Dallas is in the record books as one of only four NBA franchises in history to compile at least 50 wins in 10 consecutive regular seasons. The Los Angeles Lakers did it 12 straight years, picking up five titles in the process. The Boston Celtics hit the mark in 10 successive campaigns, claiming nine championships along the way. And the San Antonio Spurs began its run in 1999-2000 with the streak still intact, bagging four crowns during the surge.
Although the Mavericks are in elite company, there’s something not quite right in their claim to fame. They’re the only team among the four never to sit on the NBA throne.
In 2006, Dallas barged into the NBA Finals and with the homecourt advantage, it looked like the Mavs would bag their first-ever title at Miami’s expense. The Mavs raced to a 2-0 series lead and enjoyed a double-digit edge going into the fourth period of Game 3 only to collapse in a horrendous tailspin. Dallas lost the last four encounters in the series to hand the title to the Heat.
This season, Dallas and Miami are back in the Last Dance for a rematch. Only two players remain on each squad from the 2006 edition – Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry for Dallas and Dwayne Wade and Udonis Haslem for Miami. Both teams have retooled, regrouped and reemerged to become the new NBA leaders ending the glory eras of the Celtics and Lakers.
For Dallas, the time has come for sweet redemption. Last season, the Mavs were seeded second in the Western Conference but were unceremoniously dismissed by San Antonio in the first round. Dallas was also bounced in the first round by New Orleans in 2007-08 and Golden State in 2006-07. The loss to the eighth-seeded Warriors was particularly painful as the Mavs ended the regular season as the No. 1 team overall with 67 wins.
“I’d rather have a ring than have one 50-win season,” said Nowitzki. “I’d rather trade that all but unfortunately, I can’t.” More than anyone on the Mavs roster, Nowitzki has a lot to prove or disprove. He was labeled a choker in the 2006 Finals. Now, he has a chance to silence his critics once and for all.
For Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, it’s a case of do or die. He’s got seven players on his roster with at least 10 years of NBA experience and they’re not getting any younger. Jason Kidd, 38, is no spring chicken. Nowtizki turns 33 and Peja Stojakovic 34 in a few weeks. Shawn Marion, 33, Jason Terry, 33, DeShawn Stevenson, 30, and Brendan Haywood, 32, are hungry for recognition but their legs aren’t as sturdy as the young thoroughbreds from Miami. Nowitzki has been a Mav for 12 years and he’s signed on for another four even as his salary is $2 million less this season than the previous. Loyalty means a lot to Nowitzki. “From Day 1, we knew me and Cubes (owner Mark Cuban) would have to work at this together if we want to win,” said the 7-foot German.
Dallas ended the regular season at 57-25, yielding the homecourt edge in the Finals to Miami whose record was 58-24. The Mavs beat the Heat twice during the regular season, 106-95 at home and 98-96 on the road but their lineups have since been tweaked.
It will be offense versus defense in the Finals. Dallas averaged 101.8 points in its 12 playoff wins and 91.3 in the three setbacks. The Mavs have scored at least 100 points in seven playoff outings so far compared to only three for Miami. The Heat held opponents to an average of only 86.5 in its 12 playoff wins and in the three Miami losses, the team gave up 95.3, clearly indicating that defense is the key to coach Erik Spoelstra’s success. In Miami’s four wins over Chicago, the Bulls were limited to an average of 83.2 points despite the presence of high-scoring Derrick Rose and Luol Deng.
While Miami’s version of the Magi (LeBron James, Wade, Chris Bosh) is obviously the focal point of the Heat attack, Spoelstra knows his role players must contribute significant minutes to seal the deal. Haslem was reactivated from sick bay in time for the stretch run in the playoffs and is expected to play a vital role in the Finals. Mike Miller and James Jones will be headaches for Carlisle if they sparkle off the bench.
Miami is coming off back-to-back losses in the first round of the playoffs with Spoelstra at the helm and it seems the Fil-Am coach has matured a lot because of those heartbreakers. He’s not afraid to make bold decisions – like starting Joel Anthony instead of Zydrunas Ilgauskas midway the Eastern Conference semifinals. He’s survived getting bumped by James and the midseason speculation that Pat Riley would take over with the Heat struggling.
Wade has always stood by Spoelstra’s side through thick and thin. Now, James has declared allegiance. “When the world is crashing down on us,” said James, quoted by Kevin Arnovitz in ESPN – The Magazine, “he’s always like, ‘We’re gonna get through it, it starts with me and we’re all going to get through it …let’s just stay focused and continue to grind.’ Then things would get better. You respect that. When your general doesn’t panic, no matter what the situation is, then the rest of the soldiers don’t panic either.”
Spoelstra’s challenge is how to contain Nowitzki. Will he do it with Bosh or Haslem? Or will he just let Nowitzki get his points and clamp down on Terry, Kidd, Marion and the rest? How will Nowitzki perform under pressure when the game is on the line and the ball is in his hands? Tyson Chandler and Haywood are solid in the middle but they’ll be pushed to the limit by Miami’s penetrators and bigs. Stevenson is a hard-nosed defender – who will he take on: Wade or James? Marion won’t be able to hold down James – can anyone?
This will be settled in six games with Miami coming out on top.