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Moving into position

Motivation, strategies key to decoding 2006 Finals

Posted: Monday June 5, 2006 1:08PM; Updated: Monday June 5, 2006 3:12PM
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A sprightly Shaquille O'Neal has fueled Miami's run to the Finals and will be a difficult defensive challenge.
A sprightly Shaquille O'Neal has fueled Miami's run to the Finals and will be a difficult defensive challenge.
Bob Rosato/SI
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Eight months after it all started, we get the Dallas Mavericks and the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. Two worthy opponents, easily playing the best basketball both conferences have to offer. (Just so you won't skip ahead, I like Dallas in six.) Both teams also have little to no history against each other outside of the trivia I'm about to relay.

• Heat coach Pat Riley, when he was coach of the Lakers, once dismissed a Mavs squad in the 1988 Western Conference finals.

• Mavs assistant Del Harris once coached Shaquille O'Neal when both were in Los Angeles.

• In the summer of 2004 the Mavericks decided against trading Dirk Nowitzki to the Lakers for O'Neal's services, so the Lakers then dealt the Big Aristotle to the Heat. Riley wouldn't part with Dwyane Wade in his deal but still had enough to secure the Diesel Daddy.

Sean Combs designed Dallas' alternate uniforms but won't be seen in Big D, though Diddy has no problems stopping in for Heat games throughout the year. 

That's about all I could dig up for trivia, but not nearly all I could dig up about this series. So before they tip things off Thursday night, here's a look at who we expect to be the Finals' champs and chumps.

Champs: Dirk Nowitzki, Shaquille O'Neal

Through whatever stylistic issues Riley and Avery Johnson may toy with during this series, through however many defenders each coach sends their way, Dirk and Shaq will show up, and show up big.

O'Neal is playing some fantastic basketball, and though his statistics hardly resemble the numbers he produced during the Lakers' 2000-02 heyday, his activity level and interest in playing defense have perked up considerably during this postseason. Shaq learned quite a bit in Miami's wins over Chicago and New Jersey. He realized he couldn't stay situated near the rim on defense and wait for others to force the offense into a miss, that he at least had to pretend to want to cover anyone who appeared intent on approaching the paint. A little vague, we know, but his body language (whether or not he actually chased out penetrating guards) made all the difference.

Against the Pistons, Shaq spent the bulk of his 34.5 minutes per game chasing all sorts of cutters out of the lane while making drivers like Chauncey Billups think twice before heading to the rim. This renewed defensive intensity is great news for Heat fans, who already must be pleased with the 20-point, 9.6-rebound averages O'Neal is coming through with on the other end. On the flip side, although Shaq is shooting 61 percent from the field, he's only connecting on 40 percent from the line. And maybe Don Nelson isn't around anymore, but don't be surprised to see Johnson order a hack or 10 of Shaq during the Finals.