Posted: Monday June 5, 2006 1:08PM; Updated: Monday June 5, 2006 3:12PM
Nowitzki won't make as big a dent as Shaq will on defense, but he'll at least try (as two game-saving blocks against Phoenix on Saturday night will attest to), and his rotations are getting better. The rest of his game is about picture-perfect. He's still the same awkward guy who can take a defensive rebound, dribble 60 feet and nail a three-pointer on the run -- but these days he'll also work the shot clock down, score in the post, nail a cutter with a pass or tip in an offensive rebound.
Nowitzki's "post" game at the top of the key, one that sees him roll over shorter or taller defenders en route to a fadeaway jumper, resembles Bob McAdoo's play from the late '70s -- minus the Doo's seeming insouciance toward the rest of his teammates. The Dallas star is well aware of his station, what his fellow Mavericks expect from him and where exactly to go on the court when his team needs a desperate bucket. He'll dive over the back of the small forward trying to box him out on the offensive glass, drive right past the bigger lug trying to check him 20 feet from the hoop or pull up on a dime for a jumper in the face of the speedster who can run rings around him. He's figured it out, and now it's up to the rest of the Mavericks to take advantage.
Chumps: Antoine Walker, Josh Howard
Howard has always played quite well against Miami. In two wins against the Heat this season he averaged 19.5 points, making more than half his shots while also adding seven rebounds in 34 minutes a game. What he needs to do in the Finals, however, goes a far sight beyond keeping that production up. He needs to turn into a consistent all-around terror, even better than the one that played so strongly against the Heat during the regular season, because this Miami team is far better than the one Dallas played in November and February.
Though he hasn't approached Dennis Rodman-levels, Howard always seems to play his best when he dominates the offensive boards. He's averaged nearly two a game so far during the playoffs, following his own shot or camping out in the lane when the rebounding advantage is obvious. In the Finals, Howard won't be able to secure the same offensive rebounds and won't have as easy a time scoring inside with O'Neal in the picture. Against a Shaq-less Heat in December, with a healthy Alonzo Mourning (six blocks) patrolling the paint, Howard went for 25 and 11 rebounds (three offensive) over 41 minutes in a Mavs road win. In Dallas in February, Howard put together a 14-point, three-rebound effort in 27 minutes. All three of his rebounds were on the offensive glass, which raises the question: Is Howard more willing to attack the lane (with and without the ball) if Shaq isn't in there? If Howard treats O'Neal like another lug who can't guard him, the Mavs will thrive. If not, well....
Walker doesn't have to build upon his regular-season totals; rather, he needs to forget his last two outings against the Mavericks completely. In 41 total minutes against the Mavs, Walker shot 3 of 17, scoring seven points with five rebounds, one assist and two turnovers. In three games against the Mavericks in '04-05, Walker had no problems putting the ball in the hoop, but that was with teams (Atlanta, Boston) that made him the focal point of the offense. His numbers this season are just abysmal across the board, speaking to Walker's unwillingness to contribute in other areas while he mopes through a bad shooting night as the third or fourth option.
Even forgetting his 18 percent shooting against the Mavs, one assist in 41 minutes is criminal for someone with Walker's supposed passing touch, and five rebounds in 41 minutes is pointedly putrid for a forward of any size.
If Walker serves as a waste of time on the court, the type of guy whose minutes are better left to be taken up by Wayne Simien or Shandon Anderson, then the Heat have no chance. If Walker at least acts interested in hitting the boards or finding the open man when his shots are spinning out, then we could have a series on our hands. Doing the little things has never come easy for Walker, though he's improved quite a bit over the last few months. His all-around play, though, will probably gauge whether or not the Heat pull a game out in Dallas.
The trick for Dallas is to keep Wade from scoring his 35 points on 67 percent shooting (49 percent is good enough) and force him into big-turnover nights. Chicago had some success on Wade, keeping him in check for three quarters while trying to stay competitive, only to watch as Wade finally shook loose for some clutch shots in the fourth while situated in desperate isolation sets. Because Dallas is so much better than the Bulls, it should run away with the game by the fourth if Wade is made to look human. Both Jason Terry and Devin Harris have the quickness, frames and sturdy bases needed to stay in front of Wade without reaching or reacting to his feints or fakes. But it's Marquis Daniels who needs to see some burn for Dallas. When Wade shot 7 of 19 against Dallas in December, it was Daniels who started and spent most of his 40 minutes attached to the All-Star guard.
A lot has been made of the turn for the better Miami took following its 36-point loss to the Mavericks in February, but I'm not ready to dismiss that game just yet. The Heat walked through a listless loss to Dallas on the TNT airwaves, though they couldn't have been too tired -- Miami had had two days off before the game (following a home win over the Celtics) and two days off following. Yes, Miami won 10 straight after that embarrassment, but they also ended the season on a middling 12-10 clip, sleepwalking again. And yet the Heat stunk horribly against New Jersey and Detroit in the regular season (ending with a combined 2-6 record against the two) but destroyed both teams in the playoffs, finishing with an 8-3 combined record in the two series.
Will that same sort of pretzel logic carry over against a Mavs team that handily swept the Heat during the regular season? Nobody can tell, and if anyone is pretending to be able to tell exactly how the Heat will perform, then you need to summarily dismiss them. This is a strange group, one that is still figuring things out and still growing, game to game. The Heat squad that dispatched the Nets and Pistons looked nothing like the team that won 52 games this season, but you never know when bad habits will sneak back in. We hope they won't, but we're also mindful of the fact that the Mavericks have also improved by leaps and bounds since the first week of February.