By Nyasha Chiketsani
Picture this – you’re having a basketball discussion with a group of friends and someone brings up the 2011 NBA Finals. What’s the first thing you’re likely to think about, Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks’ incredible performance or LeBron James’ ‘complete meltdown’? Probably the latter. If so, I don’t blame you because that’s the narrative that the media has pushed for so many years. Today, however, I’m writing this to challenge the public perception of the 2011 NBA Finals and uncover the reality of what actually happened.
Let’s start by looking at the beginning of the 2010/2011 NBA season. The year is 2010 and the Miami Heat, fresh off of signing LeBron James and Chris Bosh in free agency in addition to already having superstar guard Dwyane Wade are clear title favourites. The hype surrounding “The Heatles” is unreal and LeBron’s famous claim that they would win “not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” championships only amplified the hysteria. The expectations for this Heat team were through the roof, and justifiably so, right? They had 3 of the league’s top 15 players who were still in their prime; a two-time MVP in LeBron James, a Finals’ MVP in Dwyane Wade and a perennial All-Star in Chris Bosh. This team was exciting, athletic and most of all immensely talented. On paper, they were invincible.
Then on the other hand you had the Dallas Mavericks. If the Miami Heat were exciting , athletic and immensely talented then the Dallas Mavericks were boring, unathletic and not so talented, or at least not as talented as the Heat, on paper that is. Apart from Dirk Nowitzki the Mavericks lacked any real star power but what they did have was a group of tough veterans who knew their roles and played them well and that’s crucial for any NBA team. Nonetheless, nobody really expected the Mavs to make the Finals, let alone win in the Finals.
To put things into better context, they were in the same conference as the defending back-to-back champion LA Lakers, the San Antonio Spurs who were 2007 NBA Champions and a consistent 50 to 60 win team and the up-and-coming Oklahoma City Thunder led by Scoring champion Kevin Durant. Judging by the amount of competition in the Western Conference that year no one really expected the Mavs to go far that season, but enough with the expectations – let’s delve into what actually happened that season.
For Miami, despite an opening night loss to defending Eastern Conference Champions the Boston Celtics they managed to cruise to a 58-24 record – decent, but not anything too impressive considering the talent on their roster. Throughout the regular season they managed to piece together a couple of impressive win streaks and showed glimpses of being the dominant force they were expected to be from the onset. However, they did have their fair share of glaring weaknesses. The first being that there was no clear leader on the roster. Sure, LeBron was the best player on the team but was he really the leader in his first season there? As talented as LeBron was this was still D-Wade’s team and rightfully so. Wade had carried the Heat to a championship back in 2006, been a Finals’ MVP, led the league in scoring 2 seasons prior, been a 6 time All Star and even had Miami-Dade County renamed to “Miami-Wade County” in his honour. To put it lightly, D-Wade was the Miami Heat. So when LeBron came around, it wasn’t so easy to let go of that and that came with its own problems. For the team to be successful one of them had to take a backseat and defer to the other but that just didn’t happen in the first season.
Another problem the Heat had was depth. Outside of the Big 3 the 2010/11 Miami Heat didn’t have many options. Apart from James, Bosh and Wade their leading scorers were Mike Bibby and Udonis Haslem who averaged 7.3 and 8 points respectively and played a combined total of 35 games that season. Heading into the Playoffs there were a lot of questions to be answered about this Heat team. Did they really what it took to win a championship? Would they even make it to the Finals considering that they finished 2nd in the East and lost all 3 of their regular season encounters with the Bulls and 3 of their 4 encounters with the Celtics? Well, come time for the Playoffs Miami emphatically answered these questions and made quick work of both the Celtics and the Bulls en route to the Finals.
Dallas on the other hand weren’t in the spotlight as much as the more appealing Miami Heat and that probably explains why everyone seems to forget that they won 57 regular season games, one less game than the Heat and went on a 12 game winning streak beating the Thunder, Spurs and Heat all in the space of 4 days. Not to mention that they also won both regular season encounters with the Heat. Another thing that seems to go unnoticed when looking at the 2011 Mavs is the fact that they swept the back-to-back defending champion LA Lakers, holding them to less than 100 points in all 4 of their meetings and eliminated the 55-win Thunder in just 5 games in the Conference Finals. Contrary to popular belief, this Dallas team was no pushover that LeBron and the Heat were supposed to demolish, they were legitimate title contenders and they’d shown it throughout the regular season and the Playoffs. So what happened when the unstoppable force met the immovable object in the Finals?
Well, the unstoppable force didn’t look so unstoppable in the Finals primarily due to LeBron’s underperformance. If you’re an avid basketball fan I’m sure you know very well about LeBron’s shortcomings in the 2011 Finals but just in case you forgot let me remind you. LeBron averaged 17 points in the Finals. Seventeen.
To put things into context, that’s ten points less than his career average and 8 points less than his average for the 2010/11 season. He reached his lowest point in Game 4 when he only took 11 shots and scored eight points in a game they only lost by 3 points. To put it plainly LeBron was bad in the Finals. As a result he faced heavy criticism from fans and the media alike and rightfully so. But whenever someone brings up the 2011 NBA Finals it seems as if the only thing people remember is LeBron’s failure and completely ignore Dallas’ excellence.
People seem to forget Dallas’ outstanding defensive scheme that took away the strongest part of LeBron’s game and forced him to become a jump shooter. People seem to forget that this was the same Dallas team that beat Miami both times in the regular season and swept the Lakers. And most importantly people seem to forget that this Mavs team was led by former MVP and 10-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki who had a point to prove after his own failures in the 2006 Finals.
Now don’t get me wrong, LeBron definitely should’ve done better to help his team in the Finals but the Mavs deserve their credit too because they were better than a lot of people realise and deserved their NBA championship. So next time you and your friends have a discussion about the 2011 NBA Finals please make sure you give the Mavs their credit too.