by Robert Ferringo - 06/07/2006
Wasn't it just a few short weeks ago that Miami was being written off by punks and pundits everywhere? Remember? The inevitable collapse for the team with questionable chemistry allegedly occurred when Gary Payton and Dwyane Wade got in each other's face on the sidelines. Shaquille O'Neal was looking bloated and Pat Riley was looking like a piece of leather left out in the sun too long.
And wasn't Dallas too soft to make the Finals? I can't lie; I had San Antonio coming out of the West. I thought there was no way the Mavs would roll into the Alamo and drop Timmy and the Boys. Avery Johnson was too green, Jason Terry couldn't keep his hands off other people's balls and Mark Cuban was too busy buying his friends.
But here we are. The NBA Finals begin Thursday night when Miami rolls into Dallas in the first title appearance for either franchise. The Mavericks (-5) have been installed as the favorites in Game 1 and are listed as the chalk for the series. Dallas is paying out around -160 while the Heat are posted at +145.
The Heat have been scorching over the last two weeks. They are on an 8-2 rush against the spread and have been playing like the team everyone expected them to be this season. But what fans and analysts forget is that mercenaries don't perform at their peak until their lives are on the line.
Payton, Williams, Walker and Mourning. This group of misfits and rejects were thrown together for the sole purpose of bringing a title to South Beach. Well here they are. If they are to win, they'll need a crop of aging stars to play at their peak. The Heat are ninth this postseason scoring at 97.5 points a night, but have been second defensively while yielding just 92.7.
Expect the Mavericks to come out firing. They boast home-court advantage and have five players averaging double digits. Dirk Nowitski's 28.4 ppg on 50 percent shooting has set the pace. As a team, they're averaging 102.5 points in the playoffs and have a scoring differential of +5.9.
But Dallas has taken the Next Step because they've ratcheted up the defensive intensity. They were the seventh-best defensive team in the league this season and held a high-flying Phoenix club to under 98 ppg over the last five games of the Western Conference Finals.
As money as the Mavericks have been on the court, they haven't been as profitable at the window. They are just 5-4 ATS since the middle of the Spurs series. Also, though the squares keep pouring in that Over money, the Mavericks' are just 3-5 recently against the total.
It's Crazy Time in the NBA. Up is white and down is west. We may not know how we got here, but it should be an entertaining series. Here's a position-by-position breakdown to help make sense of it all:
Point Guards: Jason Terry vs. Gary Payton
I know Jason Williams is Miami's starter, but Payton plays more in the crunch time so he gets the nod here. The Heat's weakness has been perimeter defense and it starts with Payton. The Glove is more like a broken condom these days. Terry has been Dallas' second-leading scorer through the playoffs (17.8 ppg) and has been a Big Money Scorer. I expect him to keep it up and take advantage of Payton's slow feet.
Shooting Guards: Dwayne Wade vs. Josh Howard
Wade put on an absolute clinic against Detroit in the Eastern finals. He's been bit by a touch of the flu and has missed two days of practice. That won't be the only reason he doesn't near the 70 percent shooting clip he was sporting against Detroit. Howard is an athletic and aggressive defender, and he'll make Wade work on the other end.
Small Forwards: Jerry Stackhouse vs. Antwan Walker
This could be the subplot that solves the series. Which one of these wandering wizards will tap into that promise and potential they flashed so long ago? This will be a defining moment in each of their careers, and I don't think it's lost on them. Walker is a third low-post option for Miami, but can get caught up bombing threes. Stackhouse has been a revelation and needs to keep chipping in his 14.0 ppg.
Power Forwards: Dirk Nowitski vs. Udonis Haslem
If Nowitski wins the NBA Title does that earn him a date with David Hasselhoff? Dirk has been brilliant in this postseason - deferring when he needs to and asserting when he must. Haslem is a solid post presence, but there's no way that he can keep up with Nowitski.
Centers: Shaquille O'Neal vs. Erick Dampier
Last September O'Neal made a connection between Dampier and the WNBA. We'll find out a lot about Dampier by how he responds. He averaged about 24 minutes per game during the season, but was limited to just 24 minutes in two games against Phoenix. Shaq will bring everything he has left, but he can be neutralized. Dallas can either push the tempo to wear him down or dust off the Hack-a-Shaq down the stretch. But this close to another title, I would expect some enormous games out of the Big Aristotle.
Bench: Dallas vs. Miami
The Mavs have been getting quality minutes from the entire roster. DeSagana Diop and Keith Van Horn will provide some bodies on the inside, and Devin Harris, Marquis Daniels and Darrell Armstrong will rotate on the perimeter. For Miami, they will need to continue to get strong play from Alonzo Mourning, James Posey and Payton. Posey may end up guarding Nowitski.
Coaches: Avery Johnson vs. Pat Riley
Riley has the rings but Avery has the attitude. Johnson has pushed all the right buttons for Dallas this year. He's been a step ahead of some of the league's best minds, and has been adept at forcing other teams to adapt to his maneuvers. Riles has held the yacht together down in Miami. He's sold the Heat on a defense-first mentality, and has taken advantage of his superior depth and inside game to control the weaker Eastern Conference. He won't have that luxury against the Mavs, but does have the experience that could be critical the further this series drags on.
Questions or comments for Robert? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out his Insider Page here.