Turning up the (defensive) Heat
Miami out-did what the Bulls do best, and that isn't good news for the Dallas Mavericks
This is a confession: Whenever I was asked to predict the winner of the Eastern Conference finals between the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls, I'd always say the Bulls. The reason and rationale was simple to me: The Bulls' defense was better than Miami's offense.
Who wins series and championships? The team that plays best when it doesn't have the ball.
I didn't think that team was Miami. I didn't think the Heat had that capability. I hadn't seen that side of them. All through Miami's season of basketball schizophrenia, I saw a team full of pretty boys. A team of superstars who showed flashes of an ability to D other teams up, but not full-time lockdown defense.
Their cornbread and butter was what they do when they have the ball. Not the opposite. The "tres amigos" doing RUN-TMC remixes. Ninety points divided by 3. To me, that was who they were. All glitz, no real get-down-in-the-trenches grime.
But this? What they did against the Bulls? To the Bulls? That changes everything. Maybe they knew who they really are, but the rest of us really had no idea.
Against Chicago, the Heat out-D'ed the best defensive team in the game. They out-committed and out-sacrificed on defense a team that was on the verge of redefining how defense was going to be played in the NBA. Let's be specific here: Erik Spolstra out-guru'd the guru, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, basketball's version of the NFL's Buddy Ryan.
Notice the word: "easily."
A team that once seemed to play as if it thought "There are three I's in team," has turned into a team that prides itself on "There's a D in Heat, too."
A team that during the regular season allowed 94.6 points per game and held opponents to a .434 field goal percentage is allowing 88.3 points per game and holding opponents to a .419 field goal percentage thus far in the playoffs.
A team that has developed the ability to turn up its defensive intensity to a suffocating level in pressure moments and make other teams choke. The Heat are making eyes roll to the backs of heads and turning offensive minds mindless to the point that they can't think of how to create/make ways to produce points.
Locking teams down like car boots. Immobilization. A team that no longer seems to be concerned about playing like stars and icons. A team that no one imagined going into this Finals would be more Detroit Pistons circa 1988 to 1990 than Phoenix Suns circa & well, 1968 to 2011.
The pageantry, the celebrations before they even played one game together, the not-acting-like-they've-been-there-before reaction to beating a wounded Celtics squad & it all blinded us from seeing what this Heat team had inside itself.
The team that was ready for its close-up the minute Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and 'Bron rose on to a stage inside AmericanAirlines Arena the day after they'd all joined together, has right before our eyes transformed into something we never thought existed within: a team that can totally control a series when it doesn't have possession of the ball.
A team that is not who we thought they were.
Dallas, you've been warned.
Don't take Miami's star power for something it's not. Don't get lost worrying about LeBron, Dwyane and CB1's ability to put numbers up. You haven't seen D like this before. The West hasn't seen defense like this before. There have been only three teams in the League this season that took their D to this higher level, and all of those teams are in the East. And two of those three teams were eliminated by the Heat.
So when Dirk Nowitzki said last week after the Mavs clinched their berth in the Finals that, "We're going to prepare like we have in the first three series and do our homework and get ready to play," I'm not sure he really knew what he's about to face.
Stopping a team from scoring is one thing; outscoring a team is another. But how do you prepare to stop an intelligent, driven, athletically gifted team from playing all-world, lights-out defense now that it's committed to putting that level of defense on display?
It's Peter Graves impossible.
So for me, this time, when I'm asked who I think will win the series, I'm going to stick to my original philosophy but with a slight twist in the script: Miami's D is better than Dallas' O.
From what I've seen going into the Finals, I won't be wrong twice.
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.