Posted: Friday May 27, 2011 4:08PM ; Updated: Friday May 27, 2011 7:06PM
Ian Thomsen

Heat vs. Mavericks shapes up as highly competitive Finals

Story Highlights

Miami and Dallas both have good reason to believe they can win this series

The Heat's defense and home-court advantage will help put them over the top

More topics: Paul Allen's blunder; Bulls' big need; Lakers' smart coaching move

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One of the best things about this rematch of the 2006 NBA Finals between the Heat and Mavericks is the credible arguments on behalf of each team. Who is the more valuable player, LeBron James or Dirk Nowitzki? Does Miami have the edge because of the star power among James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, or does Dallas hold an advantage based on depth of talent across the rotation? Will the Heat defense dominate the series, or will Nowitzki prove impossible to guard?

We're used to watching athletes on display in the open floor, but in this series it's going to be fun seeing James, Wade and their teammates sprinting crosscourt defensively in pursuit of the ball to close out on the Mavs' three-point shooters. They're going to try to force the ball out of Nowitzki's hands, and Dallas will respond by moving the ball around the horn to scorers who must be respected. After 10 to 15 seconds of passing Nowitzki should be open again, shouldn't he?

Miami is likely to attach a variety of defenders to Nowitzki, starting with Chris Bosh and shifting to Udonis Haslem and even James, which will be especially interesting. The problem with a LeBron-vs.-Dirk matchup is that it prevents James from roaming to help teammates defensively and block shots off the ball. But there were times in the Eastern Conference finals when it made sense for LeBron to shut down Derrick Rose, and there will be times in the fortnight ahead when we'll probably see him trying to do the same to Nowitzki.

The Bulls missed a lot of layups trying to finish in the paint against Miami's voracious shot-blockers -- LeBron, Wade, Joel Anthony, Bosh and so on. But here's another difference that suggests we'll see a highly competitive series: The 7-foot Nowitzki has the length to finish inside, and he also knows how to draw fouls and go to the line. His low-post play has been a major improvement since '06. Now when the Mavs need to regain the pace of the game, they give it to him on either side of the floor, where he's able to either pass to the open man or back in for spin drives, outrageous turnaround jumpers or free throws.

Dallas is shooting 46.3 percent from the field and 38.8 percent from three-point range this postseason, ranking among the top three in both categories. The Mavs will need strong shooting from Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd and others in order to overcome Miami's defense and home-court advantage.

How will the Mavs stop Miami? Consider the big difference in defense: Miami has held opponents to 41.9 percent in the playoffs (second only to Indiana's defensive work in the opening round against Chicago), while the Mavs rank 11th at 44.6 percent. They're going to miss the injured Caron Butler, who would have helped Shawn Marion against LeBron. But if Marion suffers foul trouble -- which is going to be unavoidable in a couple of games -- the Mavs will still be able to shift DeShawn Stevenson onto James.

Stevenson can be a credible defender against Wade, and Kidd will help guard him, too. The Heat will be counting on Bosh to carry his momentum from the Eastern finals and attack Nowitzki offensively.

Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood have an advantage in length at center, but Dallas isn't anything like the shot-blocking team that Miami is.

It's too easy to say this comes down to the Mavs' offense against Miami's defense. That view doesn't account for the Heat's wealth of scoring options -- their three stars and surrounding shooters in Haslem, Mike Miller, Mike Bibby and Mario Chalmers. Both teams are capable of prevailing, but Miami is better able to have its way at both ends of the court, given its defensive power and the crunch-time shot-making of LeBron and Wade.

I'm guessing Miami exercises its home-court and defensive advantages to win Game 7 in what will be a tightly contested series.
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