The 2015 NBA Finals Feel A Lot Like 2011… But Not For LeBron

Here’s the tricky thing about comparisons: You have to explain the nature of the comparison; you can’t just drop the comparison on the floor and expect everyone to get it without offering additional details.

With that in mind, the 2015 NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers are a lot like the 2011 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks.

Here’s the explanation:

On one level, these are two completely different series. Dallas won that 2011 tussle in come-from-behind fashion. The Mavericks were down 15 points with roughly seven minutes left in Game 2, and caught the Heat with a memorable rally. Cleveland won Game 2 by dominating and then losing a late lead, an inversion of the 2011 pattern, before ultimately recovering in overtime.

In 2011, Dallas lost Game 3 at home. Cleveland, of course, won Tuesday night to take a 2-1 series lead. Cleveland has controlled all of the first three games of this series. Dallas — to borrow a British expression for feeling pressure — was a bit under the cosh in the first three games of the 2011 Finals. So, if you’re seeking comparisons between the two series, they were hardly alike on a number of levels. LeBron, of course, was on the team that failed to win. Now, he’s on the team that’s large and in charge of the Finals, with the Cavs just two wins away from their first NBA title.

How are these series alike, then? Let’s put the meat on the bone and introduce the striking similarities between these two Finals:


While the Heat entered the 2011 Finals with a previously-crowned champion in Dwyane Wade, plus experienced role players such as Udonis Haslem and Mike Bibby, the team was going through its first full journey as a collective whole. LeBron, Wade, and Chris Bosh would make three more NBA Finals together, but this was the first ride. The Finals were new to this version of the Heat, even though D-Wade knew what it felt like to win a title, and even though LeBron had tasted the Finals in 2007 with the Cavs against the Spurs.

Miami certainly possessed high-end talent at three positions, and the Heat surely hoped said talent would be able to compensate for conspicuous matchup problems in the painted area and on the glass. However, much as Timofey Mozgov (Games 1 and 2) and Tristan Thompson (Game 3) have dominated Golden State’s bigs to this point in the series, Tyson Chandler ruled that precious piece of real estate near the tin in the 2011 Finals. Miami never had a solution for him, and that was a central reason the series shifted toward the Mavericks as it moved along. Dallas was more physical, lending credence to a football truism that very much applies to both the 2011 and (now) 2015 series:

Dallas punched Miami in 2011, and Cleveland has repeatedly punched Golden State in 2015.


The other hugely apparent similarity between the two series was how a scrappy white-guy winner — a poor man’s Danny Ainge being a pest in the very best and most complimentary sense of that term — gave crucial leverage to the ultimate winner.

During Game 3 of the Warriors-Cavs series, this tweet appeared, and it was (and is, and will forever remain) perfect:

You remember Jose Juan (J.J.) Barea from the 2011 Finals, don’t you? Barea shot north of 50 percent from the field (while taking a minimum of 11 shots) in Games 5 and 6 to give the Mavericks the complementary scoring they needed. Matthew Dellavedova is making his foremost contribution to Cleveland in the 2015 Finals with his defense on Stephen Curry, but without his offense in Game 3 — chiefly his spectacular off-balance “14-foot-bank-shot-and-one” three-point play — the Cavs probably don’t win.

If you were a Heat fan four years ago or a Warrior fan today, annoyance is the word which best applies to your feelings in response to the exploits of Barea then or Delly now. Yet, if you can get past that annoyance for five seconds, you have to see the connection between the two players, and you also have to marvel at how role players always seem to emerge from the background to define the NBA Finals. Hello, Danny Green and Gary Neal! Hello, Mike Miller in 2012 and Shane Battier in Game 7 of 2013! Hello, Sasha Vujacic in 2010 with the Lakers and Trevor Ariza a year earlier in 2009. Hello, James Posey in 2008. (We think you get the point.)

Barea’s ability to smoke Miami’s backcourt — in the final two games of a series in which the Heat were supposed to be the dramatically better team on the perimeter — offered the same inversion we’re seeing here in 2015, with Cleveland’s guards locking down the Splash Brothers and keeping the court nice and dry, without much of any water spills. That 2011 Miami team rolled up its sleeves and played blue-collar defense against the Chicago Bulls in the East finals, much as Golden State did for most of the 2015 West Finals against the Houston Rockets. However, both the 2011 Heat and 2015 Warriors have entered the Finals without an appreciation for how hard it is to win an NBA title, and how fully one must sacrifice in order to get the trophy.

Kobe Bryant said it plainly after Game 3: Cleveland is playing life-or-death basketball, while the Warriors — perhaps subconsciously — seem to think they’ll get to this stage many more times in the future.

That’s part of the point, too: Miami DID make the Finals many more times after 2011, and the Heat were much more prepared in 2012 and 2013 to do what it took to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy. In 2011, Miami just didn’t internalize or apply the great lesson of professional basketball: You often need to lose at a great height in order to ultimately win it all in subsequent years. Right now, the Warriors fit the 2011 Heat’s position perfectly.

The 2011 Mavericks sold out and competed with the desperation needed to win the title — that desperation was provided not just by Barea, but by Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry, who were there in 2006 when a 2-0 series lead slipped through their fingers. LeBron James might have two rings, but he’s never won one for Cleveland and his native state of Ohio. Having played 142 of 154 minutes in the 2015 Finals while AVERAGING 41-12-8 per game, LeBron is anything but the tentative, even paralyzed, figure he was for Miami in the 2011 Finals, when he hadn’t yet realized how hard one has to play to win an NBA championship.


The 2011 NBA Finals and the 2015 NBA Finals were wildly different in several ways. Yet, if you look at them through a few specific prisms, it’s obvious that they have a lot in common as well.

Steve Kerr was a courtside basketball analyst for many years. Even though he has to worry about lineup combinations and tactics before Game 4, he might want to offer the 2011 Finals as an illustrative example to his team, which doesn’t yet realize — in its youthful inexperience — how much one has to spill one’s guts (to the point of cramping, which Delly and LeBron both did late in Game 3) in order to become NBA champions.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |