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The least predictable and most competitive NBA season since Magic and Bird entered the league in 1979--80 has led to this—a classic Finals matchup between enormously talented teams who play vastly contrasting styles. I'm expecting a give-and-take, back-and-forth seven-game series. Whether it's the Heat or the Mavs that end up on top will hinge on these five basic issues:
Who is more valuable?
Dirk Nowitzki has carried Dallas with unparalleled shotmaking and free throw shooting while complementing his three-point ability with a talent for scoring, passing and drawing fouls out of the post. The Americanization of his game has practically been matched by the Europeanization of LeBron James's: Late in games throughout these playoffs James has transformed himself into a deadly long-range shooter, ruining the strategy of opponents who have dared him to launch from the outside. The matchup will escalate when the 6'8" LeBron guards the 7-foot Nowitzki.
Who is more physical?
The Heat's defense is undoubtedly superior, having limited opponents to 41.9% shooting in the postseason, compared with the 44.6% allowed by the Mavs' D. But Dallas can slow down Miami with physical play. Brendan Haywood, Tyson Chandler and DeShawn Stevenson are Eastern Conference--style defenders who know when and how to commit hard fouls. Even if James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are able to shoot a decent percentage, they're likely to feel some pain. The referees could turn this into a Miami rout if they don't allow Dallas to play with an edge.
Who is healthier?
Wade was bothered by a sore left shoulder and put up disappointing numbers (36.9% shooting, 15 turnovers) over the final three games of the Eastern Conference finals, though he did contribute some big plays late in games. Will his performance suffer as this series unfolds? Miami needs Wade at his best because he provides the Heat with a second MVP-caliber star—an advantage that even another command performance by Nowitzki might not negate.
Who will shoot better?
Miami is certain to double-team Nowitzki heavily, which means the other Mavs will have opportunities for open shots when the ball is forced out of their star's hands. Jason Terry, Jason Kidd and Peja Stojakovic are obvious perimeter threats; a key to the series will be their ability to convert those open looks before the Heat's explosively quick defenders can close on them. The Heat also have shooters—Bosh, Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem—who must be respected, especially when Dallas shifts to a zone in order to protect the paint.
Who is hungrier?