NBA Finals Roundtable: Analyzing top storylines of Mavs vs. Heat
Mavericks, Heat meet in the NBA Finals for a rematch of their 2006 meeting
Keys to this series will be Dallas' three-point shooting, defense on Miami's wings
LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki both need a title, but this may be Dirk's last shot
The Mavericks and Heat return to the Finals for a rematch of 2006 but under much different circumstances. Miami, replete with its stars in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, garnered as many fans as enemies when the three joined forces last summer and went on to plow through the East this postseason. Dallas, with Dirk Nowitzki and a revamped supporting cast, surprised with a sweep of the Lakers and an all-out dominant run in the West. So what can we expect in this Finals sequel? Five SI.com NBA writers analyze how each team got this far and what lies ahead in the Finals.
Lee Jenkins: Judgment is rendered too quickly. The notion that the Mavericks were soft was nonsense. So was the idea that the Heat could not win close games. We knew the Mavericks could score, but they have improved their defense. We knew the Heat could defend, but they have solidified their rebounding. Both teams have consistently blown open fourth quarters, and in doing so, they've won every round with relative ease. One side will flinch in the Finals, but there's no evidence to project who that will be.
Ian Thomsen: Both teams were viewed skeptically -- the Heat hadn't proved they could play as a team offensively and the Mavs were known for postseason collapses. Each used the tough circumstances of these playoffs to prove that they're better than most people thought.
Sam Amick: Chicago center Joakim Noah said it best about the Heat after his Bulls fell in the Eastern Conference finals: "They're Hollywood as hell, but they're still very good." For all the hype and the antics surrounding this team, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra has instilled a fierce, defense-first mentality that complements its stars' incredible offensive abilities and has helped create a formidable foe. The Mavs are fearless fighters, which is something none of us were saying all that long ago. No lead is safe when they're on the floor, with ageless wonder Jason Kidd running the show, center Tyson Chandler anchoring the much-improved defense and Nowitzki playing like the future Hall of Famer that he is.
Chris Mannix: Honestly, I didn't know Nowitzki was this good in the post. He dropped 48 points on Oklahoma City in Game 1 and didn't attempt a three-pointer. He is so much stronger than he was five years ago and virtually impossible for most power forwards to stop. Like most people, I've been impressed by the Heat's ability to jell the way they have this postseason. They have been a little fortunate (Rajon Rondo's injury was big for them in the second round), but they deserve a lot of credit for figuring out how to play with each other and beating up on some formidable opponents.
Zach Lowe: About Miami, not all that much. The Heat were a fantastic team on both ends all season, and a small sample size of inept late-game shooting doesn't mean anything in the long run. The Mavs' offense has been a mini-revelation, and they have proved that they had another gear in reserve for the playoffs. They haven't changed their system in any significant way, but they've honed their focus -- by going to Nowitzki more, exploiting mismatches, milking what works and (perhaps most significant for the Finals) cutting their turnovers.
Jenkins: No team in the NBA can truly match up with Miami's wings, James and Wade, but the Mavericks could have more problems than most. Despite their age, they were able to hold up against Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, but now they draw two transcendent slashers at once. If they can survive the James/Wade onslaught -- without top perimeter defender Caron Butler, who is still recovering from knee surgery -- defensive coordinator Dwane Casey will finally have to be rewarded with a head-coaching job.
Thomsen: Shooting. Both teams have players who can make shots under pressure. It's one thing to have that talent and another to make threes when it matters. Dallas can't win without strong shooting, and if the Heat's role players aren't converting open looks, then it will be asking too much of the Big Three to carry Miami to four wins.
Amick: It's more who than what for me, and that who is LeBron. This isn't 2007, when James' Cleveland running mates during his only other Finals appearance were guys like Larry Hughes and Daniel Gibson. And this Dallas team -- talented and deep though it is -- isn't of the same ilk as the championship-tested San Antonio team that swept Cleveland that year.
Mannix: Everyone knows Dallas can score -- it's averaging 99.7 points per game, No. 2 among teams in the postseason -- but the Mavs' ability to limit Miami's offense will be critical. Now, the Heat haven't been lighting it up: They are eighth in scoring (92.9 points). But the Big Three have played exceedingly well together the last two series, Bosh especially. A major key will be the ability of Dallas' defense -- particularly Kidd, DeShawn Stevenson and Shawn Marion, who will be involved in big individual matchups with Wade and James -- to keep the Heat stars to low shooting percentages.
Lowe: I'll go with the Mavs' three-point shooting. After torching the Lakers from deep, the Mavs slumped to 32.8 percent against a quicker and more coherent Thunder defense. Miami's defense represents another step up, and a Dallas team that prioritizes the three far more than in any recent season will be in trouble if it can't produce a bunch of points from long range.
Jenkins: James needs a championship in terms of quieting the media chorus that has hounded him for 11 months. But he will get one eventually. Nowitzki is 32, and though he shows no signs of slowing, much of his supporting cast is even older than he is. This is by no means Nowitzki's last chance, but with the Thunder emerging in the West, it is clearly his best one. Nowitzki has finally received recognition in these playoffs as one of the elite. A championship would ensure he never loses his standing again.
Thomsen: People will say LeBron can win in future years, but no one can guarantee the health of his teammates or the impact of the new collective bargaining agreement on Miami's roster. This is his eighth year and I can guarantee you he is obsessed with winning now. In his view, he has waited too long already. Nowitzki has to be viewing this as possibly his final shot at a title, knowing how difficult it is to reach the Finals. I'm sure he believes no one can want to win more than he does. But there is no doubt that more external pressure is on James to prevail, because of the expectations he has faced throughout his career.
Amick: Dirk needs this more because of this reality: One championship is all he needs. While James needs to win three, four, five or even six titles to achieve the kind of legacy he is pursuing, Nowitzki's narrative is much different. One title means he would have changed his own story, persevering through the Finals choke-job in 2006 against Miami to win it all at this late hour of his career with a gritty greatness we weren't sure the 13-year veteran had in him. James certainly needs to get his first title as badly as anyone in the league, especially since he's about to finish his eighth season. But the player with whom Scottie Pippen has decided we should compare him, Michael Jordan, was 28 when he won his first of six titles. James is 26, and the Heat will certainly be in this mix for years to come. Nowitzki's time is now.
Mannix: Dirk, easily. He's 32 and the clock is ticking. LeBron's "not one, not two, not three ..." speech put the pressure on him. But at 26, he's got a few years and a heck of a roster around him to collect his titles. Nowitzki's supporting cast is aging and the expected emergence of the Thunder and the likely resurgence of the Lakers means this could be his last shot at a title.
Lowe: I reject the idea that either "needs" a championship to validate his worth as a basketball player. Both are among the best the league has ever seen, and a ring will not change that. Winning a title is a team accomplishment, not an individual one, and depends a lot on luck, teammate quality, health and matchups. These have been the two best players in the postseason; haven't they proved their individual worth already? LeBron will have many more chances to win a title; Nowitzki may never have a better one. In that very obvious sense, Nowitzki may "need" this series more.