by Trevor Whenham - 06/07/2006
It seems like an eternity since the NBA playoffs started. They looked like they wouldn't have enough drama to keep an insomniac awake, yet somehow they have turned into among the best we've ever seen in recent years. It's not over yet, either. The Heat/Mavericks final may not have been predicted by almost anyone, but it's as intriguing as it gets.
At first glance, the best player on the court is Shaquille O'Neal. His career is unquestionably great, and he's still the best center in the league, but his age and his failing body have relegated him to the level of super-freaky from the heights of super-incredibly-freaky. Shaq's a match-up nightmare for Dallas, but this series isn't about him. He's not even the best player on his team.
Two weeks from now, give or take, we are going to have a new sheriff in the NBA. Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade are unquestionably good, and they are already among the handful of best players in the league, but both have found new game this postseason. You can look at whatever angle you want for this series, but it comes down to this - one of those two players is going to have a better series, and his team is going to win the NBA championship. That player will reign over the NBA. It will be a short reign, of course, because LeBron showed he's about ready to grab that crown and sit on the throne for a decade or so, but for now either Dirk or Dwyane will be king. There hasn't been much to choose between the two players so far. Dirk is the leading scorer in the playoffs, but right behind him is Wade. So, who should be fitted for the crown?
Dirk Nowitzki - Before this year, Nowitzki had been labeled as a regular season guy who couldn't step it up in the playoffs. Ironically, the Mavs took some heat a couple of years ago when they balked at trading him for Shaq. The argument was that Shaq would bring a title or two to Dallas, but now he stands in the way of Dirk and that title for Dallas.
Nowitzki's numbers were close this year to what they were last year, but his game is different, and that difference has been especially obvious in the playoffs. An example of his growth is his last play of regulation in game 7 against San Antonio. His team was down by three. The old Dirk, when given the ball, would have jacked a shot up from outside, but the new Dirk charged hard, got fouled, got the basket and hit the free throw. That's a play he never would have made in that situation in the past. The extra dimension makes him even more dangerous, because opponents can't be sure what he'll do. That play is a sign of a newly discovered killer instinct, too. The same killer instinct that saw him put down 50 in the decisive game against Phoenix.
The task of stopping Nowitzki will fall primarily onto Udonis Haslem. Haslem shut down Rasheed Wallace in the Pistons series, but Wallace is no Nowitzki. Haslem's big and strong and he'll bring a toughness and physical game that Dirk hasn't had to face so far in the playoffs. Nowitzki has faced great defense, though, and he managed to overcome Bruce Bowen and the Spurs. Haslem had better learn from that performance, because he has to slow down Nowitzki to bring the title to Miami.
Nowitzki has carried his team to where they are because he has found a new aggressiveness. If he stays aggressive and keeps driving when he could shoot, he is favored to carry the Mavs the rest of the way. That leaves us with one question - are we ready for a European sheriff?
Dwyane Wade - Wade has been in the NBA four fewer seasons than Nowitzki, but he already has the gaudy numbers to match. Where Dirk's just a presence, Dwyane is an athletic mega-freak. If you saw his one-on-five drive and off-balance dish shot basket against Detroit, you'll have no problem with my statement that Wade can do things that almost no one else can even dream of.
Before Wade worries about anyone on the Mavs, he has to worry about getting healthy. He was hit hard by a flu in game six against Detroit, which required IV before the game and at halftime to fight off dehydration. He didn't have the big game with a flu that Michael Jordan famously had, but his team didn't need it. Since then, he's missed two practices with a sinus infection that won't go away. If he's not at full strength by the time the series starts, it would be a big blow for the Heat.
Miami doesn't have the depth that Dallas has, but Wade and Shaq create an incredibly difficult coverage situation. In an ideal situation, Wade and Shaq are both players you would double team. Doing that would leave a whole lot of players open, however. It means that you often have to rely on one player to slow Wade down. Many players will fill that role for Dallas. Josh Howard is probably the best choice, with his solid defense, and his offensive skill on the other end that you have to keep in mind. Howard had an incredible game 6 against Phoenix. He slowed Shawn Marion down in the first half, and then completely stopped MVP Steve Nash in the second half. It was probably his best defensive showing, and he'll need to repeat it or Wade could be trouble. He'll be joined in the stopping task by Adrian Griffin, who may be the starter, Marquis Daniels and even Jerry Stackhouse. The one thing the Mavs can't afford to do is try to cover Wade with a pure guard - Devin Harris or Jason Terry. It's very doubtful either can handle the assignment.
Miami wins because of the mismatches that are inevitably created. Those mismatches are inevitable if Wade is on his game. If he outslugs Dirk, then Wade will be one ring ahead of LeBron and he'll be the best young player we have. For now.