The Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks met in the NBA Finals two seasons ago, and Dallas managed to win in six games. Since then, the Heat have won a championship of their own, and the Mavericks have basically gone into rebuilding mode.
Both teams will face off tonight for the second time this season, with Miami having won the initial matchup on December 20. Since the 2011 Finals, the Heat have gone 3-0 against a depleted Dallas team that has lost most of its core players from the championship season. From starting center Tyson Chandler to scrappy bench guard J.J. Barea, the Mavericks today are a shell of the team that won a championship in 2011.
That makes it all important for the Mavs to come away with a win in South Beach tonight. They have gone 13-19 on the season, but only recently got star forward and scorer (not to mention team leader) Dirk Nowitzki back in the lineup. They have the player who can be a jolt on both sides of the floor and could potentially get them back into the playoff race down the stretch.
Unfortunately, the road to the postseason runs through Miami. Tonight, Dallas will need to make quite the statement if they are to be taken seriously towards the end of the season.
Time: Wednesday, January 2nd, 7:30 p.m. EST
TV: Sun Sports, Fox Sports Southwest
Records: Dallas Mavericks (13-19) vs. Miami Heat (21-8)
Betting Line: Dallas (+10.5), Miami (-10.5)
Injuries: Brandan Wright (quad, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Can Dallas Salvage Win in Miami For First Time Since 2011 Finals?
The last time the Dallas Mavericks won in Miami was Game 6 of the 2011 NBA Finals, and they have struggled against the Heat since. Both teams last faced off on December 20, in Dallas, and it was a game the Mavericks would probably much rather forget.
On Dallas' end, the best the team could offer sans Dirk Nowitzki was 15 points from rookie Jae Crowder.
But the picture is different now. Nowitzki is back from knee surgery, albeit in limited minutes, and the time has come for him to get back into the role of a star and lead his team in battle.
More importantly, Dallas' youth must take advantage of Miami's weaknesses this season. The Heat are the second-worst rebounding team in the league and rank 18th in points allowed. While Dallas is not exactly a team fully capable of an upset, they need to really want this victory tonight.
Otherwise, their struggles will just be prolonged and their hole will be dug even deeper.
Key Matchup: O.J. Mayo vs. Dwyane Wade
While Nowitzki has worked his way back to full health, the Mavericks' offensive spark has been guard O.J. Mayo. The former USC Trojan signed a two-year deal with Dallas over the summer and has thrived as the team's starter at the 2.
Mayo has averaged 18.2 points per game this season and has also shot an astounding 46 percent from long range. He is Dallas' offensive spark, but his luck as of late has not been the best.
Over his last five games, Mayo's scoring touch has deserted him. He is averaging just 9.8 points while shooting 38.5 percent from the field and has made just 25 percent of his threes.
He'll be going up against one of the league's best pests in Dwyane Wade tonight, which does not bode well if his shooting woes do not disappear. Wade is averaging 20.4 points and just over a steal a game, and his superior experience gives him a clear advantage against Mayo.
However, Mayo does have one out. Though a fairly weak defender, he has performed well on defense his last five games in spite of his poor offense. Over that stretch, he has posted 2.4 steals per contest.
If he can bring that type of defensive intensity to Miami tonight and slow down Wade just a little bit, then the Mavericks just might have a fighting chance. He'll obviously need to get out of his scoring funk too, but abilities on both sides of the floor will be key in at least keeping the game close.
X-Factor: Shawn Marion
Defense wins championships, and that of Shawn Marion played a key role in the Mavericks' title run in 2011. He and Dirk Nowitzki are all that remain from that championship team, and his defense tonight will be key if Dallas is to pull off the upset.
Marion may be getting old at age 34, but the defensive tenacity that has helped him throughout his career has yet to desert him. He plays the perimeter as well as the league's younger pests and can also be something of a spark on offense.
On the season, Marion has averaged 10 points and shot 48 percent from the field. He also has a knack for making threes, though his long-range shooting is not his best skill by any means.
However, Marion is tonight's X-factor for one reason: his guarding LeBron James. He may not have done that good a job at stopping the three-time MVP the last time their teams met, but tonight is all about being aggressive and wanting the win more.
Marion must smother James from the get-go and refuse to back down on both sides of the floor. On defense, he must force each and every one of James' shots. On offense, he needs to drive the lane and not be afraid to attempt a three, should the opportunity present itself.
The man does not need to carry the team by any means. All he really needs to do is play his best game, and then some. In doing so, the Mavericks' odds of winning grow stronger.
One key difference of this game is that the Mavericks will definitely keep the game close for most of the time. One aspect that will remain the same, unfortunately for Dallas and its fans, is that the Miami Heat will come out on top once again.
Nothing against Dallas, but the team as a whole is so young and inexperienced that the Heat will make short work of the Mavericks come the fourth quarter. LeBron James will put the team on his back and just dominate on both sides of the floor, and some clutch shots from Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen and even big man Chris Bosh will drive the final nail into Dallas' coffin.
Who will win?
However, as I mentioned before, Dallas will manage to keep the game close. Dirk Nowitzki will show more improvement in his gradual return to the starting lineup, and Marion's defense will prove to be tough for James to handle. O.J. Mayo's scoring won't be great tonight, but he'll perform well enough to ensure that his funk will be over soon, and he'll also include some pesky defense on Wade.
Just the same, this is the Heat's game to lose. Given the current state of the Mavericks, it's hard to believe that an upset will be pulled off at American Airlines Arena tonight.
Miami Heat 107, Dallas Mavericks 100