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THEY HAD gotten reasonably close before, back when coach Pat Riley's hair had a little more mousse and few in the sports world had ever heard of focal glomerulosclerosis, the kidney disease that threatened the career--and the life--of center Alonzo Mourning: Four straight Atlantic Division titles between 1997 and 2000 and a trip to the Eastern Conference finals in '97 (a loss to the Chicago Bulls).
Yes, it was a great run, and that Miami Heat bunch was a fascinating team, but it never brought Riley and Mourning, two driven men, what they wanted and what Riley had earned four times in the 1980s as coach with the Los Angeles Lakers--a championship.
Nor did it come last year, when, with Riley in the front office and Mourning having arrived late (signed as a free agent on March 1, 2005), Miami again fell short in the conference finals, losing to the Detroit Pistons.
And this wouldn't be the year, either. How could it? Most experts, analyzing the seemingly disparate and incohesive parts that team president Riley had assembled in the off-season, concluded that Miami was a study in chemical imbalance. The conclusion when Riley returned as coach last December? This coach and this team deserved each other.
But then came the playoffs and Riley's idea to put a bowl in the locker room and have the players and coaches fill it with cards that said 15 strong and photos and mementos that showed teammates and family bonding. And then, too, came the coronation of Dwyane Wade as the second coming of Michael Jordan. And then came the Dallas Mavericks' collapse in Game 3. And then came the redemption.
Would the Mavs be up to the moment? Since none of them had ever been this far in the postseason, would they be able to overcome the Finals experience carried by Riley (four rings as a coach and one each as an assistant and a player, all with L.A.) and center Shaquille O'Neal (the MVP in three straight Finals for the Lakers from 2000 through '02)? Would Mavs coach Avery Johnson, who can speak with the intensity of a tent preacher, deliver a Rockne-esque lecture about the necessity of staying in the moment?
"More than some big motivational speech, I'll point to some facts about our team and certain things that we do well defensively and offensively," said Johnson before the game. And here's what the facts pointed to: If you want to win, limit O'Neal's touches, don't let Dwyane Wade go too crazy, use your depth and versatility to wear down the Heat and, oh, yes, get Shaq to the free throw line.