Six days into the 2012 NBA Playoffs, the Finalists from the 2011 edition are heading in very opposite directions. After a pair of blow-outs on Thursday night, the Miami Heat, last season's runners-up, are now up 3-0 in their series with the New York Knicks, while the defending Champion Dallas Mavericks are down 0-3 to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The 2011 playoff run was completely magical for the Mavericks. They hit every big shot, dug out of big holes time and again, won every close game. For the two months, they were 16-5 overall, never requiring so much as a Game 7 to eliminate their opponents.
The last of those opponents was the Heat, whom Dallas dispatched with three straight victories, the clincher coming in Miami. Given the hype surrounding "The Decision" that brought LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh together in South Beach, anything less than a title was a disappointment for the Heat.
Eleven months later, the Mavericks are on the brink of elimination while the Heat would appear to have a relatively easy path back to the NBA Finals. After two narrow losses in Oklahoma City (which prompted someone to deem the Thunder underwhelming), the Mavericks were completely overwhelmed back at home. The Thunder were faster, more aggressive, better and, let's face it, much, much younger than the Mavericks, and it showed. Dallas' three losses in the series tell two different stories for this team compared to its championship team.
Based on the first two games, this is not a team of destiny as the Mavs were last year. They missed the shots they made last year, lost the games they won. But more importantly, Game 3 on Thursday showed us this is simply not as good a team.
Which really shouldn't come as a surprise. Dallas owner Mark Cuban made a decision in the off-season that we haven't seen from him before -- he chose not to spend money. Two key members of that NBA Championship team, Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea, signed elsewhere as free agents this summer. Dallas could have re-signed them -- Cuban has never been afraid of the luxury tax in the past, and the more punitive tax of the new CBA hasn't even kicked in yet -- but the team didn't.
Instead, Dallas tried to thread the needle of rebuilding while trying to remain competitive at the same time. Jason Terry and Jason Kidd are each in the final year of their contracts. And rather than re-sign Chandler and Barea to long-term deals, the Mavericks brought in players with unguaranteed or only partially guaranteed contracts beyond this season, such as Vince Carter, Delonte West and Lamar Odom. Obviously the Odom experiment was a spectacular failure, but one doubts the Mavericks could have walked the tightrope of defending a title while rebuilding even if Lamar had worked out in Big D.
At any rate, the Mavericks will likely be out of the playoffs soon, the first defending NBA champ to be eliminated in the first round since the 2006-07 Miami Heat, at which point they can get serious about their real plan. By amnestying Brendan Haywood this summer, they can free up the cap space to go after a major free agent. If they can find a taker for the last two seasons of Shawn Marion's deal, Dallas can pursue two stars. Unfortunately, when Dwight Howard waived his early termination option in Orlando, the ultimate dream of signing Howard and Dallas native Deron Williams went by the wayside. Williams would still be a prize signing this summer, but it remains to be seen if the lure of playing with a 34-year-old Dirk Nowitzki and not much else is enough to entice Williams to return to Texas. Might reuniting Steve Nash with Nowitzki be a viable backup plan?
The Heat on the other hand are looking as strong as ever in their series against the Knicks. Granted, it's the Knicks, a team that has searched for an identity all season and is currently missing three starters, two going down since the start of the playoffs. Even so, the Heat have won the three games by a combined 60 points, and that's impressive against any NBA team outside of Charlotte.
The scary part of James, Wade and Bosh joining forces in Miami wasn't just the combination of those talents -- it was the fact that they were in their primes. Wade is now 30, Bosh and James just 27. The supporting cast is still suspect to be sure, but it doesn't have to be particularly good with such spectacular talents at the core. To the extent that those three can grow and evolve together, the Heat can be scary good. When the Heat are focused and motivated on defense, as they were in New York Thursday night, they can seem unbeatable.
When Derrick Rose tore his ACL last Saturday on the first day of the playoffs, it seemed to gift wrap a return trip to the Finals for the Heat. Indiana would not seem to have enough to mount a serious challenge, and unless Boston can find a fountain of youth, there's really no stopping Miami from repeating as Eastern Conference Champs.
At which point we'll find out if their transformation is as complete as that of Dallas.