It goes without saying that the teams that reach the NBA Finals are usually the ones playing the best basketball during the postseason. That's true by a dramatic margin with this year's matchup between the Dallas Mavericks and the Miami Heat. As Dan Feldman considered last week, both teams sport .750 playoff winning percentages that rank them among the best pre-Finals teams in recent memory. Miami's run is less impressive by point differential, but adding in quality of opposition shows how well the Heat has really played.
My measure of playoff performance is to take the weighted Offensive and Defensive Ratings of the opponents each team has faced and then compare the team's actual performance to that standard, allowing us to put playoff ratings on the same scale as regular-season numbers. Combining offense and defense, Miami has played 12.0 percent better than an average team would be expected to do playing the same series. That's the league's best mark.
Team Off Def Net
Miami 5.0 7.0 12.0
Dallas 7.6 3.6 11.2
Boston -1.1 8.3 7.2
Oklahoma City 3.7 3.4 7.1
Chicago -1.4 6.6 5.2
Memphis -1.7 4.8 3.1
L.A. Lakers 2.8 -0.6 2.2
Orlando -4.9 6.8 1.9
Atlanta -1.2 2.9 1.7
Indiana -0.5 2.1 1.6
Portland 1.4 -2.1 - 0.6
San Antonio -2.0 1.3 - 0.6
Denver -4.1 2.1 - 2.0
Philadelphia -3.7 1.4 - 2.2
New York -2.0 -0.2 - 2.2
New Orleans -0.2 -2.6 - 2.8
While the Mavericks have been the league's best offensive team in the playoffs, the Heat has had more balance, ranking second in the league in adjusted offense and adjusted defense. Perhaps we should have seen this coming because Miami was the NBA's best all-around team during the regular season. In fact, both teams in this series ranked in league's top 10 at both ends of the floor. The Los Angeles Lakers were the only other team to accomplish that feat.
WHEN MIAMI HAS THE BALL
Pace: 89.5 possessions per 48 minutes (21st NBA), 90.5 (3rd) playoffs
Miami Offensive Rating: 113.8 points per 100 possessions (3rd NBA), 108.5 (4th) playoffs
Dallas Defensive Rating: 106.7 points per 100 possessions (7th NBA), 107.7 (9th) playoffs
While this is relatively the matchup of weakness on weakness, both of these units have been better in the postseason than their overall numbers would make it appear. The Heat faced three of the league's top 10 defenses, while Dallas faced three of the top 10 offenses. As shown above, Miami is second only to the Mavericks in playoff offense when adjusted for opponent. Dallas moves up just slightly in the rankings (to sixth), but has improved from the regular season at the defensive end when strength of schedule is taken into consideration.
LeBron James has clearly been the Heat's playoff MVP, but the more important matchup for the Mavericks might be Dwyane Wade. When both starting lineups are on the floor, Dallas has a good matchup for Wade in DeShawn Stevenson. Per StatsCube, the numbers for Wade against Stevenson are striking: He scored just two points in the 30 minutes Stevenson played in head-to-head meetings this season and attempted but three shots in that span.
Wade should find more opportunities against Jason Kidd, who will defend him most of the rest of the time, including late in games. Kidd did an excellent job against quick Russell Westbrook in the Western Conference Finals, but will have to play closer to Wade because of the Miami guard's superior midrange game. Wade also was able to create shots by posting up Kidd at times and scored 42 points in the 50 minutes Stevenson was on the bench when the two teams played, making an even 50 percent of his shot attempts.
James too struggled against the Mavericks' starting lineup, but that fact comes with an important caveat: Both head-to-head meetings came before Caron Butler suffered a ruptured patella tendon in his right knee. Though a return by Butler hasn't been ruled out, it's unlikely he will be able to play in this series. James was somewhat more effective when Shawn Marion was on the floor, shooting 38 percent from the field. Note that includes some time when Dallas played both Butler and Marion, leaving some ambiguity as to who was defending James.
Physically, Marion is a good match for James. As was the case against Kevin Durant, Marion's strength will be an important asset in dealing with the overpowering James. The key difference between those matchups is that the Mavericks will have a much more difficult time switching picks involving James than they did with Durant. Kidd isn't big enough to deal with James, and even Stevenson has struggled to contain James in the past.
There is also the question of who handles James when Marion is on the bench. One possible answer? Zone defense when Peja Stojakovic is at small forward and James is on the floor. When Dallas played the Heat early in the season, Rick Carlisle was making extensive use of the zone. Miami attacked it in a textbook way, sending either James or Chris Bosh to the high post for jumpers just above the free throw line and shooting threes from the wing. If the Mavericks do go zone, it will put pressure on Heat reserves Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller to connect from long range.
Tyson Chandler got the primary defensive assignment on Bosh, allowing Dallas to hide Dirk Nowitzki on non-scorers. Chandler's length will make it difficult for Bosh to score one-on-one, meaning most of his shot attempts will likely be created by teammates the same way they were in the Eastern Conference Finals. Expect the pick-and-pop to yield open midrange attempts for Bosh.
WHEN DALLAS HAS THE BALL
Pace: 89.6 possessions per 48 minutes (19th NBA), 83.7 (15th) playoffs
Dallas Offensive Rating: 111.8 points per 100 possessions (8th NBA), 115.8 (1st) playoffs
Miami Defensive Rating: 104.9 points per 100 possessions (5th NBA) regular season, 101.8 (2nd) playoffs
Surely, the biggest strategic question for Erik Spoelstra defensively is matching up with Nowitzki. The bad news is that three teams have tried and failed to keep him in check during the postseason, which has seen Nowitzki be more efficient than any other high scorer in the league. The upside is that Spoelstra has plenty of options. Bosh at the very least has the length to contest Nowitzki's shot attempts, a la LaMarcus Aldridge in the opening round. During the regular season, Spoelstra favored Joel Anthony as a matchup when the defensive specialist was in the game. And Udonis Haslem has plenty of experience defending Nowitzki, including the Heat's 2006 NBA Finals victory.
During the most recent meeting between these teams, Nowitzki shot just 9-of-21 from the field. Three of those makes came in scenarios, like transition, where no single defender was responsible for him. Nowitzki made four of his nine shot attempts against Bosh and struggled badly against Anthony, shooting 2-of-9 (including four misses from beyond the arc). What makes Anthony appealing against Nowitzki is his ability to contest multiple actions on the same play. Anthony is skilled at hedging against a pick and getting back, which is at least as important against Nowitzki as defending one-on-one.
Depending on how much more effective stopping Nowitzki he is than the other options, Anthony may well be on the bench down the stretch because of his offensive limitations. Haslem finished games at center for Miami after demonstrating his return to health during the Eastern Conference Finals. In that scenario, Haslem will likely match up with Nowitzki, though the Heat is versatile enough to switch assignments when Nowitzki rolls to the basket off the pick-and-roll.
When defending Chandler, Bosh's primary responsibility will be the defensive glass. Chandler can create the same kind of problems with second chances the Bulls did early in the Eastern Conference Finals. As in that series, Miami will need rebounding contributions from wings James, Wade and Mike Miller, especially because Nowitzki will pull one of the Heat's big men away from the basket.
After Nowitzki, the next most important cover for Miami will be sixth man Jason Terry. If Wade is healthy, he's ideally suited to defend the smaller Terry. Overall, Terry shot just 5-of-18 on two-point attempts against the Heat this season. However, he got hot and was largely responsible for the fourth-quarter comeback that won the game played in Miami. Wade must overcome his natural tendency to help to stay with Terry and avoid giving him open looks.
The backup Mavericks backcourt of Terry and Jose Barea could cause trouble for the Heat when Wade rests. Miami usually goes bigger at that point, with James and Miller on the wing. Spoelstra won't want Miller defending either Barea or Terry, who could use their quickness to get by him. Chalmers can only defend one of the two players at a time. The most interesting solution would be to use James on Barea, hoping that his size would be enough to steer Barea away from picks and creating off the dribble. Barea is a totally different matchup than Derrick Rose, but as when he was on Rose, James' length could allow him to contest shots that usually end up clean looks for Barea in the paint.
As well as they've played, both teams have needed a dose of fairy dust to get to this point with just three losses. Each has had just one win in the postseason that was not in any doubt in the fourth quarter (Game Four vs. the Lakers for Dallas; Game Two vs. Philadelphia for the Heat). Game after game, they've relied on timely runs to pull away late in the fourth quarter. Someone's streak is going to run out in this series, and maybe both.
Ultimately, I think Miami is slightly better equipped to execute down the stretch. The Heat matches up about as well as possible with the Mavericks across their closing lineups. Nowitzki will still get his points, because he's that good, but Terry may have a difficult time scoring and the other three Dallas players on the floor are unlikely to create any offense. At the other end, I see Spoelstra relying on James-Wade pick-and-rolls and involving Haslem and Miller at times to force switches and create mismatches for his superstars to exploit. James has had to rely on uncanny long-range shooting late in wins over Boston and Chicago. Against a defense that is not at their level, I anticipate he'll be able to find slightly better looks this time around.
The other difference I see giving Miami a slight edge is the free throw line, and no, that doesn't have anything to do with Bennett Salvatore. The Mavericks, especially Nowitzki, have been much better at getting to the line in the playoffs, attempting .273 free throws for each field-goal attempt. They still can't compare to the Heat (.320). Miami has also sent opponents to the foul line less frequently than any team that advanced past the first round. Increased minutes for Anthony, who is excellent at contesting without fouling, have helped the Heat improve on what was not a particular strength during the regular season. The advantage at the line was a big factor in why Miami could win slugfests against the Bulls and Celtics, and it figures to come into play in this series too.
Trying to pick a length for this series seems silly. In the context of a seven-game series between two relatively equal teams, one or two close wins can be enough to turn a series that goes the distance into a five-game affair. We saw that to some extent in both conference finals, as well as the Dallas-L.A. series. If I was going to completely cop out, I'd predict that whichever team wins more close games will win the series and call it good. Instead, I'm going to go with the most generic possible Heat prediction.
Miami in 6
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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