Going into this year's post-season, it seemed like chances were pretty good that the Heat's predicted dominance over the NBA would not start for another year or two, if indeed it started at all. Health, chemistry and mental makeup issues dogged the team all regular season, and a number of high-profile late-game meltdowns—often in marquee matchups against elite teams—made it look like this was a team that was still a long way away from competing with the league's top dogs. Hell, even their five-game, first-round victory over the Sixers, a series that while close in parts left no doubt as to who the better team was, made them look vulnerable due to their tendency to let the Sixers get out to early leads, and their inability to put the games away in the fourth quarter. Surely a veteran team with championship pedigree like the Celtics, or a young, talented, versatile squad like the Bulls would be able to exploit their flaws in a seven-game series.
But unfortunately for the rest of the NBA, this ended up being pretty damn far from the case. The Heat congealed at exactly the right time, partly due to the return of valuable role players like Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller from injury (or general ineffectiveness), and partly due to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade seeming to find their balance playing together, reminding the league that these are two of the three or four best players in the NBA right now and that stopping a team that has both of them turns out to be a mildly tricky proposition. They made the Celtics look old, and they made the Bulls look predictable. Now only one team stands between them and all heavenly glory: The Dallas Mavericks.
As doubted as the Heat were before the playoffs started, at least everyone predicted them to get safely to the second round. When the post-season started, the limping Mavs were forecast by many to drop their first-round series to the younger, trendier Portland Trailblazers. But after eliminating the Blazers in six, the Mavs went on to really shock the NBA world by taking out the two-time-defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in a four-game sweep, an upset that rivaled even the eighth-seeded Grizzlies' takedown of the top-seeded Spurs in terms of playoff intrigue. And thanks to some late-game magic and a couple peerless performances from ex-MVP power forward Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs were also able to silence the Oklahoma City Thunder in the conference finals, to move to their second finals in franchise history, the first since 2006.
Of course, 2006 was also the last time the Heat were in the finals, back when LeBron and Chris Bosh were still biding their time in Cleveland and Toronto, and Shaquille O'Neal and a cast of ringless veterans on their last legs (Alonzo Mourning, Gary Payton, Antoine Walker) provided the support system for Dwyane Wade. Though the Mavs won the first two games in Big D, the Heat went on to take the next four, largely thanks to a couple superhuman efforts from Wade. Many claimed, however, that Miami's victory was largely referee-assisted, as Wade averaged an unthinkable 16 free throw attempts a game, and several late-game calls came under particular scrutiny for being alleged phantom fouls, particularly one towards the end of game five that allowed Miami a series-swinging victory.
So will the Mavericks be able to re-write history five years later, allowing Dirk (whose play in a couple of the finals losses, as well as the next season's first-round upset at the hands of the "We Believe" Warriors, was highly subpar) to exorcise his demons and bringing Dallas and owner Mark Cuban their first-ever Larry O'Brien trophy? Well, conventional logic would certainly seem to point against it. From a talent standpoint, the Heat have the Mavs crushed, with Miami boasting three guys who were considered legitimate franchise players in the '10 off-season, and Dallas not even having a single player besides Dirk on the roster who was an All-Star this year. The Heat had a better regular-season record, ranked higher in offensive and defensive rating for the year, and have home court advantage in this series. It shouldn't even be a contest.
That said, the Mavs do have a couple things to cling to. For one, they were two-for-two against the Heat in the regular season, and in fact have never lost to the Heat in the ten head-to-head regular season games the two have played since Miami won the '06 finals, though obviously those were against some very different teams than the one they'll be playing in the finals. And as hot as the Heat have been this post-season (no pun intended), the Mavs have been just as scorching, matching Miami's 12-3 post-season record, sharing the ball brilliantly and getting big contributions from every player, from super-over-the-hill veterans like Peja Stojakovic and Jason Kidd to younger energy guys like J.J. Barea and Tyson Chandler. And of course, Dirk has been the single most unguardable player this post-season, averaging over 28 points a game on unconscious 64% True Shooting, with no single Heat player likely to be able to contain him.
What will the Mavs need to be able to beat the Heat, then? Well, there's a lot to analyze, from player matchups to team defensive strategies to coaching substitution patterns, but in my opinion, the thing that Dallas is going to need most is plain old luck. The Heat's two big guns—and even Bosh's play in the Chicago series has arguably nudged him back into that headliner discussion–are so ridiculously talented that if they make a high percentage of the tough shots they're forced to take (which they have so far this post-season, as they have with unnerving consistency for most of their careers), there's really no way to beat them whatsoever. The Mavericks need the Basketball Gods to be on their side, and to have significantly more of those fall-aways, powered-through layup drives, and shot-clock-beating three-point heaves rim out than not, because otherwise, the Heat are just gonna win no matter what. Hardly the most sabermetrically astounding analysis, but I really believe it's that simple—force them to take tough shots, and then pray.
Personally, I don't think the Mavs are going to get enough good fortune to have much of a chance in this series. It's possible that some combination of Jason Terry, DeShawn Stevenson and Shawn Marion can hold Wade and LeBron reasonably in check for stretches, and that Dirk can just go nuts for 30 or so a game on the other end. But considering that Dallas has already been playing ridiculously over their heads for the whole playoffs—Terry, Marion, Stojakovic, and Barea have all been playing their best basketball of the season through the first three rounds—and that most of those guys are well past their prime at this point, I think a far more likely scenario is that Dallas's supporting cast starts to slip, and there are one or two games where their shots just don't fall and Dirk is left holding the bag on his own, like he was for most of the last two NBA post-seasons. As great as Dirk is and has been, he can't win a title on his own, not against a Heat team this skilled on both sides of the ball.
However, if you're an NBA fan, I do believe it's something of a moral imperative for you to watch this series and pull as hard as you can for the Dallas Mavericks. The Heat may or may not be evil in the traditional sense—my judgment on this matter is too clouded to speak objectively—but their eventual reign over the NBA, whenever it comes, will be one of arrogance, athlete-as-celebrity hype, and general insufferability. (Though to be fair, it will also be one of some of the best, most lyrical basketball we've ever seen played.) Meanwhile, the Mavericks are a squad with four or five of the best players of the last 15 years to never win a ring shooting for that first taste of championship glory—led by Dirk, one of the league's greatest, most lovable and most singular superstars, who in all likelihood will never get a chance like this at a title again. Oh,
and if all that's not enough, I shouldn't have to remind you that the Heat did beat the Sixers in the first-round this year, with LeBron referring to wrapping up the series in Game Five as "finishing [the team's] breakfast." You shouldn't need to do too much debating about which team to be rooting for in these here finals.
Regardless, I gotta say Heat in five for my series prediction. I pray that I'm wrong, but I think the dawn of the South Beach chapter of basketball history begins this post-season. If not...well, maybe there is some sort of divine NBA power after all.
(Photo: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE)