Forget the 2006 Finals.
It’s an easy over-arching storyline to focus on, especially given the fact that it marks both Dallas and Miami’s most recent visit to the NBA’s final showdown and the follow-up to what had been a series marred by referee controversies and a blown 2-0 Mavericks’ lead. But that was five years ago, involving a different Heat squad, different Mavs’ squad and – hopefully – a different calibre of ref competence.
For Miami, the duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade has been replaced by LeBron James and an older, wiser Wade. Dallas returns just Dirk Nowizki and Jason Terry from the ’06 team (Wade and Udonis Haslem are the lone Heat holdovers) and now boasts greater depth and further veteran presence.
However, here’s the rub: while it may not be about 2006, this year’s series still has everything to do with the past.
James is driven by his close-call failures in Cleveland, as well as nearly 11 months worth of vitriol directed his way from the betrayal of his hometown team. On the other side of the ball, Nowitzki and Kidd have each come within spitting distance of the Larry O’Brien trophy and don’t know when – if ever – that next opportunity may come. As I pointed out this past weekend, these are clubs entering the Finals with a hunger for championship glory that borders on desperation.
Nowitzki has turned that desperation into a playoff performance for the ages. His 48-point effort in Game 1 of the Mavs-Thunder Western Conference Finals (on 12-15 shooting and a 24-24 mark from the charity stripe) was outdone only by his Game 4 showing in which he tallied 40 points, 12 of which came in the final 4:34 of his team’s stunning comeback. A group of OKC defenders that included Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka could not slow the 6’10” German, so now the job falls primarily to the Heat’s Chris Bosh, with Haslem stepping in on occasion.
For James, it has been a largely therapeutic trek through the postseason thus far. He and his Heat teammates have toppled Philadelphia, whose fans were among the league’s most vocal against the King, then dispatched Boston, the team against whom he came unhinged during last year’s postseason, then put away Chicago, who had been a rumoured free agent pursuer of James and Wade and were led by league MVP Derrick Rose. But the only true satisfaction will come in a trophy-raising that remains four wins away.
Interestingly, long-time LeBron rival DeShawn Stevenson (well, I suppose no moreso than the Globetrotters and Generals are rivals) will get a share of the defensive assignment, along with Terry, Shawn Marion and possibly Corey Brewer.
That being said, it’s going to be the other guys who decide this one. The Mavs will need to offer up some kind of consistent offensive support for their franchise leader. Nowitzki’s 28.4 points per game are over 11 higher than his next closest teammate’s scoring average (Terry, 17.3), with Marion and Peja Stojakovic being among the most underwhelming players offensively.
Conversely, Miami also has issues in scoring depth which have been diminished in light of some explosive scoring performances from the Big Three (yes, even Bosh). Now, it isn’t Bosh but Wade – and his wonky shoulder – that is under the microscope. He’ll need to be better than his Game 5 output (21 points on 6-13 shooting, including one field goal and six turnovers in the first half) in the Eastern Finals, a showing that raised serious questions about his health. Having five days between series will help, but that’s an awful lot of pressure to place upon a guy whose spent so much of his NBA life banged up.
Nowitzki and James are the headline names here, but basketball is a team game and the NBA title will come down to just that – who is the better team.
Prediction: Heat in six