Before the playoffs started I had (not in writing, sadly) LA-OKC and Chicago-Miami as my final four with the younger Bulls overcoming the Thunder for a finals victory.
Dallas surprised me, like they did most of you, but I at least convinced myself to pick them over Portland because I have a lot of respect for Tyson Chandler. With him and Haywood they have a close approximation of the squad that made it to the Finals in 2006 behind Stackhouse-Terry-Nowitzki jump shooting and the interior defense of Diop and Dampier.
That said, I don't think this is a Finals team in 2011 and I believe their win over LA was more circumstantial than it was an indicator of their greatness.
The Lakers have been bruising their way to the Finals the last 3 years by making scoring in the paint nearly impossible against their forrest of 7 foot players, scoring efficiently with those same trees, and of course Kobe having some huge games along the road.
Where the Lakers have been weak and constantly regressing is in their perimeter defense where Kobe and Artest are losing steps and Fisher has always been less than stellar. This is a defense poorly suited to handling ball movement and contesting multiple shooters on the perimeter. Tightening up the paint against the Mavs was somewhat akin to building a turreted-wall to stop an air strike.
That said, the limits of air power are well-documented, and the remaining opponents on the Mavs' path to a championship are faster on the perimeter than the Lakers, as well as being a little more motivated than the weary champions. The Thunder can contest jumpers by Kidd, Terry, and Nowitzki with far more gusto than did the Laker backcourt. Defending Nowitzki is a task that no player has ever been particularly adept at managing but Dirk scoring 30 a night is not enough for the Mavs to win a 7-game series as witnessed in every other playoff run by Dallas in the Cuban era.
Chicago and Miami are no different in being well-stocked with athletic wings who can stay in front of Dallas' aging guards and get a hand the face of shooters, even coming as help. Additionally, all these teams have penetrating guards who will feast while being guarded by Kidd, Terry, Stevenson, etc. Kobe was no longer able to do enough to turn his mismatch against Kidd and co. into a sieve that would open up into a deluge of Laker scoring options and really the Lakers have traditionally opened up their offense inside-out anyways.
Some combination of Ibaka, Durant and Collison ought to bother Dirk while the other Thunder chase the Mavericks off the perimeter and inside into the waiting arms of Perkins and Ibaka. Dallas plays strong team defense but their best individual defender, Chandler, will be wasted guarding the likes of Perkins and Ibaka while Durant and Westbrook work against Kidd? and Marion?. Anyways, this Maverick defense is not more capable of handling Westbrook-Durant than was the excellent Memphis squad that was just vanquished.
I'm doing a 180 on the Bulls' chances of taking on the Heat because of the resurgence of Carlos Boozer, revived from his slumber by an offering of Joel Anthony/Bosh/Zydrunas defense. The strength of the Bulls is in their abundance of excellent options and strong team defense which is being pitted against a team built around 3 good players surrounded by scraps from a junkyard.
Wade and James are better than anyone on the Bulls roster and Bosh is the rough equivalent of Joakim Noah in total contribution to a team. Rose, Gibson, Korver, Boozer, Deng, Brewer, and maybe even Watson are all better than the options on the Heat roster not named Bosh, Wade, or James. Which strength will tip the scales?
In terms of what actually will happen on the court, the nature of the Bulls' depth will allow them to defend Wade and James' penetration anchored by Noah inside (you see his block on James?) and take away what those 2 superhumans do best. They were content to allow Bosh to do his thing in game 1 knowing that a big game from Bosh is not an ingredient to Heat victory unless it's paired with James or Wade success. In comparison, when Wade and James are penetrating and taking over it opens up the offense for even a stiff like Illgauskas to become dangerous.
On the other side, Wade and James can't defend Rose, Deng and Boozer on their own. The Bulls have too many scoring options and good offensive players at positions that Wade and James wouldn't naturally defend. Most importantly, 4 of these 7 games are going to take place in Chicago where their deep bench and supporting cast will be inspired with confidence and energy to combine their efforts against the Big 3 of Miami.
Maybe the home team doesn't win every game but I'm betting on Chicago winning game 7 to finish out the series. Then we'll see an offseason where the Heat pick up a decent player or two and become too much for anyone to handle for the next 5 years.
I would lean towards Chicago in a series with the Thunder but I won't bother to think it through until it becomes a more certain outcome.
In the big scheme of NBA titles the window of opportunity is gone for the current Celtic, Spurs, and Lakers squads. Garnett and Duncan cannot sustain the output that Boston and San Antonio success has been built upon. Against the Heat Garnett managed one throwback game, a 28-18 explosion, that led to Celtic victory. Against the Grizzlies Duncan couldn't do that even once.
The Lakers can actually be right back in the title hunt with a few roster tweaks that makes them younger and faster on the perimeter. Shannon Brown is NOT the answer but replacing Fisher and finding another SF/SG who can defend and shoot 3's while the new coach convinces Kobe he must defer more inside to Bynum and Gasol would keep the Lakers in strong position to keep appearing in the finals. Or landing Dwight Howard, that wouldn't hurt either although LA is already well above average at the 4 and 5.
Boston is in the 2nd best position of these 3 powers because Pierce, Garnett, and Allen are still strong supporting players and their best player, Rondo, is still young. Should they make some small roster tweaks and begin to find a replacement and assistant for Garnett who isn't older than 30 and totally washed up they could still challenge in the east. Most likely it's all over for them since Pierce and Garnett are likely to fall of a cliff soon in terms of their production. They don't have other options but to hope in their sustained quality though.
San Antonio is in a terrible spot. They did a great job of surrounding their stars with supporting players and it wasn't enough. Duncan-Parker-Ginobili is no longer a good enough team to win an NBA title. Sad day for those of us who loved watching the Big Fundamental quietly school the rest of the league and appreciated Ginobili's athletic and diverse game.
Great day for those of us who think Tony Parker is an overrated buffoon whose Finals MVP should be presented at Duncan's feet in a ceremony in which he completes a walk of shame the length of the river to reach Duncan while being chased by Eva Longoria wielding a whip fashioned from Duncan's shoe strings, Spurs championship banners, and Brent Barry's teeth.
I really don't know what the next move is for San Antonio except to jettison Parker and hope for a collapse of a season that enables them to draft in the lottery and start over with a new superstar without losing their ready-made supporting cast. Like a repeat of what happened with Duncan, essentially. If they pull that crap off again the rest of the league should just give up.