In honor of the NBA's best-of-seven playoff format, we'll endeavor to answer seven questions about the matchups, history and abilities of the Dallas Mavericks and the Miami Heat entering the NBA Finals
1. How good was the Heat during the regular season -- really?
One of the hottest topics of discussion is how indicative Miami's 52-30 regular-season record, which is relatively poor for a Finals team, is of their actual quality. In analyzing their record, I decided to ignore the stretch during which Shaquille O'Neal missed 18 games after spraining his ankle in the Heat's second game of the season. The other injuries suffered by O'Neal, Dwyane Wade and Alonzo Mourning, while they hurt Miami's record, weren't abnormally severe compared with other teams (including Dallas, which had several contributors miss extended stretches).
Miami went 9-9 without O'Neal; the rest of the season the Heat was 43-21, which projects to 55 wins over a full season. That's still shy of Dallas' 60 wins. Point differential helps the Heat measure up a bit better but doesn't bridge the gap with their Finals opponent. The Heat outscored opponents by +4.7 points per game in the 64 games outside of O'Neal's sprained ankle. Given that one point of differential usually equals about 2.7 wins, Miami's expected record would be 54-28. That's closer to Dallas' expected 57-25 mark, but still not quite as good.
2. Does the statistical evidence support the notion that the Heat came together during the postseason?
Yes. Miami boasted an impressive point differential of +4.8 points per game in going 12-5 during the Eastern Conference playoffs. By comparison, last year's Eastern Conference champs, Detroit, went 12-6 with an identical +4.8 point differential.
However, when you look at the numbers, Dallas was even better. With the same 12-5 record, the Mavericks had a +5.9 differential despite facing a more challenging schedule. Further emphasizing the point is how each team performed in the playoffs versus how a typical team was expected to play (weighted for the length of each series). Here's how they compare through the perspective of offensive and defensive ratings per 100 possessions:
Offensive Rating -- 2006 Playoffs
Defensive Rating -- 2006 Playoffs
Net Rating -- 2006 Playoffs
To help clarify, based on the regular-season performance of Memphis, San Antonio and Phoenix and the number of possessions in each series, an average team would have posted an offensive rating of 103.7 points per 100 possessions against the Mavericks' playoff opponents. Instead, Dallas has been 11.8 points per 100 possessions better.
The Mavericks faced considerably more difficult opposition -- all three teams they faced were better in the regular season than either Chicago or New Jersey -- and dispatched them with relative ease. Dallas' offense was particularly phenomenal in the first two rounds. The Mavericks took on the league's two best defenses on a per-possession basis, Memphis and San Antonio, and shredded them. (In fact, Dallas scored at a better rate in each of the first two rounds than against the porous Suns.)
Miami's offense was also consistently strong, but the Heat only turned it on defensively in the Eastern Conference finals.