In June 2006, Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal hoisted the Larry O'Brien trophy as NBA champions for the Miami Heat. They had completed a highly improbable 4-2 series win, after starting the series down 2-0 to Dirk Nowitzki's Dallas Mavericks. It was only the third time in NBA history that such an upset had occurred.
Perhaps it is only fitting then that in Dirk's quest for his first NBA championship, he must face a familiar Finals foe, the same team that foiled the Mavericks the last time they were here. However, much has changed since 2006.
Both teams are much improved, and many of the key players in this series will be vying for their first championship rings. Here's a look ahead at how the teams match up, by position:
Point guard: Jason Kidd vs. Mike Bibby/Mario Chalmers
Advantage: Dallas. The 38-year-old Kidd has looked rejuvenated in these playoffs, racking up the steals and three pointers in bunches. More importantly, he has been the cool, calm veteran floor leader that comes through in clutch situations.
Other than hitting the occasional three, Bibby and Chalmers have been relative non-factors so far in the playoffs. This doesn't hurt the Heat as much though, because both LeBron and Wade can take turns handling point guard duties.
Shooting guard: Jason Terry vs. Dwyane Wade
Advantage: Miami. Although Deshawn Stevenson is the Mavs' starter at shooting guard on paper, Jet gets the bulk of the minutes, so it makes more sense to list him here as the team's primary 2-guard.
Dwyane Wade's recent shooting struggles aside, his impact for the Heat is understated, as he has been playing tough defense and crashing the glass. Like any of the Big 3, Wade has the ability to explode for thirty points at any time.
Jet, although rock-solid for the Mavs in the playoffs, struggled in two games against the Heat during the regular season. However, as a key member of the Mavs team that lost to the Heat in the 2006 Finals, look for Terry to come out extra motivated for this series. Jet has been lights out from downtown in this year's playoffs, nailing more than two a game thus far on a scorching 46% rate.
When it comes down to it though, Wade is one of the top five players in the world right now and can impact the game on so many levels.
Small forward: Shawn Marion vs. LeBron James
Advantage: Miami. No one is as hot as LeBron in the playoffs right now, not even Dirk. He seems to have a focus and intensity that was lacking in his previous playoff appearances with the Cavs, and this may simply be due to the fact that he actually believes he can win it all with his new teammates.
"The King" has been a terror on defense and more importantly, a stone-cold killer in late game situations. He is proving his ability as a clutch player with each passing game.
Marion will prove to be a tough matchup, though. He was extremely disruptive against Durant, the NBA's scoring leader this year. This was highlighted by his clutch block in Game 4 on KD, effectively sending the game into overtime.
The series might very well hinge on Marion's ability to disrupt Lebron's drives into the lane and deny entry passes. This will be no easy task, however. While Derrick Rose may have won his first MVP this season, LeBron has actually been playing like one this postseason.
Power forward: Dirk Nowitzki vs. Chris Bosh
Advantage: Dallas. Props to Chris Bosh for playing so well despite that massive chip sitting on his shoulder. In light of all the criticism and jokes that Bosh has endured for essentially being a third wheel to James and Wade, he has actually produced at a very high level. Maybe Carlos Boozer should have considered that he actually had to play defense on this guy before calling him out.
Regardless, Dirk has simply been unstoppable in the 2011 playoffs, playing at an MVP level and making seemingly impossible shots in clutch situations. Defensively, Bosh has never been known as a stopper, so he definitely will need help from LeBron to contain Nowitzki.
Center: Tyson Chandler vs. Joel Anthony
Advantage: Dallas. Just as the length and athleticism of the Bulls' frontcourt were an issue for the Heat in the Conference Semifinals, it will also be an issue in the final round.
Chandler is a monster on the offensive glass for the Mavs, averaging almost four offensive rebounds per game through 15 playoff games this year. This will create multiple second looks for his team. He is also a very agile, solid finisher at the rim, and will consistently challenge shots at the defensive end.
Anthony can also change the game on the defensive end, but he makes little to no impact on the other side of the court.
Bench: Jason Terry, J.J. Barea, Peja Stojakovic vs. Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller
Advantage: Dallas. Much of Dallas' postseason success has been due to their ability to spread the floor and knock down the three ball, highlighted by the three-point barrage that they used to knock out the Lakers in Game 4 of that series. Terry has been great in fourth quarters, Barea has been causing headaches for opponents with his ability to penetrate the lane at will, and Stojakovic is tough to stop if he gets hot.
For the Heat, Haslem hasn't been doing that much on offense, but he has brought a much-needed toughness to the Heat and he will probably be instrumental in the team's defense against Nowitzki. Miller has also woken up as of late, emerging as a perimeter threat for the Heat. Better late than never.
However, the depth of Dallas' bench is what makes them such a dangerous team, and they are simply deeper than the Heat.
Overall prediction: Dallas in 6. The popular pick for NBA champion this year is the Miami Heat, both because of the tremendous momentum that they seem to have and their home court advantage due to being a higher seed. However, I think the heavy minutes that the Big 3 have been playing for Miami because of their lack of bench depth will catch up to them.
Also, Dallas won in two regular season matchups. Why? Because although the Big 3 showed up, the rest of the team didn't. Dallas showed a strong effort across the board, with many of their bench players having significant roles in those two wins.
Dallas will find a way to steal one of the first two games of the series in Miami, and from there it will be an scrappy, physical series. Unlike 2006, these two teams are now both legitimate powerhouses that belong in the Finals. LeBron will win many championship rings with the Heat when all is said and done. Just not this year.
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