively and opens things up so you can throw all your pitches. I wanted the changeup to be an effective pitch for me.”
 
The Phillies' rookie is showing in the early part of his major-league career that he learned his lessons well.
 
The 22-year-old had his best outing yet Friday night when he pitched a three-hit shutout — the first of his nascent career — to lead the Phillies to a 4-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates in the opener of a three-game series at PNC Park (see Instant Replay).
 
Eflin struck out six, had no walks and used an efficient 100 pitches to notch his second complete game. He also went the distance July 5 against the Atlanta Braves when he pitched a six-hitter and threw 92 pitches.
 
“One of the most exciting things about this season has been seeing the improvement of so many of our young pitchers,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. “Zach has made such great strides in a short period of time.
 
“I’m happy for him. He’s a hard worker and a personable kid. He’s done a really good job.”
 
Eflin made his sixth straight quality start and is 3-3 with a 3.40 ERA in eight outings since being recalled from Triple A Lehigh Valley. The consistency Eflin is showing at such a young age is quite surprising in light of getting rocked for nine runs in 2 2/3 innings in his major-league debut by the Blue Jays on June 14 at Toronto.
 
“What impressed me the most after that debacle in Toronto is that Zach came back the next day and knew exactly what he needed to do in order to be successful and that was keep the ball down,” Mackanin said. “He’s been keeping the ball down ever since.”
 
Mackanin then smiled.
 
“He’s becoming one of my favorite pitchers,” the manager said.
 
Coming off a 2-5 homestand, the Phillies started a stretch in which they play 16 of 19 games on the road. Elfin got them off on the right foot at a venue where the Phillies were a combined 0-6 during the previous two seasons.
 
“It was great to pitch a shutout, a lot of fun,” Elfin said. “Having been out on the mound in the ninth inning before really helped. I knew I could finish the game.”
 
All-Star centerfielder Odubel Herrera broke out of his slump with three hits and two runs scored and catcher Cameron Rupp hit a two-run home run.
 
Herrera had two singles and a double after going 4 for 41 in his previous 11 games.
 
Herrera singled to lead off the sixth inning and scored the game’s first run on a single by Rupp. Herrera then doubled and scored on Andres Blanco’s single in the seventh to make it 2-0.
 
Rupp’s two-run shot, his 10th of the season, off Jon Niese in the ninth inning capped the scoring. Rupp had two hits and three RBIs.
 
Second baseman Freddy Galvis also had two hits, as did Blanco, who replaced third baseman Maikel Franco in the bottom of the third inning.
 
Franco was hit in the left wrist in the first inning by a pitch from Pirates right-hander Gerrit Cole (5-6). He then singled in the top of the third before undergoing X-rays that were negative.

Eflin hit Pirates centerfielder Andrew McCutchen in the rear end with a pitch in the bottom of the first inning, causing home plate umpire Tony Randazzo to warn both teams. There were no further incidents.
 
Franco had his hand wrapped after the game and said he did not know if he would be able to play Saturday afternoon. The ball hit Franco in the same spot where he suffered a fracture last August that caused him to miss most of the last six weeks of the season.
 
“I was scared at first because it was sore and was getting puffy,” Franco said. “I felt better [after getting treatment], though. I think everything will be fine.”